TESTING GOD BY DOUBTING HIS POWERFUL PRESENCE TO PROVIDE EXPOSES OUR SPIRITUAL IMMATURITY BUT ENHANCES GOD’S PATIENCE AND GRACE
Time after time the Lord leads His children into difficult circumstances in order to test their hearts. Certainly by this time the Israelites should be confirmed in their assurance of God’s gracious and powerful presence with them to fully provide and protect them on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. But sadly they fail to respond in faith and submission to the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Instead they test God by their grumbling and complaining.
Kevin McAteer: We put God to the test –
– When we doubt His kindness in any given situation –
– When we question His providence –
– When we grumble and complain under the weight of a trial –
– When we openly accuse Him of leaving and deserting His people –
– When we think we deserve better circumstances than God has given us
Wiersbe: It was the presence of the Lord that gave Moses the strength and confidence he needed as he led the people of Israel during their wilderness wandering. He had a difficult task, leading a thankless army of former slaves whom he was trying to build into a nation, but he persevered because the Lord was with him. The events recorded in these two chapters reveal to us what the presence of the Lord means to God’s people and their leaders as they are on their pilgrim journey.
John Davis: The whole history of the wandering in the wilderness is a good example of the longsuffering of God with a people who constantly tempted and provoked Him.
Timothy Greene: We need to remember that it took about three months for the Israelites to travel from Egypt to Mount Sinai (Horeb; Exod. 19:1-2), and so there were other stops along the way besides the ones that Moses tells us about here in Exodus.
Here’s a part of Israel’s itinerary tracing their travels from the Red Sea to Rephidim where we find them this morning: — Numbers 33:8–14 —
They… passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah [bitter water]. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim [where there was water]… And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea [where we assume there was water]. And they set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin [where we assume there was water, and where God provided quail and manna]. And they set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah [where we assume there was water]. And they set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush [where we assume there was water]. And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.
The point is that as a general rule, God led His people through the desert from one oasis to another – from one underground spring to another. (cf. Currid) And so we shouldn’t miss the vivid picture of a shepherd tenderly keeping and leading His flock.
I. (:1-3) TESTING GOD NEVER HELPS YOUR DIFFICULT SITUATION
A. (:1) God Legitimately Testing His People — Repeating a Prior Failed Test
1. Our Spiritual Journey Includes God Testing Us
“Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages
from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the LORD,
and camped at Rephidim,”
Gispen: The Amalekites probably controlled the stream, the springs, and the palm trees, and they soon came out and attacked Israel (17:8-16). The Israelites thus could not reach the springs but had to be satisfied with the barren part of the wadi, and had no water to drink.
Douglas Stuart: The wording of 17:1 makes clear that the Israelites did not camp at Rephidim of their own volition but of God’s, and therefore one is forced to conclude that once again God had led them directly to a place where there was no drinkable water (cf. 15:22–26).
C. W. Powell: If you are in a hard spot:
a) You are either there because of disobedience or obedience. If disobedience, then you must repent and find the way of obedience.
b) If by obedience, then the trial is from God and you are to bear it patiently.
c) Either way, you must not blame God. There murmuring showed their unbelief either way; murmuring is always sinful and wicked and it means that you either are not taking responsibility for your own disobedience, or you are complaining about the way God has led you—frightful sins either way.
2. Trials Can Involve Difficult Challenges
“and there was no water for the people to drink.”
F B Meyer: Hunger is bad enough to bear, but it affects only one organ of the body, whereas thirst sets the whole being on fire. It mounts to the brain and burns like fever in the blood. The little children were drooping like flowers; the cattle were on the verge of exhaustion, and lay panting on the ground. The scouts searched everywhere for water in vain, and came back with but one report, that there was no water anywhere to be found.
