In psalm 81, I read about how God rescues. He says, “You called in trouble, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder: I proved you at the waters of Meribah.” And since I was in the market for rescue, it made me wonder, just what happened at Meribah anyway?
In Exodus, God miraculously led the people out of slavery and, crossing the desert, they were thirsty. As the story goes, the people grumbled, and Moses went to God on their behalf. He instructed Moses to strike a rock and the water would pour out for the people to drink. This he did.
Later on in Numbers, the people, still wandering and thirsty, begin to question whether God is with them at all. Moses and Aaron approach God on their faces in humility in their intervention for the people, grumbling and suffering as they may be. God instructs them to speak to the rock for the water to flow, but Moses and Aaron take a different tack. They strike the rock as they did before, and the water pours.
“Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 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.” Numbers 20:10-11
So the people drank, but God was not happy. Moses and Aaron had gone rogue, striking when they should have been speaking, and giving the appearance that they were to thank for the gift of the water. For this arrogance, Moses and Aaron face a pretty big punishment.
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.” These are the waters of Meribah,[a] where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.
Still the question remained with me: what did God prove at Meribah? There are a few things, actually, and they are just as relevant for us today as they were for those wandering people and their leaders thousands of years ago.
God might give us particular instruction or direction, and He might even give us a big job with leadership over many people. It may be human nature to allow our role to make us feel superior, or puffed up, maybe convincing us to do things our own way. This story instructs us: don’t. When God says speak, we should speak. When He says strike, we should strike. It’s not our call. God proves the importance of faithful listening, humility and obedience.
Whatever issue God had with Moses and Aaron, it wasn’t going to prevent God from getting much needed water to the people. They were thirsty, and they drank, regardless of the foolishness of their leaders. God proves Himself faithful and attentive to our need.
God sought to give His people what they most needed, and universally this is done best gently in conversation and relationship. God does not want us to use violence to reach or feed His people, but instead to watch in amazement as Spirit-led words unlock the quiet potential and faith of the people He is calling through our work. At Meribah, God proves the potential of this humble model of service.
As leaders, Moses and Aaron started off really well. They were trusting, they leaned on God for direction, and they approached Him appropriately with deference and meekness. They seemed to know just Who was in charge, and they did what was asked. With time, they may have gotten bolder, speaking for themselves, and not allowing God to work through them to the same degree they had before. We’ve all seen leaders like this, who start out for all of the right reasons but who allow pride to raise their status and ultimately, bring them down. God proved at Meribah the importance of running the whole race well, beginning, middle, and end.
This punishment of Moses and Aaron, that they would never see the Promised Land they’d been walking toward for forty years, seems, well, harsh. But I believe God was giving a picture to future leaders about how best to serve His people, and this is important considering the wide and direct impact of leaders on our church, country, and world. It gives me pause to think of the small ways in which I am called to leadership in my family, community, and church. Wherever I am called to lead, I want to do it well. As the scripture says, “through people He shows Himself holy”, and I want my service to reflect His holiness and goodness. I never want to get in His way. In this time of rescue and recovery, I can begin to use what I’ve learned to help others, and when I think of Meribah and all that was proved, I’ll remember its lessons:
Don’t rush ahead; do the work of God humbly and obediently.
Remember that God’s purposes will be met. Be part of His solution.
Use words, not force, to unlock life-giving water for God’s people.
Run the race well, in the beginning, the middle, and the end. The end counts.
It’s such a short race after all, friends. Let’s run it well. Amen.