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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 17



Verse 1

1.And all the congregation. Scarcely was the sedition of the people about the want of food set at rest when they again rebel on the subject of drink. They ought, at least, to have learnt from the manna, that as often as necessity pressed upon them, they should have humbly implored in prayer and supplication God’s help, in certain hope of relief. But such was their character, that they were hurried by despair into secret murmurings and impetuous cries. We have almost a precisely similar account in Numbers 20:0. (186) For the error of those who think it one and the same, is easily refuted by the circumstances of the time and place; and in Numbers 33:0, it is very clearly shown how great a distance there was between the one station and the other. Neither does the tradition of some of the Rabbins appear probable, that this thirst did not arise from natural appetite, because the manna was not only meat, but also served for drink. For there is no reason why we should be compelled to imagine this; and we gather from the text, that the commencement of their murmurings arose from the fact that the water now began for the first time to fail them. But it was God’s will in two ways, and at two different times, to try the minds of the Israelites, that they might more plainly show their natural intractability. If they had required bread and water at the same time, they would have been more excusable; but after they had experienced that a sweet and wholesome kind of food was bountifully given them from heaven, because that country produced no corn, it was an act of intolerable perversity immediately to murmur against God when they had no supply of drink. Moreover, a double accusation is here brought against them, for insulting God by quarrelling and chiding with Him, and also for tempting Him. Both arose from unbelief, the cause of which was ingratitude; for it was too vile of them so soon to bury in willful forgetfulness what God had so recently given them. He had brought them supplies when they were suffering from hunger; why do they not fly to Him when they are oppressed by thirst? It is plain, then, that the former favor was ill bestowed upon them, since it so directly vanished in their insensibility. Hence, too, appears their unbelief, because they neither expect nor ask anything of God; and with this, too, pride is conjoined, because they dare to proceed to chiding. Indeed this almost always happens, that those who neither depend on His providence nor rest; on His promises, provoke God to contend with them, and rush impetuously against Him; because the brutal violence of our passions hurries us on to madness, unless we are persuaded that God will in due time be our helper, and are, submissive to His will. In the beginning of the chapter Moses briefly indicates that the Israelites journeyed according to the commandment, or, as the Hebrew expresses it, “the mouth” (187) of God, as if he would praise their obedience. Whence we gather that, at the first outset, they were sufficiently disposed to their duty, until a temptation occurred, which interrupted them in the right way. By which example we are warned that, whenever we undertake anything at God’s bidding, we should carefully beware that nothing should hinder our perseverance; and that none are fitted to act rightly but those who are well prepared to endure the assaults of temptation.

Verse 2

2.Wherefore the people did chide with Moses. Here now displays itself both their impiety against God, since neglecting and despising Him they make war against Moses, and also their malice and unkindness, because, forgetful of so many benefits, they wantonly insult Moses. They know that fountains and rivers cannot be created by mortal man; wherefore, then, do they quarrel with him, and not call directly upon God, in whose hand are the waters as well as all other elements? Certainly, if there had been a spark of faith in them, they would have had recourse to prayer. Rightly, then, does Moses expostulate, that in chiding with him, they tempt God Himself. What madness is there in their accusing Moses of cruelty in bringing them with him out of Egypt, that he might kill them, and their children, and cattle in the wilderness? But Moses chiefly reproves them on this ground, because God Himself is affected by this rebellious chiding. But the actual form of their tempting God is stated at the end, viz., because they had doubted “whether the Lord was among them or not?” Hence it follows, that the root of the whole evil was their unbelief; because they neither ascribed due honor to God’s power nor believed Him to be true to his promises.: For He had taken charge of them, and had promised that He would never fail them; why then, now, when circumstances demand it, do they not assure themselves that He will assist them, except because they wickedly detract both from His power and His truth?

Verse 4

4.And Moses cried. This cry seems not to have been conformed to the true model of prayer, but to have been mixed with confused complaint, to which Moses was impelled by the deep perturbation of his mind: for excessive earnestness sometimes carries away the godly, so that they rather fret in their prayer than duly and moderately express their requests. For there is something in these words which sounds angry and obstreperous, “What shall I do unto this people?” as if Moses, struck with indignation, complained that he was weighed down with a heavy burden, which he would willingly shake off if he could obtain permission and deliverance from God. Interpreters variously expound what follows. Some thus render it, that “Unless God immediately came to his help, or should He dissemble for ever so short a time, Moses must be stoned.” Some, “It is but little that they will rush upon me to stone me.” Some, too, read it in the past tense, but to this the particle עוד, (188) gnod, which relates to the future, is an objection. I am most pleased with this sense; that if God delay His assistance but for a short time, the people’s rage could not be restrained from stoning Moses.

