The Lord’s Day Evening

Numbers 20:1-29

“Just Another Day in the Wilderness”
A sister dies, a rock is struck, the water flows,
the Edomites refuse, and a brother is gather to his people

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 20.

Since Numbers 11, we have been experiencing precisely what the Apostle Paul warned us against in I Corinthians 10: that is, a seemingly ceaseless cycle of grumbling and complaining and murmuring and rebelling against the Lord. And now that we have come to Numbers 20, we have come to one of the saddest chapters in the whole of this book — in the whole of the first five books of Moses, in the whole of the Pentateuch, in the whole of the Old Testament, and indeed, in the whole of the Bible.

As we look at this passage, I want to remind you of the context. This passage is going to announce to us the third and final travel narrative in the books of Exodus and Numbers. If you remember, in Exodus, and earlier in Numbers, we have been told a little bit of the travel plan of Israel. In Exodus, way back in chapters 13-19, we had an outline of Israel’s journey from the Red Sea to Sinai. And then in Numbers 11-12, we had an outline of Israel’s journey from Sinai to Kadesh. And now, beginning in this chapter tonight and continuing on into chapter 21, next time that we’re together in this book, we see the third and final travel journey of Israel from here at Kadesh to the Trans-Jordan, just across the Jordan River before the children of Israel will go in.

It is a poignant passage…a passage with death and judgment, and un-brotherly acts of callous unkindness; but it is also a passage with great hope — gospel hope. Let’s give attention, then, to the reading and hearing of God’s word. And as we do so, let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it. Grip us, O Lord, as we read the passage, with a sense of the solemnity of the events which are unfolding before our eyes. Convict us of sin. Show us Your holiness. Make us tremble at Your judgments. But refresh our hearts with the ever-flowing streams of the Spirit of God as we contemplate the hope that is promised to us in the Rock, who is Christ. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“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. There was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 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.’ 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, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘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.’ And Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He commanded him. 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?’ And Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock with his staff, twice. And water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 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 at Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them He showed Himself holy.

“Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother Israel, ‘You know all the hardship that we have met; how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. And when we cried to the Lord, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the king’s highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’’ But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the people of Israel said to him, ‘We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against them with a large army, and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory; so Israel turned away from him.

“And they journeyed from Kadesh, and the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor on the border of the land of Edom, ‘Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and shall die there.’ Moses did as the Lord commanded, and they went up. They went up Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son, and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. And when all the congregation saw that Aaron had perished, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Have you ever had one of those days? Has it ever stretched into weeks, and months, and years? Moses knows how you feel.

Here in the midst of the arduous demands of leading this massive army of the people of God through the wilderness, Moses first suffers close family bereavement in the loss of his sister. On the heels of that, without an opportunity to catch his breath, he faces fierce opposition and complaints from the people of God. This fills his spirit with an intense frustration with their rebellious spirit. He loses his temper and, in an uncharacteristic display of public disrespect for the Almighty God, he commits a sin that causes him to forfeit the entrance into the Promised Land — the thing for which he has lived for forty years. And then his brother dies. And God tells Moses before his brother dies that he is going to announce to his brother that he is going to die, and he is going to die for the sin that he and Moses committed at Meribah. Have you ever had one of those days? I’m not sure if any of us has ever seen the like of the trials of this man Moses. And this great chapter, Numbers 20, tells his story.

There’s so much — so much — to say here. We could dwell here for much time, but I want you to see four things in this great passage. Let me outline it for you.

First of all, very obviously, the first part of the passage is just one verse, verse 1 — Miriam’s death. It’s so stark. So bare and simple. Just announced — Miriam died. There’s the first part of the chapter. But that very announcement comes at the place from which Israel will depart on its last journey into the Promised Land.

Second part of the chapter…you see it in verses 2-13. There we have the story of Israel’s rebellion at the waters of Meribah, and Moses’ understandable (but not excusable) frustration, leading to an act of disrespect against God. The rock is struck, not spoken to; the waters flow; the people’s thirst is assuaged. But Moses is judged. That’s the second part of the chapter, there at Meribah.