Steven Cole: Why did God directly lead Israel to another place of no water?” The answer is: For the same reason He brings us into places of need: so that we will call upon Him in our weakness and He will be glorified when He delivers us. The Lord says (Ps. 50:15), “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” So if you’re in a place of trouble, before you do anything else, call upon the Lord. If you’ve been grumbling, confess that to the Lord and ask Him to be glorified through the trial that you’re in. This incident of Israel’s grumbling at Massah (“test”) and Meribah (“quarrel”) is mentioned in Psalm 95:7-11. Hebrews 3:7-11+ cites those verses and adds (Heb. 3:12+), “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” Grumbling stems from “an evil, unbelieving heart.” Unbelief tests or tries the Lord (Exod. 17:7; Ps. 95:9). In spite of His many mercies, when problems arise, unbelief challenges God by asking (Exod. 17:7), “Is the Lord among us, or not?” In other words, unbelief asks, “If God is really here and cares about me, how can He let this happen?” Unbelief doubts God’s sovereignty, His power, His wisdom, and His love. It removes God from His rightful place as judge and puts Him on trial, while I judge Him, questioning His ways of dealing with me! It stems from the pride of thinking that I know better than God what would be best for me. Be on guard against grumbling against the Lord!
B. (:2) God’s People Illegitimately Testing God
1. Trying to Control God – Making Demands on Our Terms
“Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said,
‘Give us water that we may drink.’”
C. W. Powell: Murmuring is implicitly a condemnation of self: you are either refusing to take responsibility for your actions, or you are admitting that you are not walking in faith in the providence of God.
John Mackay: ‘Give’ is a plural verb. Although Aaron is not mentioned, he is evidently at Moses’ side. The people do not explicitly confront the Lord, but rather challenge the adequacy of the provision made by the leaders he appointed. The word ‘quarrel’ is significant in the passage, being the root from which the word Meribah (‘quarrelling’ or ‘contention’) is formed (17:7). It denotes formal legal proceedings, and also, as here, an informal presentation of a grievance, which if not resolved may well give rise to more formal action at a later stage. So Moses has to face more than the previous grumbling. It has now become a general, formal expression of dissatisfaction.
Philip Ryken: This is something else we have seen before: All our dissatisfaction shows that we are disappointed with God. To put it another way, all our complaints go straight to the top, where God rules the universe by his sovereign power. Whatever the reason for our discontent, what it really shows is that we are not satisfied with what God has given us. This is a great sin. It is not wrong to take our troubles to God, talking them over with him in prayer. In fact, the Bible encourages us to be honest about our doubts and difficulties. But God does not accept open revolt against his holy will or the refusal to trust in his perfect word.
2. Trying to Judge God – Making God Accountable to Our Demands
“And Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me?
Why do you test the LORD?’”
Douglas Stuart: “Testing God” is demanding or expecting him to do something special for you, something you haven’t earned and don’t per se deserve. . . Testing God always involves some degree of doubt about whether or not one’s present circumstances are all that one deserves and whether or not God could or should have done a better job of providing one’s needs.
Philip Ryken: People often put God to the test this way. We want him to prove himself to us. So instead of starting with God and evaluating our experience from his point of view, we start with our own circumstances and judge him on that basis. When things go wrong, when life does not meet our expectations, we are quick to fix the blame squarely on his shoulders and to demand some kind of explanation. C. S. Lewis observed: “The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”
Timothy Greene: As one commentator says, testing God is “seeking a way God can be coerced to act or show himself. It is to set God up, to try to force God’s hand…” (Fretheim; quoted in Hamilton) Someone else writes: “In essence, testing God is demanding that he jump through our hoops and make himself answerable and accountable to us.” (Hamilton) Now we might say that the provision of water isn’t much of a hoop to jump through, and yet any and all “hoops” that we might ever set up are all equally sinful and arrogant. Remember the questions we asked ourselves a couple of weeks ago: How often do we fall into the trap of thinking that, at least in what we would consider to be the most “basic” and “essential” areas, God is obligated to us – though we’d never say that out loud. How have we ever tried to manipulate God? What are the “hoops” that we have at least assumed God should be jumping through if He really loves us and is truly with us? What we need to be learning from Israel’s experiences in the wilderness is that our own “flesh”—which is the same as what was in each one of them—is naturally and automatically prone to “testing” God. Our own flesh (including each and every single one of us here) is naturally and automatically prone to insisting that God prove Himself to us based on our standards, and our expectations – no matter how “minimal” and “elementary” they might be.
