After about 35 years of wandering in circles, Israel again find themselves near Kadesh-Barnea. This time the water supply fails, provoking yet another volley of complaints – and the airing of all their old grievances. And as usual, the people ignore God’s existence and blame Moses and Aaron for all their problems – problems that they had brought upon themselves by their disobedience so many years ago! This grumbling, resentful attitude must have been absorbed from their parents, for by now only the very oldest of them have any memory of Egypt; most have lived their whole life in the wilderness.
Once again Moses and Aaron turn to God for help; and He tells them how to find and release the hidden water. They are to speak to the rock, which will obey them and thus put God’s rebellious people to shame. But on this occasion – quite uncharacteristically – Moses doesn’t follow his instructions faithfully. Years of relentless criticism must have taken their toll, and something inside him seems to ‘snap’, releasing all his suppressed anger and frustration. He strikes the rock instead of speaking to it (which is disobedience); but his sin is worse than that. In calling the people ‘rebels’, he sets himself up as their judge; in saying, “Must we bring you water?’’ (verse 10) he sets himself up as their deliverer. Thus he usurps the place of God and dishonours Him.
The people are happy with the outcome; they do not suffer as a result of Moses’ sin. But God is furious. He had been willing to be gracious to His people, but Moses’ words and actions have given the opposite impression. It’s a terrible lapse for a man of such spiritual stature, and his punishment is correspondingly severe: he and Aaron will also be denied entry into the Promised Land.
Leadership in God’s church is a tremendous privilege; but it carries with it a corresponding responsibility. The larger the group of people under someone’s authority, the greater the temptation for that leader to behave ‘like God’ to them. And we who follow them are also tempted to idolise them, forgetting that they are as human (and sinful) as we are. Church history is littered with the names of popes, bishops, and other powerful men who started their careers full of promise but eventually tripped up by abusing their authority. Tinpot tyrants, physical and sexual abusers, and those who just enjoy the adulation of the masses… they leave a nasty taste in the mouth, and dishonour both God and the Church. So we need to pray for our leaders, that they may finish their course as well as they started…