Beginning in the book of Exodus and continuing through Deuteronomy the Bible presents to us the journeys of the children of Israel as they are delivered from bondage in Egypt and then wander for forty years in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. In the events of this journey and in the declaration and exposition of the Law, we learn not only about the LORD, the great Yahweh the God of the Hebrews, and about His holiness and also about the waywardness of His people (and by implication, all people), but we also learn about the One who is to come, as Christ is foreshadowed in many of these stories. Among these stories from the Exodus, there are two incidents which I want to explore with you. These two events appear almost identical, so that we might think they were the same event repeated, but they are different in at least one significant way, as we will see. The two events which I want to examine are the two times when Moses brought forth water from the rock for the people to drink. So our topic is water from the rock.
So the first thing we want to do is carefully examine the two events and observe what goes on here.
THE FIRST EVENT: The first event occurs at Rephidim in Exodus 17. There is no water for the people to drink, so the people of Israel grumble against Moses and complain that they will die of thirst. In fact, the people get quite melodramatic and accuse Moses of all sorts of evil, saying, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to kill us and our children with thirst?” So Moses cries to the LORD for help. The LORD tells Moses to take the staff he used to strike the Nile and to pass before the people. The LORD then says, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall STRIKE the rock, and water will come out of it that the people may drink.” (Exodus 17:6) Moses does what he is told and the water comes gushing out. Now observe three things about this event. First, the LORD commanded Moses to STRIKE the rock, so in this instance Moses is allowed to strike the rock. Second, the LORD tells Moses that when he strikes the rock, the needed water will come out. And third, when the water comes out, the people may drink and satisfy their thirst.
THE SECOND EVENT: Fast forward now to Numbers 20. The children of Israel have left Mt. Sinai and have failed to enter the land at Kadesh (Numbers 14) and have begun their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. They are in the wilderness of Zin and once again there is no water. The people again complain to Moses that they had it much better in Egypt and wish they he had left them alone in Egypt rather than bringing them to this wretched place. Moses and Aaron plead before the LORD for relief from this situation and the LORD speaks to them, saying, “Take the rod and you and Aaron assemble the congregation and SPEAK to the rock that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock (Numbers 20:8).”
‘(20:9) So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him (so far, so good); (v. 10) and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Still so far, so good, since the LORD had told Moses that he, Moses, would bring forth water out of the rock, 20:8.) (v. 11) Then Moses lifted up his hand and STRUCK the rock twice with his rod . . .’ (No, Moses! You were not commanded or even allowed to strike the rock this time! You were commanded to SPEAK to the rock, but you were never told to STRIKE the rock this time. Oh, no, you may not STRIKE the rock again! This is a grave mistake.)
THE CONSEQUENCES FOR MOSES: Even though water gushes forth from the rock, the LORD has words to say to Moses. ‘(20:12) But the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”
WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY WERE MOSES AND AARON PUNISHED FOR THIS? From this mistake Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land. Was this fair? What did Moses do that was so terrible that it warranted his exclusion from Canaan? EXPLANATION: Moses was instructed to SPEAK to the rock, but instead he STRUCK the rock as he had done before. Moses may have done this because before, back in Exodus 17, he had struck the rock and good things had happened, so now he just did according to his previous habit. This careless act, however, meant that he did not believe the LORD and he did not treat the LORD as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel (20:12) and his disobedience cost him dearly. But still, this seems like such a minor mistake. It was really just a slight oversight, not willful defiance or rebellion. Why would striking a rock in the wilderness be interpreted as such a severe infraction? Why would this mean that Moses was not treating the LORD as holy?
INTERPRETATION: The first thing to realize is that the rock was Christ and this entire event is a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. This is the key to the entire passage. In 1 Corinthians 10:4, when referring to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, Paul says, “and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” So the rock was Christ. NOTICE that the LORD commanded Moses to STRIKE the Rock on the first occasion (Exodus 17). This is a picture of the fact that in His first coming, the Messiah must be struck for the sins of His people. The LORD commanded Moses to strike the Rock just as the LORD God sent His Son to be crucified (“struck”). In His first advent, Jesus came to be struck. He came to render Himself as a guilt offering (Isaiah 53). He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The Rock was struck so that He Himself could bear our sins in His body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). So what Moses was doing in the first event was to foreshadow the striking and the death of the Son of God in His first advent, as He accomplished the awful work that He had been given to accomplish and that He alone could accomplish. As the Rock is struck, He pours forth the water of life and the river of life. Moses strikes the rock and water gushes forth and the people drink deeply and are satisfied. The picture is of Jesus’ death resulting in the gushing forth of life, for He came bring life and bring it to the full (John 10:10), and of His people drinking their fill of the life He offers.
BUT HAVING BEEN STRUCK IN HIS FIRST ADVENT; that is, having been humiliated and stricken, and having experienced death (Hebrews 2) and having borne sin for many, Christ is never to be struck again. Christ is now the exalted Lord of heaven and earth. Having accomplished His work of bearing sin unto death on the cross, Christ is now exalted above every name and is to be worshipped and revered and praised. When Moses struck the rock at the second location, he was in essence striking the risen Christ. The rock was a type of Christ, and now, after His resurrection and ascension, no man would dare strike Him again. Rather Moses is allowed to SPEAK to the great King of kings and Lord of lords. Thus the second time Moses was told to SPEAK to the rock and to again strike the rock was to not treat the LORD as holy. As a harsh and dramatic reminder, Moses was denied access to the Promised Land, because he had not obeyed the LORD and had not treated Him as holy.
THREE LESSONS: There are three lessons to take away from these events in the wilderness. FIRST, obey the word of the Lord EXACTLY, not approximately (1 Samuel 15, Saul’s disobedience). When God gives instructions and commands, He expects that He will be obeyed and he demands that what He says be obeyed, not what you want to do with what He commanded. Moses failed to obey the Lord exactly and it cost him a lot. Just so, precise obedience will bring blessing and careless obedience will bring unfavorable results. SECOND, do not assume that you know what the LORD meant by what He said. What did He SAY? Moses let what had happened before determine what he did in the second event. Since he had struck the rock before, it must mean that he is supposed to strike the rock now. Listen carefully to exactly what the LORD is saying NOW, not what He said then. THIRD, the greatest lesson of these two episodes with the water from the rock is the truth about Christ. Christ is our great Rock. As our Rock and our Savior and our Redeemer, Jesus Christ came to earth to be struck for sinners. He came to die so that sinners could drink freely and deeply from the river of life and the water of life. Are you in the wilderness and thirsty for the sweet, cool water of righteousness and salvation? Do you thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? Will you drink of this water and be saved? Jesus Christ, the Rock, has been struck to bear the sins of many and to give you forgiveness and eternal life. Will you come to Him and receive the gift of life?