Massah and Meribah: Do not harden your hearts

Please read Exodus 17: 1-7, then pray; Almighty God, you are my Rock and my Salvation. Guide my footsteps this Lent as I seek to be faithful to you in all things, to the glory of your name. Amen!

 You will notice that I am making a diversion into the Old Testament this week, but I sensed the Lord speaking to me about the relevance of this reading from Exodus for the life of our Church at this present time. The more I read and meditated on this text, the more my heart burned. We will consider therefore the early stages of the journey the community of Israel made in the months immediately after the exodus from Egypt.

Lent of course is very much about a journey we make to Calvary, so the journey motif should be in our minds at the moment. There are stopping off points or staging posts on that journey to Jerusalem and the cross, and we see that the Israelites journey in the wilderness consisted of multiple stages and resting places. Numbers Chapter 33 outlines this in detail and is a remarkably helpful chapter. That chapter begins with these words;

Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. At the Lord’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages…

 And in Numbers 33:14 we read;

They left Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.

 Our story in Exodus 17: 1-7 maps out this stage of the journey and the arrival at Rephidim. The text in Numbers stresses the key point about this stopping place. It is noteworthy because on arrival it was obvious that there was no water to drink. The story in Exodus then describes how the tired community reacted to this challenge and what happened after that, including how this episode became famous in Israelite history, and why it has such an important place in the Old and New testaments.

There are some significant points to note about the journey after the Exodus.

  • The journey was to be made in specific stages.
  • During these stages the people would need to learn to trust and obey God.
  • Although Moses was leader, the Lord led the journey. God went in front of them, leading them onto each stopping point. The large community were led by the pillar of cloud which went out in front of them. God was leading. (Exodus 13: 20-22, 14: 19-20, 40:36-38)
  • The God who brought them out of Egypt would supply them with all they needed for the journey, but they must learn to trust and obey.

As we read Exodus 17, we are told that the whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. This huge community, which consisted of 600,000 men, besides women and children, flocks, and herds (possibly taking it up to 2 million / Exodus 12:37) moved and stopped at the direction of the Lord. The story can be divided into 4 sections and it is these points we will now consider.

  1. God leads them to a waterless place (v 1)
  2. The angry reaction of the people (v 2-4)
  3. The gracious and patient reaction of God (v 5-6)
  4. The conclusion of the story and the naming of failure. ( v7)

Firstly, it is the Lord who leads them to a place (Rephidim) where they discover there is no water. They arrive at a place which lacks something important – especially in a wilderness situation. Now what we must note is that in an earlier part of the journey, the community had been led to Marah where there was water but it was bitter and undrinkable. (Exodus 15: 22-26) They had therefore faced a problem over water  before, and God had sorted it out for them – and through the obedience of Moses to the direct command of the Lord –  the bitter water became sweet and safe to drink at Marah.

So, when arriving at a place where there is no water (Rephidim), in the light of previous experience, what should have been the response of the community? Sometimes in our lives, God’s leading will be puzzling and perplexing and even problematical, but what will our reaction be to the Lord’s leading and his mysterious providential care? What will our response be when there is a lack of something important in our lives? In this case it was a lack of water in a wilderness. In our case it may be a lack of finance or work, a lack of fellowship, a lack of friendship, a lack of family support. Should we not trust and remember that the Lord is our good Shepherd and that He is with us always and cares for us?

The reaction of the people is one of anger and despair. There is grumbling (growling), quarrelling, contention and aggression against Moses their leader. We learn that such was the depth of their anger, Moses felt he might be stoned by the people. (v 4) This was not the first time Moses had got it in the neck from the people. (14:11-12, 16: 2-3) and it would not be the last. What was even more serious was the peoples questioning of God’s love and faithful provision. They were in fact testing the Lord’s patience and questioning his care and goodness. Why did you bring us out of Egypt just to kill us here in this miserable place? This is what their questioning and complaining came to – accusing Moses and God of neglect and potential murder?

