CDPCKL · Re-Sitting the First Test In the Wilderness: Thirst (Exodus 17:1-7)

Re-Sitting the First Test In the Wilderness: Thirst (Exodus 17:1-7)

Let’s jump right back in where we left off last week: the Israelites have been moving ever deeper into a wilderness named the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai. 

Now, Elim, if you recall, is that oasis of fresh water and palm trees where God gave them almost a month of vacation. Sinai is their immediate destination, the mountain on the far side of the wilderness where God first appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within a bush. 

And so far, over the last couple of weeks, we have seen that God’s people expected this journey to be easier than it has been. It seems like, after all the amazing miracles that were involved in leading them out of Egypt, they thought the miracles were going to continue, that from now on all their problems would be resolved with a snap of God’s fingers. 

But God has been making it clear to them that their journey out of slavery is really just getting started. Sure, they have been set free from physical slavery, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually they are still very much captives to the Egyptian way of life and worship. Even their calendar needs to be rewritten! 

And the way God has been making this clear is by making sure their troubles are not resolved with a simple snap of his fingers. Actually, he has been deliberately troubling them — testing them! — in order to force their slave mentality to the surface so it can be healed properly. 

The first test took place just three days after they crossed the sea, when God led them to a source of bitter water, waited for their bitter response, and then healed that water so his children could know that he is the Lord who heals them, inside and out. 

The second test took place after their month of vacation at the oasis of Elim, when God led them deeper into the wilderness, caused them to hunger, waited for their grumbling response, and then fed them with bread from heaven, so they could know that he is the Lord who feeds them, physically and spiritually. 

So what we have been seeing is that the Exodus has shifted into a new phase of deliverance. The first phase — the Egyptian phase — involved wild and crazy world-destroying miracles designed to break open Israel’s physical prison so they could escape. This is now Phase 2, the Wilderness phase. God is still working miracles for his people, but they are a different kind now: smaller, more focused, designed to break open Israel’s spiritual prison. And this work of healing requires a lot more nuance and subtlety and care on God’s part. 

We could say Phase 1 was like an explosion, blowing open the gates of Egypt; Phase 2 is like surgery, cutting away the cancer of Egypt from Israel’s heart. Phase 1 was very uncomfortable for the Egyptians; Phase 2 is uncomfortable for the Israelites. 

And the real course objective underlying all these particular tests is this: God wants to know whether his people are going to trust in his healing enough to endure the discomfort of the healing process. 

So now, as we read on, we find that [1] the whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 

And this sounds familiar, doesn’t it: wasn’t their first exam also a test of thirst? 

Yes it was. But the people really bombed that first exam. So now God, in his mercy, gives them a chance to re-sit the same exam. 

[2] So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” 

They bomb the exam again, but even worse this time! During that first exam they grumbled against Moses: they complained. This time they quarrel with Moses: they get angry. 

Moses replies, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” 

And this is the same warning Moses gave them last week: “Hey, be careful! When you complain against me, you are actually complaining against God.” But he makes the warning even stronger here by pointing out that quarreling with God is actually a form of testing God. 

Which is completely backwards! It is the teacher’s job to examine the students, to evaluate how well they are developing. It is not the students’ job to examine the teacher, to critique his teaching style. There is probably an appropriate time for student feedback, but perhaps during the exam is not the wisest moment for students to exercise their freedom of speech. The examiner might just go ahead and tear up their paper, and then what are they going to do? 

[3] But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” 

So here the people are repeating the same basic accusation they made last week: “You have brought this church out into this desert to kill us!” 

[4] Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 

Which is a lot like the frustrated question God asked Moses last week: “How long will these people refuse to keep my commands and instructions?” 

And if all this repetition is beginning to feel boring in a discouraging kind of way, then…that’s good! That is what we are supposed to feel as readers. Because at least part of the point of these episodes is to help us experience what God experiences when his children test him. 

