The Waters of Strife

- a word on unadvised speaking.

Numbers 20.

"They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes: because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips." Psalm 106:32-33.

It is an exceedingly establishing thing for our souls, fully to perceive that God is dealing with us on the ground of His own relationship towards us, and that He never deals with us on any other. This is as true in discipline and present correction as in anything else - correction from our Heavenly Father because He is our Father.

"I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes," is among the covenant dealings of Ps. 89:32. God cannot pass over the sins of His saints as over those of the world. He brings them under present discipline. Sin in a saint of God is much more fearful than in an unbeliever, since the glory of God suffers so much more at our hands. That which might appear a trifling thing in another, is not so in us. We need to apply the balance of the sanctuary, so as to discern what is according to God and what is not.

Further, it is most full of comfort to see that God is able to record in His word the failures of His saints, and that He does not hesitate to record them. He is showing us in them, and through them, as things written for our admonition, that, notwithstanding this failure, His faithfulness never fails. But it requires a deepened tone of spirituality to perceive that God thus visits the sins of His people, and yet that their blessing, through His grace, shall not fail as to the end - "Nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips." He cannot suffer His truth to fail; He cannot deny Himself. (2 Tim. 2:13.)

Another very remarkable thing is, that the sins recorded of the saints are not infrequently those which we should have supposed them least likely to fail into. For instance, Peter's fall, most largely recorded. Again, David's foul sin. And when we come to Moses, there is failure too in him. We find that that which is recorded here is mentioned in many other parts of the Word. "He spake unadvisedly with his lips." Moses himself records it over and over again, to show that even an unadvised word (that which might be regarded as a light thing) is not passed over unnoticed.

Now, I believe that where we sin much is in this very respect, in speaking unadvisedly with our lips. As James says, "In many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body." (James 3:2.) When I find an unadvised speech of Moses in a chafed moment thus recorded, I see the deep necessity there is for having a bridled tongue. It is here that Satan gets such advantage over us - yes, where God's saints have constant need of correction is for unadvised talk. The amount of sorrow thus brought upon souls is hardly to be estimated; perhaps it is not too much to say, that almost all the mischief that arises amongst saints is from speaking unadvisedly with the lips.

God is able to record those things in which His saints have grieved Him; but this does not hinder His truth, this does not hinder the one being in the glory with the Lord, concerning whom such failure is recorded. Then he will be able to look back and trace all the way in which God has led him, and see how all has been overruled for good.

I would just notice by the way, that which is remarkably testified of the Lord Jesus as standing where Moses failed. When He was here, all the sitting down in the seat of the scornful of those who sought to entangle Him in His talk, all the contradiction of sinners against Himself, all their cavils, never drew out an unadvised word from His lips. On the contrary, when He was attacked on every hand - by Pharisees, by Sadducees, by Herodians - after He had met them all, His wisdom shone conspicuously forth in silencing them with the simple question: "What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?" (Matt. 22:41-45.) And Jesus is our example; as Peter tells us, "If, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us; leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously." (1 Peter 2:20-23.)

But let us turn to the narrative before us: "Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin, in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us into this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink." (v. 1-5.) It is no uncommon thing for those who have known redemption through the blood of the Lamb, and the passage of the Red Sea - perfect deliverance from Egypt - to murmur thus, because of not having the vines and figs and pomegranates.

But what can Moses and Aaron do? They have not any resources in themselves, they can only cast it before the Lord. "And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces." (v. 6.)

But what I desire to press upon our consideration here is this, that it is frequently, when we have been near the Lord, when we have in humility laid the matter before Him, just on returning back amidst the circumstances, something unforeseen occurring, that failure is at once manifested.

"And the glory of the Lord appeared unto them." How blessed this for Moses! And our portion is peculiarly that now; whatever the perplexity, whatever the trial, whatever the circumstances may be, the moment we get before the Lord, the glory of the Lord appears. It is this God places before us, for the comfort and stay of our souls.

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink." (vv. 7, 8.)

