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The Water-Providing, Stricken Rock

Water Rock

It should astonish us that we can walk to faucets in our homes and instantly turn on running water. Never in the history of mankind did people have water so readily at their disposal. Most of us in the Western world have never known what it is like not to be able to find water with which to quench our thirst. This is not true of those living in third world countries. It was also not true for the Israelites, as they made their way through the wilderness. In Scripture, God often draws off of the physical reality of thirst in order to symbolize the spiritual reality of how He will provide living waters for our thirsty souls through the person and work of Christ. As the Israelites progressed through the wilderness, God giave Moses instructions about providing for Israel’s thirst in the wilderness by means of striking a rock (Ex. 17:1-7). This account sets out the glorious truth of the gospel by means of redemptive historical typology. 

As was true of the account of Israel with the serpents, the covenant people were found quarreling against Moses and God. One might be tempted to sympathize with the Israelites, who were in a dry and barren land where there was no water.; but Israel is not a victim, she is the offender. We soon discover that Israel was actually complaining against God and the redemption that He provided for them. The Israelites say, “Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst” (Exodus 17:3)?

In the Ancient Near East a staff was a symbol of judicial authority. Even in the Roman world, juridical magistrates carried a rod in their hand. Striking someone with the rod was a symbol of justice being executed. So it was with Moses before Pharaoh. God was judging Pharaoh and Egypt with the plagues with which were symbolically executed by the rod. The rod with which Pharaoh was struck, was the same rod with which God told Moses to strike the rock.

Edmund Clowney explained the significance of the historical setting of this incident, when he wrote:

"Israel accuses God of abandoning them to die in the wilderness. They demand justice. Since God is not available to stand trial, they will accuse Moses in his stead. They are ready to stone him. Stoning, of course, is not mob violence but judicial execution by the community, with witnesses throwing the first stones. Moses understandably asks why they want to stone him. They have been brought to Rephidim by the word of the Lord. It is really against God that they are bringing charges.

Appreciation of this judicial setting enables us to understand what follows. The Lord tells Moses to take elders of the people with him, and his rod in his hand. The elders are the judges of Israel; they are to serve as witnesses for a court case. The rod of Moses is identified as the rod with which he struck the Nile River, turning it into blood. It is the rod of judgment: both a symbol of authority and an instrument for inflicting the penalty. We recall the fasces carried by the Roman lictors, a bundle of rods that were both symbols of authority and means of punishment.

Deuteronomy 25:1-3 describes the procedure for inflicting the penalty on the wrongdoer when a law-case is brought before the judges. The judges shall acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty. If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the limit is set at forty blows.20 Moses is to go before the people with the elders to convene a public trial. He will raise his rod of judgment to bring down a blow of justice upon the guilty. Isaiah describes the rod of the Lord descending in judgment upon Assyria: “Every stroke the LORD lays on them with his punishing rod will be to the music of tambourines and harps, as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm” (Isa. 30:32, NIV).

Israel is guilty, but the rod of Moses is not raised against Israel. Instead, we have one of the most astonishing statements in the Bible. God says, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb” (Ex. 17:6a, ESV).21 In this trial scene, Moses stands with the rod of judgment in his hand, and God comes to stand before him! In judgment, men stand before God; God does not stand before a man. The law reads, “Then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry . . .” (Deut. 19:17-18, NKJV). Israel has called for justice, and the Lord brings the case to trial.

He, the accused, stands in the prisoner’s dock. His command to Moses is, “You shall strike the Rock.” Moses dare not strike into the Shekinah glory of God’s presence. But he is to strike the Rock upon which God stands, and with which he is identified. In the Song of Moses, God’s name is “the Rock”: “For I proclaim the name of the LORD: Ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut. 32:3-4a, NKJV). Jeshurun “forsook God who made him, and scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation” (v. 15, NKJV). “Of the Rock who begot you, you are unmindful, and have forgotten the God who fathered you” (v. 18, NKJV). “For their rock is not like our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges” (v. 31, NKJV). In two psalms that mention Massah and Meribah, God is called the Rock (Ps. 78:35; 95:1).

God is the Rock; he is not guilty, but he stands to receive the blow of judgment. “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them, and He bore them and carried them all the days of old” (Isa. 63:9, NKJV).

God who is the Shepherd of his people not only leads them through the wilderness; he stands in their place that justice might be done. The penalty is discharged: Moses strikes the Rock. The Lord redeems by bearing the judgment. From the smitten Rock there flows the water of life into the deadly wilderness. When Paul says the Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), he perceives the symbolism of the passage. Christ is present both in person and in symbol. In that incident, Christ the Lord stands on the Rock as the theophanic Angel, but the symbol of the Rock is needed to provide the symbol of that human nature he must assume to receive the atoning blow of judgment."1

