Why Moses Struck Out

Numbers 20:1-13

Have you ever had the feeling that God has put you through more than your fair share of suffering? Or have you ever felt that your life was shattered by a single event that has the feel of God punishing you unjustly? Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with an uncurable disease. Maybe someone stole all your possessions. Maybe a long string of misfortune as attended your way. I think Moses might very well have felt that way after God told him that he, Moses, who had brought the people out of Egypt, who had been a faithful mediator for the people, that he would not see the inside of the promised land. He had waited forty years for this. Forty years of wandering around in the desert, dealing with the rebellion of Israel against their God. Forty years of depending on the Lord’s provision. Forty years of depending on the Lord, who had been 100% dependable. And now, Moses was not to enter the promised land. That’s a bit rough, wouldn’t you say, and so many people have thought. After all, Moses’ sin doesn’t seem to be all that bad. Why did Moses strike out?

To learn this, let us look in some detail at our passage. We first have to realize that the people had been complaining for years about the lack of water, the lack of food, and then the lack of variety in their food, having had this lembas bread (I mean manna) for so long, that it was sticking in their throats. Do you ever feel like you are eating the same spiritual food all the time? “Why do I have to hear the Gospel again and again and again? Can’t I move past that now? Where’s the deep spiritual meat? I want some quail to supplement all this manna.”

The Gospel is what you need. It is always what you need. It applies to every situation you can possibly encounter. Do not try to supplement the Gospel, or you will take away from it. So, when the water ran out, and people duly pass on this fact to Moses’ attention, they are only doing what they have done probably thousands of times already. Moses and Aaron at first do the right thing, by going to the Lord. They fall on their faces, a sign of submission to God’s will. The Lord is very gracious to the people. He doesn’t tell Moses to stand aside, because the Lord is going to destroy the people. He tells Moses to meet the needs of the people. Moses is told to take the staff (probably Aaron’s staff, since it is the one that is located “before the presence of the Lord”), go to this rock, and preach it brother! This rock will then get so excited that it will react violently, giving its water. Moses obeys the first part of this command. Then, in verse 10, trouble comes. Moses told the people they were rebels, and why should I, Moses, do this for you? This question reveals Moses’ unwillingness to do this thing. He was aggravatingly tired of the people’s grumbling and complaining, and blaming everything on him. Notice the contrast between Moses’ reaction and God’s reaction. God is gracious, but Moses is not. Note one other thing about Moses’ statement. He speaks of Moses and Aaron bringing the water out of the rock, not God bringing water through them. And so, we see the first reason why God did not allow them into the promised land. Moses claimed for himself the miracle that would result. And he was ungracious where God was gracious. The second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) reason Moses struck out, was that he struck the rock, instead of preaching to it. Now, this becomes especially significant, when we look at the specific kind of rock that he struck. It was not the same kind of rock that he struck earlier at Maasah. You remember the very similar incident recorded in Exodus 17, where Moses strikes the rock, after the people file a lawsuit against Moses, and water comes out. Well here, the rock is a different kind of rock. A recent article in the Westminster Theological Journal gives us some light here. I am paraphrasing slightly: “Rainwater would dissolve chalk in the upper layers of limestone, and this mixture of water and chalk would settle further and further down the limestone layers until it came up against a harder rock layer. Then this mixture of water and chalk would travel sideways. The water would evaporate, leaving the chalk behind. This chalk would then build up, while water continued to build up behind it. All you would then need is a sharp blow in the right place, and the water would come out. So, in the other incident in Exodus 17, Moses was dealing with granite, a rock out of which you could not expect to get any water. So, when Moses struck that rock, it was a miracle to get water out of that rock. But here, Moses is dealing with this limestone, with deposits of chalk. If you knew where to look, and struck the right place, then you could expect to get water out of the rock. That is why God told Moses to preach to the rock. That is why Moses failed to maintain God’s holiness. Moses did not believe the Word of God spoken to him. Moses was guilty of lack of faith. So, Moses did sin. Let us not mince words here, or try to excuse him, if the Bible does not.