But of course, if you have been a parent of small children, then you also have some insights into what is going on here. How many of us have had a two-year-old face off against us? Their attitude is, “Bring it!” Which is annoying. But also kind of cute, right? You have to hide your laughter while you are bringing them back into line. 

Now, the funny thing is that, in a sense, when our two-year-olds face off against us like that, we are actually victims of our own kindness as parents. Two-year-olds with abusive parents don’t do that: they learn from a very early age to do exactly what they are told when they are told to do it — they understand that they have a slave relationship with their parents. But two-year-olds with merciful parents understand that they are in a relationship that involves some give-and-take: the parents give, the child takes. Which is good! But what they have not yet learned at that age is that a true give-and-take relationship goes both ways: because the parents have done all of the giving to that point in the child’s life, it really is appropriate for the parents to begin to ask for obedience in return. 

So, for instance, a kid comes in whining, “I’m so thirsty! What am I going to drink?” That is annoying! But we love the little brat, so we give them something to drink. That is mercy. At the same time, we instruct the child. We say, “Listen, I’m your mom, I’m your dad. You don’t have to whine for water. Just ask and I will give!” 

But spoken lessons are never quite as powerful as experienced lessons, are they? We say, “If you ask, you will receive.” But what the child just learned was, “If I whine, I will receive.” And child logic always suggests that if you whine louder you will receive faster. And that is why, next time, they come in demanding: “Give me something to drink!” 

Basically, the kid just learned how to use manipulation to get what he wants. Because small children are extremely practical creatures. They will do again whatever worked last time. If whining worked last time, they will whine again, and they will keep on whining — they will keep on trying to manipulate their parents — until the parents put a stop to it. 

This is what has just happened to God: he is, in a sense, a victim of his own kindness. His children bombed their first exam: they whined for water like two-year-olds, and God mercifully provided water — along with a gentle request that, next time, they treat him like a loving father and just ask. 

But then his children bombed their second exam. Whining worked the first time, so they whined again. But like ten-year-olds they added some more sophisticated manipulation to their whining, they accused God of trying to hurt them. They tried to make God feel guilty for testing them. Now, again, God mercifully provided for their needs — but only after letting them experience a momentary flicker of his glory, thus adding a gentle warning to his request that they ask instead of whining. 

But today, when they re-sit the first exam, the people forget God’s gentle request and his gentle warning. All they remember is that whining worked the first time, and that whining plus manipulation worked the second time. So they whine again! They try to guilt God again! — but this time, like teenagers, they add to their whining and their manipulation a confrontational attitude: they come in demanding, “Give us something to drink!” They are testing God, challenging him to prove his true character to them, when really the whole point here is that God is testing them to reveal their true character to him. 

So it is becoming clear at this point that the Israelites do not fear God as a harsh slave master. And this is good, because he is not a harsh slave master. Unfortunately, however, they are treating him like an ATM instead, and their pin code is 478625464, which spells “grumbling”. 

And God, as a good father, knows that now is the time to put a stop to this whining, testing behaviour, before it becomes truly monstrous. So: 

[5] The Lord tells Moses to leave the camp with some elders and travel some distance toward a place called Horeb, until he comes to the Angel of the Lord — the pillar of cloud — standing beside a rock. He is supposed to bring his staff with him and strike that rock, and water will come out. 

Which is nice, of course. But now we have a question: isn’t this just more of the same? The people whine, and God gives. Isn’t this just going to encourage their whining, manipulative, God-testing behaviour? 

No. Because God’s response is not just practical, it is also profoundly symbolic — just like his responses to the other two exams. When God healed the bitter waters of the first test, this pointed to how he is the Lord who heals his people. When God provided bread from heaven during the second test, this pointed to how he is the Lord who will always feed his people. 

So now: what is the symbolism that underlies these instructions? Let’s break them down and see if we can’t understand God’s deeper message: 

First, this rock is at a place called Horeb. And this place was actually mentioned way back in Chapter 3: Horeb is the name of the mountain on the far side of the wilderness where God first appeared to Moses in flames of fire. Horeb is another name for Sinai, the mountain of God. Which means that this rock is a part of God’s holy mountain. This rock is holy, it is a sacred rock. 

