We’ve been reading about the Israelites in the wilderness as they made their way from Egypt — the land of their captivity — to the Promised Land of Canaan. And one of the striking things has been how often the people grumbled and complained and rebelled against the Lord and his leaders. As soon as they left Mount Sinai, they began to complain, first about the general conditions and everyday hardships they faced in the wilderness. And then they complained, because they were sick of the manna which the Lord had given them; and they wanted meat to eat. And then Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses and to oppose him. And then, when the people heard the report of the spies about the Promised Land, the people grumbled and complained because of what they heard; and they talked about returning to Egypt instead of going in to take the land.
And then there was Korah’s rebellion in chapter 16; and after the Lord punished Korah and those who sided with him, the people once again grumbled and complained, saying that Moses and Aaron were at fault for what had happened to Korah and the others with him. Again and again and again the people grumbled and complained and they rebelled against the Lord and his leaders. And we find the same things in today’s passage, because once again the people complained. But there’s a difference too — isn’t there? — because this time, Moses and Aaron were drawn in to the rebellion and they too dishonoured the Lord.
Verse 1 begins with a time stamp, but it’s a time stamp that leaves us scratching our heads, because according to verse 1 it’s now the first month. But the first month of which year? That’s what we want to know.
The commentators generally believe that it’s the first month of their last year in the wilderness. So, it’s the first month of the fortieth year. Why do they think that? Well, verse 1 tells us that in the first month they arrived at the Desert of Zin and they stayed at Kadesh. Well, Kadesh was the place where the spies reported to the Israelites on their exploration of the Promised Land. Now, they explored the Promised Land shortly after leaving Egypt; but because of their sinful rebellion, the Lord condemned them to wandering in the wilderness until that whole generation had died. Only then could the next generation enter the Promised Land.
And so, here they are once again at Kadesh. It looks as if their time in the wilderness is about to end, because they’re once again on the verge of entering Canaan. And so, it seems likely that what happened in this chapter took place in the fortieth year after they left Egypt.
But there’s more evidence that this is now the fortieth year since they left Egypt; and this evidence is conclusive. The death of Aaron is recorded at the end of this chapter. And according to Numbers 33:38, Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after leaving Egypt.
So there you are. Though we may not have realised it, the previous chapters have spanned 39 nine years. And chapter 20 begins in the first month of the fortieth year.
Verses 2 to 5
And the first thing of note that happened was the death and burial of Miriam. Miriam, of course, was the sister of Aaron and Moses. But the next thing that happened is that the people started to complain again. The reason for their complaint is that there was no water for them to drink. And instead of trusting in the Lord and appealing to him to help them as he had done before, they responded by doing at least four things. First of all, they gathered together against Moses and Aaron. Well, there were many thousands of them; and no doubt it was very intimidating for Moses and Aaron to be faced with so many angry people.
Secondly, they quarrelled with Moses, saying in effect that they would be better off dead than alive. They refer to the time when their brothers fell before the Lord. It’s possible they’re referring to Korah’s rebellion when so many of them died as a result of the plague which the Lord sent on them. Or perhaps they’re simply referring generally to those Israelites who had already died in the wilderness. Whichever it is, they’re saying that they would be better off dead. Thirdly, they blame Moses and Aaron for what they were going through. Look at verse 4:
Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this desert?
It’s all your fault.
And fourthly, they complain that this is a terrible place. They’re looking around them at this desert, and they can see that as well as there being no water, there’s no grain and there are no figs or grapevines and pomegranates.
You’re brought us to this place, with the promise that it would be a land flowing with milk and honey where we will have everything we want. But there’s nothing here. It’s a terrible place.
Think about this for a moment. Who are these people who are complaining? It doesn’t say so in the text, but since this is the fortieth year since they left Egypt and they will very soon enter the Promised Land, then that tells us that this is the new generation of Israelites. The old generation — those who were adults when they left Egypt — have died in the wilderness. The new generation has now grown up. They’re the ones who will inherit the land of promise. But what does this chapter tell us about them? It tells us that they’re just like the previous generation, because this generation are complaining just as their parents did. They’re just the same.
And that tells us that the only reason they reached the Promised Land and entered it was because of the grace of God. They didn’t deserve to enter the Promised Land and they didn’t earn the right to possess it, because they too were sinners like their parents, who were prone to rebel and sin against God. They weren’t any better than their parents; and the only reason they would inherit the land was because God is gracious and he did not treat them as their sins deserved.
And, of course, the only reason we will enter the Promised Land of Eternal Life is because God is gracious; and he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquity, but he pardons us for the sake of Christ and gives us eternal life as a gift which we do not deserve.
Verses 6 to 13
Let’s move on, because in verse 6 we read that Moses and Aaron did what they normally did in these situations whenever the people complained: they left the people and went to the Tabernacle and fell down before the Lord, presumably to pray to him and to intercede on behalf of the people.
And we read that the Lord’s glory-cloud appeared; and he spoke to Moses and instructed him what he had to do. He was to take his staff; and he and Aaron were to gather the assembly together; and Moses was to speak to the rock; and the Lord would make water come from the rock so that they would have enough to drink.