At the bidding of the Lord, the rod had been cast down, and it had become a serpent. At the bidding of the Lord, Moses' rod stretched out over the Red Sea, the Red Sea had been made dry land, and Israel had passed over on dry ground, and the waters had been divided; the rod stretched out again, and the Lord had overthrown the Egyptians in the midst of the Sea. The moment he is told to take "the rod," Moses ought to rest simply in the Lord. But, beloved, have we not found it very hard, when we have had a difficulty, and taken it before the Lord, to leave it entirely with Him, to wait for His comment?

We are instructed, through that which we are considering, that the Lord expects we should attend most minutely to His word. "Speak ye unto the rock before their eyes," is the direction. We find that when they have gathered the congregation together before the rock, Moses speaks unto the people, and he speaks unadvisedly with his lips - here is failure. It is a little thing, but the Lord must notice it. And so with things in us which are as blemishes, as spots and wrinkles; if the Lord Jesus has "loved the Church, and given Himself for it" in order that He might "present it to Himself a glorious Church, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish," when there are these spots and wrinkles, they displease the Lord. In Revelation 2 and 3, the Lord Jesus Christ is seen walking in the midst of the churches with the eyes of fire (not in the world), to the end that "all the churches may know that I am He who searcheth the reins and hearts." In His discipline He may be dealing with that in us which we know nothing about, but which He sees. Just as in His intercession for Peter - "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not" (Luke 22: 31-34), was before Peter ever thought at all of denying Him. "He searches the reins and the hearts;" and we need to give heed to Him. It is a very solemn thing for us to despise the chastening of the Lord. He chastens us because we are beloved, because we are His.

It was this sin caused Moses to lose Canaan, and the high honour of leading Israel over Jordan into the land. We too are losers by sin, though it may be that, through the grace of Him with whom we have to do, His restoring grace, the soul is brought upon higher and firmer ground. "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." Could Peter ever forget the lesson of restoring grace? He was placed on higher ground - higher, stronger ground, as to the establishment of his soul, than that on which he stood before his fall. Our very sins and failures are overruled for our good.

There is one very remarkable feature of God's dealings presented to us in this picture. He ever delights to honour His saints in the eyes of others; but then they must not seek their own honour. He will honour His servants; but the moment we step out of the servant's place, to take, as we judge it, a higher one, He humbles us. The Lord Jesus Christ, the One faithful servant of Jehovah, was always hiding Himself, that God might appear; and God was always honouring Him in the eyes of others, "approving Him by wonders, miracles, and signs." When we honour God, He honours us. "Them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." (1 Sam. 2:30.) God says to Moses, "Take the rod, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink." Thou shalt do it. This was a high honouring of Moses in the sight of all Israel. But when Moses takes the rod, and he says, "Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?" That is, he does not sanctify the Lord in the eyes of the congregation; it is "we," not "the Lord." No sooner do we assume to be anything, than we get out of the servant's place.

But further, we have some little insight given us herein to the deceitfulness of sin. "Moses took," we are told, "the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him" (v. 2); he obeys up to a certain point, but there he stops; it is an act of partial obedience, and partial obedience must always be allied to self-will "Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees," etc.; their obedience was exceedingly partial; they took those parts of the law which gave them honour in the sight of others; doing it to be seen of men; but passed by that which would have involved self-denial. And it is too frequently so with us in our service, we are found self-seekers, pleasers of men. He takes the rod as the Lord has commanded him. "And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them" - there is disobedience! God has never commanded him to do that: He has commanded him to speak unto the rock - "Hear now, ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock?" (v. 10.) What words! O Moses, Moses! Oh sad picture of the flesh! Moses the man of God speaks unadvisedly with his lips! "The man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3); but the meekest man on the earth is here the one to say, "Hear now, ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock?" putting himself in the place of God; the one of whom it is testified, "It went ill with Moses for their sakes, because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips." They chafe his spirit, they grieve him, the meekest of men, by their murmurings, and he says, "Hear now, ye rebels, must we?" That odious word "we!" most odious word in the mouth of a saint! Everything that we have, and all that we are, we have and are by the Lord's grace, and all must be used to His glory.

