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14. When Leaders Lose It (Num. 20:1-13)

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The wilderness wanderings of the Israelites is about to end. God’s judgement against the first generation of Israelites to come out of Egypt is over. After 40 years, they are back at Kadesh and they are about to enter the promised land. This is the place of judgement for this was the place where their wilderness wanderings began under the judgement of God. This is the place where God resumes his work, where God’s plans were temporarily interrupted due to Israel’s unbelief and rebellion, where God shows that his purposes and plans never fail. This is the place of departure where God’s judgement was pronounced and to which God’s people must always return in order to start afresh with God.

Sin cannot be swept under the carpet. It must always be dealt with openly and honestly. A new, fresh walk with God always starts at the point of departure. Continuance in the journey to the Promised Land begins at the place where it fell apart. God had been faithful to His character of holiness and justice. The question now is: Would the next generation (a) sanctify the Lord God in their hearts, and (b) demonstrate that commitment by faith and obedience? - the two characteristics that God demands and that were absent from the previous generation.

This is a place of sorrow and joy - sorrow at what had caused the demise of their fathers and God’s judgement on them; joy that they served a merciful God who is fully trustworthy and will complete his promise.

The subject of this study is “Accountability to God.” The theological principle that we learn in this passage is that God holds us accountable - you cannot presume on the grace of God.

This is a sad chapter by all accounts because we immediately run into another dispute over water at Kadesh, a dispute that is framed by (a) the death of Miriam at the beginning, (b) the death of Aaron at the end, and (c) the prevention of Moses from entering the land in the middle.

In spite of God’s faithfulness, we see that...

I. Some People’s Hearts Never Seem To Change (20: 1-5)

Other than Joshua and Caleb, only Moses, Aaron, and Miriam remained from the previous generation and now Miriam, Moses’ sister, has just died (20:1). She is the one who had intervened and cared for Moses at his birth and who, in a sense, risked her life for Moses back then (Ex. 2:4-9). Miriam is the one who, at the beginning of their desert wanderings, led their victory song of thanksgiving after crossing the Red Sea (Ex. 15). Now, at the end of their wilderness wanderings, Miriam is dead. Moses had loved his sister deeply, so much so that he had interceded for her to be healed when God struck her with leprosy after challenging Moses’ authority (Num. 12:1-13). Moses’ precious sister is dead and buried in this place.

Undoubtedly this detail is recorded here as a prelude to Moses’ downfall in this chapter. The writer wants us to connect Moses’ grief over the death of his sister to the complaints of the people that follow and then with his subsequent action. Barely has his sister been laid in the grave than it says, “There was no water for the community, so they assembled against Moses and Aaron” (20:2).

Now only Moses and Aaron are left to lead a new generation, who needed to experience and know Yahweh – his nature, his character, his demands of obedience and faith. This generation had only heard about God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt – they had not experienced it themselves. What they had experienced was God’s acts of judgement as their fathers died in the wilderness. And we see now that they had not learned from their experiences - their hearts and attitudes were no different from the previous generation.

The question is: Would they now experience the same demise as their fathers? Would they see the future as hopeless as their fathers had? Perhaps so, for they contended with Moses saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord” (20:3). That’s incredible! They were actually calling for God’s judgement to fall on them. They would rather be killed by God because of an apparent lack of water than experience the power of God in supplying all their needs. 4 Why have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? 5 Why have you led us up from Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It’s not a place of grain, figs, vines, and pomegranates, and there is no water to drink!” (20:4-5). They were actually invoking divine judgement. They were saying that it would have been better to have died when the others did.

To prefer death over life is utter despair. To describe as “evil” the place to which God had brought them is blasphemy. To prefer God’s judgement over liberty is outright rejection. To infer that Moses’ intent was to kill them is total distrust. To blame Moses and Aaron for their circumstances is rebellion. This is heartlessness at its worst, utter callousness. Apparently this second generation is no different than the first generation who had just died in the wilderness. They are just like their parents who grumbled about the lack of water (cf. Ex. 15:23-26; 17:1-7). These are people whose sole focus in life was themselves - their needs, their wants superseded anything or anyone else. It didn’t matter to them that Moses and Aaron had just lost their sister and were consumed with grief as they mourned her death. That didn’t hinder the people complaining. They were so insensitive, so self-centred, so concerned with themselves.

Discontent seems to be an incurable disease. It’s contagious – spreads like wild fire through a group of people. Whiners only think of themselves. They don't consider the needs or feelings of others.

