By Rev. Nollie Malabuyo
Strike three, and you’re out!” yells a baseball or softball umpire as a batter swings at a ball and misses for the third time. There is another “three strikes” law, but it is against criminals. In California, and in a few other states, there is a law nicknamed Three Strikes and You’re Out, referring to a de facto life imprisonment after being convicted of three violent and serious felonies: e.g., murder, armed robbery, rape and other sex offenses.
Our text today narrates an incident in the life of the people of Israel during their wilderness pilgrimage to the Promised Land. After the people grumbled about lack of water, God told Moses to speak to the rock at Meribah and water will gush out of the rock. But instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck it with his staff, not once, but twice.
Remember the first narrative about the people complaining about the lack of water in the wilderness? In Exodus 17, God told Moses to strike the rock, Moses obeyed God’s command, so water came out of the rock. In this second incident, God commanded Moses to speak, not strike, the rock. So there’s that difference between the two incidents.
The consequence of this action by Moses and Aaron was severe: God did not allow them to enter the Promised Land. This punishment seems to be very harsh and disproportional to the offense. Why would God punish Moses for one “minor” disobedience compared with his faithfulness to God all throughout the wilderness wanderings? For us, this may seem like a death sentence for jaywalking.
Moses struck out of God’s Promised Land with two swings of his staff at the rock.
In both water from the rock episodes, there are two significant lessons learned by Moses and the people of Israel. First, God is holy and glorious, and honoring his name and his word is paramount. Second, faith in God is evidenced by honoring and giving glory to God. This morning, we will dwell on the theme, “TWO STRIKES… AND YOU’RE OUT OF THE PROMISED LAND” under three headings: first, Strike One: Self-Focus; second, Strike Two: Unbelief; and third, Hope for Those Who Strike Out.
Strike One: Self-Focus
Very early in Israel’s march toward the Promised Land, they started grumbling about hardship, food, water, and even about Moses’ leadership. To Moses, it must have been so frustrating to hear the same complaints over and over again. If you were Moses, wouldn’t you be also tired and aggravated by these people, who are like little children pestering you with their tantrums?
In Exodus 17, the people were in the Mount Sinai area, in the wilderness of Sin (not the same as the wilderness of Zin). God was not lacking in his care for them from the time they came out of Egypt. He protected them Pharaoh’s army by parting the Red Sea. He accompanied them in their journey with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He provided food and water for them. But they repeatedly complained because of their difficult journey.
Geological studies contribute to a possible explanation of why God commanded Moses to strike the rock in the Mount Sinai area, rather than speak to the rock in the Kadesh-barnea area. The Mount Sinai area’s rocks are made out of granite, massive, heavy, hard and tough. But why would God ask Moses to strike the rock before the people to get water out of the rock? They all knew that even if the whole assembly struck the rock with all their might, no water will come out of it. It was only by God’s mighty work that water came out of a granite rock at Massah.
Why then did Moses strike the rock this time? Because he was angry with the people. After he gathered all the congregation of Israel, Moses first went on a rant against the people, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (v 10). In his anger, Moses himself judged the people. God did not ask him to rebuke and chastise them. He only commanded Moses to gather them and show them his power.
We are not exempt from this. There are times when the best thing for us to do is to merely tell our family member or friend what the word of God says, and not to rebuke them. God’s word will rebuke them. But because of our anger, especially as parents or friends, we react in anger and say some words that we should not have said and later are sorry that we did. Pastors and elders at times fall into this anger. And some even voice their frustration in their preaching, lashing out at the congregation. It is good to chastise and rebuke a congregation, but not out of frustration and anger. A rebuke has to be done to the glory and honor of God’s name.
Moses was focused on himself. He took credit for bringing water from the rock. From his angry words, he claims that he and Aaron are the ones to bring water out of the rock. He was angry, even calling the people “rebels.”
We all sin when we focus on ourselves. When we’re angry, our focus is on how another person has offended us. It becomes very hard to forgive and forget because your feelings are hurt. We start thinking of how to get even, and then we strike back in anger. Also, in our success, we tend to take the credit for ourselves. We start thinking thoughts like Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, who claimed, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). We become proud of our career, our family, our children, our material possessions, even our own knowledge.
Many Christians even take credit, unknowingly, for their salvation. They say they were the ones who made the freewill decision to accept Christ. Their salvation depended on their own goodness and wisdom to choose God. This is the same as robbing God of his glory, much like Moses appropriating God’s mighty work of bringing water out of the granite rock.
Not only did Moses take credit for God’s glory, he also acted in disobedience because of unbelief.
Strike Two: Unbelief
Geologists have a possible answer as to why Moses struck the rock twice. The rocks in the area of the wilderness of Zin are commonly made of limestone, more commonly known as chalk. Limestone is soluble in water so that rain and streams slowly drain through cracks in the limestone. Over time, the cracks enlarge and fill with water. Later, the outer layer of limestone solidifies while water continues to build up behind it.
