Old Testament: Exodus 17:1-7 (Lent 3: Series A)

Reading Time: 8 mins

We live our lives of flesh dependent like slaves, but God has made us children and heirs through Christ. So, we must “unlearn” what we have learned in our lives of sin.

Throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers, God’s people have a habit of complaining. On their journey from the world of slavery to the Promised Land they never spare Moses, or God for that matter, their opinion. Our text comes at the end of two chapters of complaining. Between Exodus 15 and 17, God’s people are worried about God’s provision or lack thereof. But their behavior makes sense, does it not? They have been totally institutionalized by slavery. They are not used to having a Lord who will simply take care of things out of “His fatherly divine goodness and mercy.”[1] No, in Egypt their “master” bid them call him “lord” and he claimed to be “divine,” even though he was not, and Pharoah was without goodness and mercy. It is simply hard to leave a total institution which controls every aspect of life and death. Because God understands this about His people and because He knows why they have a hard time trusting Him, He remains patient with them and provides in a way that shows us grace.

The structure of our text is quite simple:

            (1) need (verse 1)
            (2) complaint (verses 2–3)
            (3) response by Moses (verse 4)
            (4) miraculous intervention by God (verses 5–6)

The final verse (verse 7) provides an explanation of the name of the place where this all happened.

What is great is the Apostle Paul actually gives us our Gospel Handle for this sermon. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 he says:

“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

Paul applies the rock from our text to Christ even though it is not literally applicable. He is using a metaphor to help us understand Christ in our own lives as well. “The insertion of the Christological identification in 10:4 also signals something more is at stake in this contrast than is readily apparent.[2] The significance of the events in the wilderness transcends the pastness of those events. “These things” from the past are metaphoric examples for us in the present. The paraenetic value of the imagery is ready to be exploited”[3] for the sake of the Gospel in our preaching. It is brilliant that through divine inspiration we have a way to preach this text from its own perspective.

The significance of the events in the wilderness transcends the pastness of those events.

We would do well to use the Metaphoric Domain Structure which is a “dynamic” structure for our sermon preparation. I first learned about this structure at a Symposium in May 2009, called The Day of Homiletical Reflection, at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis as Rev. Dr. Justin Rossow taught it.

This is how a Metaphoric Domain Structure works: “A metaphor enables us to “see one thing in terms of another.” The Metaphoric Domain sermon structure builds upon this experience by creating three different moments in the sermon:

            (1) experiencing the metaphorical world (the world of wilderness wandering in Exodus 17)
            (2) opening the eyes of faith to see the works of God in terms of that metaphorical world (water from the rock is Christ
            (3) seeing the world anew as one looks at life through eyes of faith now shaped by the metaphorical world (God’s people                 today learn to trust in Him through His incarnate Word in the resurrected Christ)

In the first section of the sermon, the preacher evokes an experience of the world in the text. When he does, he must pay attention to concrete descriptive details which not only create that world in the imagination of the hearers, but also prepare the listeners for a later discovery of the metaphor and the teachings of the faith in light of the chosen metaphor.

In the second section of the sermon, the preacher uses the lens of the metaphor to clarify the faithful confession of the sermon. Here, the preacher works with the Scriptural text (Exodus 17:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 10:4), the theological confession (trusting the Word of God in life), and the evangelical proclamation (Christ is the source of God’s grace in your life and you can trust He has provided for you because of His resurrection) in terms which flow from the metaphorical world. At this point, the metaphor should clarify rather than obscure. That is, through the lens of the metaphor, the hearers should be brought to a deeper understanding and experience of the text, the confession of faith, and the proclamation of Christ.

In the third section of the sermon, the preacher now turns from the confession of faith to the lives of God’s people, and helps them see their lives anew. In this segment, the lives of God’s people will be interpreted in light of the theological teaching of the sermon that has been clarified by the use of the metaphor. Although God’s people will look at something with which they are familiar in this section of the sermon, the metaphorical lens causes them to discover things they had not seen before or to see their lives in a new way. For example, a sermon could use the proclamation of Christ as the Rock to help God’s people hear how the Spirit in baptism calls them to trust in God as they wander on this Lenten journey.

 When working with metaphors, the preacher will need to be attentive to the limits of the metaphor. “Since any metaphor can be pushed too far, the preacher may need to alert the hearers to ways in which the metaphor is limited but still useful for faithful reflection.”[4]

Here is an outline of what this might look like:

Source of the Metaphor (Exodus 17:1-7)


Who? God is present


What? To provide for all their needs


For Whom? For His people


How? (What obstacles/enemies get in the way) They were slaves, so they have a hard time trusting. This worry makes them complain. They complain because they think it will get them what they need. They are mistakenly treating God like Pharoah. They complain because they think they know what is good rather than trusting in God to set the terms for what is good and to remember that only God is good. Their vexing question which is a persistent problem: Is He present with us if He does not provide?