Complaining and murmuring against others is a spiritual problem. It’s a lack of submission. It’s arrogance (“I know best - my wants are the priority”). It’s the absence of basic Christian love. How inappropriate was this whining against Moses and Aaron. But when people are out of fellowship with God and focused on self, this is what happens. They act rudely and insensitively. They trample on others and cause untold hurt.

Spiritually, the Israelites were far from God and living according to the flesh. Complainers never seem to take self-responsibility. They never suggest solutions, but only voice complaints. They never take initiative, but always expect others to look after them. Complaining against God’s leaders is to complain against God.

This is, at its root, spiritual rebellion. And rebellion, at its root, is unbelief displayed in anger. These people didn’t trust God to provide for their needs. They make no mention of God’s grace in withholding judgement, God’s provision of food and water, God’s protection from the heat and their enemies. How long is it going to take for them to “get it”? When will they begin to trust God? Do they even know God at all?

Everything that God had done so far in their journey had proved conclusively that God is totally faithful and fully trustworthy, God is all-powerful and all-knowing. God is gracious, long suffering, patient, forgiving. Yet, despite all that they had experienced about God, they were still unbelieving. They still didn’t trust God or God’s leaders. They were still cynical that Moses had brought them out here to die (20:3-4). The wilderness, in their estimation, was now an “evil place” (20:5), a place with no grain, no figs, no vines, no pomegranates and, most importantly, no water. Isn’t it ironic, that the fruits they claimed were missing (figs, vines, and pomegranates) were the very fruits the spies had brought back from Canaan 40 years before (13:23)?

Some people’s hearts never seem to change. So, what do we do when faced with this attitude?

II. Knowing How To Respond Takes Dependence On God (20:6-8)

What were Moses and Aaron to do? What resource did they have? They did the only right and proper thing to do – they turned to God and entreated him at “the doorway of the tent of meeting” (20:6a) where they fell on their faces before God. In other words, they prostrated themselves before God. They were at the end of their tether. And when you’re at the end of your tether there’s only one place to go – to God. To prostrate oneself is an indication of dependence, humility, servanthood, the lesser bowing before the greater. As someone else has said, “Humility and servanthood are the prerequisites for the manifestation of God’s presence and blessing” (R. Dennis Cole, NAC, Numbers, 326).

“And the glory of the Lord appeared to them (20:6b). It doesn’t say what this looked like or how God revealed his glory to them. Evidently, there was some visible demonstration of God’s presence – perhaps the fire and the cloud. And God graciously responded (20:7-8) by giving Moses and Aaron three simple instructions.

1. Moses was to “take the rod” (20:8a). This was no ordinary rod – it was “the” rod. This was the rod that he had obediently stretched out over the waters of the Red Sea. This was the rod with which he had obediently struck the rock before (Ex. 17:2-6).

2. Moses and Aaron were to “assemble the community” (20:8b). Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest were to gather the people in front of the rock. They were God’s agents to perform God’s miracle.

3. Moses was to “speak to the rock while they watch, and it will yield its water” (20:8c). The rod that had parted the death-threatening waters at the Red Sea now produces life-giving water from a dead rock. Since when could rocks yield water? Apparently this rock could. God said, You will bring out water for them from the rock and provide drink for the community and their livestock” (20:8d). This was a “water-producing” rock. There was already water in this rock ready to come out.

This is pure, boundless grace. This is grace for the rebellious. This is the undeserved favor of God, His unmerited goodness. As one commentator puts it, “this was water for the thirsty, bread for the hungry, a home for the homeless, rest for the weary, pardon for the sinful” (James Philip, Mastering the O.T., Numbers, 224). I would say this is the good news of the gospel, salvation for sinners, redemption for rebels, restoration for the fallen, reconciliation for the broken, reassurance for the fearful, hope for the despondent, forgiveness for the sinful, mercy for the offenders, pardon for the guilty.

Some people’s hearts, then, never seem to change. Knowing how to respond takes dependence on God. At step #1, Moses’ response was perfectly obedient – he took the rod. So also at step #2 – he gathered the people together. But at step #3, we see that...

III. Sometimes We Respond Emotionally And Disobey God (20:9-11)

This was the perfect storm. The people’s rebellion against their leaders incited their leaders’ rebellion against them. You can understand Moses’ frustration, can’t you? After all these years, the people’s hearts had not changed. Unbelief and rebellion could again prevent them from entering the land. When would they stop? When would they learn? When would they change and submit?

