For a long time, I was bothered by the fact that God didn’t allow Moses into the Promised Land. I sympathized with Moses in his one moment of weakness, and I wondered if God judged him too harshly.
I was also bothered by the fact I was bothered.
It’s not good to stay in a place where you criticize God’s judgment or question his character. Whenever you read the Bible and find your sensibilities don’t line up with how God is described, you face a choice. You can reject God’s ways and stand in judgment over him, or you can submit to God’s ways and ask him to transform your sensibilities until they’re more in line with his Word. Sometimes, the areas where God most offends us are the areas where we most need to grow.
In studying Moses’s actions in Numbers 20 more closely, I’ve come to understand that it would have been unfair for God to overlook Moses’s sin in this instance. Why? Because Moses did the same thing that the wandering generation of Israelites had done. He was faithless.
“Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness,” God said. Moses did not trust God. And without faith, one cannot enter the Promised Land.
Notice the frustration that Moses showed when he began to talk to the Israelites, after they (once again) complained about his leadership. God told Moses to address the rock, but he and Aaron addressed the people instead. His first words? “Listen, you rebels!” He lashed out at the people.
But God didn’t give Moses the right to judge Israel in this way. In fact, God had told Moses that He was going to show mercy and grace to the people by providing water from the rock. God had his heart set on showing mercy to the people, but Moses had his heart set on the people’s sin.
Remember how many times God was ready to destroy the people and Moses stepped in as the mediator, asking for mercy? Moses never defended the people; he defended God’s name. He never said, “You know, Lord, the people aren’t as bad as you’re making them out to be. Cut them some slack!” Every time Moses went to God on behalf of the people, he said, “O Lord, because of Your great name, save them! Have mercy on them. Show them grace so that you will get glory! Not because they deserve it—they don’t—but because you deserve glory for salvation!”
But not this time. In this scene, God was ready to demonstrate his glory and holiness in how he showed mercy, and Moses was the one who balked at God’s decision. Moses seemed to resent God’s mercy in that moment. When he said, “Listen, you rebels!” in this case, he sounded more like Satan than the Savior. He was more like the accuser than the Mediator.
Faithlessness leads to frustration with God and his ways. God delights in showing mercy and grace to undeserving people, and until you see his glory in this, you’re likely to resent it. We’d rather hold on to a sliver of self-righteousness, the idea that if we’re Christians it must be because we are smarter, or wiser, or somehow, in some way, just a smidgen superior to others.
Look carefully at what Moses asked after he lashed out at the Israelites and called them rebels. “Must we bring this water from the rock?”
God had said that he would bring water out of the rock once Moses spoke to it. Instead, Moses and Aaron seemed to be taking credit for the miracle, implying that the power to bring water from the rock would come from them and Moses’s staff.
Do not miss the significance of faithless pride. It’s deadly.
Faithless pride brought down King Uzziah, who decided to overstep his bounds. It also brought down King Asa, who ended his years determined not to depend on God. It also brought down King Hezekiah, who was confronted by Isaiah because of his pride.
When you’re successful, pride will show up in boasting. When you’re suffering, pride will show up in self-pity. This was what happened with Moses. Faithless pride manifests itself whenever we sulk and seethe with resentment because we’re not getting what we think we deserve.
God told Moses to speak to the rock, but Moses struck it instead. The rock had always been a picture of God’s grace and generosity. And in an earlier account, God told Moses to strike it, as if God himself would take abuse in order to provide water for his people.
But now, in this case, Moses struck the rock twice, without God’s command. His anger, frustration, and self-pity overtook him and led him to lash out at God. He was doing what the faithless Israelites did when they complained and grumbled.
All our sins come down to this: we don’t trust that God is for us. We don’t depend on him as our rock. We stand in judgment over others. We get frustrated and impatient. We resent God’s grace toward others. We think that God doesn’t love us or want the best for us. Trace the sin of disobedience backward and you’ll arrive at the sin of faithlessness.
But even here—even though Moses was sinful, and the people were undeserving—God still gave them water. And he still allowed Moses the chance to look out over the Promised Land before he died. Even in judgment, God shows mercy.
Numbers 20 doesn’t bother me anymore. It challenges me, as God always intended it to. I’m thankful for the warning this story provides. I’m thankful also that even in this act of judgment, God’s heart of holy love shines.
The Gospel Coalition