Exodus 17:1-7 Be a God-Follower Not a Grumbler
As a Christian, you can follow God forward, or you can grumble your way backwards.
There are two groups of people here in this passage, and they also reflect two different groups of people who are in the church:
GROUP 1: The God-Followers
We begin Exodus 17 in the wilderness desert all in unity. The people (“entire Israelite community”) moved from one place to another “according to the Lord’s command.” So things are moving smooth, everything is going great until we reach a problem. No water.
The same is true in the church. Unity is easy to have until there is a problem. Everyone acts like a God-follower while things are easy. When the difficult times come, the unity starts to break apart.
In this case, the unity broke into two groups: the God-followers and the Grumblers.
“The entire Israelite community left the Wilderness of Sin, moving from one place to the next according to the Lord’s command. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.” (Exodus 17:1, HCSB)
The people of God have an easy time following His commands until there is a problem. In this case, the problem was thirst.
“So the people complained to Moses, “Give us water to drink.” “Why are you complaining to me?” Moses replied to them. “Why are you testing the Lord?”” (Exodus 17:2, HCSB)
GROUP 2: The Grumblers
People get thirsty and they start to complain, AGAIN.
The Children of Israel were forever grumbling about one thing or another. Just check out these four consecutive chapters as they began their journeys toward the Promised Land:
• Exodus 14:11: Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?”
• Exodus 15:24: And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
• Exodus 16:2: Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron.…
• Exodus 17:3: … and the people complained. 1
REBELLIOUS DOWNWARD SPIRAL OF A GRUMBLER
QUESTION——> QUIBBLE ——–> QUARREL ——>QUIT
Exodus 14 Exodus 15-16 Exodus 17 Numbers 20
Here we have the second of three episodes of murmuring caused by thirst. Those three are Marah-Massah, Massah-Meribah, and Meribah-Kadesh. In each instance the problem is faith versus disobedience and rebellion. And the transgression seems to grow progressively worse until in the third account Moses’ own faith falters.2
Instead of trusting God for a solution, the people complained. The easiest thing to do when things are difficult is to complain. Complaining tested Moses patience and it tested God’s provision.
“But the people thirsted there for water, and grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you ever bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”” (Exodus 17:3, HCSB)
This time they went beyond grumbling; they quarreled with Moses. Murmuring is an attitude that God is insufficient in difficulties. At Marah they had asked Moses, What shall we drink? At Rephidim, after the three food miracles they had already witnessed along the way, they demanded that Moses produce water.3
When you are in complaining mode, you become less content with God’s possible present provision. Instead, you look to the past. The Israelites were looking back instead of looking forward. This happens when you are complaining.
Complacent people who don’t move forward in faith are the first to complain.
Sometimes the few resisters can hold back the many. When it comes to opposition, I’ve seen some crazy things happen in business and nonprofit work, but especially in local churches. I have seen some leaders hamstrung by a small handful of resisters. Churches can be the worst in this regard, because pastors are too kind to deal with the people who act as human roadblocks. We suffer from terminal niceness. We think that Christ followers should not fire other Christ followers. And how can you fire people in a congregation? I have a pastor friend who told me of three families that have held his church hostage with their continual resistance. No one has the courage to stand up to them, so through their resistance these people have run the church for decades. As a result the church is entangled in the cobwebs of the past. Many organizations and businesses also have these informal gatekeepers who tie the group to the past and powerfully resist any attempts to radically change things.4
Complaining reveals an attitude that says: “I don’t trust you, God.”
“Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with these people? In a little while they will stone me!”” (Exodus 17:4, HCSB)
Moses brings his burden to the Lord. While the people complain against God, Moses complains to God. 5
When you deal with complainers, gripers, whiners, the best thing to do is to take it to God first. When you compare this incident with the Numbers 20 incident, the difference is how Moses reacted to the complaints. In this case, he prayed, then he sent for the elders to help handle the situation.
“The Lord answered Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you. Take the staff you struck the Nile with in your hand and go.” (Exodus 17:5, HCSB)
Two witnesses of the provision and power of God. The first witness are the elders. Everything is established by the word of two or more elders. The second witness is the staff. God showed His power when Moses used the staff to overcome Pharaoh.
“I am going to stand there in front of you on the rock at Horeb; when you hit the rock, water will come out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Exodus 17:6, HCSB)
God is above the rock. It seems to me here that since God is on top of the rock, He guides the water out of the rock when Moses strikes the rock.
THE DESCENT FROM GOD-FOLLOWER TO GRUMBLER
However, some of you may be reminded of another incident in which Moses struck the rock when he was told to speak to the rock. This was the second occurrence in Numbers 20. In the second case, the people still grumbled, but this time, Moses became upset. In his prayer, he was frustrated. Instead of listening to God and being a God-follower, Moses himself became a grumbler by the way he REACTED. He did it in two ways:
(1) Instead of trusting God, Moses presumed to be God:
“Moses and Aaron summoned the assembly in front of the rock, and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels! Must we bring water out of this rock for you?”” (Numbers 20:10, HCSB)
“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me to show My holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.”” (Numbers 20:12, HCSB)
In this case, Moses claimed to bring out the water from the rock, when in fact it was God who did it.
(2) Moses became angry and grumbled to the people. He complained in PROTEST to the people instead of complaining in PRAYER to God.
“Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff, so that a great amount of water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.” (Numbers 20:11, HCSB)
“They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah, and Moses suffered because of them; for they embittered his spirit, and he spoke rashly with his lips.” (Psalm 106:32–33, HCSB)
As a result, God placed Moses in the same position as the grumblers. He told Moses that he too would not enter the Promised Land.
The lesson here is that every God-follower has the potential for grumbling. It all depends on how we REACT to our present situation. Do we look to the future with God providing, or do we look to the past and start to grumble.
Of course, the striking the rock twice was, as we read in Psalm 106:32, 33, evidence that they had “angered” Moses, and that “his spirit was provoked.” This also showed itself in his language, which Scripture thus characterizes: “he spake unadvisedly with his lips”—or, as the word literally means, “he babbled.”6 Be it observed, that Moses is not anywhere in Scripture blamed for striking instead of speaking to the rock, while it is expressly stated that the people “angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes.”6
CHRIST IS OUR PROVISION
In light of 1 Corinthians 10:4, which shows Christ to be the antitype of the rock, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the reason God had insisted the rock be struck in Exodus 17:1–7, and forbids it here, is that he perceives a wonderful opportunity to make a symbol-laden point: the ultimate Rock, from whom life-giving streams flow, is struck once, and no more.7
“He named the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites complained, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”” (Exodus 17:7, HCSB)
To Massah and Meribah is to quarrel and question. The Bible teaches us that as Christians, this should not be our attitude.
“Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” (1 Peter 4:9, HCSB)
What kind of Christian do you want to be? What kind of Christian do you think God wants you to be? A grumbler or a God-follower? You decide.
1 Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 393–394.
2 Ralph Langley, “Exodus,” in The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, ed. Franklin H. Paschall and Herschel H. Hobbs (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1972), 65.
3 James E. Smith, The Pentateuch, 2nd ed., Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Ex 17:1–7.
4 Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Leadership Commandments (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012).
5 Iain D. Campbell, Opening up Exodus, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 68.
6 The word, whether written beta or bada, means to talk foolishly, or rashly, to babble, also to boast.
6 Alfred Edersheim, Bible History: Old Testament, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 187.
7 D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: a Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word., vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).