The third part of the chapter you’ll see in verses 14-21. Moses goes to Israel’s cousins, the Edomites, and speaks in a diplomatic and brotherly fashion: “Would you let us pass through your land on the way into the Promised Land?” The answer: “No.” “Please.” “No.” “Please.” “No.” That’s the third part of the passage.

And then the fourth part of the passage you’ll find in verses 22-29, the story of the death of Aaron.

Now let’s look at this passage together for a few moments. Let me remind you again that the death of Miriam at the beginning of the passage announces the third and final travel narrative found in Exodus and in Numbers. As we’ve said, there’s the first travel from the Red Sea to Sinai, and then the second from Sinai to Kadesh, and then third and finally this one from Kadesh to the Trans-Jordan.

But notice three different aspects to these travels. The first travel narrative, from Exodus 13-19, starts with what? The crossing of the Red Sea, the songs of Miriam and the women in victory over the ones who would have re-enslaved them, and it ends up at the mountain of God.

The second travel narrative is not so encouraging, is it? It starts at Sinai, it ends up at Kadesh, and it is just downhill all the way, isn’t it? Meeting with God, hearing His voice at Sinai; setting out on the way to the Promised Land; the spies going in, and coming out and saying ‘There are giants in the land, we can’t go in’; Israel rebelling against Moses, grumbling, murmuring, rebelling, rejecting, refusing to believe; and finally, God saying, ‘No one in this generation will enter into the land that I have promised, except for Joshua and Caleb. Your children, who you said would die in the wilderness, they will enter in; but you will not.’

It ends up here at Kadesh with the people…have you lost count now?…with the people once again opposing Moses, and saying to him, ‘Why did you bring us into the wilderness?’ like this was Moses’ plan. This is God’s plan. And that’s why God counts this a rebellion against Him, not against Moses.

But the third travel narrative begins here in the midst of all of this gloom, and it ends on the banks of the Jordan. There’s something to learn, isn’t there, about the Christian life in all three of those travel narratives? What was it that Baxter used to say? That every glass of wine in this world is mixed with vinegar. There are blessings and trials, losses and crosses in this Christian life, and we’ve seen it with spades as we’ve wandered with the children of Israel in the wilderness.

But here I want you to look at four things.

I. First, Moses’ sister’s death — Miriam’s death.

So simply stated:

“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.”

And Miriam was an extraordinary woman. She was the leading female in Israel. She was the most important woman in Israel of her day, and some suggest the most important woman in the Old Testament. Tremendous influence, and yet she does not enter into the land.

Can you imagine what it would have been like for Moses? This is the sister that cared for him when he was a baby in the reeds of the river; who reared him as a child. Yes, the relationship had been hard in the wilderness, hadn’t it? Even Miriam had questioned her brother, rebelled against him, grumbled against this plan. But I’m sure that Moses’ heart was filled with a thousand emotions reflecting back on Miriam’s life.

What’s the message here? The message is simply this: Miriam’s not going into the land shows us the precious privilege of the Promised Land is no small thing. It comes at no small price, and it is a thing of no small significance. And even as God had said that none of this generation would enter this land, even Miriam wouldn’t enter the land. The exactness of God’s judgment is crystal clear in the death of Miriam.


II. Then we come to Meribah.

And it reminds you of something you’ve heard before, or it should, because Israel came to another Meribah, also called Massah, all the way back in Exodus 17. And there God told Moses to strike the rock and that water would come forth. But here God tells Moses to speak to the rock before Israel, and that He would bring forth water from that rock.

What is the significance of that symbolism? God is saying to Moses, ‘Moses, show My people how My word can bring forth a waterfall of life.’ But Moses is angry. And you can understand why. I mean, this is the umpteenth rebellion. And he goes out, and, in uncharacteristic contradiction of the command of God, instead of speaking to the rock, he speaks angrily at the people, and he strikes the rock with his staff twice.

