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Magnifying the Word of our God
All the passages below are taken from the book, “The Majesty of God in the Old Testament,” by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., published in 2007.
Numbers 10:1-13 1
First, we must focus on the theology behind this text. Few subjects appear more frequently in the Bible than that of the "word" or "speech" of God. Fundamental to all biblical religion is the conviction that God has spoken and revealed himself in his word. It is through that word that we are able to come to know who God is and what his will and desire are for the individuals and families of the earth.
The word was never just a sound or mere talk; in the Old Testament a word often took on a reality not usually connected with a word in our times. This can be seen in formulae of blessing and cursing. Thus, when Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, there does not appear to be any way their father could reverse his words once they were uttered (Gen. 27). The spoken word had gone forth, and that was that!
If this is how human words were regarded, how much more powerful and effective was God's word! More than that, it was a word that would endure: "The word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8; cf. 59:2 1). God's word could be a word of judgment (Hos. 6:5) or a word of healing (Ps. 107:20).
God's word is expressed in a variety of ways in Scripture. He often spoke through direct address, through theophanies (i.e., appearances of God), through visions or dreams, or through messengers who brought his words of grace, blessing, instruction, reproof, or warning, or his direction for acting and living.
Of particular interest is the Hebrew construct phrase, devar YHWH, "the word of the LORD [=Yahweh]," along with its counterpart, devar 'elohim, "the word of God." Here was a message about or, more frequently, from Yahweh/God. The former formula occurs 242 times in the singular and 17 times in the plural form, "words of the LORD." Whatever else is true of the God of Israel, he certainly is a God who speaks. The expression "thus says the LORD" is a hallmark of the prophetic speeches. The prophets' messages are peppered with this rubric. Moreover, the expression, "The word of the LORD came to me;' or some variation thereof, appears in the superscription of eight of the sixteen prophetical books (Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Mic. 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; Hag. 1: 1; Zech. 1:1; and Mal. 1:1).
Israel was extremely privileged to have heard these words from the LORD, for no other nation ever experienced the same (Exod. 20:22; Deut. 4:33, 36). This speaking ability marked Yahweh as distinct and superior to the false gods and idols of the nations, for they were mute (Ps. 115:5; Isa. 41:26; Jer. 10:5).
While God revealed himself in the acts of the created world and in history, it is his verbal declarations that teach us how to understand this created order, the events of space and time, and who he is and what he has done for us as mortals in need of redemption and guidance on how we should live and act. Such communication from God was not meant to deflect us from coming to know the Almighty and his plans for us, but was delivered to make him and his plan more intelligible and understandable to mortals.
True, the Bible does not reflect on the psychology or the methodology that makes it possible for an infinite God to get his message across to humans. Nevertheless, we are aware of God's condescension in using human language---the language of Canaan and of the Greek marketplace---to communicate. No one has ever claimed that this choice was one that would lead us to a comprehensive understanding of all that God is and could say to us; but it is an adequate means, as is demonstrated in the divine word's ability to get the message across generation after generation.
Accordingly, whether God's words are from the first conversation with Adam in the Garden of Eden, or are the promises found in the covenants formed with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or are even the "ten words" of the Decalogue, they still come to us as fresh and as powerful as the day they were given. Those words reveal the character of God, as well as his plan and will for the nation Israel, through whom he has planned to gift and bless all the nations and Gentiles of the world (Gen. 12:3). It is from this word that we know God's promises, commands, judgments, and grace and the effects of disobedience. It is this word that men and women are to live by and to set the course of their lives in accordance with. God's people must not flaunt that word; rather, they are to meditate on it and make it their delight and hope for all the future (Ps. 119:11, 16, 97,
162; Jer. 15:16).
No wonder, then, that our Lord should be celebrated for his magnificent word. His words are invested with all of his authority, faithfulness, and sovereignty. Never are his words flawed or spotted with impurity, for God does not lie (Num. 23:19; Ps. 12:6; 18:30; Prov. 30:5). Since God's words come from him, they possess the same eternal character, the same purity, the same truthfulness, and the same integrity as he himself possesses (Ps. 119:89; Isa. 40:7-8). There are no exceptions to this characterization of the words of God, for even where some texts say that God "relented" or "repented" (Exod. 32:9-14; 1 Sam. 15:29; Isa. 38:1-6), they refer only to the fact that God was able to change in his reactions to women and men because they had changed or repented. Thus he was able to remain immutable in his character as he changed in his actions and responded to the change in mortals as they moved from disobedience to obedience.
