Envision this strange scene. As the Israelites approach the end of their forty years of wandering, they journey to Beer (i.e., a well) in Moab. Needing water, they do not murmur or complain; they do not even pray. Instead, they sing a song.
A strange song. It is unlikely in all of human history that a similar song has been sung. Robert Burns is renowned for writing an ode to a mouse. But this song is stranger still. It is unique in at least three regards. First, the song addresses an inanimate object: a well, perhaps one that is nearly invisible or visible and apparently dried up, and seemingly useless: “Spring up, O well!” (Num. 21:17). Second, the song praises the well (and by implication, its Giver): “Sing to it!” Third, the song describes a strange event.
Strange well-diggers. The Israelites offer praise for “The well, which the leaders sank, which the nobles of the people dug” (v. 18). One would think that menials, or at least people experienced in manual labor, would be given the arduous task of digging a well. But in this instance, it appears that Moses had ordered the “leaders” and “nobles” of the people to dirty their clothes and blister their hands with digging. This was not the ceremonial single shovelful of loose top soil tossed from a golden shovel by a dignitary at a modern groundbreaking ceremony, but hard, sweaty scrabbling in the ground to discover water.
Strange tools. As if were not strange enough that it was the nobility who were chosen to dig rather than the common people, then consider the options they had for digging implements: they dug “with the scepter and with their staffs” (v. 18). No shovel, no spade, no mattock, not even a trowel, or a sword, or a knife, but only “the scepter” and “their staffs”—the emblem of a king or leader and their walking devices. Better than bare hands only in that their use would retard injury to soft fingers and hands, but hardly ideal for the needed purpose.
What should we make of this vignette? Is it irrelevant filler material? Merely a transition between more significant events? Though God is not making a major doctrinal statement with this brief picture, its striking character is intended to give us pause and to make us meditate on the ways of the Lord. Among other things, we may learn these lessons, at least. 1) Praise proves profitable in times of trial. Petitioning God is essential: He commands it. Laboring is essential: He commands it. But faith that can offer genuine, trusting praise in the face of bleak circumstances extracts rich blessings from God obtainable by no other means. If we would do more praising, we would find it necessary to do less petitioning—and our lives would be more joyful and God-honoring. 2) No one should consider himself above lowly service. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that no service God asks of us should be deemed lowly. Pride says that this or that task is beneath our dignity to perform. Furthermore, we should not expect others to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves. Whether digging a well, as here, or restoring the wall in Jerusalem under Nehemiah, victory was achieved through humble submission to the task. 3) We are not the ones to determine the proper tool for the task. While we should recognize the gifts God has given each of us, we are not the arbiters of when, where, how—or even if—they are to be used. The person who says, “My talent is teaching, I won’t trouble myself with cleaning the church” or, “My ability is musical, I’m not going to waste my time with visiting” has failed to appreciate the fact that sometimes God wants us to dig a well with a scepter. Submission and obedience serve God far better than the utilization of some talent or ability. When we praise the Lord regardless of circumstances, when we gladly do whatever He wishes, and when we allow Him to determine the use of our talents, we will have learned the lessons of this vignette.
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