I’ve seen this in the mountains outside of Davao City where we were rock climbing at one time. The rock face was made of pockmarked limestone. But we saw that the rock was always wet and very porous because there was water behind the rock wall. And they were also easily chipped away. It was not an ideal wall to climb, unlike granite rocks. It was this kind of limestone rock that Moses faced in Numbers 20. He knew that no matter how much he screamed at the rock, no water will come out of it. Even if the whole congregation screamed at the top of their voices, water will not come out of limestone!
But Moses also knew that the limestone is weak and if he struck it with his staff, not once but twice, the outer layer would break and there is surely plenty of water for the people to satisfy their thirst. However, God did not want the people to see that it was Moses who produced the water by his own effort or knowledge. God wanted his mighty work to be displayed before the whole assembly.
When Moses struck the rock twice, it was solid evidence of his unbelief. He did not believe that God could do this by Moses speaking to the rock. If water did not gush out of the rock, the more this unbelieving congregation will lose confidence in his leadership.
Was God’s punishment of Moses commensurate with his sin? Yes, it was, because his sin was unbelief. In the previous chapters of this book, we read that Israel’s unbelief and rebellion cost them the Promised Land. Because they did not believe that God would give the land to them. Here, Moses was also found to be unbelieving and rebellious. It was only just and fair for God to give him the same sentence as he did the rest of the people. This is why the chapter opens with a short summary of the death of Miriam and ends with an account of the death of Aaron. All the adults who came out of Egypt, including the three leaders, were now excluded from Canaan.
At Massah, they tested the Lord. At Meribah, they quarreled against the Lord. Both because of unbelief. Is there hope for Israel after they struck out? Is there hope for us who continually strike out in our self-focus and unbelief?
Hope for Those Who Strike Out
In the wilderness, God’s reaction to Israel’s unbelief and rebellion was mostly gracious and compassionate. In his anger, Moses was not. Was there hope for them? Yes, there was. Those who honored God’s glory and trusted in his word, as Caleb, Joshua and the second-generation Israelites did, were able to enjoy rest from the wilderness pilgrimage.
Ultimately, faith in the covenant God who satisfied their faith with water from the rock pointed forward 1,500 years later to Jesus and the Samaritan woman, when Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-15). Moses as Israel’s mediator gave them water from the rock to satisfy their thirst. But Jesus gives us living water not to satisfy our parched and dry lips and mouth, but to give us eternal life.
In Exodus 17, God told Moses that he would stand before him on the rock at Sinai before Moses strikes the rock. Why did God stand before Moses and let Moses strike the rock, in effect striking God himself? It is because God himself, not Moses, will provide the life-giving water that flowed from the rock. It is this incident and Jesus’ own words that he is the living water that Paul uses as the background in 1 Corinthians 10:4, “they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
No, the physical rock as Massah did not follow them in their wilderness journeys. It was a spiritual Rock that followed them. God himself followed them, because he is their Rock, Fortress, Refuge, Stronghold and Deliverer (Psa 18:2).
The Rock that Moses struck twice was Christ himself! In standing before Moses on the rock, God was putting Christ on trial, standing in the heavenly court. God the heavenly judged sentenced him to be “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa 53:4), not for his sins—because he had no sin—but for all our sins. In his last few hours of suffering, Jesus was stripped of his clothes, flogged, spat on, struck, and pierced with a sword. This was how he was “stricken, smitten and afflicted” by God in order that he may give us our eternal, spiritual drink. This is why the apostle Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Why did God command Moses to strike the Rock in the first incident, and then to preach to the Rock in the second? Perhaps it is also because the two narratives are also a type of Christ’s suffering on the cross only once and for all. He needed to be stricken only once, not twice. God is also showing us that there is a Mediator better and more complete than Moses. Moses could not give the people living water. Only God could. And Moses could not accompany God’s people into the Promised Land. Only Christ could, by his provision of his Living Water.
God did not allow Moses to give Israel rest in Canaan, so that the Exodus story might point us to Christ. Who finally gave Israel rest in the Promised Land? It was a faithful Israelite, Joshua, whose name is the same as our Jesus, the one who will save his people from their sins. Jesus takes us to our rest in the promised land, the heavenly city of glory. In that place, we will never thirst, because Christ himself will be “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” in Psalm 46:4; the water in Ezekiel 47:9 “that goes [to] the sea [so it] may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes”; and “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” in Revelation 22:1.
Dear friends, when you strike out because of your selfish pride and our unbelief, do not despair or lose hope. You have a Mediator who is better than Moses. Christ is full of grace and mercy and is perfectly patient and kind. Christian, when you come to him hungering and thirsting for righteousness, he will surely nourish your souls.
But to those of you who humble yourselves before him, repent of your sin, trust in him, he calls you to himself, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37). If you have not trusted in Christ alone as your Mediator, Lord and Savior, come to him in faith and repentance, and he will give you living water that will satisfy your thirsty and hungry souls forever. Amen.