Second, Moses is to strike this holy rock with God’s staff, the staff with which he struck the Nile river and turned it to blood. Now, if you recall, striking the Nile was God’s first act of judgement against Egypt. And now Moses is supposed to take that same staff and perform that same striking action against this holy rock. Which means that this is, in some way, an act of judgement against this holy rock, but with this key difference: God’s act of judgement against the Nile turned the Nile into a river of death for the Egyptian people; God’s act of judgement against this holy rock will turn this rock into a river of life for the Israelite people. 

Third, Moses is to take some of the elders with him. Why? Because the people are camped at Rephidim, which is close to God’s mountain at Horeb — perhaps they can see the mountain on the horizon — but they have not arrived there yet. Moses is going to have to walk for many hours away from the camp, perhaps even for a day or longer, before he finds God’s presence waiting for him beside the holy rock at the foot of the holy mountain. In other words, the people are not going to see this miracle directly. Which means Moses needs the elders to come along as witnesses. He will strike the rock. The river will begin to flow out of it, into a wadi — a dry stream-bed in the desert — and from there it will flow to where the people are camped in the wilderness at Rephidim. Without the elders to testify that God is the source of this water, the people might assume it is naturally occurring. 

So now, putting those pieces back together, what is God’s deeper message for his people? 

In short, God is telling his children that, because he is the Lord who heals them, he is obligated to discipline them out of this whining, manipulative, rebellious behaviour. If they do not learn to repent, then — like this holy rock, which symbolizes them, God’s holy people — they will be struck in God’s holy presence: they will be spanked at the foot of God’s holy mountain. But even as he strikes them, he will still provide water for them; in fact, it is through this striking process that water will be provided for all God’s people. 

Furthermore, it is clear by this point that it is a waste of God’s time to do miracles right in front of the people: they still do not fear God or their leaders. So this time only the leaders get to experience this miracle; the people will have to decide whether they are going to trust their leaders’ testimony or not — God is forcing them to make a choice. 

So, going back to our earlier question: isn’t this just more of the same? 

Yes: the people whine, and God gives them what they need. 

But, no: this does not encourage their manipulative, whining, God-testing behaviour. Because even as he gives them what they need, God is adding on a very stern warning that bad things are going to happen if they do not start listening and obeying. Remember how, after the first test, he told them that if they paid attention to his commands he would not bring upon them any of the judgements that Egypt experienced? Well, now, in a very vivid fashion, he is warning them that the opposite is also true: if they do not pay attention to his commands he will begin to bring upon them the judgements that Egypt experienced. He will strike them just as he struck Egypt. 

And this is only fair. After all, Pharaoh spent a lot of time at the end thinking he could manipulate God. Remember that? As a result, he fell further and further into God’s judgement until it was too late for him to repent, and he died. So now, if the Israelites start spending a lot of their time thinking they can manipulate God, what should be God’s righteous response? The same: they should also fall further and further into God’s judgement, until they repent or until they die! 

So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 

And the elders return to tell the people where this new river of fresh water came from. 

But then, just to underline the seriousness of what just happened, Moses [7] called the place Massah and Meribah — Massah means “testing” and Meribah means “quarreling” — because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” 

So that is Moses’ closing assessment of this episode, and it is even worse than we thought. The people were not just pushing the boundaries a bit like a two-year-old who does not know any better — that is who they were when they first sat this exam. But by now they should know better; now they are more like a nation of teen-agers who are saying, “Prove to us that you are a good father by giving us what we want when we want it. If you don’t, then you are not really God, you are not really among us, and we are going to do our own thing.” 


And that is a stunning level of disrespect. Less than six weeks earlier these people watched as the sea swallowed the greatest army on earth at the time — but here they are going, “So, is the Lord among us or not?” 

