How can one properly represent God? Well, there are several ways in the book of Numbers. The Israelites have been protecting the things of God, they’ve been holding fast the center, they were to lead a purified life in their marriages, their homes, and their business practices; they were to offer sacrifices and remember the Passover: all these things were used to properly represent God to the world. They were to be His people, a Holy Nation of Priests, and so they were to stand.
But here’s a story of another misrepresentation of God.
The story starts off with sadness, telling us of one of the most important persons in Israel dying. She was the one who took up a song after Moses when they had crossed over from Egypt. She was the one who was there at the very beginning, keeping watch over her brother as she placed him in the reeds and waiting for Pharaoh’s daughter to find him. But with nary a note, Miriam dies there. The last time we saw her was when she had spoken against Moses and was struck leprous for seven days. Now, she dies, never seeing the inside of the Promised Land.
But it is here where they find themselves without water. Their animals are thirsty, they’re thirsty, their children with chapped lips and dry tears: the people need to drink and they complain. They note that none of God’s promises are out in the wilderness; they wish that they had died with their brethren who had died in other rebellions; and they weep in their want.
Moses and Aaron head straight away to the Lord and we can’t help being reminded of another time where this had occurred. It was probably years before, when the children of Israel had just started their march, and they arrived at a place called Rephidim with no water.
What were they to do? Had Moses brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?
Moses approaches the Lord wondering why he has been placed with such a people because in a little while more they would stone him.
The Lord, hearing Moses’ prayer and the people’s complaint, tells Moses to take the staff in his hand—the staff that he had used to strike the Nile and turn Egypt’s waters to blood—and to go up to the rock at Horeb before the people. Then the Lord Himself would pass between the Rock and Moses while Moses struck the rock which Paul notes represents Christ. From there, water would flow from it so that the people and the animals would live and their thirst would be satisfied.
That place was named Meribah or Contention and Massah meaning Testing. This is the place spoken about in Psalm 95 and cited by Hebrews 3 and 4. The place where the people put the Lord to the test.
The test was this: was the Lord with them or not?
But the situation in Numbers 20 is somewhat different. The place, afterwards, is not called another Massah—a testing—but it is called another Meribah: a place of contention. There’s still a test here though.
The test is this: in what way will the Lord show himself, now?
The Lord, in his graciousness, opts to provide water just as they demand even though they’re complaining. The fact is that they’re dying—quite differently from the other two rebellions, one in which they feared the enemy and the other which they envied the priesthood and positions of prestige. He tells Moses and Aaron to take Aaron’s rod, go up to the rock, and speak to it before the eyes of the people. Then water would come out of the rock so that the people, beasts, and children would drink.
Moses and Aaron stand before the people, gather them around, and say “What will we do with you rebels; shall we make water come out of this rock for you?!?” and they struck the rock twice before the people.
Despite their disobedience of God’s mandate, despite their misquoting, despite their action the Lord blesses their endeavor and the thirst of the people is quenched. But not without a cost a cost.
The Lord calls Moses and Aaron and says “Because you have not believed me to treat me holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring the assembly into the Land.”
Moses and Aaron had failed to take account of the Lord and his holiness because they were upset at the wrongness of the people. In so doing they disbelieved that the way the Lord wanted things done was the correct way, and they misrepresented Him before the people. They came up with a better way, based on other activity of God (maybe) but based on their own internal calculations. What the people needed, thought they, was to hear our perception of the voice of God.
This happens in our own day.
God is not like a man—even if he was revealed as the incarnate man. Some people, confused and angry at the errors of their fellow men, start attributing to Christ things he never said, never did, and never implied.
Noting how some people are constantly reveling in their woes and falling short of perfection they try to be helpful and console their fellow men: “To err is human” they say. “Christ was human” they pause “and he made mistakes just like anyone”.
Others go the other extreme and think that because Christ didn’t speak on something therefore whatever that something is must be evil. The Lord never spoke about Kid’s Club, they say, therefore we shouldn’t speak about it—and this spoken with the heavy air which hints at having crossed some unknown line.
God’s holiness is without compare (Ex 15:11; 1Sa 2:2) and one must be extremely careful about how one represents him.
Note the words of the Psalmist and the major shift halfway through:
Psalm 95—O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God And a great King above all gods, In whose hand are the depths of the earth, The peaks of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for it was He who made it, And His hands formed the dry land. Come, let us worship and bow down, Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, “When your fathers tested Me, They tried Me, though they had seen My work. “For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart, And they do not know My ways. “Therefore I swore in My anger, Truly they shall not enter into My rest.”
As part of worshiping the Lord and rejoicing in his presence there is recognition of his power and his position. And in so doing, there is an admittance of belief in who he is and how he has presented himself. Entering into the rest of worship is predicated on believing Him and knowing His ways—not our perception of those ways. In the Psalm it is God who interjects into the Worship speaking.
And in believing Him and knowing his ways we are then properly equipped for telling others of who he is and how to know his ways. Paul himself, equipped in knowing Christ, tells fellow believers:
You have many tutors, but you have only one father in the Gospel: be imitators of me. (1 Cor 4:15-16)
Followed by :
Be imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ. (1 Cor 11:1)
You can’t say that sort of thing without an appropriate amount of fear and trembling. What if you’re not following Christ—how safe is it to tell people “this is how Christ acts”? And yet Paul does so because he is in fact walking lock step with how Christ would act.
Note the lesson that Edom, Aaron and Moses learned the hard way. Edom came out against Israel in full force, refusing to let his brother pass through their land and in so doing they refused to note that they were God’s son: they were Israel. That resulted in a future judgment. Aaron and Moses refused to believe the Lord and instead misrepresented him, co-opting his Word for their own immediate need and purposes and squandering God’s holiness as something that could be occluded. They both were not to go into the Land. Indeed, Aaron’s story ends sadly, on a mountain, stripping off his priestly garments and handing them to his son. Oh he was a believer, oh he was saved, oh he would receive his inheritance some day; but right then, he died stripped of his position.
How can one properly represent God? I’m not saying the same exact thing occurs to believers as they did to Moses and Aaron. I’m simply saying if it was so important then, when God spoke in dreams to some prophets and like a friend to Moses, we should be very careful about doing that sort of thing at this end of history. We should rely on Scripture, be wise in our speaking, be circumspect, and be careful.