To doubt or refuse to obey God's word is serious business indeed, for it is essentially to doubt or to reject God himself. Regardless of the means by which the word of God came---whether through a messenger like one of the prophets, a vision, a dream, or a direct speech from God---it was still rebellion and an outright rejection of his very person and authority to reject or refuse to obey what God had said through his prophet or oracle.
So powerful was this word from above that the prophet Jeremiah likened it to a "hammer that breaks the rock in pieces" (Jer. 23:29). All substitutes for this same word of God are as straw compared with real grain (Jer. 23:28). Therefore, there was a real divide between true prophets and the false prophets who spoke "visions from their own minds" (Jer. 23:16), or who ran with a "message [that God] did not speak to them" (Jer. 23:21). Other dead giveaways to their falseness were their lifestyles: "they commit adultery and live a lie" (Jer. 23:14), further "distort[ing] the words of the living God" (Jer. 23:36) by acts of plagiarism. They stole the real words of God from his true prophets and mixed them with their own words, deriving a message that was either false or distorted.
No wonder, then, when God told Moses to speak on the high authority of heaven to the rock to break out its water in Numbers 20, it was a most serious offense for Moses to slug the rock instead of merely speaking to it. The power and authority had to rest in the spoken word itself, as authorized by God, not in anything that Moses, Aaron, or anyone else could do. It is this background and theology of the word of God that will make this passage such a forceful representation of the magnificence and incomparable greatness of our God and his most effective and true word.
An Exposition of Numbers 20:1-13
When it gets hot, the first thing every person thinks of is a drink! My family was in such a situation some years ago as we were traveling south on Highway 128 north of Boston. As usual, that road was under construction, and we were moving up one car length at a time on a hot July day with the temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This was in the early 1960s and we had not yet gotten one of those air-conditioned cars, so all the windows were open, and we were trapped in three lanes of traffic. In antiphonal response to my hitting the brakes as I inched the car along, our two-year-old son called out from the backseat, "I want a`gink'!" He could not say "drink" as yet. At first it was cute, but to hear that every ten seconds for an hour and a half is too much. After a while all of us wanted a "gink." My mouth felt like cotton. I could not wait until we could find a service station and get some kind of "gink."
Ancient Israel found itself in the same predicament: it was hot in the desert and the babies started to cry, "We want a`gink." Add to that all the young children and older folks, along with the sheep and goats, as they joined in complaining about the fact that there was no water anywhere, and you have a recipe for disaster. It is precisely this situation that provides the setting for our narrative in Numbers 20:1-13.
It was the first month of the fortieth year of wandering in the wilderness. The whole preceding generation of rebels had died off (Num. 14:32-35), and it was now time for a whole new advance for the promises of God as the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land. But there still were some sorrows to traverse even in this fortieth year. The year had begun with Miriam's funeral (Num. 20:1), and before the middle of that fortieth year, the high priest Aaron also had passed on (Num. 20:22, 29). This does not sound like an auspicious beginning for a new advance into the promised land. To lose your key leaders just when you are about to take on the new challenges of conquering the land, settling it, and getting ready for all that needed to be done was not what most would have liked or planned. But Israel's help (and ours) has never depended solely on human hands, sagacity, or power to get things done; it rests (as always) with the living LORD.
A passage that starts with two funerals really sounds "dead"! And this message could likewise be moribund, except for the fact that it shines with a mighty demonstration of the power that resides in the magnificent word of God. Thus, while the experiences of mortals are cyclical, God's plan and work in history are not. True, Israel had been at this point before. Just after their journey out of Egypt had begun, they ran out of water at Massah (Exod. 17:1-7). One would think they would have remembered back forty years and said, "We will not make the same mistake our forefathers made when they too were out of water." But that did not happen. Instead, they complained as mightily as they could in rebellion against Moses and Aaron and against God.
This is why 1 Corinthians 10:1-15 takes three of the stories from this very same context in Numbers 16, 21, and 25 to teach us that "[the Israelites] all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert" (1 Cor. 10:3-5). The apostle Paul drew warnings from these texts, since "these things occurred as examples, to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did" (1 Cor. 10:6). Here were the lessons Paul drew from these texts:
"Do not be idolaters" (1 Cor. 10:7, 14)
"[Do] not commit sexual immorality" (1 Cor. 10:8; cf. Num. 25)
"[Do] not test the Lord" (1 Cor. 10:9; cf. Num. 21)
"Do not grumble (murmur)" (1 Cor. 10:10; cf. Num. 16)
Therefore, we turn to this passage with anticipation of a message that will help us to hold high the mighty word of God in all its magnificence.