How? (Means/Helpers who God sends to overcome the enemies or obstacles) God provides by means of the rock, just like He said He would. The rock was helpful in pointing to Christ, the Word made flesh, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, which has opportunities to talk about the Means of Grace in Baptism and The Lord’s Supper.


Target of the Metaphor (1 Corinthians 10:4, and us today)


Who? God is present with us as we wander through Lent


What? He will provide for all our needs


For Whom? We are His people. He saved us by the mighty signs and wonders of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. Signs and wonders are Old Testament language for God’s working in the Exodus. It is also the Apostle John’s word choice for Jesus’ work in the Gospel. This is a connection to the Gospel reading.


How? (What obstacles/enemies get in the way) We were slaves to sin (Romans 6:20), and we have been totally institutionalized by this world. So, we complain. We imagine God to be a slave driver. We believe we can actually tell God what is good and what He should give us. We are anxious that if He does not answer our prayer, then is He really with us?


How? (Means/Helpers who God sends to overcome the enemies or obstacles) God provides by means of the rock (Matthew 16:13-20), which is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4), and Jesus bids us to build our whole hope and our whole lives on this rock (Matthew 7:24-27). We know God has provided for us because His Word promised it and Jesus fulfilled it as the Word made flesh (John 1:14).

If this structure does not make sense at first, I find talking it out makes the construct come alive. Again, the basic problem for Israel in the text is a question: Is the Lord present among us or not? Tied to this question is the fact that they see the Lord as primarily a dispenser of good things for them to have. This ties into their institutionalization as slaves. If they do not have what they want at that particular moment, then they question whether the Lord is actually present among them. They are “unlearning” their institutionalized behavior as slaves and are now learning to trust in God’s Word. God is patient and He does provide. He even provides miraculously through water from a rock.

They are “unlearning” their institutionalized behavior as slaves and are now learning to trust in God’s Word.

The way we apply this word to our present Lenten circumstances is to see how God has miraculously provided for us as well. He provided through His Word, the Word made flesh in Christ! He is the trustworthy Word of God, present and fulfilled for us. God said we needed to be freed from the total slavery and institution of sin. We live our lives of flesh dependent like slaves, but God has made us children and heirs through Christ (Romans 8:17). So, we must “unlearn” what we have learned in our lives of sin. God has been patient (1 Peter 3:20) with humanity, but now He has provided (Galatians 4:4-6). He gives miraculously through Christ, who moved the rock over the empty tomb and what issued forth from His resurrection was eternal life flowing like a flood of forgiveness and trustworthiness in the wilderness of our banished sin. This leads us to how God has kept His promises for us in Christ. The hard piece is the trust part though. Lent is difficult because it feels a lot like the wilderness journey in life.

One more word about this sermon form. Sometimes the Metaphoric Domain Structure ends the sermon abruptly. If you need a little something at the end of your sermon, I suggest a poem. Since you are dealing with metaphor in the text and sermon structure, then poetry seems like a fitting finish.

Ellen Bass authored a poem called The Thing Is. It might help your hearers to connect with the lives of Israel and the life we live by faith. Bass’ poem is about trust. She urges us to love life in the midst of unimaginable grief, which weighs us down physically. She says to love life even if it sickens us. When we are so sick of life that we think we can stand it no longer, Bass encourages us to think of life as a plain, sad face held between two hands. Here, we can add at the end of her poem Christ, who is holding us and says to us, “I will take you. I will love you, again.”

The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you down like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then Christ (my emphasis) holds your life like a face

between His nail scarred palms, a plain face,

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and He says to you, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.[5]


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Exodus 17:1–7.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Exodus 17:1–7.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Exodus 17:1–7.

Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Walter A. Maier III Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Exodus 17:1–7.


[1] Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 354.

[2] For a general discussion of the argument in 1 Cor 8:1–11:1, see Bruce N. Fisk, “Eating Meat Offered to Idols: Corinthian Behavior and Pauline Response in 1 Corinthians 8–10 (A Response to Gordon Fee),” TrinJ (n.s.) 10 (1989) 49–70.

[3] James W. Aageson, “Written Also for Our Sake: Paul’s Use of Scripture in the Four Major Epistles, with a Study of 1 Corinthians 10,” in Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament, ed. Stanley E. Porter, McMaster New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 172.

[4] https://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/dynamic/metaphorical-movement/

[5] Ellen Bass, “The Thing Is,” from Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, (Grayson Books, 2017).