Respond to Difficult Situations


Lesson Focus:  This lesson examines the Israelites’ complaint of the lack of water and how Moses responded to that complaint in a way that dishonored God.

Don’t Idolize the Past:  Numbers 20:1-5.

[1]  And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there. [2]  Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. [3]  And the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! [4]  Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? [5]  And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink."  [ESV]

Life is precariously unpredictable. Everything seems to be moving along smoothly when, suddenly, we are confronted with unexpected demands. One adversity follows hard on the heels of another. As Moses drew towards the close of his life’s work, it seems as though everything was against him. It is hardly surprising that, in a moment of testing, he lost control and did something he deeply regretted, and with sad consequences. First, he suffered family bereavement [1], then serious opposition [2], further complaints from his discontented contemporaries [3-5], intense frustration over their rebellious spirit [10], and severe disappointment at the news that neither he nor his brother would enter the promised land [12]. A sensitive man, he shouldered the burden of guilt arising from the fact that not only the belligerent people but he too had grieved God, and then he had to cope with the painful experience of hearing the Lord’s firm ‘No” to an ambition he had treasured for a lifetime. Israel’s leader must have faced many a day with a heavy heart. These biblical characters did not belong to a make-believe world where, because they loved God, everything automatically went well for them. As these different events suddenly appeared on his daily agenda, there were times when Moses was confronted with danger; but, in the sovereign plan of God, even the least welcome experiences could be transformed into creative opportunities for God. The narrative invites us to consider its different personalities and contrasting scenes.

[1-5]  Fresh from the burial of their sister, Moses and Aaron found themselves confronted, yet again, by hordes of angry people. Their expressed need (no water) was natural enough and, if transmitted in prayer to a generous God, would have elicited a speedy response. The anxiety became an opportunity for renewed murmuring rather than for dependent prayer. The people exhibited several attitudes that displeased God. First, they opposed His servants. Instead of approaching their leaders as effective intercessors, the crowds treated them as moral scapegoats. Throughout the years, Moses and Aaron had a bad time of it with this unhappy mob, and the grounds of their complaint now were much the same: things had been infinitely better in their idealized past. Their present diet was detestable and life’s future prospects were agonizing. The crowd assembled themselves together against Moses and Aaron. This unhappy congregation quarreled with Moses but, in reality, they were complaining against God. Secondly, they belittled His wrath. God was not pleased with Korah, Dathan and Abiram [16:31-35], and His judgment was expressed in the earthquake, fire and plague. Such men and their colleagues had treated the Lord with contempt, and now these complaining people were doing exactly the same, publicly regretting that they too had not fallen under that mighty hand of God’s judgment. Far from being humbled and chastened by the experience of the earlier rebels, they wished it had happened to them. Thirdly, they minimized His power. They blamed Moses for the exodus. Only God could have liberated them from the stranglehold of their cruel oppressors, and He had publicly demonstrated His power by judging their captors, authenticating His servants and effecting their deliverance. Denying God’s sovereign initiative and saving action, these wilderness rebels say that Moses is responsible for it all: why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? [5]. What an affront to almighty God to attribute those stupendous wonders to a mere man, and one they were opposing anyway! Fourthly, they resented His will. They contrasted this evil place with the fertile land they had left. There was surely irony in their grievance that there were no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates in the wilderness when the last three had been carried back by the spies as evidence of Canaan’s abundant fruitfulness [13:23]. They could have enjoyed such choice produce and plentiful supplies of grain if they had only responded to the passionate appeal of Caleb and Joshua [14:6-9] instead of taking up stones to kill them [14:10]. They had nobody but themselves to blame. It was God’s determined will to keep that unbelieving generation out of the land, not only to judge them righteously by giving them precisely what they wanted, but to teach an essential lesson to generations to come. Those who sow the seeds of disobedience reap a harvest of discontent. Finally, they despised His generosity. Obsessed by what had been denied, they forgot what had been given. They frequently recalled the luxurious meals of Egypt [11:5; 16:13] or visualized the attractive diet of Canaan [16:14], and saw both in stark contrast to their barren wilderness experience. Longing for what we want, we ignore what we have received. They forgot His mighty acts of deliverance. They ignored the daily evidence of His presence and the nightly assurance of His protection. They despised His unfailing gift of nourishing food, the ready supply of necessary water and restful locations where they enjoyed shelter. They marginalized His immense kindness in keeping them free from sickness and disease, even protecting their feet from discomfort and their clothing from wearing out. During those long years in the desert, they had not lacked anything. But they were not remotely grateful. Moses and Aaron listened to the complaints of the multitude until they could bear it no longer. They went from the company of a disgruntled people into the presence of a holy God.

