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 quest 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.”
Nicholas T. Batzig