So…yeah, they really do not fear God at all. They are already taking their “firstborn nation” status for granted, totally forgetting that God has already proven how he has the power and the will to strike down rebellious firstborns who try to manipulate him. 

And this over-confidence is actually, ironically, further evidence that God’s people are still slaves in their minds and hearts. As we have seen over the last couple of weeks, fear is one common feature of a slave mentality: the fear that God is not actually good. But rebellion is another common feature of a slave mentality: the demand that God prove himself good. 

Now, God can be extremely long-suffering and merciful when it comes to healing his children from their fear; but when that fear results in active rebellion, then God heals a little more quickly and sternly, because the person who lives in fear is still hoping that God is God, whereas the person who has turned to rebellion is hoping to become God. And this is a cancer God cannot permit to take root among his people. 

Now, as we like to do every week, we have to pause at this point and ask: what does this episode have to do with us? Surely we who are Christians today are never guilty of this stunning level of disrespect! — are we? 

Well…let’s take an honest look at the patterns we find in our lives as Christians and see if we are not, perhaps, more like the people of ancient Israel than we want to admit: 

If we do take an honest look back at our lives with Jesus, I think we will see that our modern journeys of faith follow a very similar pattern to ancient Israel’s journey of faith: we go through the same series of exams. 

For instance, Phase 1 of our salvation often comes upon us like an explosion. The doors of our prison are blown open. We breathe the fresh air of freedom for the first time. Many of us experience a radical reorientation of our lives over a relatively short time, and it is such a rush! It is common for newborn Christians to experience a kind of unexplainable peace and joy, a time of singing just like the Israelites experienced after their deliverance on the shores of the sea. And that is the right response! 

But because of this early experience, many of us move into Phase 2, the Wilderness phase, thinking that the hard part is over. We fully expect the same kind of explosive miracles to continue, that from now on all our problems will be resolved with a snap of God’s fingers. 

But then, within a relatively short time, our faith is tested in some small manner. God leads us to a place where we experience some kind of thirst: a prayer is not answered quite as we expected, a need is not satisfied quite as quickly as we might have wished. And for the first time we wonder if this new God we have decided to follow may not be as powerful or as good as he seemed in the beginning. 

But even as we fail that first test by falling into fear and doubt, God mercifully provides for us in some way. Like two-year-olds, we discover that our Heavenly Father is actually better and wiser than we knew. And from that first test we find ourselves led into a longer, deeper, more profound period of rest — a quieter but more lasting kind of peace and joy and faith, like the Israelites experienced at the oasis of Elim. For many modern Christians this seems to happen through discipleship in a high-school youth group, or perhaps in a university fellowship. 

But before too much time passes, our real journey of faith begins. God leads us away from that oasis into the wilderness of real life where, for the first time, we experience real hunger: the idolatrous resources we have carried with us out of slavery finally begin to run out. And this is often when we begin to look back across the sea to the land of our slavery, and wonder if perhaps we were actually better off back there where we had meat and bread and idols that we could manipulate. This is often when we begin to look back to the joy we experienced beside the sea during the days just after our first deliverance, and we wonder why the great miraculous explosions have stopped. We look back to that oasis of rest and recovery we enjoyed early on in our faith, and we wonder why our life has become so hard. 

Now, sure: every morning in the wilderness there is spiritual bread from heaven, exactly enough for each one of us. And yet somehow, after a while, this is not enough. This small daily miracle of bread just does not compare to those previous amazing experiences. We do not want to be healed slowly and painfully, we want to be healed instantly, miraculously, easily, like we were at first. And this is when we begin to challenge God: “Give us water to drink! I want to feel you! I want to experience your presence in some profound way like I did at first! If you do not provide this for me, I will have no choice but to wonder if you are really with me!” 

When we reach this level in our faith, then we can know for sure we have transitioned from two-year-old baby Christians to confrontational teenage Christians who are not ashamed to tell God what we think he should do for us. 

