This chapter begins the history of the 40th and final year of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. And since the beginning of their second year, when they were sentenced to wander in the desert (chapter 14); there is next to nothing recorded concerning them until this last year, which brought them to the borders of Canaan. After 38 years’ tedious dwelling in the wilderness, the armies of Israel advanced toward Canaan again. During this long interval, the threatening of the Almighty had been fulfilled; and all the people who had been above 20 years of age at the time of the wicked spies’ report had been cut off.
The death of Moses’ sister Miriam ought not to be passed over without proper reflection. Surely she was a child of God, especially in light of her conduct at the Red Sea in Exodus 15:20, 21. And the prophet Micah even makes an honorable mention of her, along with Moses and Aaron; for she had been an instrument of much good to Israel (Mic. 6:4). Nevertheless, Miriam – like all other human beings – was still a sinner (chapter 12:1-10); and so she was not exempt from death, which is the wages of sin. However, it is gladdening to think that since she was a redeemed sinner, she did not die without hope of the resurrection on the Great Last Day!
While the people of Israel were at Kadesh, there was no water for them to drink. It is interesting to observe that the Israelites were thus tried by the same temptation during both their first and their last year’s sojourn in the wilderness. And it is sad to say that in both cases, they fell victims to their impatience and unbelief. This is just one among the many proofs of the misery and corruption of our fallen nature. This generation of Israelites was educated amidst all the miracles of the wilderness; they were clothed by miracle, fed by miracle, and guided by miracle. And yet they were just as impatient under the Divine governance of God as their fathers were, who had passed their youth amidst the hardening idolatries of Egypt. So true is the declaration of Scripture: “The heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” Nothing except the change worked in the heart by the Spirit of God can provide anyone with the slightest reason to hope for obedience and holiness in their life. Let us ask the Lord to create new and contrite hearts within us, for Jesus’ sake!
Moses, in God’s name, was to command water out of a rock for the people; for God is always able to supply His children with the things that are needful for them. But Moses and Aaron acted wrongly by taking too much of the glory of this work of wonder to themselves. They asked the people, “Must we fetch water?” – as if it was done by some power or worthiness of their own. Therefore, the Lord found fault with them for not giving Him the glory of this miracle, which was due unto His name. Being provoked by the people, Moses spoke unadvisedly with his lips – manifesting impatience, distrust, and unbelief in God’s promises. The same pride of man still wishes to usurp the office of the appointed Mediator; and to become wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption to ourselves. Such a state of sinful rebellion of the soul against its Savior is condemned by the voice of God, on every page of the Gospel! If Moses understood as well as Paul did that the Rock which followed Israel was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4) – then was not Moses’ conduct an act of forgetting the Savior, and looking to an arm of flesh? Alas! What is man – even the meekest man – in his own strength? As a consequence of their actions there at Kadesh (which also became known as Meribah, meaning “the waters of strife”), the Lord told Moses and Aaron that they would not enter the Promised Land either! The Israelites would enter the land of Canaan; but sadly, Moses and Aaron would not be the ones to lead them in. However, we may still observe the abounding grace of God here. Although Moses had failed in his commission, God did not fail in His promise of the people entering the Promised Land. And if the Lord had restrained the water flowing from the rock because Moses and Aaron took the honor to themselves of implying that they fetched it, it would have been a suitable rebuke to their presumption. But the Lord does not reward us according to our iniquities. He is still gracious to His people, even while chastening them for their sins.
The Israelites moved from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor; and there, God told Aaron to prepare to leave this world. He would not enter Canaan, because of his failure at “the waters of strife”; but the Lord still had mercy in store for him – for although Aaron must die, he passed on to glory with ease and in honor. Aaron could not enter Canaan, and this showed that the Levitical priesthood could make nothing perfect. Perfection could only be brought about by the bringing in of a better hope. Surely it was a great satisfaction to Aaron to see his dear son Eleazar succeeding him as the high priest of Israel; for in this way, the honorable office was preserved and secured – and here we see a foreshadowing of the everlasting nature of Jesus’ High Priesthood! The Scriptures pronounce a blessing upon those who “die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). As the people of God, we need not be afraid of the time when we shall fall asleep in the arms of Jesus and awake in the midst of His glorious presence in heaven!
Dearest Jesus, You are our Great High Priest of the better Covenant that was established upon better promises. You alone are able to carry Your people safely into the heavenly Canaan. May our souls be clothed and adorned with Your robes of righteousness and the garments of Your salvation. Amen.
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photo of traditional site of Aaron’s tomb, by Bocachete | Wikimedia Commons