There is a very clear principle of substitutionary atonement in the account of the striking of the rock at Rephidim. The LORD took the punishment that His people deserved. Israel deserves to be struck with the rod of justice. The rock did not deserve the wrath of God, Israel did. The Lord told Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock” (Ex. 17:6). It was a symbol given to Israel of the Lord being struck with His own rod of justice. When the apostle Paul says, “that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3), he was referring to the incident in Exodus 17. The rod of God’s justice fell on Jesus at Calvary. God took the wrath that we deserve for our sins. Zechariah prophesied so much when the Lord spoke through him saying, “‘Awake O sword against My Shepherd, against the Man who is my companion,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘Strike the Shepherd…'” (Zech. 13:7). The sword of God’s wrath fell on the Son of God at the cross. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, God “took His own medicine” for the spiritual healing of His people. The hymn-writer, Anne Cousins, drew together the meaning of the striking of the rock, when she wrote the words to the hymn, "O Christ, What Burdens Bowed Thy Head." The third verse reads,

"Jehovah lifted up His rod,
  O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God;
  There’s not one stroke for me.
Thy tears, Thy blood, beneath it flowed;
  Thy bruising healeth me."

Having been struck with the rod of justice, life-giving water flows out of Christ. There is a clear allusion to this in the blood and water that flow from the pierced side of our Lord when He is struck with the rod of God’s justice. John’s Gospel repeatedly emphasizes the correlation between redemptive grace and provision and the symbol of water. Whether it was what our Lord said to the woman at the well (John 4), or what He cried out at the feast of Tabernacle (John 7:37), Jesus was constantly teaching of the need that we have for “the living waters” that flow from Him on account of His redemptive work.

Phil Ryken explains the signficance of Christ being the rock, when he writes, 

"The Bible often refers to God as a Rock. He is “the Rock of Israel” (Gen. 49:24; cf. Isa. 30:29), “the Rock … [whose] works are perfect” (Deut. 32:4), the Rock who is a “fortress” and a “refuge” (Ps. 18:2). He is “the Rock of our salvation” (Ps. 95:1; cf. Deut. 32:15). In keeping with this imagery, the rock that Moses struck with his rod was a symbol of God and his salvation. In particular, it showed how God would submit to the blow of his own justice so that out of him would flow life for his people.

God did this in the person of his own Son. The rock was Christ because like the rock, Christ was struck with divine judgment. This is what happened to him on the cross. Christ was bearing the curse for our sin; so God struck him with the rod of his justice. The Scripture says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The judgment that Christ received on the cross is the proof of our protection. It shows that we will not suffer eternal death for our sins. God has taken the judgment of our guilt upon himself, and now we are safe for all eternity.

The rock was also Christ because it flowed with the water of life. Here we recall something significant from the crucifixion, something that John noticed as he stood near the cross. In his Gospel John records how, in order to confirm that Jesus was dead, “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34). The blood was the blood that he shed for our sins. But John also mentioned the water, not simply to prove that Jesus died on the cross, but also to show that by his death he gives life.

Jesus is the water of life. He said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 4:14a). He is our provider as well as our protector. More than that, everyone who comes to Jesus by faith is filled with the Holy Spirit, and now his life flows within us. Jesus went on to say, “Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (v. 14b).

In Christ God is for us what he was for Israel—our provider, protector, and ever-present Lord. This is what Paul meant when he said “that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). In the same way that God was with Israel at Horeb, he is with the church in Christ. Our Lord is our Rock, and we trust in his provision, his protection, and his presence."2

If this were not enough, Scripture reveals the role this typological rock played further into Israel’s wilderness wandering. God again gives His people water from the rock (Num. 20:1-13) when they thirst in Kadesh. When the people thirsted and then complained, as they did at Rephidim, God told Moses to take the rod again and go to a rock. This is strikingly similar to the account which occurred at Rephidim. However, God gave Moses a new directive God in this account. He told Moses, 

“Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.”

Instead of commanding him to strike the rock, the Lord commands Moses to speak to the rock. Given the significance of the rod in redemptive history, we find that God is teaching Israel a deep, spiritual lesson. The rock only needs to be struck once for life-giving waters to flow. After that, all we need to do is ask the rock for water. This is, no doubt, meant to highlight the fact that Christ only needed to be struck once with the rod of God’s justice (see the book of Hebrews on the once-for-all nature of Christ’s death). Now, all we need to do is ask Him for the life-sustaining waters.

Clowney drew Ex. 17 and Num. 20 together and viewed them through the lens of Calvary when he wrote:

When Moses struck the rock, a stream of life-giving water poured out into the desert.  When Jesus was crucified, John tells us that blood and water poured from his side (John 19:34). . . . We do not wonder that Moses was judged severely for striking the rock a second time, when he had been told to speak to it (Numbers 20:7-13). Only once, at the appointed time, does God bear the stroke of our doom.3

Jesus is the rock who followed the Israelites throughout their wilderness journeying. When they complained, God graciously answered their accusations by placing Himself in their place under the rod of His own justice. In this type, we discover that Jesus steps in the place of His people on the cross to be struck with the rod of divine justice. Now that He has offered Himself once-for-all without spot to God, we are called to simply ask Him for the living water, and He has promised to answer us for the soul-quenching blessing of the Spirit. 

1.Edmund Clowney Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003) pp. 28-30

2. Philip Graham Ryken and R. Kent Hughes, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 455–456.

3. Clowney The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament(Philipsburg, Penn.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1988), p. 126.