Click here for the reading: Exodus 17:1-7.
Questioning the Lord’s servant is always questioning the Lord’s faithfulness. Did He send the right man? Does He know what He’s doing? In Ex. 17:3 the responsibility for thirst is deflected from the Lord to His servant Moses, but since the Lord is the Author of salvation, the salvation from Egyptian bondage was His doing with Moses as a mere instrument. To question Moses’s integrity and goodness is to question the Lord’s integrity and goodness.
Moses’s despair is understandable, “What shall I do with this people?” (v. 4) They prove impossible – quick to judge, quick to accuse, slow to consider what the Lord has ordained. An indirect report of their demands makes clear their readiness for blasphemy: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (v. 7). The Lord’s instructions for Moses to carry out the provision of water very publicly shows that the problem is the public provision of lies and blasphemies in Israel, not their thirst. The same staff that cursed Pharaoh could bless Israel, and it will according to the Lord’s command. All things happen at His command. The sense of being abandoned in the wilderness Israel displays can only come from a dullness and hardness of heart against the Lord and His servant Moses.
Quarreling and testing go hand-in-hand. The strife is always for the sake of the suspicions, slanders, and blasphemies. Quarreling and grumbling come forth from blasphemy and doubt like evil, poisonous waters issuing from black springs. All of it tumbles out at the least occasion of an encampment without water. Rephidim is the occasion for quarreling, grumbling, misery, and testing, but the source of these things was a cancerous doubt of the Lord’s goodness and Moses’s guidance that was already consuming Israel before they came to Rephidim.
Suspicion of the Lord – the shadowy sense that He is not Who He has promised to be and may in fact not do what He has promised to do – links Ex. 17 to Mt. 20 and Israel of old to the laborers in the parable. What are the sources of suspicion in the Bible and in our congregations? Doubt, ignorance, a high-handed sense of one’s destiny apart from the Lord’s guidance, sheer ignorance of the magnitude of His grace. For the grumbling and the suspicious water came forth from the rock. For the blasphemers the Lord was in their midst and gracious in His provision. His servant’s staff struck the rock, and water gushed out in their midst. The dark memorial Moses sets with his words and then in his book is of their quarreling, calling the place Massah and Meribah. “Testing and Quarreling,” the place where the people doubted the Lord’s goodness and yet the Lord was good.
If we use the ways of the children of Israel as examples as the New Testament does, we find them almost altogether negative. So many fell in the wilderness, and only Caleb and Joshua persevered to the land of Canaan according to God’s promise. In testing and quarreling they passed their days, and they fell in the desert without water, without the milk and honey of Canaan.