Now the water comes forth, and the people and their cattle have their thirst assuaged, but Moses has committed a public sin against God in which he disrespects God Himself. You understand that the rock was a symbol to the people of God as the source and supply of their needs. The rock was, as it were, a picture of God himself supplying their need — water for life. And so God says to Moses, ‘You and Aaron, because You have treated Me with disrespect, because you have not believed My word, you’ve not obeyed My word, you’ve not harkened to My word, you will not enter into the Promised Land.’ Now my friends, you realize you now have Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, the three most significant people in Israel in this period of time, are not going in to the Promised Land. My friends, the death sentence pronounced on Moses and Aaron, and the death of Miriam that is carried out in verse 1, lets you know that no one is righteous enough to earn the Promised Land. If Moses and Aaron and Miriam have fallen short of the glory of God, have failed the standards of righteousness of God, no one in Israel can go into that land.

But there’s a word of hope at the waters of Meribah. You know the Apostle Paul tells you in I Corinthians 10:4 that that rock followed Israel in the wilderness. And, says Paul, the rock was Christ. You know in John 7:38 Jesus tells His disciples that He is a fountain of life; that He can cause streams of water to flow forth in their hearts. And in John 4:10-15, as He’s standing talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, He says to her, “If you knew who you were talking to, you would ask Him, and He would give you water to drink, living water that would well up in you to eternal life.” You see what Jesus is saying: ‘I am the Rock who can give you the water of life.’ On the Day of Pentecost, what did the Lord Jesus do? From the right hand of God the Father Almighty, He poured out His Holy Spirit as waters of life upon all who would receive Him. We could say so much more about this.


III. There’s this third very sad exchange in the passage, isn’t there, as Moses is refused by Edom.

You know who Edom is. Edom is the nation made up of the descendents of Esau. And now Jacob his brother, Israel his brother, has come to the borders of his land after 430 years in slavery, and he says ‘Your brother Israel craves passage through your land.’ And the answer is ‘No. Step on my land and I’ll fight you.’

Now again, you can understand that, but it’s not excused. God’s word had been to Abram all the way back in Genesis 12 that

“You have been made for a blessing to the nations, but those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.”

This refusal would dog the relations between Israel and Edom for the rest of the existence of those nations. If you want to read the final part of the story, well, go look at Amos 1 tonight and see what happened to Edom.

IV. One last thing. The death of Aaron, Moses’ brother.

He’s gone from Miriam’s death to Meribah, to Moses’ refusal by Edom, and now to Moses’ brother Aaron’s death. Do you realize that within a span of four months Moses loses his sister, his brother, and the Promised Land? But as Moses and Aaron climb Mount Hor, God has a kind word to say to Moses and Aaron, and I want you to see it in verse 26. Maybe you missed it:

“Strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people.”

Now, you know that that’s language in the Old Testament for death — to be “gathered to your people.” It’s beautiful language, poetic language. Sometimes the kings of Israel are told that they sleep with their fathers, but the language of “gathered to your people” is special Old Testament language about death. It is used only of those who are numbered among the righteous. From Genesis 15 to Jeremiah 32, those who are cursed are so abandoned that there is no one to gather them for burial, so cut off from the people of God are they. And so the language “gathered to your people” is language that indicates that God accepts Aaron despite his sin, and despite the fact that he is not going to enter into the Promised Land. He accepts him as His people. What a comforting word that would have been for Moses’ heart and Aaron’s heart, in a dark, dark time.

And of course, in the end it won’t be Miriam or Aaron or Moses who will take the children of Israel across the Trans-Jordan, over the Jordan and into the Promised Land. It will be a young man named Yeshua. For the author of Hebrews, in Hebrews 4, says that it is only Jesus who will give His people rest. Not even Moses; only Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, as we stand on Jordan’s stormy banks, we know that the only One who can take us to the other side safely is Your Son, Jesus Christ. Miriam can’t take us there; Aaron can’t take us there — not with all his priestly rites. Moses cannot take us there — not with all his prophetic power, not with all his commandments. Only Jesus. We cast our eyes onto the graves of Miriam and Aaron. We ask that You would by Your Holy Spirit turn our eyes to look up to the cross, to the One who from His side flowed blood and water; the One who is the fountain of life. And grant that by His crystal fountain that we would be cleansed and filled, and given new life, and dwell with You forever. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.