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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 20



Verse 10-11


‘Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice.’

Numbers 20:10-11

This is a memorable incident in Israel’s history, and it is rich in warning to us at this day. Moses had failed in his duty towards God, and that in three particulars. (1) He had failed in strict obedience. God had bidden him speak to the rock, and he had smitten it, smitten it twice. (2) He had shown temper, used hard language. ‘Hear now, ye rebels!’ (3) He had taken to himself the credit of supplying the Israelites with water. ‘Must we fetch water for you out of the rock?’

I. The first lesson to be learned from Moses at Meribah is the danger of departing, in the least jot or tittle, from any law of God.

II. The second is the immense importance attached to temperate speech, the necessity of keeping a check on temper and not letting ourselves be moved to hot and angry words. The want of self-control was very heavily visited upon Moses and upon ‘Aaron, the saint of the Lord.’ Because of it they were shut out of Canaan.

III. The scene at the rock of Meribah is further useful as carrying our thoughts upwards to Him who is the source of all our hopes, the nourishment of our soul, the very life of our religion, the Lord Jesus Christ. The rock in the desert was but a type and shadow; the reality it typified is represented in Jesus Christ. All other waters after a while must fail; the water that Christ can give ‘shall be in us as a well of water, springing up unto everlasting life.’

Rev. R. D. B. Rawnsley.


(1) ‘It was probably through lack of faith that Moses smote the rock, instead of speaking to it. It seemed such a little thing to speak, hardly enough, surely, to awaken a response in the hard rock; hence he lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with main force, as though his might were to do the work; and it was his lack of faith, allied as it was with impatience, that excluded the great Lawgiver from the Land of Promise.’

(2) ‘Note how the right things may be done in the wrong spirit. The Lesson speaks of God’s displeasure at Moses. He was told that he would never enter the land of Canaan because of his conduct in this matter of the rock. There was no question that God had been true to His word—there flowed the water in an abundant stream—but there was that in Moses, even while he wrought the miracle, that was intensely displeasing to Jehovah. Moses had been bidden speak to the rock; instead of that he struck it, not once, but twice. He was in a heat of passion, too, with the rebellious people, and, as the psalmist says, he spake unadvisedly. And doubtless, in the secret chambers of his heart, God saw an unbelief that no one else saw, for we read in verse 12, “Ye believed Me not.” Note, then, how a man may do the right thing, yet he may do it wrongly, and have to suffer for it. God not only reckons the actions that we do; He reckons also the spirit in which they are done. Two girls may give their toys to some poor children, but the one does it cheerfully and willingly; the other does it with a grumble and a grudge, thinking it a hardship all the time. So far as the poor children are concerned, it does not matter—they get the toys, as Israel got the water—but in the eyes of God there is a world of difference betwixt the gifts of the two little maidens. Two boys are asked by their mothers to go a message; the one goes promptly and happily, the other sulkily. Of course the message is done in either case, but how different are the two actions, up in heaven! It is the saddest of all experiences to do wrong things; but scarcely less sad is it to do right things wrongly.’

(3) ‘It is easy to see why Moses had to die outside the land of rest. He had not learnt the secret of rest in himself. That double ‘smiting of the rock, that impetuous address to the congregation, indicated, how far he had fallen short of the rest of faith; “Ye believed Me not to sanctify Me.” Oh, Spirit of God, who dost lead us into rest that we may give rest, deliver us from the sin of smiting the rock twice, and breathe into our nature that perfect peace from out which we may learn the art of speaking to the Rock!’

Verse 12


‘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.’

Numbers 20:12

I. The Lord here acts with great severity towards two of His servants, and it may be well to recount the circumstances. Water failed the congregation, they murmured as their fathers had done; Moses brought their case before the Lord, Who commanded him to take his rod, but not to use it, but simply to speak to the rock, and it should give forth water. Was this rock the same which was smitten nearly forty years before? That depends upon our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10, ‘And they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.’ From the whole account we should gather that it was the same rock, and the miracle, of course, was not greater than the daily shower of bread round about their tents, which ceased not till they entered Canaan. Anyhow, they disobeyed God, Who had bidden them speak to the rock; and for this, and because, perhaps, they had spoken as if they themselves could bring out the water, ‘Hear now, ye rebels, must we bring you water out of the rock?’ And for this act of faithlessness or of disobedience God would not permit Moses, though he entreated that the punishment might be removed, to bring the people of Israel over Jordan.

II. The sin of Moses appears rather as a sin of disobedience or of passion than of unbelief; but if we knew all the circumstances we should see that there was some want of faith, of reliance upon God, which brought down God’s dipleasure.

