As the Old Testament book of Numbers begins, the Israelites are making final preparations to depart Mount Sinai. They had received the law and constructed the tabernacle according to the divinely revealed pattern. On the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, they began their journey for the promised land--Canaan (Num. 10:11-13). After the nation arrived at Kadesh, spies were sent out into the land. The report brought back, though not unanimous, was one of doubt and fear (Num. 13:28ff). Thus, Israel refused to enter the land God intended for them. Jehovah immediately punished the nation for their complaining and lack of faith. They were forced to wander in the wilderness for thirty-eight years (i.e., until all the men of war of that generation perished, cf. Deut. 2:14). Relatively little information was recorded pertaining to that time-period. The few narrative accounts the Holy Spirit saw fit to preserve via inspiration generally focus on sins of rebellion. Such is the case with the actions of Moses and Aaron in Numbers 20:1-13:
"Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the Wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there. Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and Aaron. And the people contended with Moses and spoke, saying, 'If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought up the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.' So Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the tabernacle of meeting, and they fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the rod; you and your brother Aaron gather the congregation together. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock, and give drink to the congregation and their animals.' So Moses took the rod from before the LORD as He commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock; and he said to them, 'Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?' Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank. Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.' This was the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel contended with the LORD, and He was hallowed among them."
Before noting some lessons from this narrative, it should first be observed that Moses' sin appears to be twofold in nature--he spoke rashly with his lips (Num. 20:10; cf. Psa. 106:32,33) and failed to obey the Lord's instructions (Num. 20:8,11). Moses, whose patience had expired with the murmuring children of Israel, failed to control his anger (cf. Eph. 4:26). His improper attitude on this occasion was manifested through his speech and actions which did not sanctify God (Num. 20:12), but rather exalted himself. It is difficult to know exactly what part Aaron played in this matter. However, since God punished him also (Num. 20:12), it seems certain that at the very least he was right beside his brother giving his personal approval to Moses' speech and actions (when he should have been rebuking him).
This historical account is ripe with applications for man today, especially in the area of ascertaining Bible authority. Let us focus exclusively upon Moses' physical act of disobedience for the moment. Moses' sin in striking the rock demonstrates the fact that God does not have to explicitly prohibit everything that He doesn't want men to do. Rather, it is sufficient for Him to simply authorize what He expects of those made in His image (e.g., Lev. 10:1-3). Additionally, it is significant to note that just because an act was authorized in the past does not mean it always will be. Approximately forty years prior to his error at Kadesh, Moses had been divinely-authorized to strike a rock in order to bring forth water, as Exodus 17:5,6 records - "And the LORD said to Moses, 'Go on before the people, and take with you some of the elders of Israel. Also take in your hand your rod with which you struck the river, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in 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." However, God had not given instructions for such at Kadesh but had commanded the rock be spoken to. Although He had not explicitly prohibited Moses from striking the rock on this occasion, He had not authorized it either. Moses, in striking the rock, acted presumptuously. He went beyond the instructions of the Lord and sinned. Moses did not try to excuse his behavior by claiming that such should have been appropriate since it was acceptable earlier in his life. He did not try to excuse his behavior by claiming that his actions were suitable since God had not specifically prohibited him from striking the rock.
These facts should be carefully considered when one attempts to ascertain what God authorizes in Christian worship. Simply because an act of worship was authorized under Patriarchy or the Law of Moses does not automatically imply that it is authorized today. For instance, both Abel and Aaron offered animal sacrifices. Since such was acceptable for them, should one today assume that animal sacrifices are still permissible? No, for today all are under the new covenant made possible by the blood of Jesus Christ which was "shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:28). Even though there is no explicit prohibition against such in the New Testament, no man today has the authority (or need, cf. Heb. 9 & 10) to offer an animal sacrifice.
The issue of mechanical instruments in Christian worship falls into this same category. Certainly the use of such instruments was permitted (and even commanded) under the Old Testament (cf. II Chr. 29:25), but this truth does not automatically establish their appropriateness for use today. The New Testament specifically authorizes Christians to sing with grace in their hearts to God (Col. 3:16). Nowhere does the better covenant declare or even hint that Christians should use mechanical instruments in worship today. No one denies instruments of this sort were used in the past, but such does not imply their acceptability in modern-day worship. Yes, Israel was permitted to make music with trumpets, stringed instruments, and clashing cymbals (Psa. 150), but today Christians are to sing and make melody in their hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19).
It cannot be overemphasized that Moses' goal was identical on each occasion (i.e., to bring forth water from a rock), and he performed the same physical act both times (i.e., striking a rock). However, God had given specific instructions--instructions that were different at each place. Moses obeyed the Lord at Meribah by striking the rock, but he acted presumptuously at Kadesh by speaking arrogantly and striking the rock (as if the miracle depended upon his human exertion and not the power of Almighty God!). Moses did not glorify Jehovah but instead honored himself through his speech and actions. The Israelites obeyed the Lord under the old law by using mechanical instruments in worship, but Christians who use such today are behaving presumptuously since the Lord has given different instructions. If Moses was punished at Kadesh for failing to give glory to God through his speech and conduct (even though his physical action had been divinely authorized and acceptable forty years earlier), will the Lord hold guiltless those who practice an act of worship which has had no divine authority for nearly 2000 years?
Interestingly enough, Moses--with an improper attitude--transgressed by physically striking an object when he should have been speaking to it. Men today imitate Moses' error when they--with selfish attitudes of personal gratification and a lack of concern for hallowing God--strike the heads of drums in worship (as well as chords on a piano, etc.). Instead, they ought to speak (sing) praises to the Lord in submission to the divine will. There is a difference between striking and speaking, and the distinction matters to God! There is a difference between glorifying oneself and sanctifying Jehovah through one's actions, and the distinction matters to God! These differences ought to matter to all who desire to serve Him humbly, faithfully, and without presumption! As the example of Moses aptly demonstrates, simply because an activity was authorized at one point in time does not mean that it always will be. This is an important spiritual truth that ought to be learned by all (Rom. 15:4). Moses learned this lesson the hard way and lost his entrance physically into the land of promise. Those who are wise will avoid his error and perhaps an even worse fate.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col. 3:16,17). Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.