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God’s Word for You

Numbers 20:12-13 The sin at Meribah

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, October 20, 2021

12 Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to honor me as holy in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this assembly into this land which I have given to them.”

We saw that Moses did two things that went contrary to God’s command. First, God told him to speak to the rock, but Moses struck it instead. Second, Moses said and blasphemed: “Must we bring water out of this rock for you?” (Numbers 20:10). The action was wrong, but might have been overlooked. The words were also wrong, and the words of the prophet must be addressed.

This remains a mystery: Moses is condemned by God for not trusting him or honoring him as holy in the eyes of the Israelites. That mistrust lasted only a moment, but it was a sin of unbelief. The word “enough” common to many translations (EHV, NIV) is a judgment of how to phrase the English, but “enough” isn’t in the Hebrew text. With or without it, Moses is being judged for a moment of mistrust and unbelief. Doubt easily turns into unbelief. And God’s judgment is repeated in the last line of the 95th Psalm: “So I declared on oath in my anger: ‘They shall never enter my rest’” (Psalm 95:11). Moses had given in, just for a minute, to frustration and the overwhelming burden of leadership. Any teacher who has ever yelled at a boisterous class understands: managing a crowd that doesn’t want to be where they must be is always a thankless, nearly impossible task. But God gives such tasks to those who are able to accomplish what God wills. Luther says: “This is written for our comfort, lest we despair when we sin, seeing that in this temptation not only many of the people, doubtless great and holy men, have fallen but even Moses himself, an outstanding man and the greatest leader of the people, together with Aaron his brother—this is written that we may fear the Lord and mistrust ourselves, since by the strength of Christ alone we are whatever we are” (LW 9:23).

We must recognize two kinds of blasphemy. The first is deadly and contemptible, when a man consciously looks for fault in God and blasphemes against him, calling down his own sins upon his head. They will understand their folly at their leisure when their worm does not die and their fire will never be quenched. The second kind of blasphemy is different. Mankind is passive in this, afflicted by the devil, who “introduces such perverse thoughts into our heads against our will and in spite of our struggle against them.” God permits such thoughts that come against our will so that we will fight against them and pray for his help. When we are made aware of our wretchedness, unable even to do one thing in a perfectly wholesome and God-pleasing way, then we will rely upon God for all of our righteousness (since we have none at all apart from God) and trust in no one else. So the devil’s battle in this matter backfires on him and drives us closer to Christ, and this pleases God and thrills his angels who battle alongside us unseen. The judgment of sin remains (Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land), but Christ’s mercy also remains, since Moses was permitted to enter the better Promised Land of our eternal heavenly Paradise.

13 These are the waters of Meribah, because there the Israelites quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself to be holy.

Meribah, “Quarrel,” was the name given to this rock and its water by the Israelites. The sin of the people was exposed here, but God also showed himself to be holy. God’s holiness is the characteristic in which he loves what is morally good and hates what is morally evil. We see this in the many demands God makes that we do all things that are good and clothe ourselves with nothing but goodness, and that we refrain from or remove all that is evil. “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean” (Leviticus 11:44). “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other” (Galatians 5:17). And quite simply: “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). God’s holiness is his purity, “entirely free of any fault or blemish; it requires the cleanness and purity owed by creatures” (Quenstedt). This holiness was owed to God by the Israelites and their leaders, Moses and Aaron, at this barren, dry stone of Kadesh which became the gushing well of living water called Meribah. They were completely unrighteous and impure, thoroughly deserving God’s punishment. But he showed his grace and blessing by giving them what he promised despite their sins, and he also showed his holiness by condemning Aaron and Moses to dying before they could enter the Promised Land. He did not keep them from heaven, but he kept them from Canaan.

This is our lesson: We must look to God always for forgiveness and for strength in every circumstance. Who knows what resistance we will meet tonight or tomorrow to the bare and beautiful truth of the gospel? Therefore as God has been merciful to us, we also must be merciful to one another (Luke 6:36), and as Jude says: “Be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 1:22). If you or I should feel anger welling up in us alongside frustration in the face of doubt and what seems to be blasphemy, that should be a warning claxon for us to be careful. The word of Christ you carry with you is a priceless medicine. Do not withhold it from an ingrate just on account of their ingratitude. The gospel is what creates faith, so be generous with it. Do all this “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:23), that you make share in all its blessings.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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