MOSES Did you know that our source of information about Moses is Moses himself? And he tells us the bad as well as the good. Did you know that Moses made a serious error that cost him his opportunity to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land? Are you aware that Moses tried several times to get God to change His position on the issue of his entry into Canaan, all to no avail? These lessons are coming up in the pages to follow.
Moses was the first leader of the nation of Israel. His life was a mixture of successes and disappointments. His successes greatly outnumbered his failures, yet because of his mistakes he did not experience all the privileges he might have otherwise enjoyed.
The lives of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and Elijah all contain lessons about how to lead God’s people. Each of these men had a failure that limited his usefulness to God. We can learn from both their successes and their failures.
In this chapter, rather than look at all of Moses’ dramatic, influential, and illustrious life, we will draw important lessons by examining just one of his failures and its unfortunate consequences.
Moses Models Transparency and Tells It Like It Is
Moses himself wrote the story of his anger in the wilderness of Zin. He was willing to tell of his weaknesses and failures just as readily as he told of his great accomplishments. Moses did not paint an idealistic picture of himself. He did not avoid the narratives that show his vulnerability. Yet he is still highly honored by Jews and Christians as one of God’s great leaders.
The works of God through us do not depend on our being perfect. The fact that God skillfully uses flawed human tools shows us more about God and His greatness than it does about any requirement of strength or wisdom necessary in the man or woman God uses. In telling the full story, Moses gives us hope that even though we have faults and weaknesses, God can use us.
Many Christians believe they cannot let other people, especially unbelievers, see any weaknesses or faults in their lives. They believe self-disclosures will make people turn away from them and from God if they find out Christians are less than perfect. This contributes to a misunderstanding of the grace of God. The people Christians know may begin to think that God demands perfection and will not tolerate any weakness or failure. As a result, they think that God will disqualify them as Christians if they do something wrong. Or they may consider themselves second- or third-rate Christians.
People need to know that failure is a normal part of our human existence and that God understands that. He is willing to forgive and help us continue growing to maturity.
When a Christian fails in some way, he or she should not attempt to hide from other people the fact that he or she is weak. If we admit our weaknesses and failures within the context of demonstrating God’s grace for a repentant sinner, people will take courage that God will still love and forgive them if they fail.
For a Christian to publicly show vulnerability and weakness helps our hearers see that we recognize our imperfections. Admitting our sins creates an atmosphere in which others may feel more willing to admit theirs. Rarely will anyone be discouraged by our confessions; more likely they will appreciate our honesty.
Naturally, we should not be too explicit when confessing our weaknesses. We should not appear to be relishing or enjoying the memory of a sin or failure. Let’s avoid making sin seem attractive or interesting.
Human Beings Have Great Needs
In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 20:1–2)
All human beings are needy. That is why God called us to minister to others. He selects and uses specific human “tools” to meet the needs of His people.
When the people we serve irritate us, we should remember that if they were perfect they would not need us; God would not have called us to assist them. Because people have needs, we have opportunities to be useful.
The man or woman of God, as a tool in the hands of God, can be used to effectively meet other people’s needs. God could meet their needs directly, but He often uses a human instrument to do it. This is cause for joy in being useful rather than a reason for complaint on our part. We should be honored to experience the joy of usefulness and service.
The people of Israel had a genuine need. They were thirsty and wanted water. People today are also thirsty—thirsty for the water of life, which is Jesus.
Even years after someone begins drinking of the water of salvation, the man or woman of God still longs to drink the waters of God. Our thirst continues and even grows the longer we walk with God. David said, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1–2). Isaiah said, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1). Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37–38). John gives the invitation in Revelation 22:17, “Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life.” The thirsty Israelites symbolize thirsty humanity.
God has called us to serve others the water of life. We should never tire of meeting people’s needs or complain about having to serve them. We are vessels taking the true water—Jesus—to them.
When people have needs, God can minister through us. That is our calling. At times we may become tired and impatient with people, as Moses apparently did. But let us not forget to be instruments in God’s hands, wherever and whenever the need arises.
Humans Quarrel with and Oppose the Persons Best Able to Help Them
They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (verses 3–5)
The thirsty Israelites complained to Aaron and Moses about their thirst. This illustrates the human tendency to blame others when problems occur. The instruments God chooses to minister to people often receive a misguided, unkind, and undeserved backlash as people resist God in their resentment of His authority. People want to be in control of their situations; they want to be their own gods, but they cannot be. They express their anger at God toward His chosen leaders, as though they would like to bring those people down.
You and I will sometimes be mistreated by those we are trying to help. Understanding this dynamic will help us exercise patience with God’s people. Some will oppose us, but we are not the problem if we are walking in obedience to God’s leading.
The accusations made by the Israelites in verses 4 and 5 are unfair. The people wanted to be free from slavery in Egypt, but when faced with the difficulties of life in the desert, they were quick to blame Moses and Aaron.
We are channels of God’s solutions. Yet we are only one of the tools God uses to solve the problems of others.