C. (:3) Grumbling Against God’s Appointed Leadership
1. Legitimate Needs – Denying God’s Provision
“But the people thirsted there for water;”
Rod Mattoon: The heads of the Hebrews were inflamed with irrationality. Their hearts were flaming with fury against Moses. Their hands were clutching stones, ready to be hurled like fast balls at any moment. Their circumstances were in control of them and emotionally they were out of control. They were suffering a panic attack and a temper tantrum at the same time and they chided Moses….When you are waterless in wilderness, do you blame others for your problems or do you cry out to God? Men have a spiritual thirst for pardon, holiness, and salvation. Learning won’t satisfy this thirst. Riches or pleasure won’t satisfy it either. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can quench the longing in your heart.
2. Irrational Arguments – Denying God’s Protection
“and they grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: Instead of submitting to the tests God was conducting for them (15:25; 16:4), Israel began to test the Lord (Pss 78:56; 106:7, 14, 25, 29)! God’s people tempt or test their Lord when they distrust his kindness and providential care of them and grumble against him and/or his leaders.
Philip Ryken: The Israelites made three statements to Moses, each of which represents a different kind of complaint. . .
First they said, “Give us water to drink” (Exod. 17:2a). The sin here is demanding God’s provision—not asking for it or waiting for it, but insisting on it. They were telling God that he had to give them what they wanted or else there was no telling what they might do. In our rebellion we often do the same thing. We insist on having our own way. When God does not do for us what we think he ought to do, in the way we think he ought to do it, we complain about it. At home, at work, and in the church, we demand God’s provision on our own terms.
The second thing the Israelites said was, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (v. 3). Here they were denying God’s protection. The people assumed the worst, as they usually did, and thus they concluded that God had abandoned them, even to the point of death. Although their words were directed against God’s prophet, they were really impugning God’s motives. They were accusing him of trying to harm them. Again, we often commit the same sin. We complain that what God is doing in our lives—especially the suffering we must endure—is not good for us but actually harmful. This is to deny God’s protection.
The third thing the Israelites did was to test God, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (v. 7). In this case, their sin was doubting God’s presence. The lack of water made them wonder if God was really with them after all. Our own trials often raise the same question: “Are you really there, God? If you are, you sure don’t seem to be blessing me very much right now!” When we adopt this attitude, we are guilty of denying God’s presence.
II. (:4-7) TESTING GOD NEVER NULLIFIES THE GRACIOUS PROVISION FROM GOD’S POWERFUL PRESENCE
Remember: While we were still enemies of God, Jesus Christ died for us to make gracious provision for forgiveness of sins and life eternal with God.
A. (:4) Priority of Prayer and Dependence on the Lord in Desperate Times
“So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying,
‘What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.’”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: One of Moses’ most characteristic and praiseworthy traits was that he took his difficulties to the Lord (v. 4; 15:25; 32:30; 33:8; Num 11:2, 11; 12:13; 14:13-19 et al.).
John Davis: The people had become so dissonant and angry that they apparently were ready to stone their leaders (v. 4). The leadership and competence of Moses should have been vindicated by now, but to a people easily influenced by the mixed multitude and the difficulty of the circumstances these historical facts were easily forgotten.
David Thompson: Sometimes leaders are forced into situations in which the only thing they can do is cry out to God. Moses has nowhere else to turn. His only recourse is to cry out to God. Now Moses was not the kind of man to embellish the truth. So when he says to the Lord there is a danger here of me being “stoned,” you can be certain that was, in fact, a real possible threat. Moses did not know what to do. He never wanted this job in the first place and now that he had it, he is leading a group of people who are criticizing, complaining and threatening him. Stoning was the normal way people who were a threat were killed. Even recognized leaders were not above being stoned (Num. 14:10; 1 Sa 30:6; Jn 8:59; Acts 5:26; 7:58; 14:19). Stoning was a legitimate form of legal punishment. Moses truly believed that he was on the verge of being stoned. The people charged him with trying to starve them to death and now they were charging him with trying to kill them by thirst. Moses was in a real bind and people were in a panic and Moses needed God’s help and so he did exactly what he should do–he cried out to God. Now in some respects, Moses’ emotions are getting the best of him, just as Israel’s emotions are getting the best of them. Both have temporarily forgotten the protection of God and both have temporarily forgotten the provisions of God. To not trust in God is a form of rebellion and this lack of trust is a rebellion that is remembered in all of Scripture pertaining to Israel (Nu 20:13, 24; 27:14; Dt. 6:16; 9:22; 33:8; Ps. 81:7; 95:8; 106:32), but also pertaining to Moses and Aaron (Nu 27:14; 20:24; Deut. 32:51; Ps. 106:32). We may remember that God told Moses that he would lead the people of Israel back to a specific spot to worship Him (Ex. 3:12+). Moses was not back to that spot yet and he should have realized these people can threaten me all they want, but the fact is they cannot kill me because God is leading me. But even though this is a lapse of faith in Moses, he is doing the right thing by crying out to God.
