In Exo 16, God has just provided for them through the daily bread, and in the previous chapters, the people have been grumbling not once, but twice. Once with water, and another time for food. They disobeyed God in their food gathering, but God still continued to provide for them. They are experiencing daily miracles. In this passage, we will read of an Israel that still continue to doubt God and testing Him with the question “God, will you provide for our needs?”
(A) Called to the Wilderness: Our God is Sovereign over our Situation (Exo 17:1)
In the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, the Israelites have faced some problems, but also witnessed God’s miraculous deliverance. What have they experienced and witnessed so far (Exo 13-16, c.f. Ps 105:39-45)?
Israel has experienced real problems. Imagine being chased by the royal army of Egypt. Imagine escaping that and being a new nation, yet having to face the challenge of feeding and providing water for 650 thousand men and their families in the desert. Again and again, this new nation met with different obstacles. But as we’ve been reading in the past weeks. God intervened miraculously with signs and wonders, protecting his people and providing for them. In fact, their most recent miracle is an ongoing miracle that the Israelites receive on a daily basis, manna. That this provision was so they may know God and trust Him.
In Exo 17:1, we are told that the Israelites “moved on from the wilderness of Sin . . . according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim”. God led them to Rephidim, which means “resting place”. God, in his sovereignty, led the people of Israel to a place without water, where they would yet again face difficulty. Does this trouble you at all? Why would God lead his people into such a difficult situation, that even their survival may be at stake? God intended for the Israelites to know Him in the desert. They are to learn how He is a trustworthy God who, among other things, is great, mighty, and provides for his people’s needs abundantly, even in the desert. They had to learn this lesson in the desert.
Most of us, or perhaps all of us would have been through difficult situations in our lives. What this passage reminds us is that God is sovereign over our difficult situations, and He even purposes to lead us into those difficult times. That may be troubling for us to think about, yet the same thing that God wanted for the Israelites, He wants for us too – He wants us to know Him for who He is, because knowing Him is more important than food or water or security. He wants us to learn how fullness of joy is in His presence only (Ps 16:11). Do you know this God?
(B) Blind to our Blessings: A People with Hardened Hearts who Tested and Quarrelled against the LORD (Exo 17:2-4, 7)
The Israelites responded to their circumstance by quarrelling with Moses, and grumbling against him (Exo 17:2-4).
This event was different from the previous two events – there is an escalation of the Israelites’ hostility, open quarrelling compared to grumbling, and the Israelites sought to God, rather than God testing them. The people were asking God to prove Himself. Has God not proved Himself enough?
But you might point to their dire need and point out how it was a problem. Let’s first consider the way that the Israelites behaved toward Moses, God’s appointed representative, as a result of their thirst. Instead of asking or requesting, they quarrelled, they demanded. When they were warned by Moses, they just got angrier and more quarrelsome, making untrue allegations against Moses and even wanted to kill him.
Their thirst revealed their hearts – selfish, ungrateful, and full of rage, and as Moses pointed out, their grumbling and dissatisfaction is against God. Despite God’s visible, tangible, and amazing miracles of provision, when the people of Israel were faced with their thirst they did not choose to trust God and patiently await His sure provision, they instead tested God by demanding that they be given their needs. Was He just their God yesterday? They were testing God despite His visible, tangible provisions, demanding that He meet their needs as they wished. Exo 17:7 goes on to tell us how the Israelites tested God by saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” The Israelites, in refusing to believe that God would provide and demanding God’s provision; in accusing God of murdering them by deprivation and thirst and denying God’s protection throughout their journey, were essentially doubting God’s presence among them. “Is the Lord among us or not?”
This may not be too far from what we struggle with. Have you ever run into a difficult situation, and started to behave in an absolutely nasty manner to those around you? Perhaps you worked hard for a promotion or for a hefty bonus, and you got passed up for it. Perhaps you really liked someone and you realised that person isn’t interested in you. Perhaps you wanted to share the gospel with a friend of yours, and this person not only turned you down but even scolded and rebuked you. Perhaps you’re getting extremely overwhelmed at work or in school, and you just wish that you could catch a break. How were you like when you got into that bad situation? How did you behave toward others? The Bible reminds us here that our unkind behaviour toward others reflects an uglier reality underneath – an ungrateful, entitled heart.
