From a human point of view, I want to compare Numbers chapter 20 to The Empire Strikes Back. While that was certainly the best of the Star Wars movies, it was also one where everything went south. The good guys lost in that movie at every turn. That's the same sense you get when reading Numbers 20: Miriam dies in the wilderness of Zin, Moses is told that he will not get to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites' own kin will not allow them to pass through their land, and Aaron dies on Mount Hor. It is one of the very darkest times in all of the Exodus journey. I say that my comparing this chapter to The Empire Strikes Back is from a human point of view, though, because Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Israel are not the good guys, and the God who brought these hard times upon them for their sins is most certainly not analogous to some evil Empire. Nevertheless, it is a miserable scene in the story of the lives of those whom God has redeemed from bondage, and we empathize with them in their sorrow.
One of the lessons that it would be good for us to learn from this account, however, is the same lesson that Moses had to learn the hard way. It is often confusing to many students of the Bible as to why God reacted so harshly toward a man who had served Him so well (humanly speaking) throughout this whole ordeal. How could God possibly tell Moses that he would never enter the Promised Land when he had been so meek and selfless to lead this hard-hearted multitude through years of self-inflicted wilderness wandering? Was it truly all because of one thing that he said when he whacked a rock with his staff (Numbers 20:10-11)?
Let's examine the scene: the people are grumbling again. It's the same old complaint that we have heard over and over: "Would that we had died in Egypt. Why did you bring us here to kill us? There is no water to drink." Moses and Aaron fall to their faces before the Lord...again. God tells them that He will graciously provide...again. God tells Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water...again (cf. Exodus 17:6). Then comes the deviation from the will of God: Moses does indeed strike the rock, but he adds, "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you our of this rock?" (Numbers 20:9).
God's indictment against this statement of Moses was that he "did not believe in [Yahweh], to uphold [Him] as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel" (verse 12). The holiness of God is one of His defining characteristics. He is wholly "other", different, or set apart from His creation. Moses infringed upon this holiness when he claimed to be the one who was bringing the water out of the rock: "Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" And as verse 13 makes plain, God showed Himself holy through the people in this instance when He forbid Moses from ever entering the very Promised Land that he was laboring to reach.
Here is the fearsome principle that we need to learn: if we will not show the Lord to be holy in all that we do and say, He will show Himself as holy by the way that He judges us. This is precisely what is happening in the eternal punishment of the unbelievers (read: hell). If they will not bow to His authority and power in life; if they will not acknowledge Him as Lord and confess Him before men, then He will show Himself holy in them by judging them with "everlasting punishment" (Matthew 25:46). He will get the praise that He deserves one way or another: either from the voluntary praise of our lips or from the glory of displaying His justice in punishing our sins. Either way He looks glorious and we get humbled.
So let us endeavor with all of our might to show Him as holy and majestic with all of our thoughts, all of our words, and all of our actions. I don't know about you, but I want to make it to the Promised Land. Forgive me, Lord, for ever stealing any of the glory that You deserve. Crush my pride by the most severe means, as long as I can proclaim by my life that You are holy.