Rest and Release

Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay

As the Israelite people made their way from Egypt toward the promised land, they stopped to camp at Rephidim, which literally means “resting places.” But instead of resting in God’s care and provision, the people complained that they had no water to drink and began to argue with Moses (Exodus 17:1-7).

They had complained before about the bitter water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-25), and now they again complained to Moses. Again, Moses called on God, and again, God met the people in their time of need in a miraculous way.

In that dry desert, the Lord directed Moses and a few of the elders to a rock at Horeb, and when Moses struck the rock with his staff, the people received fresh water. From that time, the place became known as Massah (which means “test”) and Meribah (which means “argument”), because the people had tested and argued with the Lord.

I wonder why Moses chose to memorialize the people’s complaint with the place names instead of highlighting God’s miraculous provision. I think I’d be more inclined to call the place Fresh-Water-From-the-Rock, or God-Gave-Us-Water, or The-Lord-Answers-Prayer. Wouldn’t a more positive name serve just as well as a reminder to the people? Why then key in on their testing and arguing?

Perhaps that emphasis captured more fully the intensity of the experience for Moses. After all, the people not only complained against the Lord—more personally and pointedly, they argued against Moses himself. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us?” they demanded (verse 3, emphasis added).

The people were so angry that Moses feared for his life. “What should I do with this people?” he cried out to God. “They are getting ready to stone me” (verse 4). While the water flowing from the rock satisfied the people’s thirst, it also saved Moses’ life.

In his commentary on this text, the psalmist tells his readers, “Don’t harden your hearts like you did at Meribah, like you did when you were at Massah, in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me and scrutinized me, even though they had already seen my acts.” (Psalm 95:8). In this context, the place names serve as warnings: Don’t test God. Don’t argue against God. Remember how the people complained, and God acted in a powerful way. The same God at work in the past is the same God at work today.

We need that reminder too, for it’s all too easy to slip into complaint mode. The weather’s too hot, or too cold, or too wet. The hot water tank broke down, so the laundry has to wait. I’m stuck in traffic and late for my appointment. My co-worker always seems to have an excuse to leave early and leave me with extra work. My parents/kids/grandkids/
siblings/friends don’t understand me. The music at church is too loud. The singing is too slow. Why are the same people always the ones to volunteer? Where are all the young people? Why doesn’t God just do something??

Some of our complaints may hold a core of truth that can spur us to personal action. It’s time to install a new hot water tank. Tomorrow I won’t try to cram so much into my morning and will leave earlier. I need to talk with my co-worker about how we balance our workload. How can we be more creative in engaging people of all ages in worship and the work of the church? Can we try something new?

Some of our complaints may express legitimate community and social concerns. Clean water remains a critical need in our time. Refugees and other displaced people still need shelter and a place to call home. Domestic and sexual abuse, hunger and poverty, racism and other forms of oppression, violence and war….we need to bring these situations to God and cry out! Not simply to complain, but to pray earnestly for God’s power at work, for the Spirit to descend and heal our brokenness, for Jesus to walk with us as we seek to listen, to be present with those who suffer, and to work toward constructive response.

But sometimes when we complain, we’re simply whining, and need to be brought up short—at least, I do anyway. Stop complaining, says Massah. Stop whining, says Meribah. Set aside your first-world problems, and be thankful. The laundry can wait. Let the music be a joyful noise to the Lord. It’s okay if the people in your life don’t understand you perfectly. Remember how God has provided for you in the past, and trust God for your present and future. Don’t test God. Don’t argue. Trust.

A few years ago, instead of a new year’s resolution, I chose just one key word to help give focus to my year. My one word was “release,” a word that came to me in the midst of preparing for Christmas. I still needed to write my annual Christmas letter, send out cards, buy a few more gifts to mail away, find readers for Christmas eve, plan the Christmas Day service, figure out what I was going to bring to the Christmas Day potluck, get ready for our family Christmas on the following day. . . . whew! It seemed as if my to-do list was getting longer instead of shorter.

“But why—why take on all of those things?” said the still, small voice underneath all of my hectic preparations. Why not simply release them? I imagined myself releasing my life to God—not only for the Christmas season, but for the coming year—letting go of the things I clutched so tightly and allowing more room for God’s Spirit to work.

I started practicing that Christmas, and “release” became my word for the new year, a word that I kept coming back to again and again. Instead of complaining that I had too much to do, I let some things go, not because they were bad but because they were simply too much. Some things were taken up by others; some things simply faded away. As I practiced releasing again and again, I discovered again and again that God remained faithful and granted me renewal.

When the year was over, I moved on to a new word, but living with “release” for that year was a healthy and helpful discipline for me. I think it would have helped the Israelite people too. Instead of longing for Egypt and remembering it as so much better than it was, what if they had been able to release their old life of slavery and embrace God’s new future for them? What if they had rested in the faithfulness and sure provision of God instead of complaining at Massah and Meribah? Perhaps then Rephidim might have truly been their resting place.

This reflection first appeared in Christ Is for Us (Abingdon Press, 2016).

For more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better:

Author: April Yamasaki

I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications include On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: and

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