The Bible says no weapon formed against us will prevail (Isaiah 54:17). No matter how often people oppose you, if you are obeying God, He will defend you. If you take matters into your own hands and try to vindicate yourself, more serious problems will arise. Time and time again throughout the travels to Canaan land, God defended Moses when his followers complained. But in the wilderness of Zin, Moses took the matter into his own hands. And we can learn from the sad outcome.
Moses taught the people, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). But Moses forgot what he himself had taught. Just before Israel crossed into Canaan, Moses said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35). In Romans 12:19 Paul quotes Moses when he says, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” David allowed God to defend him (1 Samuel 26:9–11).
Moses began well, but he reacted the wrong way.
The Success of God Pivots on Three Things
Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. (verse 6)
As recorded in this verse, Moses did three things right. He is a good and duplicable model on each of these three behaviors. We too can do all three of these things. We just must decide that they are worth doing.
Moses left the people and went to God in prayer.
“Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting.” If we stay in the arena of activity with people and try to pacify or deflect their anger, answer their questions, or solve their problems by our own strength, wisdom, or ability, we will fail. We must sometimes get away from people in order to get alone with God. We don’t remain away from them, nor do we avoid them endlessly. We must be approachable and available. But unless we sometimes get away from them and spend time alone with God, we will never obtain the help we and those we serve need from God. Even Jesus did this many times (Mark 1:35).
Mosesexpressed his humility and dependence on God.
Moses “fell facedown.” The human face is a symbol of our identity; it is how others recognize us. God has created each of our faces differently. Orientals go to great lengths to “save face” and to help others do the same. But far from seeking to save his own face—maintain his own reputation—Moses got on his face before God.
God knows each of our faces. God knew Moses’ face and talked to him face to face. “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). Yet in the above narrative Moses has his face to the ground. This is a posture of humility and desperation and is a model for intercessors today as well.
Moses saw the glory of the Lord.
“The glory of the Lord appeared to them.” God’s glory is not always displayed in flashing colors and bright beams. Sometimes the glory of God is soft, subdued, and subtle. Elijah knew the glory of God in the cave when he heard the still, small voice of the Lord after the wind, earthquake, and fire had come and gone. If we want to see the glory of God, we must let Him show us whichever aspect of His glory He chooses to reveal at any given time. It is better to seek Him than to seek His glory, but in seeking Him we may see His glory.
When we follow this pattern—leave people temporarily, fall on our faces before God, and pray faithfully until we see the glory of God—we will be able to minister to His people, love the unlovely, and lead God’s people in God’s paths God’s way. Our love for God’s people may wane in the process of ministry to them. But we are their fellow-servants and servants of God and must never lose our sense of His glory. It is He whom we serve. He is the Source and End of all that we do.
God Gave Moses the Solution
The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” (verses 7–8)
God gave Moses specific directions. He directed him to take his staff and speak to the rock.
Many times in Scripture we find God giving humans practical instructions. Two other good illustrations of this are David at Ziklag (1 Samuel 30:6–8) when God told him to pursue the Amalekite raiding party, and Jehoshaphat when he moved into battle formation and then the sun reflected on the water, providing a miraculous deliverance (2 Kings 3:17–18).
We need practical solutions to ministry problems and we also need personal comfort. God is a master at giving us both. God revealed His glory to Moses, then gave him specific instructions as to what to do. He will do the same for you.
Moses Followed God’s Instructions
Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. (verse 9)
Moses started well. He took the staff and began to do what God said to do. What went wrong? How is it that Moses, the meekest man on earth besides Jesus Christ, lost control of his emotions and became angry and resentful? Starting well is not enough. We must begin and end correctly.
Moses Became Angry with God’s People He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. (verses 10–11a)
In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy Moses teaches against revenge and grudges. Yet in between those two books lies the book of Numbers, which records Moses’ fleshly response of anger with God’s people. Moses:
called the Israelites rebels.
included himself in the miracle: “Must we bring you water?” (emphasis mine)
did not speak to the rock but struck it. Twice.
Bible archeology teaches us that in that area of wilderness a crust can develop on the surface of the earth that makes the dirt hard and waterproof. The water is held inside the earth by the crust on the surface. Moses spent forty years in that desert; he knew how to find and release the water. By striking the rock, Moses resorted to a human ploy rather than just speaking to the rock and allowing God to receive all the glory.
Moses struck another rock some forty years before when people needed water. Exodus 17:5–6 tells us, “The Lord answered Moses, ‘. . . I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’ So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.” On that occasion, Moses did the right thing to strike the rock. This time, however, it was a flagrant disobedience to specific instructions. There is rich symbolism in these stories.
First Corinthians 10:4 tells us that rock represented Jesus, symbolizing His being smitten on the cross for our sins that we may receive His water of life. He died once, and that was enough to give the water of life to all the thirsty of the world. He did not have to die twice. From the one-time crucified Jesus flows the water of life to quench the spiritual thirst of all humanity. Jesus is the Rock of our salvation, the Rock that is our firm foundation, the Rock that is a shelter in the time of storm, the Rock in whose shadow humans find protection, comfort, and refreshment.
Moses did not have to strike the rock at all, not even once. He had only to speak to it. In the same way, we do not strike the Rock. Simply speak to Jesus and you will be nourished.
