What does it mean to say Jesus is our rock? Julia Faire looks back through history and uncovers an ancient theme underlying the hopes of many people of faith.
‘Let’s find some shade!’ With record high temperatures around the globe this summer and the third longest heatwave on record in the UK, the word ‘shade’ has taken on new importance for many of us. Yet, in the scorching desert climes of large swathes of the Middle East, where little if any vegetation grows and shelter is almost non-existent, the cry has always been: ‘Where is shade?’
Amongst the rocky outcrops that scatter this barren landscape.
‘God is a rock!’ Jacob, Moses, David, Isaiah and the psalmists declared, all of whom were acquainted with the harsh realities of desert life.
So, what did they mean? The time-worn metaphor ‘rock’ to encapsulate something of the character of God is rich with implications and likely meant something slightly different to them all; placing myself as far as I am able in these ancient desert-dwellers shoes and using a certain degree of imagination, I speak here of several possibilities:
I imagine myself in a fierce desert storm. The howling wind has whisked up the sand; dunes have shifted and reshaped, the once familiar terrain is now unrecognisable, the dusty road is covered; the only identifiable places that lie before me are the immovable rocks and contours of the landscape.
Indeed, even my camels stumble in the soft sand and my journeying is slow. I long for the solid ground, the rock, on which to stand, to walk.
For Moses, leading the Hebrews over the Sinai Desert and on to the blasting daytime heat of the Arabian Desert – where temperatures could soar and sharply plummet – the desert rocks must have been welcome shade by day and shelter by night, refuge from the desert storms, solid ground and permanent landmarks along the way.
Living in a dry place with sparse or no rainfall, Moses found ‘the rock’ a place of provision – albeit supernatural: twice God, ‘brought streams out of a rocky crag and made water flow down like rivers’ (Psalm 78:15-20). In his final song, Moses exclaims: ‘He nourished him (God’s people) with honey from the rock, and with oil from the flinty crag’ (Deuteronomy 32:13).
But imagine, too, for Moses, the burden of and the constant clamouring of those once-runaway Hebrews slaves. Perhaps he found God a rock in the sense of a place of solitude, of stillness and communion, of spiritual nurture away from the demands of his people. In his final song, before he dies, Moses chastises God’s people, saying: ‘You deserted the Rock, who fathered you’ (Deuteronomy 32:18).
Early on in the Hebrews’ desert journeying at Sinai, Moses asked God to show him His glory. As God’s presence passed by, it was the recess of a rock that hid and protected him from the holiness of God that would have consumed him if he had seen His face. ‘When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen’ (Exodus 33:22-23).
Perhaps, now, like David, I find myself an outlaw. The rocky outcrops of the Judean Desert afford me not only protection from wild animals but from the sight of my enemies – and their arrows. David, finding God’s deliverance from Saul and his troops, sang out: ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge’ (2 Samuel 22:1).
David’s boyhood years were spent in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, on the edge of this same Judean Desert. Perhaps, in those days, ‘rocks’ had different connotations for him other than shelters from the warfare as he walked amongst them, finding a solitary place to contemplate, worship and commune with God. Many years later, John the Baptist and Jesus would also retire to this same desert place to attune their inner selves to hear God’s silent voice.
These ancient immovable rocks are, indeed, vantage points for me, offering wide views across the desolate terrain; here I see and prepare for what is in front of me. ‘From the ends of the earth I call to you,’ cries the psalmist, ‘I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe’ (Psalm 61:2-3).
In the eyes of our desert forbears, these rocky outcrops that littered the landscape and perhaps at times made monotonous viewing were always at hand: ‘Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go’ (Psalm 71:3) the psalmist prayed.
But, watch how you live. God is a Rock for the righteous alone. Declares the prophet Isaiah – ‘an impregnable rock’ (NASB) for, ‘those who walk righteously… speak what is right… and shut their eyes against contemplating evil’ (Isaiah 33:15-16).
For Isaiah, God is not a place of safety and security – he is the only place of safety and security: ‘No, there is no other Rock; I know not one’ (Isaiah 44:8). ‘God is the Rock eternal’ (Isaiah 26:4).
Paul wrote of the Moses’ generation: ‘They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:2-4). Both Peter (1 Peter 2:8) and Paul (Romans 9:33) in their letters pointed out that the Jews in their generation had not taken refuge in the Rock, Christ, but had, instead, stumbled over Him (Isaiah 8:14).
As Moses smote the rock and it gushed water (Exodus 17:3-7), so Christ our Rock was smitten for us – but what salvation, what grace, what everlasting supernatural life, what Spirit-rivers have issued.
Augustus Toplady, the eighteenth century hymn writer, finding shelter in a cleft in a rock in the English Mendip Hills during a violent storm, penned this hymn:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee,
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure
Cleanse me from its guilt and power
Christ the Rock: our only place of safety (both now and eternally), our shade, our shelter, our stability and solid ground, our strength, our victory against our age-old enemy, our vision-bringer, our sustainer, our provider, the one who sends us the Holy Spirit, the one in whom we hide from judgement due to us, the one who makes the Father fully accessible.
Christ our Rock is the spring, the source, of our initial salvation; He is, constantly, the source of all these things on our journey too.
In days of old, our forefathers sought out the rocks, climbed the rocks, sheltered, hid and found provision amongst the rocks. So here, we come, and seek afresh our God – our Rock; here, ever-present, in the midst of life’s uncertain landscape, storms and desert heat – He is waiting.