Last Sunday, we considered the account in Numbers 20 of the rebellion at the waters of Meribah. Briefly, this was the place where the people of Israel opposed Moses and Aaron because life after their deliverance from Egypt was more difficult than life in Egypt (specifically, they had no water to drink that day!). Moses and Aaron sought the Lord, who instructed Moses to take his staff, and speak to a rock in the presence of the people. Once he had done this, God would make water come out of the rock. All would be well.
This was not the first time Moses had asked God for water. The first time, in Exodus 17, God had given similar, but not quite identical, instructions: Moses was to take his staff and strike a rock, and God would make water gush out of the rock.
Strike a rock. Speak to a rock. It seems that the instructions changed because God wanted to demonstrate his power without Moses getting his frustration with the people out either by yelling at the people (hence: speak to the rock) or by hitting the rock (who hasn’t had the impulse to kick or hit something—whether a table, a wall, or a rock!—when frustration overtook them?). Instead he was to look away from the people and attend to God’s work. He failed to do this, for reasons we considered during last Sunday’s message.
Here, I want us to consider something that was only a minor point in Sunday’s message: that God’s instructions in one time were not the same as his instructions in another, and that Moses was called to attend carefully to God’s instruction on this day, and not get hung up on what he said or did in the past. Even if there were other reasons why Moses did what he did (i.e., to express his frustrations) it may be that he genuinely thought he was doing what God wanted because he expected God to tell him to do the same thing this time as he did last time. In his hurry to get going, Moses tuned God’s actual words out completely. Once God began talking about a staff and a rock, Moses thought, “I’ve heard this one before!” and went ahead with his work.
Do we do the same thing? Do we rest on our experience of God in the past instead of believing that he is here in this moment too? Even though God never changes, and the gospel never changes, the way it works out in our lives may very well shift with our shifting circumstances. In Scripture and in prayer, we don’t merely deal with a set of principles but with the living God. Many of us Christians settle into our understanding of what God called us to do in the past without ever considering that God wants us to continue to seek him and wrestle with our lives before him in the present. We are never so familiar with God’s ways that we can presume not to seek him in prayer. We are never so full of biblical understanding that we can presume not to seek him in Scripture.
The story of Moses’ failure at Meribah points us back to God himself and how we honour or fail to honour him as holy. When God judged Moses for his actions, he told him it was because he failed “to trust me and honour me as holy.” Moses heard God speak a few words and then went back to putting himself in charge of the situation. But God is in charge. He is holy. The sooner we develop a sense of humility and prayer and in listening to God, the better.
God is still speaking to us today. In no case can we walk away from God mid-sentence and say, “I’ve heard this one before…” In practice, this means always remaining open to finding new things in his word. Christians read the Bible not once but over and over again throughout life, because we expect God to continue to shed new light on our lives through Scripture. The only way to do this is to read our Bibles prayerfully, expectantly, not as a fact-book or history lesson but as conversation with the one who loves us dearly.
It also means we can never rush forward into our life without stopping to offer all that we do to God in prayer and to ask for his guidance and direction. The simple words of the old hymn remain to: “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
God is not boring or predictable. “I’ve heard this one before?” Don’t be so sure.