When things don’t go our way, or when thrust into painful situations, we often let our fleshly needs come to the very forefront and eclipse the evidence of God’s provision in our lives? God knows all our problems and needs. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and taught the people that God provided for all these, and that our Heavenly Father knows and will surely provide for His people. Most of us know Matt 6:33 that calls us to trust God by seeking first His kingdom. Will you take God at His word, and trust that He knows your needs and will provide for them? Or will you choose instead to test Him and grumble against Him when things don’t go your way?
At the beginning of this study, we talked about the key lessons that God wanted the Israelites to learn in the wilderness. God has been trying to teach the Israelites to know Him, that they will obey Him. He has been giving them tests of physical need, and providing for those needs, to point them toward their spiritual need for Him. Evidently, the Israelites have completely missed the point of all that God has been doing.
The description of the Israelites in this section of Exodus is also similar to the description of Pharoah whom the Bible says hardened his heart when confronted by Moses, despite seeing God’s continual demonstration of power through each plague. God’s people are essentially the same as their enemy, Pharaoh. They were just as sinful, and their hearts were just as hardened.
Let our hearts be tender to Him, and not hardened by our sin, as Heb 3:7-14 and Heb 3:19 warns us. If we find that our own hearts are hardened, that the soil of our hearts is not fertile soil but dry, arid desert sand – let us take heart that our God is a God who takes out our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh, who makes the dead rise again. We are also called to do so in communities where we can exhort and encourage one another every day to believe in God, and to trust His goodness to us ultimately in Christ. Are you part of a community so that someone can do this for you, and you for someone? How are we living out our faith in community?
(C) A Striking Decision: God Receives Judgement on Behalf of His People (Exo 17:5-6, John 7:37-39)
God tells Moses to take with him the elders or leaders of the people, and take in his hand the staff with which he struck the Nile (Exo 17:5). The staff would have instantly reminded Moses of who God is and what he has done thus far. In fact, God is kind enough to remind him. God was saying, “remember how you struck the Nile with it and I was working my wonders?” This staff was used earlier when:
He received as a sign from God when it will turn into a serpent (Exo 4
He struck the Nile with, making it turn into blood
He stretched out and frogs, gnats came (Exo 8), hail came (Exo 9), locusts came (Exo 10)
He lifted it up and the Red Sea divided (Exo 14:15-16)
This is the staff that Moses held when God did his wonders in bringing his people out of the land of Egypt. Moses would have been reminded of all that God has done for his people. God was reassuring Moses that He hears his cry and He will act.
Many of us are tired Christians, we are just like Moses, trying to be faithful in his leadership, being frustrated with God’s people, asking “what shall I do with this people?” God tells him to pick up his staff and go, and he tells us the same. He reminds us of how he is really the one working. It wasn’t because this was a magical staff that so many wonders were performed. It wasn’t Moses working. It was God working in and through Moses. How you encouraged by this today in your ministry? God reminds Moses of his past works, to convince him, “I am still here and I am working”.
In Exo 17:6, God fulfils his promise to Moses made in Ex 3:12, that God will be with him. Moses is in a life-threatening situation and God says, “I will stand before there on the rock at Horeb”, Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, it is the mountain of God (Ex 3:1). God says that he will be standing there on the rock, and Moses shall strike the rock and water will come out of it. The people will drink and be satisfied. This answered to all of Israel’s doubt about God which we saw in the previous section.
God is one who provides abundantly and sufficiently for his people. In case you are already getting bored of God providing for his people for this is a third time in a row we are reading how God provides, but how forgetful are we? We need to read this daily again and again and again. Don’t forget that this water from a rock is going to feed 600 thousand men and more (Exo 12:37). This is no small thing that God is doing. When I think of a rock and water, I think it is probably a rock as big as my backpack, and some water is just spilling out, you know what you see on rocks after it has rained? But this is water gushing out, this is abundance. Psalm 105:41 tells us this.
We need this constant manna because we forget it so easily when things get difficult. God is reminding them every day through the manna, and yet they tested God. God was reminding them again and again that He is there and He is working. How does what you read today change the way you live after you leave this place? Many times at work, I am challenged to trust in this God who provides sufficiently. For the working adults present, have you ever felt suddenly anxious at work because you fear you are going to do badly in a review, or you feel like you have been treated unfairly. Or maybe you just came off a bad conversation with your boss. Is it going to hurt my performance? I know I have felt this way many times, but what happens if we have truly learnt that God has been trying to teach us to trust and depend on him all this while as in the previous 2 chapters. This is a lesson we need to learn many many times.