Verse 5

5.And the Lord said unto Moses. He commands him to go out into the midst, as if He would expose him to the danger of immediate death; but because Moses is persuaded that it is in His power to calm the passion of men, however fierce, as well as the waves and storms of the sea, he neither trembles nor retreats. But, thus did God magnify His power, so as to brand them with ignominy whilst He withheld the people from their previous attitude. In fact, Moses passes before them all, but he only takes the elders with him, before whom to bring the water from the rock, that they may be eye-witnesses of the miracle. This middle course, whilst it does not permit the glory of God’s bounty to be obscured, still shows the multitude that they are unworthy of being admitted to behold His power. To remind him that his rod would not be inefficient, He recalls to his memory what he had already experienced; yet does he not recount all the miracles; but only adduces what we saw at first, that, by its touch, the waters of the Nile were turned into blood. The declaration of God, that he will stand upon the rock, tends to remove all hesitation, lest Moses should be anxious or doubtful as to the event; for otherwise the smiting of the rock would be vain and illusory. Moses, therefore, is encouraged to be confident; since God, whom he follows in the obedience of faith, will put forth His power by his hand, so that he should undertake nothing vainly or ineffectually. Meanwhile, although He employs the operation of His servant, still He claims to Himself the honor of the work.

Verse 7

7.And he called the name of the place. The verb here might be taken indefinitely, as if it were said, that this name was given to the place; but it is more probable that Moses, at God’s command, so called the place, in order that the Israelites might be more ready to acknowledge their crime, when thus it was marked with double infamy. Although it was not only His intention to impress this feeling upon their minds, but also to hand down the memory of it to posterity. The same reproof is afterward repeated at Cades, as we shall see; because the former notice had been buried in oblivion by these foolish people. The very name of the place (189) was as much as to say that the earth itself cried out, that the people, in their perverse nature, were rebellious, and given to unbelief. Now, temptation is the mother of contentions; for as soon as anything occurs contrary to the wishes of one who distrusts God, he has recourse to murmuring and dispute. When Moses relates that the Israelites “tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us or not?” he does not mean that they openly spoke rims; but that this was the tendency of their cries, when on account of the want of water they rose against Moses, and complained that they were deceived by him, as though God had no power to help them. But though God branded the people for their malignity and perversity, with a lasting mark of ignominy, yet did He afford them an extraordinary proof of His goodness, not only in bestowing on them the drink by which their bodies might be refreshed, but by honoring their souls also with spiritual drink, as Paul testifies, (1 Corinthians 10:4,) “that rock was Christ,” and therefore he compares the water which flowed from it to the cup of the holy supper. So do we see how God’s immeasurable bounty surpasses all the wickedness of man, and how, by turning their vices to salvation, He brings light out of darkness; so far is He from giving them the reward of their deservings, when He confers upon them what is profitable. But we must remember the warning which is here interposed, that it availed many of them nothing to drink of that spiritual drink, because they profaned by their crimes that excellent gift.

Verse 8

8.Then came Amalek. These were the first enemies whom God arrayed against Israel, after having delivered them from Egypt, and having kept them for some time in peace and quietness. It was principally for two reasons that He chose them now to be involved in war, either to punish them for their recent sin, or as a correction of their idleness, lest it should ensnare them into iniquity; for, as among soldiers sedition often arises from a cessation of labor, so also the more God spared this people and indulged them, the more did their forwardness increase. No wonder then that they were awakened by war, when they had taken occasion from their state of tranquillity to wax wanton. But some imagine that the Amalekites were impelled to take arms with this design; first, to avenge (190) the abdication of their ancestor; and secondly, because they were unwilling that the posterity of Jacob should enjoy the inheritance of which Esau, the grandfather of Amalek, the founder of their nation, had been deprived. And, certainly, it is probable that the recollection of the injury which had been inflicted on their ancestor still remained, and that they were instigated by the devil, in order that the promise of God, whereby the right of primogeniture had been transferred from Esau to Jacob, should be frustrated and fail of its effect. This might, indeed, have been their reason for the war; but God had another object, viz., to render the people more obedient to Him, by humbling their pride. Perhaps it was on that account that He withdrew Moses from the leadership, and substituted Joshua, as some token of His indignation; for although the assistance He gave them was sufficiently manifest, and their victory was obtained by His grace and the prayers of Moses, yet would He have them reminded, by the absence of Moses, of their recent transgression, that, being humiliated by their fear, they might submissively ask for pardon, and fly more earnestly to Him for His aid. He orders chosen men to go forth, partly to inspirit the whole people, and encourage them to hope for victory, because He does not deign to employ the whole army to repel their enemies; and partly in consideration of the cowardice of this unwarlike mob, lest they should faint with terror if the enemies should make an incursion into the midst of their camp. For Moses does nothing of himself, but occupies the station appointed him by God on the top of the hill, to contend with the enemy from afar, but he sends down the others to fight hand to hand before him, since it had pleased God thus to order the battle. It is plain that he did not avoid the fight to spare himself, but because God had given him a different employment; and this appears from his wielding the rod of God, like their general and standard-bearer, and promising the successful issue of the battle, of which he had been assured. For that single rod was of more avail than as if they had gone into the field preceded by a thousand banners. I have already observed that this is sometimes called the rod of God, sometimes of Moses, sometimes of Aaron, according to circumstances; because God used it as an instrument to exercise His power through His ministers. So God does not detract from His own honor, when He works effectually by His ministers. It is a prelude to Joshua’s future call, which we shall notice in its place, that. he should be appointed commander of the troops; for he had not yet reached the dignity of next in command to Moses, unless an extraordinary commission had been given him by God.

