The people of Israel had been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt. The time for their deliverance had come, and God sent Moses to lead the people out of Egypt after ten devastating plagues and by a mighty defeat of Pharaoh at the crossing of the Red Sea. They camped first at Marah. From Marah they moved to Elim. From Elim to Dophkah. From Dophkah to Alush. And from Alush to Rephidim (Numbers 33:8–15), where we meet them in this text.
According to Exodus 16:1, they entered this region only six weeks after their deliverance. It is as though everyone in this room had seen God divide the Red Sea with your own eyes on May 1, 2022. This generation of Israel in just the last months had seen some of the greatest miracles in the history of the world.
There are four scenes in Exodus 17:1–7. Every one of them is brimming with implications for your life. As we read the text, I’ll pause after each scene to see if we can summarize its main point.
Scene 1: A Waterless Camp
All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin [pronounced “seen,” a transliteration of the Hebrew proper name Siyn, with no reference to what we mean by “sin”] by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. (Exodus 17:1)
Main point: God led his people to a campsite with no water.
This was his plan. He led them there. You can see this in middle of verse 1: they moved “by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim” (Exodus 17:1). “By stages” means that there were two other stages between the wilderness of Sin and Rephidim (Dophkah and Alush). Moses makes no mention of them here because he has one point to make: God is commanding the movements of Israel (pillar of cloud by day, pillar of fire by night, Nehemiah 9:19), and his command brings them to Rephidim, which has significance for one reason in this story: there is no water to drink.
If you are a Christian, this is your life. God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Hundreds of you came to this conference encamped at Rephidim — where there is no water. As far you can see it’s wilderness in every direction and, from a merely human standpoint, your circumstances are going to end badly. There is no human way out. And this text says: You are not there by accident. Your ways are ordered by the Lord (Proverbs 20:24). And one of the purposes of these seven verses, and this sermon, is to help you see and feel why that is good news.
So, the main point of Scene 1 is: God has led his people to a campsite with no water.
Scene 2: An Angry Protest
Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:2–3)
Main point: God’s people did not trust that God’s providence is good, but accused Moses and God of harmful purposes.
In verse 2, the people take issue with Moses. Whatever is happening here — whatever it is — is not happening fast enough, and so they demand water. “Give us water to drink!” In essence Moses responds, “Your quarrel is out of place. It’s not a quarrel with me. When you quarrel with me you are trying God’s patience.” “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Exodus 17:2).
“Story after story after story in the Bible, including this one, is God’s roar from heaven: ‘Trust me.’”
Then in verse 3, we hear the heart of the indictment. They don’t ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” They ask, “Why did you bring us out to kill us and our children?” They aren’t questioning God’s timing. They are questioning his goodness. They aren’t saying that God is incompetent to give them water. They’re saying he doesn’t intend to. His purposes aren’t saving. They are murderous.
When Moses says, in verse 2, “Why do you test the Lord?” there’s a warning in those words. Don’t try God’s patience. It runs out for people who don’t trust him, who despise his ways. We know how the story of this generation ends.
None of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test [tried my patience] these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. (Numbers 14:22–23)
We may not understand all the reasons why God chooses a waterless encampment for us. But story after story after story in the Bible, including this one, is God’s roar from heaven: “Trust me. Trust me.” They didn’t. That’s Scene 2.
Scene 3: A Life-Giving Presence
So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:4–6)
Main point: God’s life-giving presence toward absolutely undeserving people goes on. His patience has not run out. Not yet.
What is God’s answer to Moses’s question in verse 4, “What shall I do with this people they are almost ready to stone me”? His answer is, “I’m going to give them water to drink.” But to make it as amazing as possible, he describes four ways that this miracle of life-giving grace comes about.
First, the miracle will be public. “Pass on before the people” (Exodus 17:5). They indicted us in public. We will be vindicated in public, “before the people.”
Second, it will be well attested by the elders. “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel” (Exodus 17:5). This will become part of what they know and teach and how they judge the people.
Third, this miracle will be seen as a continuation of the miracles of the ten plagues in Egypt. “. . . and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go” (Exodus 17:5). Moses only struck the Nile once with his staff. “In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood” (Exodus 7:20). In other words, “With this staff I turned water into blood. Today I will turn a rock into water.” Same staff. Same power. Same God. Same grace. True then. True today in your waterless wilderness.
Lastly, this miracle of life-giving grace will come about by the Lord’s presence. This is best of all. This is most wonderful. “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). “I will stand before you on the rock.”
“God says ‘My presence is your life. I brought you out of Egypt to myself. You think you need water? You need me.’”
He might have said, “I’m done with this rebellious people” and withdrawn his presence. But he didn’t. And he might have said, “I will not defile my presence with this sinful people anymore. I will go to the top of mount Horeb and unleash my lightning bolt, and strike this rock and bring water from the depths of the earth.” But he didn’t do that either. He said, “When you strike the rock, I will be standing on the rock.”
Why would he do that? Because what the people need more than water is the presence of God. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3). What, after all, has been the point of God choosing the people of Israel, making a covenant with her, leading her down to Egypt, bringing her out by a mighty hand, and taking her out into the wilderness? Here’s the way God says it in Exodus 19:4–5:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples. (Exodus 19:4–5)
He is saying, “I am taking my stand on the rock that will give you life, because my presence is your life. I brought you out of Egypt to myself. You think you need water? You need me.”
