"Speak to the rock." That is how God instructed Moses in Numbers chapter 20. The situation was another episode of Israelite grumbling in the wilderness. “There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves” … to beseech the Lord for rainfall? To fast and pray for the Lord’s direction to an oasis? No! “They assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron” (v.2). They assembled themselves to lodge their complaint … as if Moses and Aaron were in charge of the weather or the geographical formations of the Ancient Near East!
And yet God was merciful.
Instead of commanding Moses to speak His judgments against the people, the Lord told him to speak to a nearby rock. And He ensured that, when Moses opened his mouth, the rock would open its mouth, too … and water would gush forth in abundance.
Isn’t God merciful … to the Israelites, as well as to bellyaching Christians today! Among the sins for which Christ shed His precious blood was our murmuring and complaining when things don’t go our way! So that, instead of judgment for our murmuring, God has poured fourth mercy upon us from the rock that is Christ! Let us not receive it unthankfully!
But there is something else to see in Numbers chapter 20. And the editors of the chronological Bible summary, The Story, describe it when they summarize the unfolding of events as follows:
“Moses struck the rock rather than obeying God’s instructions to speak to it” (emphasis added).
And God’s response was to call Moses to account for his unbelief, and failure to honor His God before the people.
Disobedience. That was the fundamental breakdown in Numbers 20. God had said “speak”, and Moses disobeyed. He struck rather than speaking. The Story suggests that Moses did what he did in anger – that he struck the rock “in his rage” over the continued obstinacy of the people. And that is perhaps correct, especially when we read Moses words in v.10 (“Listen now, you rebels”). It’s also possible, I suppose, that Moses struck the rock rather than speaking because that was one way God had worked His wonders in the past. The Nile had turned to blood, and the Egyptian dust to gnats, when Moses struck them with his staff. And so maybe there was something in Moses that had become almost superstitious about that piece of wood in his hand.
But in either case, the fact remains the same. God told Moses to do one thing. But Moses did, patently, something else. And there was discipline for it – not eternal perdition (for Moses' sins were covered by the blood, and he is surely with God today); and not the thwarting of Moses’ ministry, either (for the rock still gave forth water, even though Moses approached it in the wrong way). But, because of His disobedience, Moses did suffer the loss of earthly blessing. He forfeited, that day in Numbers 20, his opportunity to live in the earthly land of promise (see v.12) … and later died, having only seen it from a vista point, and at a distance.
And that should be a warning to us! Just because something we are doing ‘works’ doesn’t mean that we are doing it God’s way. The people still had water even though Moses went about it all wrong. And so ‘success’ is no true sign that we are doing right by God. And very often, by God’s grace, some other form of discipline will remind us that He cared deeply about our obedience.
So listen to God. Do things His way. Familiarize yourself with the teachings of the Bible, and hold to them unswervingly. And don’t think that immediate success means that God necessarily approves of your behavior. His approval is measured by the yardstick of His word, not your success! And you should measure yourself by the biblical yardstick, not because your obedience is what redeems you or purchases your standing before God – that was accomplished by Christ alone! – but because you want to honor the Lord in all the details of your life, and not miss out on earthly promises that could have been yours if you’d only obeyed.