Exodus 17: Lessons from Massah and Meribbah and the Defeat of the Amalekites

Introduction: After leaving the wilderness of sin, the Jews camped at a place where they found no water. God tested the Jews by taking them from a place of abundance (Ex. 16:1-8) to a place of scarcity (Ex. 17:1). He then tested them in a battle with the Amalekites. From this chapter, God provides seven important lessons for every believer in dealing with the battles of the flesh.

First, have faith in God to provide for you when you stay on His path in the wilderness. To stay on God’s path, be in prayer, read the Word, and seek after His Kingdom and His righteousness. Second, He also wants you to trust His Spirit-led leaders to guide you. Third, through faith, Christ will not only bear your judgment and give you eternal life, He also promises the abundant waters of life from the Holy Spirit. Fourth, although God is slow to anger and quick to forgive, He does not want you to test Him by complaining. Fifth, although you will always face attacks from your flesh, God offers victory when you surrender to Him in prayer. Sixth, through fellowship, God offers protection to those who are weary. Finally, although God promises to forget your sins, He wants you to remember your deliverance so that you don’t repeat your sins.

1. Through Faith, God Will Provide For You in the Deserts of Life. Ex. 17:1-2.

  • The Jews’ rebellion at Rephidim. After the Jews reached a place in the wilderness called Rephidim, “all the congregation” grumbled at Moses because they had no water: “Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water that we may drink.’ And Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’” (Ex. 17:1-2; Nu. 33:14). The word Rephidim means “supports”. The Jews believed that they no longer had God’s support. Thus, they turned on Moses.

God’s people revolted because they believed that Moses had led them to their deaths1

  • Where God guides, He provides. God always provided for the Jews. He freed the Jews from Egyptian bondage with seven plagues (Ex. 7:6-11:10). He crushed the Egyptian army in the Sea (Ex. 13:7-15:21). He also transformed the waters of Marah to provide drinking water (Ex. 15:22-27). He then provided both manna and quail after they grumbled about their food (Ex. 16:1-8). He was also guiding them by a visible pillar of light both by day and by night (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19). He even protected the Jews’ feet from swelling (Dt. 8:4). Moreover, all of God’s miracles in the wilderness took place over less than 50 days (Ex. 16:1-3). Thus, the Jews had no reason to doubt God. Provided you stay on His path, He will also provide for you. If you don’t know where His path is, He promises to light it for you when you read His Word: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105). Are you reading the Word on a regular basis so that He can guide your path?

  • God provides for all who seek His righteousness. God cares for you in the wilderness (Hos. 13:5). He promises to provide for your needs in the desert: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;” (Is. 55:1(a)). “And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.” (Is. 58:11). “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.” (Ps. 107:9). Jesus is the bread of life (Jo. 6:35). If you seek after His kingdom and His righteousness, He promises that you do not need to worry about your food, water, or clothes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6). “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matt. 6:31-34). Are you trusting God to provide for your needs by seeking after His Kingdom and His righteousness?

2. Trust God’s Appointed Leaders to Guide You in the Deserts of Life. Ex. 17:3-4.

  • The Jews’ rebellion against Moses. Rather than blaming God directly, the Jews thought they could direct their anger about their journey in the desert against Moses: But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.” (Ex. 17:3-4). This was the second time that Moses had to correct the people for blaming him for where God took them in the wilderness: “for He hears your grumblings against the Lord; and what are we, that you grumble against us?” (Ex. 16:7). While in the desert, God guided the Jews by a visible pillar of light during both the day and the night (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19). He also sent an angel before them (Ex. 23:23). Thus, the Jews’ complaints about their leaders’ direction were really complaints against God. Likewise, if your leader is Spirit-led, your complaints against your leader are really against God.

Moses cried out to God for help2

  • Follow a leader who is led by the Spirit. Because God sometimes uses His appointed leaders to guide you, He commands that you obey them. This includes: (1) church authorities (Matt. 18:17-20, Heb. 13:17); (2) civil authorities (1 Pet. 2:13-14; Ro. 13:1-2); and (3) parents (Eph. 5:22-25; 6:10). Only when your authorities refuse to follow God’s Word should you ignore them (Acts. 4:19). Therefore, contempt for a leader who is following God’s will is equivalent to having contempt toward God (Ex. 16:8; 1 Sam. 8:7). Thus, God warns you not to speak ill of His appointed leaders: “Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm.” (Ps. 105:15). Jesus says that you will know a Sprit-led leader when the fruit of the Spirit is visible in that person’s life (Matt. 7:17). The “fruit of the Spirit is (1) love, (2) joy, (3) peace, (4) patience, (5) kindness, (6) goodness, (7) faithfulness, (8) gentleness, [and] (9) self-control;” (Gal. 5:22-23). While there are ways to correct a wayward leader, murmuring, gossip, and slander are not among them. If your leaders have strayed from God’s Word, are you either speaking with them privately to correct them and/or praying for them?