The focal point, or big idea, of this passage is found in verses 8 and 10: "Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water;" and "Moses said to them, `Listen you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?"' (emphasis mine). Accordingly, the title for our lesson or sermon will be "Magnifying the Word of Our God."
How do we magnify the word of our God in this text? Note that we will use the interrogative "how?" and the homiletical key word "ways." As a narrative text, the unit breaks down into four key scenes, giving us four ways that we can magnify the word of our God:
I. By Hearing His Word (Num. 20:2)
II. By Seeing His Word (Num. 20:3-5)
III. By Applying His Word (Num. 20:6-11)
IV. By Respecting His Word (Num. 20:12-13)
I. By Hearing His Word (Num. 20:2)
The power of God's word can be seen in the way it meets one of life's most basic needs: water (Num. 20:2)! But what Israel had learned from the past is about the same as what many of us learn from the past: nothing! We see in Exodus 17 that they had run out of water once before. Now here they were again. You can almost hear the doomsday predictors raining down on their brethren all sorts of cloudy assertions and once again blaming their leaders for all that was happening to them and calling for them to resign. After all, when your leader reaches 120 years of age, he ought to retire. So it was all Moses' fault; that is where the problem rested. It never occurred to any of them that they might be the problem instead.
The rowdy loudmouths griped and complained and refused to stop short of calling for an uprising against Moses and Aaron. This is when it is tough being a leader. One can understand Moses and Aaron's perspective: who needs all of this back talk and rebellion from a people you are trying to guide and deliver safely to their destination? The desert situation was serious enough without also having to face detractors. But God was once again testing Israel, just as we are often tested, to find out what was in their hearts. Had not the Lord led them all these forty years in the desert, humbling them and testing them "in order to know what was in [their] heart" (Deut. 8:2)? He had fed them with manna "to teach [them] that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3). Could it have been for any different reason here in the Desert of Zin near Kadesh that all of this was happening to them? What was their estimate of the word of God?
All too frequently we think that life consists of food and water, but that is to miss the mark by a good stretch. Mortals do not live by their intelligence, their reputation, their grand-children’s success, or by the fame anyone has achieved. No, real living begins and continues only when we are nourished daily by the words that come from the lips of our incomparably great God. Everything, including food and water, must take second place in the list of priorities. So, talk about human needs! We need God's word more than we need anything else, yet in most quarters that continues to be a scarce item. There is a huge famine of the word of God in our midst, even to this very day (Amos 8:11), because there is little or no practice of home Bible study and devotional reading of Scripture or of any consistent, solid, expositional preaching from many of the pulpits in our cities and towns. God's people are starving and dying on the vine because they are being given everything but the powerful word of God. We must have preaching and teaching that takes us chapter after chapter, paragraph after paragraph, and book after book through the sixty-six books of the Bible if this famine is to find any relief soon.
II. By Seeing His Word (Num. 20:3-5)
To make matters worse, Israel soon forgot all of God's previous deeds and interventions on their behalf. The attack on Moses' leadership continued as the Israelites said in essence, "The ol' gray Moses ain't what he used to be." They began to call down imprecations on their own heads, saying, "[We wish] we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD!" (v.3). Did they really want to be swallowed up by the earth just as all of Korah's men had been consumed when the earth split open because of their opposition to Moses and the things of God (Num. 16:32-33)?
The prophet Amos would later issue a strong warning to those who in an insincere way said in effect, "We wish the day of the LORD were here" (Amos 5:18). "You don't even know what you are talking about," warned Amos. In effect he retorted, "Wait until you see what the day of the LORD is like for all who are unprepared for it because of being disobedient to the LORD." And so it should be said for all such braggadocios. The Israelites grumbled and fought with Moses about what they knew was not Moses' doing but God's actions in the past and present. The greatest favor ever done for any people, their deliverance from Egypt and preservation in the wilderness and the desert, was now drawing sneers and cynical remarks from those who had benefited from these divine actions.
The people mocked as they attributed their present state to Moses, for they pointedly said that he was the one who had brought them out of Egypt, along with their cattle---as they now let their cattle "horn in" on the argument and added them to the list as part of Moses' now foiled deliverance. They brazenly suggested (in effect), "Skip the milk and the honey you promised us in this place we are supposed to be going to. We don't see any grain, figs, grapevines, or pomegranates. And worse still, mister, where's the water?"
It is enough to make a leader want to resign right then and there. You can almost hear Moses saying to himself (if this were a modern situation), "Why should I put up with all of this? I am not being paid any kind of big salary. I get no retirement benefits, no medical or dental benefits, so why am I doing all of this? I don't need it one bit!" The text does not say this, of course, but who would blame him if he did at least think something like this? He was unappreciated to the nth degree.