So the main point of Scene 3 is: God’s life-giving presence toward undeserving people goes on. His patience has not run out.
Scene 4: A Memorial of Failure
And he [Moses] called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
Main point: Moses memorializes their failure to believe in God’s saving presence.
The story does not have a happy ending. There is no repentance. There is no awakened faith. There’s not even any water, just a promise of water. “The people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). No doubt the water came. God keeps his word. But Moses means for the story to end on a note of failure: Israel’s failure, not God’s.
Moses doesn’t name the place “Grace abounding,” or “Water from the Rock,” or “God is faithful.” He names it Massah and Meribah. Massah means “testing.” Meribah means “quarreling.” Then he makes the meaning explicit: “. . . because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord” (Exodus 17:7).
Scene 4 harks back to Scene 2 where Moses said, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Exodus 17:2) And that’s where the story ends — memorializing Israel’s quarreling and testing — almost. Moses has one final indictment at the end of verse 7. He means for us to see the greatest failure in the light of the greatest gift. So verse 7 ends, “They tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not” (Exodus 17:7). God had said, “I will stand before you on the rock” (Exodus 17:6). The people said, “We don’t even know if he’s here or if he intends to kill us.”
Don’t Harden Your Heart
So, we step back now and ask, “What is Moses’s aim — God’s aim — in telling us this story?” The way Moses tells the story, failure is foregrounded. The story begins and ends with Israel quarreling with Moses and testing God. It begins and ends with unbelief. They don’t trust God. They harden their hearts against him. “God brought us into this waterless encampment and he doesn’t intend to be here for us.” And the trumpet blast of this text, echoing throughout the Bible and today, is: Don’t be like that.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (Psalm 95:7–9).
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years’” (Hebrews 3:7–9).
“[They] all ate the same spiritual food [manna], and all drank the same spiritual drink. . . . Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. . . . We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did. . . . Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction. . . . Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:3–12).
In other words, this failure of Israel to trust God in the wilderness reverberates through the whole Bible. And the message is: “When God brings you into a waterless encampment, and you see wilderness stretching in every direction with no way out, don’t be like Israel! Trust him. Trust him. He brought you into the wilderness. He can bring you out. He led you to Rephidim where there is no water. There’s only a dry rock. And he will take his stand on the rock and be your life.”
Will he? Even in 2022?
Confidence for Waterless Campsites
For many of us, the great obstacle to joyful confidence in the waterless wilderness is not that God can’t save us, but the question, “Will he?” And the great obstacle to believing that he will is our sin. How can God be a just and holy God, and do what he did in Scene 3?
Surrounded by a thankless people who say that God brought them out of Egypt to kill them, God says, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock . . . and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). How can God be righteous and act as though the despising of his name had so little consequence? Our very hearts cry out, “I have scorned the name of the Lord, in all my doubting and all my unbelief and all my despairing in my wilderness. Will God not simply join me in the belittling of his name by sweeping my sins under the rug of the universe? How can I ever be saved — how could they ever be saved — by a righteous and holy God?”
In the mind of the apostle Paul, there was no greater problem facing humankind. How can God uphold the righteousness of his name while showing mercy to God-belittling, God-despising sinners? How is Scene 3 in this passage even conceivable? God offering himself as our life while surrounded by the outrage of people indicting him as evil?
Paul has an answer to this greatest of all moral problems. I’ll read it you from Romans 3:25:
God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation (a satisfaction of God’s justice) by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
Thunderclap of Justice and Mercy
When God passed over the sins of Scene 2 and Scene 4 and poured out mercy on sinners in Scene 3, was he unrighteous? Was he belittling his own name? Was he taking his holiness lightly? No. Because he knew what he would do in 1,400 years to vindicate his righteousness.
“The death of Jesus is a thunderclap of this truth: No sin is ever merely passed over! Ever.”
The death of Jesus is a thunderclap of this truth: No sin is ever merely passed over! Ever. It will be paid for in hell. Or it was paid for on the cross. No quarreling with God’s word, no testing of God’s patience, ever goes unpunished. Ever. God’s righteousness is absolute. And the unspeakable mercy of Scene 3 (Exodus 17:6) is owing directly to the blood of Jesus. “[The blood of the Son of God] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25).
Every undeserved blessing shown to God’s elect in the Old Testament was bought by the blood of Jesus. When Paul made that strange statement in 1 Corinthians 10:4 about Israel in the wilderness, “They drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4), this is what I think he meant:
The undeserved blessing of water from the rock, the undeserved blessing of manna from heaven, the undeserved blessing of deliverance at the Red Sea, the undeserved blessing of guidance day and night in the wilderness are all owing to cross of Christ. How right it is, then, to say, the rock was Christ, the manna was Christ, the deliverance was Christ, the pillars of guidance were Christ, because God’s guilty people could enjoy none of that without the blood of Christ.
And so it is for you who are in Christ. You who despair of your sinful selves and know that God owes you nothing. So it is for you. Every undeserved blessing you will ever receive is owing to the death of Christ. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Not just he can give us all things, but he will. He will. He will give us everything we need to do his will, and glorify his name, and make it home.
When he leads you into the waterless encampment of Rephidim, and there is no human hope, trust him. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Everything you need has been purchased, above all, himself, for your enjoyment now and forever (1 Peter 3:18).