So it seems that, just like ancient Israel, we all start out like whining two-year-olds, but eventually we all come to a point where we start saying, “So, is the Lord among us or not?” Some of us are very active in our teenage religion, we try to manipulate God into giving us a mountaintop experience; some of us are passive, we just wallow in the wilderness and grumble, “Give us water to drink!” But both of those two responses are the same sin: we are testing God instead of allowing him to test us; we are demanding that he prove himself to us, and not the other way around. 

So I think we do have to admit that we Christians today can be just as guilty of this same stunning level of disrespect that we have seen here today. Which means that God’s warning here also applies to us: if we do not change our whining, manipulative, rebellious ways, our Father will have to strike us just as he struck Egypt. Our misbehaviour was perhaps cute at first, because we were two years old and we didn’t know what God expected of us yet. But after we have been Christians for a while, after we have become teenagers in our faith, our misbehaviour is not cute anymore, it is dangerous! — for us and for our communities. As we grow older in our faith, the exams get harder. As we grow older in our faith, God expects progressively more obedience from us, not less. 

In short, this is the challenge that our Father has laid before his people in every generation from Moses’ time until now: if you don’t grow up past this point of immature teenage rebellion, you will stagnate in your faith and die of thirst in the wilderness. 

Well!…I don’t know about you, but that scares the hell out of me. 

How can I grow past my immature teenaged faith when I am, in fact, an immature teenager in my faith? 

I hear God saying, “You’ve gotta grow up, son!” and I’m like: “I am trying! But you are not helping me! If you’d just give me what I want when I want it, then I would grow up! Then I would trust you!” And he is saying, “No, you’ve got it backwards. You trust me first, then I will trust you with whatever you want when you want it. If I gave you whatever you want when you want it at this immature point in your life, then I would be actually stunting your growth and guaranteeing your death. That would make me a bad father! But I am a good father. I am the Lord who heals you. So I must keep healing you by testing you. When you have grown up enough to trust me even when you do not get whatever you want when you want it, then, finally, you will be a man, my son. Only then will I trust you with whatever you want when you want it.” 

And to that I say, “AAAAUGH!” Stalemate! I can’t go forward, but I can’t go back. I don’t want to die of exhaustion trying to climb up the mountain to experience God, but I also don’t want to die of dehydration waiting for him in the desert. So where do we go from here? How can I escape from this impending judgement that I deserve? Is there a third option? Is there a third way that will grow me out of this adolescent foolishness I am stuck in? 

Yes, there is. The third way is Jesus Christ. He himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

But what does that mean? 

Well, the good new is this: Jesus explained what he meant. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 4, we find an episode that exactly parallels this episode in Exodus: 

First, we meet a woman who is thirsty, physically and spiritually. She has been testing God for many years: early on in her life he did not give her what she wanted, so she decided she was going to go out and get it for herself. And apparently what this woman wanted was a husband. So she got one. But that marriage was not as fulfilling as she had hoped, so she divorced that guy and married another, and then another — five times! And by the time we meet her she has moved on to Boyfriend Number Six, who is married to someone else. She is estranged from her community because of these sins, she is suffering under the growing heat of God’s judgements because of her sins, she is getting so thirsty! — but she just cannot let go of what she wants because she just does not trust that God will provide what she really needs. 

So this woman goes out alone into the heat of the day to draw water from the town well, and she meets Jesus there. And he says, “You know, everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life!” 

And the woman, of course, realizes he is talking about spiritual things. So she says, “Yeah, okay, you’re a Jew, and you’re saying I should go and find God on the Jewish mountaintop in Jerusalem. But I am a Samaritan, and my people keep telling me I should go and find God on this Samaritan mountaintop here.” Basically, she seems to be saying: “Your evangelism isn’t going to work on me. I have long since given up trying to find God.” 

And Jesus says, “Woman…no. That’s not what I’m saying. See, the time is coming when mountaintop experiences will be completely irrelevant, because God himself is going to come down as a Spirit and meet people from all nations wherever they are.” 