III. By Applying His Word (Num. 20:6-11)
Moses and Aaron's immediate reaction to this public rejection by those willing to speak out was to retreat to the tent of meeting and fall on their faces before God (v. 6). As a result of their action, "The glory of the LORD appeared to them" (v. 6b), and new instructions from God were given to Moses.
Faced with a potential mass revolt and widespread disobedience, Moses was to take his staff/rod and the two leaders were to assemble all Israel together in front of the rock there in that camp. So far, all was going well. But then God ordered Moses to "Speak to that rock" (v. 8), which was extraordinary enough. However, he was to speak to the rock "before [Israel's] eyes" (v. 8).
Now that could have been the end of everything. Here the people were opposing Moses and Aaron, feeling perhaps that both of them were "over the hill" and should have retired long ago. But now they would see Moses publicly talking to a rock, which would surely signal that the ol' boy had lost it for sure. God's promise was that water would come forth from the rock as a result of the verbal command of Moses given in the strong name of God. There would be water, Moses was assured, enough for the community and for their livestock.
We may wonder, Why this method? Why not send out teams to search for water holes or for springs? What could speaking do at a time like this? Actions, not words, were needed now!
However, therein lies the greatness and the majesty of our Lord. The people, as is so often true of us today, had doubted the power of the word of God and wanted to see some visible actions that would end their discomfort. The word of God, they judged, is all right for spiritual exercises and for days of worship, but not for the rough-and-tumble realities of the real world!
By this time, Moses had had just about enough. Even though it is always too soon to quit, he failed God at a critical moment. Surely the Lord knew how badly the children, adults, and even the cattle and herds needed water. Could God not hear the cries of the babies and the young children? "Water, Mother, water!" Even the sheep and goats seemed to mock God's leader as they bleated and fussed for water.
With all the congregation gathered in front of this rock, Moses decided to let them have a piece of his mind. He had had it with them. So he blurted out, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" (v.10)
Who said anything about Moses and Aaron bringing water out of the rock? God had worked so hard to set up this lesson so that this generation also might know that men and women do not live by water or food alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God; was Moses now about to spoil the plan? Wasn't the lesson more important even than water? The only connection between the extremity of their present need and the water provided was to be God's word. Speak the word! That is where they were critically deficient---as we are so often deficient as well. We truly are concerned about real needs and crises, but we want to meet them without involving the word of God. Yet that is precisely what is needed---no more, no less: his word!
In his anger, Moses raised his arm and let that rock have it; he socked it twice with his staff. Some say that in doing so he broke the typology that pointed to Christ, for our Lord, who elsewhere is given the metaphor of the "Rock," was only smitten on the cross "once for all." However, that cannot be what was wrong here. Later the psalmist had occasion to reflect on this same incident in Psalm 106:32-33. There he noted, "By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses' lips" (italics mine). So, Moses did not break the type; rather, his fault was that he distrusted the power of the word of God. True, he was provoked, and the psalmist confirms that point. Nevertheless, he stole glory from God with just a little personal pronoun, "we." "Must we bring you water out of this rock?" Through the prophet Isaiah the Lord would later warn, "I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another" (Isa. 42:8). God's person and his word had to be set forth in front of a watching Israel as being altogether different and separate from the names, power, and speeches of others. We should never trivialize or make common what God has set apart as holy and separate, which in this place was his word.
The amazing result was that God still graciously gave the people water. I would have expected, after Moses and Aaron's major disobedience, that a voice would have come from heaven saying, "You are all rebels, including the leaders. No one listens to me or to my word. You still expect water? What do you think this is? I hope you all get good and thirsty, for none of you deserve any mercy, much less water!" But that speech did not take place. God graciously sent forth water so abundantly that it must have washed away the whole center of the line of angry demonstrators.
God is generous with his mercy and grace; yes, even in the Old Testament. Water came forth copiously. I was asked one time how much water the Israelites needed. I said I did not know, so the questioner pressed harder. How many people were there? I estimated over two million. How much water do they each need for drinking, washing, and cooking? I guessed about a gallon and a half minimum per day per person. How many sheep and goats were there? continued my interrogator. I said I did not know that either, but I would guess at least one for every other person, about one million. How much water do they consume in a day, I was quickly asked. I judged about two gallons each. My interrogator worked for the local water department, so he calculated the flow per second from the rock and concluded that water had to come out of that rock at something like 1,600 gallons per second! Now that really beat the Sunday school paper illustration I got when I was a kid, which pictured a little trickle that would have been consumed by the first six people who took a drink! However much water it was, it had to set a bunch of the protestors swimming with the enormous outflow from that rock.