III. Anyhow, we learn this lesson, that nearness to God and friendship with God, such as was enjoyed by Moses, are not to be presumed upon; God’s commands are to be obeyed to the letter even by one so near to Him as Moses. It has been suggested as another reason for this severity: the smitten rock was a type of Christ, Who was to be smitten once for all, and then to give out His virtue in answer to prayer, and Moses and Aaron, by smiting the rock a second time, destroyed the principal typical feature.

Rev. M. F. Sadler.


(1) ‘Press home upon the imagination by the terrible doom of Moses the man of God, the heinousness in God’s sight of this spirit which puts judgment in place of mercy. It shut Moses out of the Promised Land; our Lord says it may shut us out of His kingdom. Compare the interesting parallel of Jonah’s failure to understand the heart of the Almighty (Jonah 3:10; Jonah 4:1), and quote, in illustration, the beautiful lines of Faber—

For the love of God is broader

Than the measures of man’s mind,

And the heart of the Eternal

Is most wonderfully kind.

But we make His love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.’

(2) ‘God’s charge against him, be it noted, is that he failed to sanctify Him, i.e. to make Him holy in the eyes of the people. When a professing Christian misrepresents Christ, by his conduct or spirit, so as to give a wrong view of the Gospel to his companions, it is a terrible sin in God’s sight. Compare the doom on the man who offends one of the little ones, i.e. puts a stumbling block in the way of their coming to Christ (Matthew 18:6).’

Verse 27-28


‘And Moses did as the Lord commanded: and they went up into Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation,’ etc.

Numbers 20:27-28

I. The first and most superficial aspect of death is that it is the close of an earthly career. There could be no question as to the prominence of Aaron’s career. (1) In the great work of leading the children of Israel out of Egypt to the confines of the Promised Land Aaron is only second to Moses. (2) Aaron was the first high-priest of the chosen people. His consecration was of itself calculated to awe the minds of Israel, and it was followed by high sanctions of his office, which must have done so still more.

II. Aaron was morally a weak man. He had no such grasp of principle as would enable him to hold out against strong pressure. His weakness became conspicuous on the critical occasion of Moses going up to Sinai to receive the sacred law. Aaron was left below in virtual command, in a position of responsibility for which, as the event proved, he was not fitted. The Greeks had a proverb that leadership will show what a man really is, and so it was with Aaron. His weakness is implied in the allusion in the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘for that he himself also was compassed with infirmity.’

III. Nothing is more noticeable in the account of Aaron’s death than his deliberate preparation for it. He did not let death come on him; he went to meet it. There was a twofold motive in the act of Moses in stripping Aaron of his garments. (1) It showed that the office of the high-priesthood did not depend on the life of any single man, and (2) it reminded Aaron personally of the solemn truth of the utter solitariness of the soul in death.

IV. The phrase of Moses, ‘Aaron was gathered to his people,’ seems to point to a world in which the bygone generations of men still live, a world of the existence of which God’s ancient people were well assured, though they knew much less of it than we.

Canon Liddon.


(1) ‘A sad chapter! Brother and sister dying, Moses failing so disastrously, the passage through Edom refused. But chapters of this kind only make up a small fraction in the record of our lives; there are more bright ones than sad ones. And there were yet to come songs and counsels and noble outbursts of blessed ascription communicated by the death on Pisgah. “He will not keep His anger for ever. He delighteth in mercy.” The dying priest reminds us of Him who is able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him, because He ever liveth.’

(2) ‘With the utmost brevity and grandeur it is recorded that Moses, Aaron, and Eleazar, went up the mount in the sight of all the congregation. Aaron wore his full priestly dress. No word of complaint escaped his lips. As in the day when he saw his two sons stretched in death and held his peace, so now he walked in quiet submission to the scene where he knew he was to die. There is no word of farewell. On the lonely height Moses took off the priestly garments, one by one, from the high priest, and Eleazar was clothed with them. The aged priest, in the quiet dignity which became him, greater in the hour of death than at any time of his life, laid himself down to die. Over that scene of death the veil of silence is drawn, and we know not what passed between the three on the solitary mountain. Moses came down with the new high priest wearing the priestly garments, and once again the people knew that the old things were swiftly passing away. “When all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel” (Numbers 20:29).’

(3) ‘He has seen the tombs of old Mizraim’s wonder,

Where the haughty Pharaohs embalmed recline,

But no monarch of Memphis is swathed in splendour,

Great Priest of the desert, like this of thine.’


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Numbers 20:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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