Now, Moses loses it in what he said and what he did. This is where it’s so easy for leaders in the heat of the moment to go wrong. As soon as he began to speak, Moses’ deep-seated anger and resentment and bitterness flooded out in a torrent. The build-up of the last 40 years came pouring out. Instead of speaking to the rock, he railed against the people. He took the rod, just as God had commanded him, he and Aaron gathered the people together in front of the rock, just as God had commanded him, and Moses said, “Listen, you rebels!” (20:10a).

Were they in fact rebels? Yes, indeed they were. But now, so was Moses. His words show utter defiance against God, utter insubordination. Jesus said: “The mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Matt. 12:34). Jesus said that, “from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander” (Matt. 15:19). James tells us that the tongue is the most difficult member of the body to control and often the tongue expresses the anger that is inside (James 3:5-8). Anger is an emotion that is so hard to suppress sometimes. And it is so often displayed in what we say and what we do.

“Listen, you rebels, must we bring water out of this rock for you?”(20:10). Moses refers to himself and Aaron (we) as though they had the power to perform a miracle. He did not attribute this provision of water to God at all but took the responsibility and credit for themselves. Moses now is no different from the pagan magicians of Canaan, claiming miraculous power, taking the place of God. Moses changed God’s instructions in order to take the opportunity to vent his anger.

So, Moses lost it. First he lost it in what he said - he did not speak to the rock but railed against the people. And then he lost it in what he did - instead of speaking to the rock he struck it with the rod, not once but twice. “Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff (20:11a).

To strike the rock was, symbolically, to strike God. The rock was a symbol of God’s provision and favor. The apostle Paul makes the connection: “That rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). At that moment, Moses lost communion with God. In Ex. 17, Moses was instructed to strike the rock because there it was a picture of the Lord Jesus, smitten on the cross. But now, Moses was to speak to the rock because here it is a picture that Jesus’ death was “once-for-all” – no need to repeat it, no more offering for sin.

Moses now had the same rebellious attitude as the people. In his anger he acted no differently than they did. The root problem was the same – unbelief. The people looked at Moses and not God. Moses looked at the people and not God. This was a failure to do what’s right no matter what.

We respond this way sometimes don’t we? We fail to trust God and instead give in to feelings of resentment, anger, failure, frustration. I wonder what situations are the most likely to cause you to act this way? This was rebellion, disobedience, distrust of God and for that there would be dire consequences; Moses would pay dearly. What a tragedy that the meekest man who ever lived failed in his meekness, just like Peter, a bold man who failed because of fear.

Sometimes we respond emotionally and disobey God. And...

IV. When We Disobey God, There Are Consequences (20:11-13)

There were two responses from God - the response of grace and the response of judgement.

1. God responded to the people in grace. “Abundant water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank” (20:11b). In spite of the people’s complaints and in spite of Moses’ behavior, God poured out his grace. Who but God could produce water from a rock? Who but God in his grace would provide water for rebellious, ungrateful people? Who but God in his grace would abundantly supply their needs? What experiences have you had where God has graciously provided for your needs even though you have been disobedient?

This is our God. He is benevolent even when we are ungrateful. He provides for our needs even when we don’t give him the credit. He does not retaliate even when we attack him. Our sinfulness does not prevent God pouring out his grace. But beware of this - God’s grace does not cover over his holiness nor does it withhold his discipline. God responded to his people in grace, and...

2. God responded to his leaders in judgement. “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them’” (20:12). Remember our thesis: God holds us accountable - you cannot presume on the grace of God.

Moses and Aaron were examples to the people. They were God’s mouthpiece to the people. They were God’s agents in carrying out his instructions. They were commissioned to teach the people about God – his ways, his purposes, his character, his nature.

When we don’t trust God, we fail Him. Moses and Aaron had not trusted God’s word nor been obedient to God’s instruction. If they had, they would have demonstrated their faith. If they had, they would have given glory to God. At its root, Moses’ sin here was not that he struck the rock rather than speaking to it. Surely Moses did not think that striking the rock would be any more successful in bringing water from the rock than speaking to it! No, God points out the root problem, “You did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight the Israelites (20:12).

Moses acted with uncontrolled anger, striking rather than speaking, because he did not trust God. And because he did not trust God he did not cause the people to reverence God, “to regard Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Pet. 3:15).