God will provide for His people. We don’t have to be anxious. At the same time, God’s providence is not an easy lesson to learn. But the Bible is kind enough to repeat it time and time again because we need to learn it again and again.
As we wrap up, let’s take a closer look at how the Bible refers to God as Rock in order to understand the significance of this action to strike the rock. Moses refers to God as the Rock, whose work is perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4), David in Psalm 18 calls the LORD “my rock and my fortress and my deliverer” in whom he takes refuge. Psalm 95 tells us that the LORD is the rock of our salvation. The word for rock used in the Old Testament describes a refuge figuratively which Psalm 18 tries to paint for us. This boulder is large, it is strong; you and I can hide in it and take cover. The LORD is our fortress: he defends us against our enemies. When God is called a rock, he is our stability and we rest in his faithfulness. We will not be moved (c.f. Ps 16).
1 Cor 10:4 in the NT tell us that the Israelites drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. This Rock we are reading about is Christ himself! The imagery becomes clear, the rock here in Exo 17 is struck so that the people of Israel could drink, but 1 Cor tells us that they were having spiritual drink (not just physical drink). This was God’s answer to people who were testing Him and asking Him to prove Himself. The people wondered if God was among them and the answer is a resounding yes! Christ the rock was struck and judged so that we could drink spiritually. He was judged on our behalf. When the people quarrelled and tested the LORD, instead of judging them, God takes it upon himself, telling Moses to take that staff with which he judged the gods of Egypt to use it to strike himself, thereby providing his people with a drink. What then does it mean to drink from Christ the Rock?
In John 7:37-39, Jesus taught spoke about coming to Christ and drinking. He said these words at the Feast of Booths, where the Israelites remembered their days of sojourning in the wilderness. The requirement to drink is to be thirsty. It is simply to recognise that you are in need of drink. Rev 22 tells us the same. It is not easy to be thirsty: to be thirsty is to see that your sinfulness and recognise that you need something you don’t have. Being thirsty is seeing one’s need for Christ!
Seeing our sinfulness is not an easy thing. We are tempted to think that we are alright, or at least better than so many other people. We haven’t done anything that bad, might be regular church goers and even attend Bible studies. But that doesn’t matter if we’re not thirsty for God. Are you thirsty for God? Have you enjoyed the sweet feeling when you finally get to the waters that quench your thirst? Being thirsty is tough, but it is also a gift because He uses that to draw us to Himself. God led the people of Israel to the wilderness to be thirsty to have more of Him, and so it is with us.
To drink from Christ is to believe in Christ. Notice how in John 7:38 he switches into one who believes in him. So to drink from Christ, is to trust in him. In Exo 17 terms, this is for them to walk with God and trust him to bring them to himself at Mount Sinai. But today, this points us to placing our faith in Christ, knowing that he is the one who brings us to God.
What is the result of this drinking? In John 4:14, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that whoever drinks of the water that he gives will never be thirsty again. They will be fully satisfied, and in fact, this water wells up to eternal life. It leads to eternal life. John 7:39 tell us that out of the person’s heart (the person who believes/drinks), will flow rivers of living water. The same imagery we have here in Exo 17 where the rock is overflowing with abundant water, this is true of the believer. This satisfied believer’s heart overflows with life, and is ready to love others.
In John 7:39, Jesus makes it clear that The Holy Spirit is what Jesus is offering us. He gives us his Spirit, that we might be satisfied in him, that He might help us be thirsty, help us drink from Jesus to be deeply satisfied, and in doing so, we will overflow with living water, pointing others who are thirsty to Christ the Rock.
How does God answer a people who say “if you love me you will give me ________”? Remember that he 10 plagues was not a magic show. It was God’s judgment. When Moses was called to take the staff to strike this rock, this judgment was to be meted out on someone. 1 Cor tells us that this staff was to strike Himself. The judgment was borne and streams of living water flows and the people are called to drink deeply from this fountain. God in His love did provide for them something better than they imagined.