The people quarreled with Moses, but they were angry at God. The angry mob Moses was leading was ready to attack him—and those complaining were the new generation who had not died when they refused to enter the Promised Land back in Kadesh-Barnea.
We never think rationally when we’re angry. We can’t be clear-minded when we’re hot-headed. There are measurable physical reasons why heightened anger affects our ability to be rational. When we’re angry, our adrenaline flows faster and our strength increases by about 20 percent. The liver, pumping sugar into the bloodstream, demands more oxygen from the heart and lungs. The veins become enlarged, and the blood supply to the problem-solving part of the brain is decreased severely because, under stress, a greater portion of blood is diverted to the body’s extremities.
This means we’re emotionally conditioned for a brawl, but poorly equipped to contemplate what we’re doing. This can result in severe consequences, and Moses is a good example. He had worked 40 long, hard years toward accomplishing his goal of delivering God’s people to the Promised Land, only to be turned away because he didn’t control his anger.
The rebellious Israelites may have thought their complaint was against Moses, but God viewed it differently. He read their hearts and knew they were complaining about him. At the center of all this was their refusal to believe that despite their lack of water, God is good. Their anger blinded them to the fact that for 40 years God had provided them with everything they needed. Therefore their immediate need cast a long shadow over God’s long-time faithfulness to them.
As we follow the events occurring through the wilderness, time and again God’s initial reaction is to pour out wrath on the ungrateful Israelites. But, this time God’s response is rather quiet. He didn’t sentence the rebels according to their desserts, but on the basis of grace. He gave them what they wanted, despite their anger.
God spoke grace, but Moses wanted wrath. God told Moses to take Aaron’s staff, which was kept in front of the two tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. He was to take it and speak to the rock, and that was all. But Moses’ blood was boiling again from the mistreatment of God by these outlaws. He had put up with their carping for 40 years. And, that’s a long adolescence.
So Moses set himself up as judge over them and as their deliverer. His inflated self-perception came through. When we speak to another whom we think has offended God but forget our own sin, our anger quickly will become misplaced.
Like many people on a moral crusade, Moses took on the stature of God. He pointed out the rebellion of the Israelites against God, and then himself proceeded to rebel against the Lord’s commands. He appropriated the honor that belongs to God alone.
Moses refused to believe God was faithful when the people were faithless. So instead of merely speaking to the rock and trusting God to provide, he struck the rock twice. There was self-will and disobedience in his thrashing of the rock. God had not threatened the people with destruction, but Moses did. He spoke judgment when God offered grace.
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We sometimes take on the role of the Holy Spirit when we think it needful to put the “fear of God” in some of the obstinate people we know. We think we’re just the right ones to slap them upside the head with the law of God until they cry for mercy.
We never are to forget God’s law and his perfect demands. We also never are to use them as a club to clobber those who bother us. We forget God’s grace when in anger we place ourselves outside condemnation, as if we’ve achieved a special status by personal obedience.
Moses refused to believe in the power of the spoken word. A simple word wouldn’t do. Grace wasn’t enough. The people needed punishment.
When we forget God’s grace is sufficient for changing another person’s heart, we often succumb to the dramatic to achieve our purpose. When we talk about having a passion for God’s holiness and intolerance for immorality, and justify our anger as zeal for God’s law and excuse our flare-ups as “righteous indignation,” we have forgotten God’s grace to sinners like us. We’re beating the rock instead of speaking to it.
By their lack of reliance on God’s promises, Moses and Aaron proved to be impediments to the manifestation of Yahweh’s power and holiness before the eyes of his people.
God is perfect—completely different than us. He’s able to maintain his holiness and show us grace. His forgiveness isn’t antithetical to holiness. Justice and mercy are not contradictory. God forgives because he’s holy and his holiness demands a substitute, which Christ became for us. His holiness says since Christ suffered for us, we don’t need another sacrifice to pay for our sin.
Anger is a serious problem. It doubts God’s goodness, and it ignores his control in his world. And, when we allow our anger to overshadow God’s character—that he is holy and that he demands perfection and offers forgiveness because of Christ—we have ceased to believe the gospel we profess.