Moses has forgotten the rod. What is Moses? Nothing; he has no power to fetch water from the rock, and he has forgotten the present power of God, that which alone can enable him to do it; he has forgotten God, he is thinking about himself Here we see again the sin of our hearts, in the using of the very grace which God has given us, for the purpose of self-exaltation, to say "we." But this is a sin which would not be noticed by the world; because the world only talks of "I" and "me." Not so faith. Paul says, "By the grace of God, I am what I am: and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10), ashamed to be forced, as it were, into this mention of himself. The flesh would seek to use the very grace of God, the light of God, the truth of God, the power of God, to exalt ourselves. That, may seem a little thing which is recorded of Moses here; but when we come to take it to pieces, to analyse it, we feel it to be most odious before God. So it is with us, if the light which God has given us, the truth and knowledge we have, are made stepping-stones to self-exaltation.

"And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice." He has been told to speak to the rock; but he smites it twice, as though divine power has need of being seconded by human energy. But still "the water came out." God's faithfulness is not touched by the failure of His servant. So is it with us; one may preach the gospel of strife and contention - Paul could rejoice even in this, since Christ was preached (Phil. 1:18) - and yet not hinder God's sovereignty in owning His own ordinance. Moses fails; but God does not deny Moses to be His servant, neither does He deny the power of the rod. "Moses took the rod, and smote the rock twice, and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also." (v. 11.) God may be using an individual's ministry for blessing to the souls of others, when He is about to discipline that very person, so used of Him. He abideth faithful; He will not (blessed be His name!) deny His own truth, though mixed up with much of weakness, of foolishness, and even of self, in those who preach it.

"And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. This is the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified in them."

We have the failure of Moses mentioned in several other parts of the Word, some of which we will now consider.

Gen. 27:12-14. "And the Lord said unto Moses, Get thee up into this mount Abarim, and see the land which I have given unto the children of Israel. And when thou hast seen it, thou also shalt be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered. For ye rebelled against my commandment in the desert of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify me at the water before their eyes: that is the water of Meribah in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin." Moses loses Canaan, through speaking unadvisedly with his lips; but, beloved, does that alter God's intention of blessing him everlastingly? or is it not rather the occasion of proving that "his mercy is from everlasting to everlasting toward them that fear him." However necessary it maybe to chasten Moses, and to hold him up as an instance of a rebellious saint, this cannot cause God to "alter the thing that has gone out of his lips." We afterwards see Moses on the mount of glory, with the Lord, in the transfiguration. (Matt. 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30.) When there he could, doubtless, look back and see the path by which the goodness of the Lord had led him, and the links of the chain which we cannot see, and how that God had made all things "work together for good." It is an exceedingly establishing thing for us to see, that "whom he loveth (he loves unto the end) he chasteneth." It is His saints whom He chastens; He hates sin, and He will show, in His dealings with His children about it, what a fearful thing it is. We must not expect, because we are made the righteousness of God in Christ, and because we are heirs of glory, that He does not mark our sins; this, on the contrary, is the very reason that He does, in order that we may be made to, see that "it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against God the Lord."

Deut. 3:23-28. "I besought the Lord at that time, saying, O Lord God, thou hast begun to show thy servant thy greatness and thy mighty hand: for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to thy works, and according to thy might? I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter. Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him: for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which thou shalt see." The Lord denies the prayer of His saint. The Lord may deny the prayers of His saints, or He may answer them in a way we little expect. It was thus in respect of Paul's thorn in the flesh: "For this cause," he tells us, "I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." (The prayer was not answered in the manner the apostle looked for it to be.) "And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:8-9.) The thorn was needed! God may let, and sometimes does let, the consequences of the sin of a saint hang over him all the time he is here. The saint Moses prays, but the Lord denies the prayer of His saint. They have just come to the very border of the land, and Moses says, "Let me go over, and see the good land." But the Lord tells him, "Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter." What graciousness there is in this "Let it suffice thee;" we see here all God's restoring mercy; it seems, so to speak, as if He hardly could deny Moses, as if, were he to be importunate, He could not refuse him. It was wiser, it was better, it was more for the glory of God, that Moses' prayer should not be answered; but there is something exquisitely tender in the reply of the Lord - "Let it suffice thee;" just as in that to Paul - "My grace is sufficient for thee."