Even after just having spent time in God’s presence, seeing His glory, and receiving His detailed and specific instruction, Moses gave in to his emotions. He expressed his anger in ways that did not honor God or reverence His holiness. Moses’ actions were irreverent; he did not treat God respectfully. Moses’ anger and lack of self-control greatly dishonored and displeased God.
And there were consequences to Moses’ actions. Even though God did not immediately remove him from leadership, Moses was severely reprimanded by God.
Even so, God remained faithful to Moses, as shown in this word to Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so will I be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
We do not know if Moses’ anger was influenced by God’s anger at the complaint of the people. But even if Moses discerned that God was angry, it was not his prerogative to show anger, especially when He had clearly instructed him what to do.
Samuel was angry with the people of God when they wanted a king. But God said, “Give them a king.” (I Samuel 8:22)
God was more gracious than either Moses or Samuel. He can be angry with His people; we should not.
Though God’s Tool Was Faulty, God Still Cared for His People’s Needs
Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. (verse 11b)
In spite of Moses’ sin, God still gave the people the water they needed. Moses failed, but God did not. The human instrument took revenge, but God showed mercy. Moses entertained an ego-related desire for vindication and revenge. God cared for His people and met their needs. God’s provision is more about what He does than what His instruments do.
When God continues to do His good work through His chosen servants for His people, that is not necessarily an indication that the human instrument is doing everything correctly. Do not assume that God using you means you can relax and stop growing spiritually. God gave the Israelites water through a miracle produced by Moses’ rod striking the rock twice—not because Moses did it right but in spite of the fact that he did it wrong. Moses erred greatly in becoming angry and departing from the instructions God gave him to speak to the rock. But God still met the needs of the people.
God Pronounced an Irrevocable Punishment on Moses
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (verse 12)
We prefer to emphasize grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, and the encouraging aspects of God’s character. Yet to have the whole picture of who God is and how He operates, we need to remember that He also has a firm side. He has authority. He is sovereign. We are to fear and respect Him, and remain cautious in our strict obedience to His every command and instruction.
Moses disobeyed God and thus dishonored Him before the people he was leading. God wanted to bring water from the rock without it being struck. That would have brought greater glory to God than Moses striking the rock.
Paul cautioned his readers, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God; sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness” (Romans 11:22). We often take courage from the fact that God keeps His promises of reward, comfort, blessing, healing, and forgiveness, and it is right that we do that. However, He also keeps His promises of judgment, and we may experience the consequences of the mistakes we make for a long time. God is gracious and we experience favor, but we dare not ignore His sternness.
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (verse 12)
This sobering judgment from God is even more serious when we look at Moses’ speech as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land:
At that time I pleaded with the Lord: “Sovereign Lord, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.”
But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” (Deuteronomy 3:23–28)
Later in that same speech, Moses said to Israel:
The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good Land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deuteronomy 4:21–24)
Moses remembered the strictness of God because of his own experience and reminded the Israelites that God has a stern side too.
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. (Deuteronomy 34:1–5)
Moses had a long and successful career, but it could have been even longer and more successful. You too can have a rich, enduring, and effective ministry if you carefully obey every leading, instruction, and command of God. God keeps His promises.
The People’s Quarrel Was with the Lord, Not Moses
These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them. (verse 13)
Moses and Aaron bore the brunt of verbal abuse from the Israeli people. Verse 3 says, “They quarreled with Moses.” But verse 13 says, “. . . where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he was proved holy among them.”
Two things are important for us in this verse: (1) The people’s quarrel was not just with Moses; it was a complaint against God; (2) God was proved holy by the judgment He pronounced.
The first lesson is easy to understand. God’s ministers can take great comfort from knowing that the complaints people have are not just against them but are also against God. Stay on God’s side in a quarrel. He will defend you.
The second lesson is more subtle. Moses did not enter the Promised Land. By giving Moses a judgment for his disobedience that limited his ministry, God’s holiness was maintained. If God allowed us to disobey and yet He continued to bless our ministry without measure, where would His holiness be? Where is the high standard of conduct for God’s people if they can disobey and still have unhindered and lasting ministry? Moses’ error and God’s judgment teach us to be careful to obey fully, willingly, and if possible, cheerfully. Let’s go all the way to the Promised Land.
For Further Thought
In what ways do the people you serve reveal that they have great needs that God alone can meet?
When people mistreat you, is it because of what you have done or because of their resistance toward God? What difference does that distinction make?
How can you make use of the things Moses did correctly when you face challenges?
Recall a time when God gave you the solution to a problem. As you meditate on that incident, ask yourself, “Can God always give me the solutions to my problems?”
Recall a time when you started well but finished poorly. At what point in that event did you cross the line into disobedience, and how can you avoid that in the future?
Moses did four things wrong because he was angry. How does anger blind or confuse us so that we do not think correctly? What can you do to avoid Moses’ serious error?
Have you noticed that God continues to use you and your gifts even when you make mistakes? How can you avoid complacency when that happens?
How do you feel about God’s rigid requirements for those who represent Him?