Centuries later when the Son of God was led into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matthew 1:1) and faced difficult temptation and testing – he outrightly refused to test God. To a test the devil placed before him, Jesus responded by saying; It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  He would consistently trust God and keep the word of God in all situations. He would trust in his Father’s care and not tempt God. So should we.

When we come to difficult points in our own lives, and to places where we might be tempted to despair, to grumble and complain, or to become angry, we will need to resist the temptation to distrust God, and we must instead try to respond with patient faith and trust in His goodness and love. Surely a better response from the people would have been this:

Ok – there is no water, but let us see what God does, how God might provide for us this time. It was not long ago when he made undrinkable water sweet for us; do you remember? It was only recently that the Lord provided manna and quail when we were hungry and there appeared to be no prospect of food for us to eat. God has provided for us previously in wonderful ways. Let us trust and see how God provides for our need for water now. But this was not their response. As they had done previously (16:2-3) they grumbled bitterly about their situation and took their frustration and anger out on Moses. Moses was threatened. Moses was attacked verbally. Was physical assault next?

As a Church community, we will face tests of faith on the journey we are on in our life and work and mission together. When we reach waterless places, we must trust and be patient and not grumble or quarrel or complain. Grumbling, complaining, gossiping, quarrelling is forbidden by the Lord because such reactions poison the fellowship, unity, and progression of the Church. We must resist the temptation to murmur and grumble. The Lord recently led us to start Little Angels parent/baby/toddler, group. But for the first few weeks no-one turned up. The building was empty. How do we react? Do we moan and groan and despair and grumble? Or do we wait to see what the Lord will do over time – how He will lead and provide. Do we trust God? One of our valued leaders decides to move to Scotland with his family. How do we react? Do we despair, do we complain, do we grumble? Or do we bless him and his family on their new journey and adventure, and trust God to provide for our needs now that there is a big gap in our leadership team? And if it appears that there might be a serious deficit in the Church’s finances this year, do we grumble and panic, or do we trust and believe that God will graciously provide for the present and future needs of our fellowship just as he did last year and in previous times? How do we respond to tests placed upon our faith and trust in God?

If you ever hear grumbling, complaining, murmuring in the Church – it should be challenged. We are here to trust and obey God and not to test His patience or doubt His love, care, and goodness. There are too many concrete examples of the Lord’s faithfulness in the past to distrust Him in the present or in the future. God is good and his love endures forever. We are after all his people, “the flock under his care.” (Psalm 95:7) As his flock we have plenty of evidence that He is a good Shepherd, don’t we? Surely, I do not have to list God’s previous blessings and provision for Christchurch, do I?

We move on to the third part of the story. If the people reacted with grumbling, quarrelling and anger, how did Moses and God react to them and to this situation of despair? Moses reacts by seeking God through prayer. This was how Moses generally responded to difficulties and crises. He took the problem before God in prayer. He could not provide water himself, but he knew a God who could. We are reminded again of the apostle Paul’s encouragement to Christians in Philippi;

Do not be anxious about anything but by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6)

 If our Church has no money or lacks something very important, the only thing I can do is to pray, to take the need and the issue before God. As a Church leader, I do not own a money tree. I do not have a magic wand. My only recourse is to go to the Lord with the burdens, needs and challenges that this Church faces. Moses always responded by seeking God’s help and God’s solution to a problem through interceding prayer. That’s the resource God has given his people. We must turn to God.

Moses is told what to do by God. God is going to provide. Isn’t that amazing? God is not going to get angry. He is according to Scripture – slow to become angry. God is not going to punish the grumbling and complaining masses. God has a solution and once again he will show kindness to the undeserving and unbelieving Israelites. God tells Moses what to do.

  • He must walk ahead of the people.
  • He must take some of the elders with him to witness what is about to happen.
  • He must take the staff with which he struck the Nile (Exodus 7: 17, 20)

The Nile became blood. Water supply was cut off for Pharoah and his people. Now water supply will come to the people of God. But how? Just as Pharoah witnessed Moses striking the Nile once with the staff of God, so the elders will witness Moses striking a rock once with the same staff. This will be public. Many will witness God provide the water needed by the people.