And a few weeks later, in John, Chapter 7, Jesus expands on this idea when he visits Jerusalem for a festival that celebrates how God once provided water for his people from a rock in the wilderness. John writes that, on the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “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.” And John explains that by this, Jesus meant the Spirit, the same Holy Spirit Jesus mentioned to the woman at the well. 

Jesus is saying that he is the source of living water, and the living water is the Holy Spirit. But John also makes it clear that Jesus cannot become the source of the Holy Spirit until after Jesus has been glorified. 

Why not? 

John answers that question in Chapter 19, after Jesus has died on the cross. A soldier drives a spear into Jesus’ side to make sure he is dead, and this produces a sudden flow of blood and water. Interesting, right? 

And the other gospel writers — Matthew, Mark and Luke — approach this theme from another direction. They point out that Jesus was destined to become the cornerstone of a new nation of God’s people, but this could only happen after he was rejected by God’s old nation, Israel. Jesus was destined to become God’s shepherd over all nations, but this could only happen after he was struck and killed by God’s firstborn nation. 

In other words: Jesus is the holy rock that has come down from God’s holy mountain. Jesus is the holy rock that was struck at the foot of God’s holy mountain. The holy rock in Exodus symbolized God’s holy people, destined to be judged for their sins. But Jesus took their place. He became that holy rock instead of them, and allowed himself to be struck by God’s judgement so they would not be. And only after he had been struck and broken open in death could the sudden flow of blood and water be released — the blood that brings forgiveness, and the water that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. 

In Exodus, God promised that, by striking and judging God’s holy people, somehow he would be providing water for all God’s holy people. This promise made no sense! It was a contradiction! — until Jesus became God’s holy people, and was judged so that all God’s holy people could drink from the river of the water of eternal life. 

So, brothers and sisters, how can we break through this stalemate, this immaturity that keeps us stunted and twisted, constantly testing God and demanding miracles from him like petulant teenagers? How can we be saved from being struck down in the wilderness? 

First of all, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, and if — like the woman at the well — you are weary of trying to climb all the different mountains of the gods, trying to find relief from the bitterness of all your disappointed desires, then do this: let God come to you. Listen to Jesus’ voice, right now, as he says to you from Luke, Chapter 11: “Ask — just ask! — and I will give you the Holy Spirit.” 

Now, if you are here today and you are a Christian, you have been a Christian for some time, but — like the woman at the well — you find yourself struggling to connect with your brothers and sisters, you find yourself going out more and more alone into the heat of the day to try and draw water for yourself, if you feel yourself to be slowly dying of thirst, cut off from God…then do this: pray, and examine yourself carefully. It could be that your spiritual life is stuck in adolescence. It could be that you have been testing God in some way for some time, and the heat of his judgement is beginning to strike you down. Think: is there some area of your life where you know what your Heavenly Father requires of you but for some reason you just cannot give up your willful teenage rebellion? It could be that you have been grieving the Holy Spirit who lives within you, shutting off that flow of living water, and this is why you are so thirsty and unfulfilled in your spiritual life. 

If that is you, then listen now to King David’s advice from Psalm 95: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” Turn and hear Jesus’ voice once again as he says: “Ask — please, just ask! — and the water I give you will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life!” You do not have to die of exhaustion trying to climb up to some mountaintop experience. Nor do you have to die of dehydration on the desert floor. But if you want to ever enter God’s rest, you will have to give up that childish sin that has entangled you. Do it Today. 

Last of all, if you are here today and you are a Christian, and if by God’s amazing grace he has brought you through many dangers, toils and snares to a greater maturity, if you are able to look back on your teenaged testing of God and shudder, if you have learned how to endure and even rejoice in the discomfort of our Father’s slow, painstaking surgery on our hearts, then do this: be the elders of our community. You have seen the Rock that was struck, you have learned how to drink your fill from the river. Come back now and teach the rest of us the way to life. Mothers, fathers, please do not give up on us until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 

Amen. Lord, may it be so! 

Scroll to top