Numbers 20 must be dated in the fortieth year since the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. A whole generation has died and in this last year the three main leaders of the people die also – Miriam, Aaron and Moses. Numbers 20:1 mentions the death of Miriam. It is a sign that an epoch has ended and soon the new generation must think about marching into Canaan. She never sees the promise land.
Then something happens that results in Moses´being excluded from the promised land also! One would think after the terrible oath of Numbers 14:20-23 and the failure of Korah´s rebellion and the death of more than fourteen thousand at that time, that Israel would never rebel again! One would think that the younger generation about to enter Canaan would be very different from the previous generation. But sadly there is no great difference between the generations. When the people lack water they come to Moses and Aaron with the same kind of unbelief that their parents had shown (20:1-5). It has been the same story for forty years.! Again Moses and Aaron do nothing but pray (20:6). Again God answers their complaint and promises to give water. Moses must take the rod in connection with which many miracles have taken place before. He must assemble the congregation and speak to the rock. As he does so it will burst forth with water (20:7-8).
Moses takes the staff, gathers the people and speaks to them (20:9-10a). Hear now, you rebells: shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (20:10b), he says. And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock (20:11).
But God is angry. Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them (20:12). The place became famous as Meribah [controversy], the place where for the last time before they came into Canaan the people complained (20:13). Obviously Moses made a very serious mistake at this point, so serious that God excluded him from the land of Canaan, just as he had already excluded the bulk of the people.
What happened here?
(i) Moses lost his temper! We can sympathise with him. I might have been the same. After forty years the people still had not learned the dangers of unbelief. Imagine being a pastor of a people for forty years and they are still making the same mistake at the end that they were making at the beginning! It depressed Moses so much that he got more angry than was right. The man who was famous for meekness made a mistake at his strongest point! Our strong points are not always as strong as we think they are!
(ii) He reduced a miracle. An amazing miracle was to take place in which Moses did nothing but speak to the rock and water would flow out of it. But he did not speak to the rock. He was so angry that he hit it twice. It did not seem so miraculous after all! Perhaps he had simply broken something that was holding back a flow of water. He reduced the miracle and made it seem more like something that was natural.
(iii) it was the result of a lapse of faith even in someone as great as Moses. When he was angry with the people he was losing faith in God at that point. God does not say `You did not believe in them...´. He says `You did not believe in me...´. God had promised that he would bring this generation into Canaan whether they were great believers or not! The first generation was to enter by sheer faith. But they failed. This generation was to enter regardless of how much faith they had. But Moses was not believing at this point that God would do it. He was making the same mistake as the spies thirty-eight years before!
(iv) He was misrepresenting God. `You did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel´. Does God need a burst of bad temper? Did God need the rock to be attacked? Does Moses need to scold the people to get them to inherit the land. God was about to act in sheer merciful power – without any regard for the unbelief of the people. It was to be an act of sheer holiness, where God does as He wishes without regard to the merits or demerits of the people (it is the way we are saved, in fact!) But Moses is acting as if he has to scold the people, as if he is the one providing for them (`Shall we bring water for you?´). It misrepresents God.
It shows us:
(i) that we can be weak at our strongest point
(ii) that we can let God down at the last moment
(iii) that we can do well for many years and then ruin our testimony at the end of our ministry.
The punishment seems severe. Moses was excluded from Canaan. But perhaps it was not so bad as it might seem.
(i) Moses was soon to go to heaven. Our real promised land is heaven and the final heaven on earth when Jesus comes. Moses did not miss that!
(ii) Again I must say: you have not lost everything when you lose something! Moses continues to lead the people! He asks Edom permission to march through their land (20:14-17). Edom says `No´(20:18-21). Moses responds with his old meekness and simply marches around the edge of the Edomite territory (20:22). Then when Aaron dies Moses appoints Eleazar as high priest (20:23-29). Moses is still being used by God.
(iii) Perhaps there was a reason why Moses should be excluded from Canaan. It taught the people a great lesson about obedience to the very end. But also Moses was famous for law. God knew what he was doing when He chose this way of rebuking Moses. It was not good that a law-man should bring Israel into Canaan. Law never brings us into our promised inheritance! Joshua (that is, Jesus) will be the one who brings the people into their promised inheritance. `The promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13). That is, inheritance does not come by Moses-and-the-law, it comes by Joshua-Jesus and by faith only!
We must learn to inherit the promises by persistent faith. Sometimes it is sheer faith. `The rock was Christ´ says 1 Corinthians 10:4. We speak to our Lord Jesus Christ claiming his provisions to fulfill what He reveals as his purpose for our lives. We do not need to get impatient. If we speak to the Rock – our Lord Jesus Christ – the waters of refreshing life will gush forth for us in the hardest situations.