Now, normally Moses did everything the Lord commanded him to do. But on this occasion, he did not do everything the Lord commanded him to do. Yes, he took the staff. Yes, he and Aaron gathered the assembly together. But Moses then spoke to the people, calling them ‘rebels’ and saying to them:
Must we bring you water out of this rock?
Do you see? The Lord did not command him to speak to the people like this. Psalm 106 says that Moses spoke rashly, which is never good. But there’s something else we should note about what Moses said: by saying ‘Must we bring you water out of the rock?’, Moses was putting himself and Aaron in the place of the Lord; and he was claiming that they were the ones who would cause water to come from the rock. Instead of giving glory to the Lord, who alone can perform miracles, Moses dishonoured the Lord by what he said.
And then, having said things which the Lord did not tell them to say, Moses struck the rock twice with the staff, doing what the Lord did not tell him to do.
Now, we may think to ourselves:
What does it matter? What’s the big deal?
After all, back in Exodus 17, which records another occasion when the people needed water, the Lord commanded Moses to strike the rock. So, Moses was only doing in Numbers 20 what he had done previously in Exodus 17. So, what’s the big deal?
But it is a big deal, because according to the Lord’s words in verse 12, saying what he said and doing what he did showed that Moses did not trust the Lord and that he did not honour the Lord as holy. The person who does not trust the Lord, does not trust what he says. And the person who does not regard the Lord as holy, does not think the Lord is worthy obeying. The person who doubts the Lord says to himself:
I’m not sure whether what he said is true or right or whether it will work. I have my doubts about this.
And the person who does not regard the Lord as holy, says to himself:
Sure it’s only the Lord. I don’t need to listen to him.
And according to verse 12, the Lord accused Moses and Aaron of not trusting him and of not regarding him as holy. They did not trust the Lord to bring water from the rock just by speaking to it. And they did not honour the Lord as holy, because in that moment when Moses struck the rock, they did not believe the Lord was worthy obeying; and they could do as they pleased.
And as a result, the Lord announced that Moses and Aaron will not bring the people into the Promised Land. They too, like everyone else in that first generation — apart from Joshua and Caleb — would die in the wilderness and would not enter the Promised Land. And in this way, the Lord showed himself holy among the people, because by banning Moses and Aaron from the Promised Land, he showed the people that they must always honour him.
Moses disobeyed the word of the Lord; and therefore he forfeited the right to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. And we too are sinners who doubt God’s word and who disobey his commandments. Like the Moses and Aaron and the Israelites, we dishonour the Lord by our sinful thoughts and words and actions. And because we’re sinners, we have all forfeited the right to enter the presence of the Lord and to live with him forever. We don’t deserve eternal life in his presence; and instead we deserve to be sent away from his presence to be punished forever. And so, if we had to rely on our own goodness and our own good deeds, we would never enter the presence of the Lord, because just like the Israelites, and just like Moses and Aaron, we are sinners in the sight of the Lord and we fall short of his glory.
But the good news of the gospel is that we have a better Mediator than Moses. In Jesus Christ, we have a Mediator who has perfectly obeyed the Lord in our place; and by his life of perfect obedience and by his death on the cross for sinners, he has satisfied the justice of God which was against us; and he has earned for us the right to enter God’s presence forever. By ourselves, we are shut out of the presence of the Lord. But in the name of Christ — and relying on him and his perfect obedience and his death on the cross — we receive forgiveness and the free gift of eternal life. And so, instead of trusting in ourselves and our own goodness, we must trust in Christ the Lord who is the only and the perfect Mediator who is able to bring us to God.
Notice how Moses’s and Aaron’s response to the people was different from the Lord’s response. Moses and Aaron were angry with the people; they even called them ‘rebels’. But the Lord did not tell Moses and Aaron to treat the people in this way. Instead the Lord wanted to show his people that he was a gracious and kind God who was willing to give them what they needed. He wanted to show them that they should never be afraid to seek from him whatever they needed. So, Moses and Aaron spoke rash words; and they were angry and impatient with the people; but the Lord wanted to teach them that he would always be kind and generous towards them.
Believers have a tendency to be harsh with one another, and to be judgmental, and to criticise one another. How many times do we speak unkindly to each other? And how often do we say unkind things about our fellow believers? Believers are very often unkind to one another — just as Moses and Aaron were unkind to the Israelites. But instead of being unkind, we should seek to be kind and patient with one another. After all, the Lord is merciful and gracious with us; and he’s slow to anger with us; and he’s abounding in steadfast love with us. And we should aim to become like him with one another.
And finally, recall how the Apostle Paul refers to this incident in 1 Corinthians 10. But Paul doesn’t refer to the physical rock which Moses struck. Instead he refers to a spiritual rock which accompanied the people. And Paul explains that this spiritual rock is the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul was saying that the Lord Jesus Christ was with his people in the wilderness; and he provided them with everything they needed for their pilgrimage to the Promised Land.
And, of course, believers in every generation receive from Christ the Saviour one good thing after another, because whoever is united with him by faith, receives from him one spiritual benefit after another. And so, he gives us all that we need: including the forgiveness of our sins; and the assurance of God’s love; and peace of conscience; and the help of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us, so that we will honour the Lord in all we do and say. And so, you should look to him for everything you need so that you’ll be able to persevere as God’s pilgrim people as you make your way through this fallen, unbelieving world to the new heaven and earth which is our Promised Land.