So, rebellion and unbelief were manifested by the people in their rebellion against Moses and by Moses in not teaching them who God is and how he acts. Now, after all these years of mediating faithfully between God and the people (interceding for them, pleading for them, offering his life for them), he now fails through rebellion and unbelief himself. Moses had seen their unbelief and rebellion over and over again. Instead of trusting the power and word and character of God, perhaps he concluded that entrance into the promised land would never happen.

What wonder and pathos occurs here at Kadesh. Once before, the Israelites contended with Moses about the lack of water at Rephidim (Ex.17:7) and those waters were called Meribah (which means “contention”). That time, God instructed Moses to strike the rock and God graciously produced water. Now, 40 years later, the new generation of Israelites were evidently no different than their predecessors. Now once more they complain about the lack of water and again the place is called “the waters of Meribah” not because they contended with Moses, but this time because “the Israelites quarreled (contended) with the Lord, and he demonstrated his holiness to them” (20:13). Once more God shows himself to be both gracious and holy.

Disobedience and rebellion bring God’s judgement. Previously (Ex. 17:2-6) Moses obeyed God and struck the rock. But now, he was to speak to the rock and instead he struck it. It’s so easy to think that what you did before is alright to do again, that what God instructed you to do the first time is what he wants you to do the next time, that if it was alright to strike the rock the first time, why not now? Perhaps that’s how Moses justified his action now.

It’s so easy to move from humility (v. 6) to haughtiness (v.11), from dependence to independence, from utter faithfulness to utter rebellion, from consummate meekness to outright brashness, to fall from intimacy with God to defamation of God.

It’s so easy! And it can happen just that quickly, as it did for Moses. Now God’s great prophet and priest will experience the same judgement as the rebellious first generation. Neither Moses nor Aaron will not enter the land. Having failed as their mediator, Moses forfeited his office. Someone else would have the privilege of leading the people into the land. For one moment Moses went wrong and for that he would not live to see God fulfill his promise. He would not complete his leadership mission. He would not enter the promised land. He would miss the climax of all that he had lived for during the past 40 years. He would miss the parade, the celebration, the graduation, the victory for which he had worked so hard and so patiently.

I always think that’s so sad, such a sad end for such a great leader. And yet is it so sad? In one sense “yes” – he missed the grand finale. But in another sense, “no” – the time had come for a change of leadership and God had Joshua waiting in the wings. Joshua would lead the next generation into the land, the people that Moses and Aaron considered rebels, the people that Moses and Aaron resented so deeply. They would enter the land but Moses and Aaron would not. As Alfred Edersheim eloquently puts it: “Moses and Aaron (had become) aged pilgrims, worn with the long way through the wilderness, and footsore with its roughness and stones, whose strength momentarily failed when the weary journey was once more resumed, and who in their weariness stumbled at the rock of offence” (Edersheim’s Bible History, Vol. II, 188).

Moses would only see the land from a distance and Aaron would not even get a glimpse of it. What a sad end to such an illustrious servant. We see this in other great servants of God, don’t we? Like Elijah, who despaired and was removed from office and replaced by Elisha. Like John the Baptist, who despaired of Jesus’ power and person, doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, questioned how Jesus was using his power, thought that he was mistaken as to who Jesus was (Matt. 11:1-3), and he too was removed from office.

Final Remarks

1. You cannot presume on the grace of God. Remember: God holds us accountable - don’t take the grace of God for granted. God’s grace does not justify or overlook our disobedience. Rebellion in any form and to any degree is never glossed over by God. There are always consequences to our actions. There were consequences for the Israelites – all the men over the age of 20 died in the wilderness (14:22-23, 29) - and there were consequences for Moses and Aaron.

2. When we sin willfully, we may lose our usefulness for God. He may not be able to use us to accomplish his purposes. You can’t act contrary to God’s word and God’s will and still think you can walk in God’s way. “Can a man embrace fire and his clothes not be burned?” (Prov. 6:27). No! If you play with fire, you’ll get burned. It’s like our mothers used to say: “Don’t play with matches!”

3. None of us is exempt from the works of the flesh. The apostle Paul wrote, “I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think” (Rom. 12:3). “Do not be arrogant, but beware” (Rom. 11:20).

Well, we have much to learn from these wonderful O.T. accounts of the patriarchs, men and women who served God faithfully, whose lives are recorded in holy Scripture. “For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures” (Rom. 15:4).

4. Your legacy in life isn’t how you started – it’s how you finish. Those of us in the last lap of life need to strive to finish well. Remember, we are accountable to God.

Related Topics: Christian Life

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