Verse 10

10.So Joshua did as. Although Joshua is by no means backward, but diligently executes what he knows to be commanded him by God Himself, and it is probable that the soldiers whom he had taken to accompany him did their duty properly, yet is it expressly stated that they gained the victory by no care, or striving, or courage of their own, but by the prayer of Moses, by whose support their leader as well as the army was sustained. Yet does not Moses here boastfully commend his own zeal in praying, but is rather the public witness. and proclaimer of his weakness, that the glory might be entirely attributed to the gratuitous favor of God. Nor is there any question, that, conscious of the infirmity which he afterwards confesses, he associated with him Aaron and Hur, who might assist him in his task. There (191) is more acuteness than solidity in the notion which some have, that these two men present a figure of the Old and New Testament, on which the prayers of the saints must rest; and that the stone which they gave to Moses to sit upon was offered him because our faith is only founded upon Christ. I know how plausible such allegories are; but what I have just said is enough for me, that because Moses mistrusted his own weakness, therefore he sought these two assistants. And surely when they stayed his hands they also lifted up their minds, and prayed together to God in common supplications; but Moses speaks chiefly of himself, to show that this charge was entrusted to him by God. For he did not only offer his prayers as a work of charity, but because God had chosen him as intercessor, to conquer the enemies from afar by the stretching forth of the rod, and by his secret earnestness in prayer; and in this respect he was a type of Christ; although the similitude does not hold in all its parts. Doubtless his failure arose from his extreme earnestness, and the extraordinary vehemence of his zeal, and, therefore, praise is mixed up with blame, just as the saints, when they are stirred to make great efforts in prayer, find that not only does their vigor grow cold, but they fail from being almost consumed by their own ardor.

Verse 13

13.And Joshua discomfited Amalek. The copula is here used instead of the illative particle; for Moses here concludes that the Israelites overcame their enemies, because he had continually persevered in prayer. There is, too, an implied antithesis between the firmness of his hands and the weakness of the enemy, that we may know that they were discomfited or conquered, not so much by the sword as by the uplifting of the rod, and by the intercession of the holy man.

Verse 14

14.And the Lord said unto Moses. By this command God made it known that He had performed a work which not only ought to be celebrated by word (192) of mouth, but which also was deserving of eternal glory with posterity; for therefore did He command it to be written in a book, that its memory might never perish. The dispute of commentators respecting this book seems to me to be superfluous; for God simply wills that the memorial of this circumstance should exist in all ages; and this was effected by the narration of Moses, for he handed down in writing even to the end of the world the praise of this favor, together with the perpetual and immortal doctrine of the Law. Yet God did not only wish the memorable event of this battle to be written down, but also that Joshua should be reminded of it, lest he should faint under the many difficulties which awaited him. For nothing could better support him with invincible firmness than the recollection of this history, from whence he might be assured that the people would ever be victorious under the auspices of God. But although this promise was not immediately fulfilled, yet the Amalekites were a long time afterwards totally destroyed by Saul; but it was a great encouragement to Joshua and the people to know that Amalek, who had first made war upon them, was already condemned by the divine decree, and could not escape the destruction to which he was devoted.

Verse 15

15.And Moses built an altar. The purpose of this was that not he alone, but the whole people should testify, by solemn sacrifice, their gratitude; which the very name of the altar proves. For neither did he wish to erect a statue to God, nor to honor the altar by God’s name, but he shows that this was the object he proposed to himself, that the Israelites, being inflated by their good success, should not boast of their own strength, but glory only in God. I see not why some should translate it “miracle,” for the word נס, (193) nis, is undoubtedly always rendered “banner.” Yet I do not deny that the word is here used metaphorically for “exaltation;” as if Moses had said, that the God who had sustained His people was worthy only to be exalted among them.

Verse 16

16.For he said, Because the Lord. (194) He confirms by repetition the same declaration which he had lately pronounced from the mouth of God, viz., that God would be ever at war with the Amalekites, until He should have utterly destroyed them. Translators do not agree as to the meaning of the expression, “The hand is upon the throne of the Lord.” Some imagine it to be a form of oath, as though God swore by His throne. Others understand by His throne the Church, which is the rest of God, in which he is said to sit. But I have no doubt but that what was said as to destroying and extinguishing the memory of Amalek is confirmed by this reason, viz., that as God is omnipotent He will contend with this wicked nation. Therefore the hand is said to be upon the throne of God, because he does not sit idly in heaven, (as the Epicureans imagine,) but exercises His dominion in the government of the world, as if he had said, that God, who rules in power, and who by His hand and authority controls and moderates, sustains and overthrows all things, as long as He shall reign upon His throne, endued with supreme and formidable might, will never cease to pursue the Amalekites with His just vengeance. And, indeed, it may have been the case, that He inflicted divers punishments upon them, though their last great overthrow was delayed till the days of Saul.


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Exodus 17:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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