Don’t Lose Your Temper:  Numbers 20:6-11; Psalm 106:32-33.

[6]  Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, [7]  and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, [8]  "Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle." [9]  And Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he commanded him. [10]  Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" [11]  And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

[Psalm 106:32]  They angered him at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, [33]  for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips.  [ESV]

[6-11]  Moses and Aaron retreated to that sacred place where God so often revealed Himself, and they fell prostrate upon their faces in their usual position of entreaty and intercession. As they lay face down at the front of the Tent of Meeting, the glory of the Lord appeared to them in the form of the fire-encased cloud, demonstrating quite visibly the divine presence and approval upon His servants. When one demonstrates the attitudes of humility and servanthood, God’s presence and blessing are realized most fully. Directions as to what rite to perform for the rocks to yield the needed water are introduced by the standard formula for introducing divine revelatory instruction: the Lord spoke. Though the contention with the people involved both Moses and Aaron, and later both Moses and Aaron acted unrighteously and suffered punishment, only Moses is addressed directly in the introduction. The instructions were threefold: take the rod, assemble the congregation, and speak to the rock. Together the prophet Moses and the priest Aaron were to gather the congregation of Israel in front of the rock, and then they were to speak to the rock that which the Lord had instructed them. Thus they would be agents of the miraculous provision of water, so that people and animals would be amply supplied. In his usual faithful manner, Moses began by dutifully following the Lord’s command by taking the rod from the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle. The scene was set for another demonstration of God’s mercy, benevolence and longsuffering, but the account would soon take a sudden tragic shift. The faithful following of the Lord’s instructions would continue in the second step with their joint gathering of the Israelite community in front of the rocky crag. Yet as Moses began to speak, the tenor of his speech changed dramatically, and he committed several rebellious infractions of his own. Instead of addressing the rock, he launched into a diatribe against the complaining community, calling them rebels. Moses earlier had shared his frustration with God concerning the hardhearted Israelites when they grumbled about the monotonous food supply [Num. 11:1-15]. That time he complained to the Lord about the responsibility of overseeing thousands of continuously rebellious and complaining people. He felt God was afflicting him with this overwhelming burden, even to the point of asking the Lord to take his life rather than allow him to experience the shame and humiliation of failure. This time the fullness of his frustration was manifest before God and the whole assembled congregation. Moses did not simply call the people rebels, a mere statement of truth (though perhaps out of anger), but he took the Lord’s instructions and used them as a means to justify his self-interest and self-pity. The Lord had said that Moses and Aaron would be the agents for the delivery of the water from the rock, but then the prophet’s self-centered attitude erupted as he usurped the words of God for his own glorification, saying, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? Such presumption would have the general effect that they have prevented the full power and might of Yahweh from becoming evident to the people, and have thus robbed God of the fear and reverence due to Him. Moses struck the rock not once but twice as he vented his anger and frustration over this ever-rebellious lot. As in previous circumstances of this kind, the rock was a symbol of God’s mercy and benevolence, so striking the rock was in a sense a striking out against God. Moses had damaged severely the intimate personal relationship he had with God. His actions were detrimental to the maintaining of a reverence for God and His mercy in Israel. The trusted servant had fallen into the same trap as the many rebellious people he had complained about to God. Here, in a direct address to his people, Moses ascribes miraculous powers to himself and Aaron. The collapse of character was so critical that he would suffer severely for his actions and his attitudes. He would not experience the fullness of God’s promise, the ultimate goal of his divinely ordained mission. He had been used dramatically and wondrously by God to bring his people Israel out of Egypt, but he would not bring them into the Promised Land. God’s mercy and grace were evidenced when the waters gushed forth from the rocky crag, in spite of Moses’ actions. He fulfilled His promise to provide ample water for the people, and Moses was used as an agent in the miracle. The Lord continued to demonstrate, as He continues to do today, His essential benevolent nature, fulfilling His promise to supply the needs of His people. Even the failure of His leaders would not thwart His will to bless His people. The rebellious, however, would fail to fully experience the abundance of His blessing.

Don’t Fail to Trust the Lord:  Numbers 20:12-13.