3. Through Faith, Christ Will Bear Your Judgment and Give You Eternal Life. Ex. 17:5-6.

  • Moses’ staff of judgment struck the Rock of salvation to draw the water of life. After crying out for direction, God directed Moses to take the same staff that he used against Pharaoh (God’s symbol of judgment) and strike it against a rock to draw water: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Ex. 17:5-6). Moses’ name means to “draw out.” He was drawn out of the water at birth. God later meant for him to draw the water out of the rock.

God provided living water in the desert for His people3

Jan Havicksz. Steen (1626 – 1679) “Moses Gets Water out of the Rocks” (1660)4

  • The Rock symbolized God’s provision for the Jews. Because the water flowed from the rock, the rock symbolized God’s provision for the Jews in the wilderness. “He opened the rock and water flowed out; it ran in the dry places like a river.” (Ps. 105:41). “. . . from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Ps. 81:16). “They did not thirst when He led them through the deserts. He made the water flow out of the rock for them; He split the rock and the water gushed forth.” (Isa. 48:21). Where did the water come from the rest of the time that the Jews were in the wilderness? Some believe that God provided the water through natural wells. According to one Jewish tradition, the water came from a rock that God literally dragged through the wilderness (Moshe Weissman, the Midrash Says, Shemot, vol. 2, (Brooklyn NY, Benai Yakov p. 157). Scripture is silent on this point. Whatever the source, God provided water wherever the Jews went while in the desert. He offers the same thing to every believer.

  • Jesus is the Rock who gives the waters of the Holy Spirit. Paul later revealed Jesus to be the Rock who followed the Jews through the wilderness. He also made clear that the water from the Rock symbolized a “spiritual drink,” or the Holy Spirit: “ and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:3-4). Jesus proclaimed on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles that He would provide the water of the Holy Spirit, which provides eternal life: “37 Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ 39 But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (Jo. 7:37-39). He was also the manna or bread of life (Jo. 6:35-6). He also promises that you will never thirst again if we drink His water: “but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (Jo. 4:14). “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19). “Therefore you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation.” (Is. 12:3). “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” (Rev. 22:17). Just like water, you need the Holy Spirit to remain fulfilled and receive eternal life. When you abide in God, He promises to make you like a tree planted by a river: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” (Ps. 1:3). Are you looking to quench your soul with the waters of the Holy Spirit or the things of the world?

  • Jesus further offers abundant waters. The Jews left Israel with only 70 people (Gen. 46:8). Yet, after almost 400 years, they had grown to 603,000 fighting men (Nu. 1:46). With the women, children, and older men included, the total population in the wilderness had to exceed more than 1.5 million people. For the Rock to provide water for that many people, it would have had to have created a gusher. Indeed, the Bible says that water gushed forth like the ocean: “He split the rocks in the wilderness and gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths. He brought forth streams also from the rock and caused waters to run down like rivers.” (Ps. 78:15-16). Jesus also promises to provide you with not just life but abundant life: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). The joy of the Spirit far surpasses any the temporary pleasures of the flesh. Are you seeking to quench your life with the waters of the Spirit?

  • Jesus is also the Rock of your salvation. The Jews also understood the Rock to symbolize salvation: “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.” (Ps. 95:1). “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Ps. 18:2). “Trust in the Lord forever, for we have an everlasting Rock.” (Isa. 26:4). For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God,” (Ps. 18:31). “And they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer.” (Ps. 78:35). “There is no one holy like the LORD, indeed, there is no one besides You, nor is there any rock like our God.” (1 Sam. 2:2). “My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; my savior, You save me from violence.” (2 Sam. 22:3). “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” (Dt. 32:4, 30-31). Jesus is the Rock of your salvation (1 Cor. 10:3-4). God uses the symbol of a rock to convey longevity. It is also a symbol of a secure foundation. As your Rock, Jesus’ promises to you will not change or fade away with the passage of time: “ . . . I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20). Also, if you build your life on His foundation, the flood waters of life will never tear you down (Matt. 7:24-27). Jesus the Rock will be a stumbling block to some. But if you believe He promises that you will not be disappointed: “Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone and a Rock of offense and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’” (Ro. 9:32-33). Are you trusting Jesus to save you from the turmoil of life and to give you eternal salvation?