However, even if we understand Moses’ disobedience, we are still left with questions, aren’t we? The Israelites were guilty of far more than Moses’ lack of faith. They were guilty of outright idolatry. They had worshipped the golden calf. Why was Moses’ sin so bad? I do not think that the amount of guilt involved is the reason why God did not allow him into the promised land. Again, the level of Moses’ guilt is not the point at all. God is saying something bigger than that to us. God is saying that Moses is incomplete. Moses will not take us into the promised land. Moses does not do all things for our salvation. Moses is not sufficient for us. He is not everything we need to be right with God, to enter the promised land, to enter heaven. If Moses had taken the people into the promised land, then Moses would have been their Savior. Therefore, God did not allow him to do so, that His purpose for Israel might point us to Christ. You see, we need someone who can take us into the promised land. We need Joshua. Joshua took the Israelites into the promised land. Joshua’s name translated into Greek is Jesus. And Jesus takes us into the promised land of heaven, and sits us there at his right hand in glory. If you believe in Him, and have faith in Him. You see, we are always jealous of God’s grace given to other people. We think we are the only people who deserve it. But in this story, Moses needed God’s grace the most. God could have utterly rejected him as leader, but He didn’t. So it is we who most need God’s grace, because we are needy sinners, who don’t even know our own sin.


If you are not a Christian, and are here this morning, I invite you to consider your suffering in a new light. God is calling you to Himself. The Word of God is inviting you to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Only union with him can get you to heaven. There is no other way. But your suffering, is it not God knocking on your door, getting your attention? Submit to him. Surrender your life to Jesus.

If you are a Christian, your suffering can seem like God has abandoned you. Know from our passage this morning that God is there, and that He has a higher purpose for your suffering, whatever that suffering may be. Christ in the Gospel is still what you need to get through these periods of suffering. Do not ever tire of the manna of the Gospel. It is life! A pastor in New York that I know had an unusual kind of cancer. Treatment was very long, tiring, and scary. Many shots, radiations, everything you normally associate with cancer, only more so. He wondered what purpose there was in it all. He wondered if God had just abandoned him. Years later in the ministry, a girl in his church was diagnosed with the very same cancer that he had had. She went through the long gruesome treatment with all the shots and radiations. The pastor went to visit her in the hospital. She said that no one understands what it’s like, that no one cared, and especially that God did not care. The pastor said, “I know, and I understand. There is healing in the Gospel, and purpose for your suffering. God will not let anything happen that is meaningless.” She then made a profession of faith. Look forward to your redemption from suffering. It will come. But there are goals that God sets for your suffering to accomplish. Believe that. Believe that God cares for you, and believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Star Power

Numbers 24:15-19

If you are a star in this world, you can get just about anything you desire. Worldly possessions, fame, power, pleasure. It can all be yours, if you are a star. Of course, very few people are stars. Even fewer people take their responsibility seriously when they have the eyes and ears of the public so completely under their control. But what is true star power? I would submit that what the world calls a “star” and what the Bible calls a “star” are worlds apart. In fact, they are diametrically opposed, the one to the other.

In the book of Numbers, the king of Moab, named Balak, has hired a prophet to curse Israel, so that Israel will become an easy prey to him. The prophet that he found to do this was Balaam. However, Balaam could do nothing except what the Lord had commanded him to do. Balaam was not exactly a willing prophet. He was compelled by God to do only what God commanded him. You will remember that God had to use somewhat unusual means to do so. God enabled a donkey to talk to Balaam, and rebuke the prophet, since Balaam had failed to see the angel of the Lord. What he failed to see, the donkey saw very well. It was in this way that the Lord overruled Balak’s intentions of evil toward God’s people Israel. What Balak intended for evil, namely, that Balaam should curse Israel, God turned to blessing, that Israel should be blessed. Three times Balaam blesses Israel instead of cursing, much to the consternation of Balak, who had hired Balaam to curse Israel. In verse 10, we see that Balak was really incensed. He says that the Lord will hold back honor from Balaam. Balaam replies with verse 14: “And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.” This verse controls everything that follows, since he is talking about the latter days. That phrase “latter days” means a whole different age in world history. This is a prophecy about the future.
Balaam starts by saying that his spiritual eyes are open. That is, they have been opened by God. He hears also what God says to him. These are his spiritual ears.

Then follows a vision of a star. From the beginning we know that this star is a person, for Balaam says, “I see him.” Of course, Balaam must be referring to his spiritual eyesight, especially since he adds “not now.” This time indication says two things: this is a prophecy about the future, and secondly, that God controls the future, not Balak. You see, Balak wanted to control the future of his relationship with Israel. He wanted to be able to beat Israel in battle. There was no possibility of doing that unless Barak could call on the power of the gods to curse Israel. And that is why he hired Balaam to do his cursing for him. He must have thought that a prophet with Balaam’s reputation would have little difficulty in cursing Israel. But that is because he assumed something about Balaam. He assumed that Balaam would be able to say anything that Balak wanted him to say. What he didn’t know about prophets is that true prophets can only speak what God has given them to say.