Deut. 32: 48-52. "And the Lord spake unto Moses that selfsame day, saying, Get thee up into this mountain Abiram, unto mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is over against Jericho; and behold the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel for a possession: and die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people; as Aaron thy brother did in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people: because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. Yet thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel." We see here the way in which the Lord is able to tell of the sins of the saints - to record the failures of the saints. Let man narrate the life of his fellow man, he seeks to hide his failures, and why? Because he wishes to exalt the man. Let the Holy Ghost write the life of a saint, He records the sins and failures of that saint, and why? Because he exalts the grace of God. It is a blessed thing too, beloved, when we can use even our failures to exalt the grace of God. The Lord says of Moses, "Ye rebelled," "Ye transgressed;" and yet, we find, after all this, Moses speaking face to face with God in confidence, and in intimate intercourse. He tells Moses the reason why he cannot go over the Jordan; the desire to see the good land that is beyond is pleasing in His eyes, and He gives him a Pisgah view of it. God is able to tell us how wisely He disciplines us. Nothing shall hinder the purpose of His grace concerning us. He is determined that nothing shall alter the thing that has gone out of His lips - "Whom he justified, them he also glorified;" but then, it is between justification and glorification that there comes in all this discipline.

Deut. 34:1-7. "And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land of Gilead unto Dan, and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees unto Zoar. And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go thither. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated."

It is the Lord who buries Moses, and after a time He brings him out (as we have seen) in the glory of the Lord Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. We find there, not Joshua, the one who led Israel into the land, but Moses, the one to whom this was denied.

Beloved, let us remember that it was a little thing, an unadvised word that occasioned to Moses the loss of Canaan. And let us remember, moreover, that the governance of the tongue is more pressed upon us in the New Testament than almost anything else. "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." (Matt. 12:37.) Seeking to exalt ourselves is rebellion against God.

The Lord grant that we may see that we are exposed to a searching judgment to which the world is not exposed, because we are His saints; and that He may have to shut His ear to our prayer. He is "the only wise God," and He may be more wise in denying than in granting. May we be found walking before Him unto all well-pleasing.


When a man steps out of his own nothingness, he steps into it.

Zeal against the errors of others is no security against the wiles of the devil. Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.

He that rides on a stumbler had need have his eye on the road before, and his bridle well in hand. And such is even the believer's heart.

Wherever you go, endeavour to carry with you a sense of God's presence, His holiness, and His love; it will preserve you from a thousand snares.

Have a word with God before you enter into conversation with any man. (James 1:5.)

Satan tempts saints to unholy wrath (Luke 9:55), and they do not know, and little think, where they had their coal to so heat them from, until Christ tells them, "Ye know not what spirit ye are of."

It is as great a presumption to send our passions upon God's errands, as it is to palliate them with God's name. Zeal, dropt in charity, is good; without it, good for nothing; for it devours all it comes near. They must first judge themselves, that presume to censure others; and such will not be apt to overshoot the mark.

Use a little of the bridle in the quantity of speech; incline a little rather to sparing than to using them lavishly; for "in many words there wants not sin." That flux of the tongue, that prattling and babbling disease, is very common; and hence so many impertinences, yea, so many of those worse ills, in their discourses, whispering about, and inquiring, and censuring this and that.

An unwholesome stomach turns the best meat it receives into that bad humour that abounds in it. Do not they thus, who observe what the word says, that they may be the better enabled to discover the failings of others, and speak maliciously and uncharitably of them, and vent themselves as is too common? "This word met well with such a one's fault, and this with another's." Is not this to feed these diseases of malice, "envy," and "evil speaking," with this "pure milk," and make them grow, instead of growing by it ourselves in grace and in holiness?

Divine truths are like a well-drawn picture, which looks particularly upon every one amongst the great multitude that look upon it.