  • Jesus was struck with the judgment under the Law for you. As the Lawgiver, Moses symbolized the Law. His staff was also a symbol of God’s judgment. God used Moses’ staff to symbolize His judgment upon the Egyptians. Moses’ act of striking the rod of judgment against the Rock symbolized the judgment that Jesus bore for us (Is. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24). The water that poured out of the Rock also foreshadowed the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ predicted following His death (Jo. 7:37-39). If your salvation were possible through your good works, Christ suffered and died needlessly for you (Gal. 2:21).

  • Jesus’ death was a one-time sacrifice for all your sins. Approximately 40 years after Moses first struck the Rock to draw the water of life and near the end of the Jews’ journey, they reached a place without water. Again, the Jews rebelled. God told Moses to “speak to the rock” to cause it to pour forth water (Nu. 20:8). The power to create from speech was a power that only God possessed (Gen. 1:1). But Moses failed to draw out the water with the power God gave him. After the Jews caused Moses to become angry, he struck the rock with his rod instead of speaking to it. Moreover, he did so not once but twice (Nu. 20:11). After God provided for the Jews, He rebuked Moses for failing to obey Him and acting out of anger (Nu. 20:12). He also barred him from entering the Promised Land (Nu. 20:20). Christ was the Rock, and He was stricken once for us. He did not need to die twice: “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14; 7:27; 9:28; 10:10). Instead of hitting the Rock again, Moses should have spoken God’s Word to draw out the Spirit of life. The next time you feel the waters of life are missing (the Holy Spirit), you also should speak His Word, which in Greek is called the “Rhema”. Are you speaking God’s Word when you or others need to be protected, healed, restored, or renewed?

4. Although God is Slow to Anger and Quick to Forgive, Don’t Test His Grace. Ex. 17:7.

  • God’s grace after six rebellions. God named the place of the Jews’ rebellion over their water Massah (testing) and Meribah (quarreling) because the Jews continued to test His grace: “He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Ex. 17:7). Within less than 50 days after leaving Egypt, this was the Jews’ sixth rebellion in the wilderness. Although God is sometimes falsely called a God of wrath in the Old Testament, He never judged the Jews after these six rebellions. First, the Jews rebelled as Pharaoh pursued them to the edge of the Sea (Ex. 14:12). Second, at Marah, they rebelled when they complained about their water (Ex. 15:24). Third, in the wilderness of sin, they rebelled about the absence of meat from their diet (Ex. 16:2-3). Fourth, also in the wilderness of sin, the Jews sinned against God by trying to hoard their manna when He told them to trust Him for their daily needs (Ex. 16:13-21). Fifth, also in the wilderness of sin, the Jews rebelled against God’s instructions not to search for manna on the Sabbath day. After committing the sin of hoarding, many Jews committed a sin of failing to trust God by searching for manna on the Sabbath day (Ex. 16:22-30). Finally, as quoted above, the Jews again rebelled about their water at Massah and Meribah (Ex. 17:7). Not once during these six rebellions did God punish the Jews. God recorded these stories to remind the Jews that they had no reason to be prideful. Have you let any of your successes puff up your pride?

  • God showed His mercy and grace in the wilderness. The absence of any punishment after these six rebellions shows that God is slow to anger and quick to forgive: “Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth;”’ (Ex. 34:6). “The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; . . .” (Nu. 14:18(a); Dt. 4:31). If God has not punished you for your sins, are you using that as an opportunity to repent, change your ways, and praise His grace?

  • Testing God is a sign of a hardened heart. The Jews’ repeated failure to trust God stemmed from their hardened hearts: “For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness,” (Ps. 95:7-8). “Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me, as in the day of the wilderness.” (Heb. 3:7-8, 15). If you are having trouble trusting or believing in God's promises for you, first examine your heart.

  • God will also test you to show the hidden sins in your heart. God could have made it rain at Rephidim. Or, He could have provided spring water as the people arrived. Yet, He instead tested the Jews. Like the Jews, God will also test you to show you what is in your heart (Ex. 16:4; Dt. 8:15-16; Ps. 11:5; 81:7; Jer. 17:10). But He does not tempt us (Jam. 1:13). He tests you to show you where your heart is evil (Jer. 17:9). If God has used a trial to show you where you have a hidden sin, be grateful, repent and ask God to cleanse you. He is faithful to forgive any sin that you repent of (1 Jo. 1:9).

  • God will bless you if you preserve and praise Him when faced with a trial. If you can face a trial and stay faithful to God, he promises to bless you: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (Jam. 1:12). Even an awful trial can work for good if you trust God: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Ro. 8:28). Are you praising God even when you face a terrible trial?

