Exodus is the story of the Lord delivering Israel out of Egypt. It is the story of the mighty hand of the Lord working among men. We know Him as the Almighty. He is able to bend nature to His will.
Exodus 17:1 says:
At the LORD's command, the whole community of Israel left the wilderness of Sin and moved from place to place. Eventually they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water there for the people to drink.[i]
First we notice that the community of Israel moved at the Lord’s command. It has been some time since they left Egypt. On the day they left Egypt we are told, “The LORD went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire.” (Exodus 13:21)
The phrase “moved from place to place” is otherwise translated “in stages.” This is not random wandering. It is a measured journey to Mt. Sinai, where the people were to meet with the Almighty.
According to Exodus 17:1, “Eventually they camped at Rephidim. Rephidim most likely means “rests” (Bibleatlas.org). A book called “Deserts of the Exodus” says this about it:
It is the most fertile part of the peninsula, well watered, with a palm grove stretching for miles along the valley. Palmer speaks of passing through the palm grove as a "most delightful" walk; "the tall, graceful trees afforded a delicious shade, fresh water ran at our feet, and, above all, bulbuls flitted from branch to branch uttering their sweet notes." (http://bibleatlas.org/rephidim.htm)
Ironically, the community of Israel found no water there. Therefore, a place named for rest became a place of quarreling. Exodus 17:2 tells us:
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?” (ESV)[ii]
The quarrel was severe enough that Moses told the Lord, “They are ready to stone me!” (Exodus 17:4) Moses even gave the place a new name calling it “Meribah” (which means quarreling).
The people were thirsty and feared for their lives. They said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Are you trying to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?" (Exodus 17:3)
This is consistent with the pattern that the people established. Even though it was at the command and leading of the Lord that they move, they complained against Moses. They maintained this pattern throughout their 40 years in the wilderness. However, at this point in the book of Exodus we see a serious turn in their attitudes. Moses called it testing the Lord, and Exodus 17:7 tells us what they said. They said, "Is the LORD here with us or not?"
Considering the fact that they were eating Manna every morning and quail every night this is a remarkable question. Considering the fact that they witnessed the plagues in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea on dry ground with the water standing up as a wall on each side, this is a remarkable question.
This same incident was repeated almost verbatim at the beginning of the 40th year in the wilderness. The account of the second occurrence is found in Numbers 20:8, the difference being that Moses was instructed to speak to the rock. Because of these two incidents God gave a command in Deuteronomy 6:16. He said, “You must not test the LORD your God as you did when you complained at Massah.” The complaint referenced is, “Is the LORD here with us or not?”
Many years later, immediately after Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. He too was without bread and water. Satan came and tempted him. At that time, there were three tests. First, Satan tried to get Jesus to turn stone into bread. Second, Satan tried to get Jesus to worship him. Third, Satan tried to get Jesus to leap from the highest point of the temple. Each time Jesus answered with Scripture. The third and final answer Jesus gave that finally shut the devil up was, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the LORD your God.’” (Luke 4:12)
Deuteronomy 6:16 gives a command that we must not test the Lord and Jesus repeats it in dealing with the temptations in His life. This incident with the water seems to be the example of what it means to “test the Lord.”
A short explanation of testing the Lord would be to call His character or promises into question. The community of Israel had experienced and seen time after time that God was both there and on their side. Now, they were demanding that He prove once again that He was there and on their side. God was clearly leading them. God was clearly providing for them. In this process, God was testing them to see whether they would trust Him. God knew what He was going to do and it was His purpose to provide them with water. Of course He would. God did not lead them out into the wilderness to kill them with thirst. They did not need to put God to the test.
God tests all of His children. He led the community of Israel to a place with no water. The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. God will lead you into the wilderness. It will just be you and Him, and you will need to trust Him. There will be no water.
Jesus said, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” (John 7:37-38)
Believers of all ages have found this to be true.
One day Jesus was traveling north from Jerusalem going to Galilee. He chose the most direct route, which passed through Samaria. After walking all morning, Jesus was hot and tired so He sat down by a well near a Samaritan town. He sent His disciples into town to buy food. While He waited there by the well, a woman came out to draw water. One of the things Jesus said to her was, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” (John 4:10)
This woman was thirsty, but she did not know what she was thirsty for. It took an encounter with Jesus for her to realize that her real thirst was spiritual.
We all need this living water. The experience of the community of Israel in the wilderness teaches us three things about this water.
The first thing is that God leads us to it.
God leads us to the living water by first showing us our need.
God led the children of Israel to a place called rest, but there was no water. God purposely leads us to these places. For the children of Israel it seemed as if God was trying to kill them. After all, He led them into a barren, hostile environment and there was no water. Circumstances may seem to indicate God is against us, and we must learn to trust God’s word and promises in spite of circumstances.
The second thing we learn is that God goes before us.
God told Moses, “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.” (Exodus 17:6)
God was there all the time. It was in the presence of God that the people said, “Is the LORD here with us or not?” Jesus says to us, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) This is important for us to realize. When we are going through the dry times, we need to remember that God is right there with us. Jesus taught of our close association with the Father when He said:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. (John 14:16-18)
God leads us. God is with us. God refreshes.
Moses struck the rock and water gushed out, not because the people deserved it, but because of God’s grace.
Striking the rock was a picture of how God brings grace to us. Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.”
The children of Israel deserved the blow for even asking their question, but God struck the Rock instead. Even the Apostle Paul had to learn the lesson, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” In Paul’s case, he had a weakness that he called a thorn in the flesh. It was such a problem that he pleaded with God three times that it be removed and each time God said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” In this, Paul learned to boast in his weakness because it glorified the strength of Christ.
If we never thirsted, we would never know the refreshing that only Jesus can bring.
If God has led you to the point of thirsting, realize that it is an opportunity to call upon Him for refreshing.
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
[ii] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.