But how much more impressive would it have been had Moses stuck to the word of God, letting a distrusting people see its effects in all its power? Surely, we too suffer from a "trickle-down theology" of the word. We too often expect too little when God wants to send out a gigantic waterspout that will stagger the imagination of all who behold it!
IV. By Respecting His Word (Num. 20:12-13)
Finally, God's word is true in all its sanctions and judgments. God does not act like we mortals do, for he still quenches the thirst of men and women and feeds us even when we do not deserve one whit of his mercy and grace.
Even so, God's sentence against Moses and Aaron was immediate. They had failed to "believe" and to "trust in [God] enough to honor [him] as holy in the sight of the Israelites" (v.12). While the crowd was guilty of stirring Moses up, nevertheless, there is a double indemnity clause (James 3:1) for all leaders. They must be very careful what they do for it has an effect not only on their own person, but also much more seriously on those they lead. Moses had rebelled directly against God's commandment (Num. 27:14). Did he doubt that God's plan would really work? Did he think that the people were so rebellious that it could not work?
Whatever his thinking, it all came down to a lack of belief in God's word. Thus, the two leaders would now be denied the privilege of leading this nation into the land of promise. Even though God showed himself as holy on that day (v. 13), there were consequences for the two leaders. Yes, there is forgiveness for all sin, but there are still consequences from some of our deeds that cannot be reversed. I may be forgiven of mugging someone, but if I permanently damaged my victim's brain in so doing, the effect remains. That is why the book of James speaks of a double indemnity clause for leaders. Leaders are responsible both for themselves and for those they teach or lead.
The warning is clear: leaders, pastors, teachers, and lay workers for the Lord must wrestle with their doubts on their knees privately in their homes and study rooms, but not in public. It is not proper to give vent publicly to our anger and our keen disappointment when people do not appreciate what we do for them. Note also that even great individuals tend to fall right in the area of their greatest strength. Here, one whom God called the humblest of mortals (Num 12:3) got caught in the white heat of his anger toward those rebels who egged him on. This was an area of his strength, yet it was in that same area that he fell. Gone was the meek disposition; in its place was white hot anger!
Moses, who so frequently delivered Israel as a mediator, now pleaded for himself on at least three or four occasions for God to rescind his sanction against him and let him take Israel into the land. But God said in effect, "No, it is enough; say no more" (Num. 27:12-14; Deut. 1:37; 3:22-26; 4:21; 32:51).
Aaron too was sanctioned by God and was "gathered to his people" (Num. 20:24) as he and Moses ascended Mount Hor, near the border of Edom. There Moses removed from Aaron his garments and dressed Aaron's son, Eleazar, with the vestments of the office, continuing the line of the office of high priest. This demonstrated the transitory nature of the ceremonial law. Aaron's line of the priesthood would not endure forever, for Christ's priesthood would replace Aaron's line and would be patterned after another, the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:11-24).
Mercy came to the people, but what a cost it brought to them all as they were forced to go on without the leaders who had communicated God's word to them for the past forty years.
1. God's word stands firm and true whether we allow it to work or not. It is no excuse to protest that our desperations, our inconveniences, and our crises take precedence over the word of God. They do not, nor should they ever be thought to even come close to rivaling it.
2. Mortals can only really live if they live by the word of God. That is where living begins and how it is able to go on. So we must trust God's word, especially if we lead.
3. Even when leaders are provoked, they must still stay on message and on course. They are God's gifts to his people and are there for the good of God's people (Heb. 13:7, 17).
4. God can and does forgive, but he also must attach consequences to disobedience, especially for leaders. Psalm 99:8 warns that even though God is a forgiving and pardoning God, he still must punish Israel for their misdeeds.
5. No one was ever forgiven without someone paying---even in the everyday events where others ask us to forgive them. In effect they do not ask us to just gloss over the matter, but they want us to take on the onus of paying for what they did wrong, if we forgive them. That is what our heavenly Father does for us when he forgives us.
May we have a whole new regard for the word of this great God. His word alone can bring back life and real living to the hungry masses, and his word alone can break the logjams and the impediments that have blocked the free flow of the power of God to a watching and sin-sick world. [51-64]
1. Numbers 10:1-13 NIV
1 In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.
2 Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron.
3 They quarreled with Moses and said, "If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD!
4 Why did you bring the LORD's community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here?
5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!"
6 Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them.
7 The LORD said to Moses,
8 "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink."
9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD's presence, just as he commanded him.
10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?"
11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."
13 These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.
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