Significantly, even though Moses will walk out before the elders, God will walk out before Moses! The Lord who led the community to Rephidim, will lead Moses to the rock he is to strike with the staff of God. God will stand before the rock (pillar of cloud), and so will Moses. Moses is commanded to strike the rock and he will then witness water flow from it in the same way he saw the Red Sea parting.

So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. (6)

 The most important thing for any of us to do in the midst of situations of real need, of real dilemma, or pressure and uncertainty is to trust the Lord and obey Him. Trust and obey – for there is no other way to go forward. The water did come forth. The community (miraculously) received all the water they needed for themselves and their flocks and herds. Besides drinking the much needed water – I wonder how the people responded to this amazing supply of water from a rock? Did they thank Moses? Did they praise God? Did they ask for forgiveness? Did they admit their failure to trust God? Or did they just drink and enjoy the blessing? We are not told about their reaction to this generous supply of water. But we are told one thing. We are told what Moses proceeds to do.

Moses felt the need (from the Lord) to name the failure of the people. Moses decides he must name the failure even as the people enjoy the blessing of God. The place where the water poured from the rock will be given two names – Massah which meant “testing” and “Meribah” which meant contending or quarrelling.” Although this was a place that could have been named “Plentiful water,” or “God’s gracious gift”, it would actually be remembered in history as a place where the people tested God’s patience and quarrelled and contended with Moses and with God’s purposes.

What was particularly tragic and sad was that this episode of failure at Rephidim followed so many positive demonstrations of God’s care, love, and provision for the people. They had witnessed in recent days and months;

  • God’s power in inflicting ten plagues upon their long-term oppressors.
  • The exodus itself and the bounty they were allowed to pick up and take away from Egypt.
  • The crossing of the Red Sea and the protection of the pillar of fire.
  • The waters at Marah turned from bitter to sweet.
  • The provision of manna and quail.

They still managed after all these demonstrations of God’s love and power to continue in unbelief and distrust toward God. This was going to be memorialised forever in the naming of the place: Massah and Meribah. This would be a permanent memorial and reminder to future generations not to repeat this kind of behaviour, but instead to put their trust in God even in the most trying and testing of circumstances. God could supply water in abundance – do not ever doubt that! And from the N.T. we learn that Jesus can give water that can become a spring of water welling up to eternal life, a water that will always satisfy thirst and never run dry. (John 4: 10 & 13) Do not doubt that either! Can God furnish a table in the wilderness asks the Psalmist? (Psalm 78:19) Yes God can!

This episode at Massah and Meribah is so important because future generations of God’s people must learn the lessons and not repeat the mistakes. Future generations of believers, including us, must walk in faith and trust and belief. We must not quarrel and grumble. We must not argue and exercise distrust toward a faithful and kind God. We must not have an unbelieving and sinful heart when the tests of faith come along – and they most certainly will. And so, in one of the great worship songs/psalms of Israel (Psalm 95) that will be sung again and again by people who love God, we hear these challenging words; they are for us and for all who would seek to faithfully follow God;

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest”. (Psalm 95: 7-11)

 We must learn from this Israelite history. Are we tempted to be grumblers and quarrellers? Are we tempted to doubt God’s goodness and provision? Then remember Massah and Meribah. Do not follow that example. This comes up again twice in the New Testament – such is its importance.

Read Hebrews 3: 12-19
Read 1 Corinthians 10: 1-4

There are important lessons for us to learn and to on hold to. Proverbs 3:6 perhaps best sums this up with this vital exhortation. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.

 May the Lord strengthen our hearts and minds to be trustful, believing and obedient, and may we know the living water of Jesus, for He is our Rock and our Salvation.

To God, who is always faithful and good to His people of all ages and generations, be all glory, honour, praise and worship, now and always! Amen!

(Revd Peter J Clarkson 12.3.23)