5. Through Faith, God Offers Protection from the Attacks of Your Flesh. Ex. 17:8-11.

  • God’s defeat of the Amalekites. After testing the Jews with draught, God tested them by allowing the Amalekites to attack them in the wilderness: “Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.’ 10 Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed.” (Ex. 17:8-11). The Amalekites were a people of great warriors who lived as nomads in the deserts south of Negev. They were such mighty warriors that they caused the 10 spies to believe that the Jews could not invade the Promised Land (Dt. 9:2). Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:12; 1 Chr. 1:36). God hated Esau’s descendants (Mal. 1:2-3), because they were symbolic of a life of the flesh and Satan’s evil reign on Earth.

  • Only through faith and surrender can you defeat the attacks of your flesh. When the Jews previously faced the Egyptians, they did not need to fight them. They only needed to believe and stand still (Ex. 14:13). By contrast, the Jews had to actually face the Amalekites in battle. This symbolizes the fact that you will face actual battles with your flesh. No mention is made of Joshua’s role in the battle because your battle is spiritual, not of flesh and bones: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12). Just as it did for the Jews, your battle against the flesh begins the moment you accept the waters of the Holy Spirit. When Moses raised his hands, it was a symbolic act of surrender to God. Like Moses, to prevail in your battles with the flesh, you must surrender to God and lift up your arms and pray for help: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” (1 Tim. 2:8). If you are under spiritual attack, are you lifting up your arms in prayer to request God’s help?

6. Through Fellowship, God Offers Protection to Those Who are Weary. Ex. 17:12-13.

  • You’ll get by with a little help from your friends. God revealed that Moses was unable to keep his arms raised for the entire battle. To keep his arms raised to allow the Jews to succeed, his friends needed to help him find support for his arms under “a stone”, which again symbolized Jesus: 12 But Moses’ hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set. 13 So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” (Ex. 17:12-13). In commenting on these verses, Mathew Henry observed that spiritual battles can be more draining than physical ones: “We do not find that Joshua’s hands were heavy in fighting, but Moses’ hands were heavy in praying; the more spiritual any service is, the more apt we are to fail and flag in it.” We are to be lights to others (Matt. 6:16). You are also to comfort or encourage others with the comfort or encouragement we have received from God (Heb. 3:13; 2 Cor. 1:4). We are also to pray for others (Eph. 6:18). Are you trying to encourage and pray for others?

Aaron and Hur helped Moses to keep his hands raised during the battle5

Nicolas Poussin (1593/94 – 1665) “Joshua Fights Amalek” (1625)6

  • You need others to protect from the enemy’s attacks from behind when you are weary. Moses later revealed that the Amalekites sought to defeat the Jews by attacking them from the rear when they were weary: “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, 18 how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.” (Dt. 25:17-18). Satan is referred to as a roaring lion (1 Pet. 5:8). Lions attack their prey when they stray from the protection of the herd. Because believers are as defenseless as sheep, they must not stray from the protection of the Church (Heb. 10:25). Floating in and out of church does not by itself bring the protection that comes from accountability. Are you allowing yourself to be held accountable to another Christian?

7. Remember God’s Deliverance so that You Don’t Repeat Your Sins. Ex. 17:14-15.

  • Remember God’s deliverance in your life. After giving the Jews victory, God commanded Moses to record His miracle. He then promised to wage an unending war against the Amalekites: “14 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.’ 15 Moses built an altar and named it The Lord is My Banner; 16 and he said, ‘The Lord has sworn; the Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation.”’ (Ex. 17:14-16). In Hebrew, God is referred to here by the name “Jehovah-Nissi” , a name that only appears here (Ex. 17:15). The name means the Lord my banner or the Lord my miracle. God is the source of your victories. He is the one who fights for you. God wants you to remember His victories for you so that you don’t grow weak in your faith and repeat your sins. Jehovah-Nissi is a great name to invoke when you petition God in your prayers to fight your battles. Are you recording God’s miracles in your life and praying in faith His name for victory?

  • Give thanks because God will ultimately blot out any memory of your sins. To fulfill His promise to Moses, God later ordered Saul to act as His avenger and destroy the Amalekites: “Go and completely destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, until they are all dead.” (1 Sam 15:18, 15:3). God will also wage war against the flesh generation after generation until He ultimately blots it out. The good news is that He will also blot out any memory of your sins of the flesh. “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Is. 43:25; Jer. 31:34; 50:20; Ps. 103:12). “For I will be Merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Heb. 8:12, 17). Are you giving thanks for God’s grace or using it as an excuse to sin more?