[12]  And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." [13]  These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy.  [ESV]

[12-13]  First, they disobeyed God’s command. Although the shortage of water when they left Egypt was met by the Lord’s order to strike the rock in Exodus 17:6, His precise instructions on this occasion at Kadesh were not the same. Here Moses was specifically told to speak to the rock before the eyes of the people [8]. But, uncharacteristically, Moses did not do what God commanded. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses spoke to the people. As they gathered before him, he used the occasion to address them aggressively as rebels, and then struck the rock twice in their presence. Had he done what he was told and spoken to the rock, the gushing water would have been a sign of the Lord’s omnipotence. Only God could make a word into a waterfall. Secondly, they misused God’s gifts. Moses and Aaron were equipped by the Lord with two specific gifts: leadership and communication. Here, they misused the gift of leadership. As the Lord’s servants, they were meant to be models of submissive obedience. The people expected them to do everything just as God commanded. In the teaching of Numbers, nothing is more important than obeying what God says, and here was Moses at the end of his life failing to do exactly what he was told. In that moment, this great and gifted leader misused his gift of leadership and did what he wanted rather than what God demanded. They also misused the gift of communication. Both men had spoken powerfully for God throughout their lifetime, and the great things the Lord said to them are preserved for us in Scripture. That day, at the rock face, Moses used the gift of speech to harangue the people rather than to exalt the Lord. Instead of making the occasion a joyful manifestation of God’s effortless control over nature, they had turned it into a scene of bitter denunciation. The heedless crowd deserved to be called rebels, but that was not what the Lord wanted them to hear that day. A visible display of His astonishing mercy was spoilt by the angry rebuke of a self-willed speaker. When God generously endows His servants with the gifts they need, they must not be used for personal satisfaction or for human applause. Thirdly, they obscured God’s glory. The Lord’s accusation was brief but direct: Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel [12]. Lack of faith would keep the older generation out of the land, and now even Moses and Aaron had failed because they did not trust the Lord’s word. They thundered at the people with their own words, when the Lord had planned a silent demonstration of His unique power. The people’s thirst was quenched, but the Lord was robbed of an opportunity for His name to be exalted as a holy, merciful and generous God. Finally, they hindered God’s people. The huge multitude had not deserved the divine compassion, but the Lord was eager to reveal it. They left the scene of miraculous power, thinking primarily of what Moses had said and done. The leaders had drawn attention to themselves rather than to the Lord, addressing the rock face would have glorified the Lord. The people were robbed of an opportunity for adoration and praise. Moses was a compelling communicator and, over the years, the people learnt many choice things from his exemplary life as well as from his faithful teaching. At Kadesh that day, he had no lessons to share except a tragically negative one: those who refuse to do what God says receive less than He wants to give.

Summary:  In essence, most of our sins boil down to a functional failure to believe God. In theory, we believe that God is our rock and our refuge; in practice, however, we often act as if God doesn’t even exist. Why do we judge people and write them off as hopeless? It is because in practice we do not really believe that God can rescue and redeem them. Why do we get so angry and frustrated when our spouses and our families disappoint us? It is because we don’t really believe that God is their judge, and we aren’t willing to let their sanctification rest in the Lord’s hands. Why are we so fearful for our own future? It is because we don’t really believe that the Lord will deliver us at the critical moment. Why are we so angry with God at the way our lives have turned out? It is because we don’t believe He has our best interests at heart or that there is more to life than what we see around us in this world. We are condemned by our failure to believe in the Lord as rebels against His goodness, just like Moses and Aaron and an entire generation of the ancient Israelites.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         List the attitudes of the people that displeased God. Pray that God will convict you when you have similar attitudes. And pray that God will nurture the opposite attitudes in your life.

2.         Meditate on the principle:  Those who sow the seeds of disobedience reap a harvest of discontent. Have you experienced this truth in your life?

3.         Compare Moses’ anger in this lesson with his anger in last week’s lesson (see Exodus 32:19-20). Why did God punish Moses for his anger in Numbers 20:10-11, but not for his anger in Exodus 32:19-20? What lessons can we learn here about our anger: when to express it and when to control it?

4.         What four ways did Moses and Aaron sin against God causing Him to punish them?

5.         What warning is given in this passage for church leaders in their service to God?


Numbers, Dennis Cole, NAC, Broadman.

Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness, Iain Duguid, Crossway.

The Message of Numbers, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

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