What Balaam sees is a star. Now, in the Ancient Near East, various gods used stars as weapons to shoot at their enemies, according to the mythology. Balaam started here on a theme that Balak might have liked. But then, we hear the rest of the story. It says that the star will come out of Jacob, not out of Moab. He says further that it will crush the head of Moab. Now here we have real irony. Barak is the king of Moab! And here we have a star coming out of Jacob that will not only spare Israel, but will crush all her enemies, including the one who wanted Israel out of the way. What we have here is the continuing struggle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of Eve. Here we see that Eve’s seed will succeed in crushing the head of the serpent, Moab in this case. Literally, it says that the star will crush the temples of Moab’s head.

In the nearby time, this prophecy would have been fulfilled by David, who crushed Moab, Edom, and Seir. This is what the Jews say about the passage. But this is all they say about this passage. Some in the time of the Jewish wars thought that a particular man was going to be the Messiah. They called him “Bar-Kochba,” which means “Son of the star.” That Messianic hopeful was killed, however. There is no such thing as a killed Messiah. That is one of the reasons why it is so hard for the Jews to believe that Jesus is their Messiah. There was no such thing as a successful crucified Messiah. However, this does indeed a further fulfillment in the birth of out Lord Jesus Christ. It says in Matthew 2 that the wise men came because of a star that had guided them from the East into the land of promise. In Revelation 22:16, Jesus Himself is called the Bright, Morning Star. And, to answer the problem mentioned earlier, Jesus was vindicated by being raised from the dead. That is how come there can be such a thing as a successful crucified Messiah: if that Messiah is Jesus, risen from the dead.

Notice something else that must be true of this star: he must be a representative of Israel. It says in verse 14 that Balaam is going to let Balak know what “this people will do to your people.” “This people” obviously means Israel. What is happening here is poetic justice. The king of Moab thought to break down the defenses of Israel, when what will really happen is that Israel will crush Moab. Indeed, it will be more than Moab that will be crushed, since these countries that are listed here are representative of all the enemies of God’s people. In summary, this prophecy tells us about Jesus Christ, his coming to earth, and His victory over death at the cross and resurrection. The seed of Eve, who is Christ the Lord, will triumph over the seed of the serpent.

In verse 19, we see the end result: Christ will destroy the survivors of the cities, because He exercises dominion over all. This has begun in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But since not all of Christ’s enemies are destroyed, it will happen gradually through God’s people. That is what Jesus says in Matthew 16, when He says that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. The church will be triumphant against all her enemies.
So who is the star in our lives? Has the day-star Jesus Christ risen in our hearts, as Peter says? Or is our heart a heart of darkness? Just as the sun in the heavens is actually a star, so also Jesus Christ the Star becomes a Sun in our lives when He approaches us in our hearts. Will we trust in Jesus as the One who takes away the darkness of sin? Or will we shut Him out?

Or will we behave as if we are still in the dark? Jesus Christ has arisen! He brought light into the darkness, just as at the creation. Why do so often behave as if we are still in the dark? That should not be the case. We are the ones who are to shine the light of Jesus Christ to all people. And how can we do that if we are still dark? Do we lie, for instance? That is a deed of darkness. That is meant to keep the truth in the dark. Balaam could not help but bring the truth to light. That is the way of all true Christians. John says in his letters that we must dwell in the light. That means that our lives should be able to be an open book. Anyone ought to be able to come into our lives and see that light dwells there. How many of us would appreciate someone auditing the balance sheet of our lives? Aren’t there so many things in our lives that we would rather keep in the dark? But the Holy Spirit is constantly telling us that we need to bring those things to light. It is painful. But we must realize that the pain is only in the sinful part of our being. The reality which Satan wants to keep in the dark is that if we actually confess our sin, that part of us which is influenced by the Holy Spirit will rejoice. It is quite a relief to have someone know about our struggles. I think that the two sins in particular that like to be kept in the dark is the sin of lust for men, and the sin of gossip for women. Both of these sins thrive on secrecy. They are like mold, which likes the darkness. They are like cancer, which cannot survive in the presence of oxygen. I would submit that these sins above all others need to be kept in the open in order to be defeated. Satan would like nothing better than to keep these sins in the dark. Satan wants us to try to keep up appearances, and we think that that impulse to keep up appearances comes from our conscience. But deep down, we know that that is nothing more nor less than hypocrisy. So, instead, we need to have someone whom we trust, to whom we tell everything. And that person needs to know about our inmost struggles. That person needs to care, and not be too judgmental. That person needs to understand that sin still plagues the Christian, and that the best way is an open way, not a closed way. So I am not advocating telling everyone about our particular sins. But someone needs to know. So, let us not be children of darkness. But let us have the day-star rise in our hearts: the star of Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will we be dwelling in the light of day. It’s worth it, my friends.

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