B. (:5-6) Gracious Provision from God from a Surprising Source
1. (:5) Preparing the Miracle of Gracious Provision
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.’”
John Hannah: This “staff of God” (4:20; 17:9) was a symbol of power; holding it was a sign of dependence and trust in God.
Philip Ryken: God said to Moses, “Take with you some of the elders of Israel” (v. 5). In ancient times the assembly of elders passed judgment on disputed matters. Therefore, when Moses gathered them together, he was convening a court by forming a jury.
Peter Wallace: What shall you do? Notice the four things that God tells Moses to do:
– “Pass on before the people” – in other words, this will be a public event –
– “taking with you some of the elders” – those who are responsible for the grumbling –
– “and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile” – the symbol of God’s presence with Moses –
– “and go.”
But the staff of Moses is the instrument of judgment –
– first in the judgment upon Egypt –
– but here, most poignantly, in the judgment upon Christ – the Rock – as God shows how he will take the judgment of the people upon himself.
2. (:6) Performing the Miracle of Gracious Provision
a. Instructions – Focusing on the Rock as a Type of Jesus Christ
“Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb;
and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it,
that the people may drink.”
Youngblood: Paul may have had this incident in mind when he spoke of Christ as “the spiritual rock” that accompanied Israel on their journey across the desert (1 Cor. 10:4; see also Heb. 11:24-26).
Wiersbe: The rock is a type of Jesus Christ smitten for us on the cross (1 Cor. 10:4), and the water is a type of the Holy Spirit whose coming was made possible by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven (John 7:37-39).
Douglas Stuart: God’s presence and power represent the essentials for any miracle, and God explicitly promised Moses his presence in saying “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.” Horeb is the other name by which Mount Sinai is known. The provision of water is a divine gift in many biblical contexts. Here, in association with the encampment at Rephidim near Sinai, God did not merely allow the Israelites to find water but showed them his provision for them by supplying that water in a place it was not otherwise available: from a rock at the base of the Mountain of God.
“And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.”
C. (:7) Powerful Presence of God Despite the Failure of God’s People
1. Failure of God’s People
“And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel,”
John Oswalt: Moses understood that places are unique because of what takes place there in history and that if the lessons of that history are learned, the future need not be a repetition of the past but can actually be different. By giving this place this descriptive name, he was trying to root it and its lessons in his people’s minds in an unforgettable way and thus to change their behavior.
2. Fundamental Issue: Can We Count on the Powerful Presence of God?
“and because they tested the LORD, saying,
‘Is the LORD among us, or not?’”
Are they that stupid? A flame in the night and a cloud in the day; bread in the morning and water from a bitter river…How can they doubt the presence of God?
Douglas Stuart: The Israelites’ inexcusable attitude becomes clear with Moses’ concluding statement to the entire story: “They tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ ” Had the people said something like, “Does the Lord intend for us to become weaker and weaker while we wait for him to supply us with water?” it would still have been an untrusting statement and evidence of lack of faith. But for the people actually to doubt God’s presence among them was outrageously unfaithful. His presence was obviously manifest at all times, as it was at that very time through the pillar of cloud/fire, so the people’s question must be seen as nothing other than a contempt of the Lord’s leadership over them. . . It is an insult. It looks at the obvious and implies by snidely denying it that it is no good. Israel thus incurred God’s wrath and challenged God in a way he could not ignore.
Timothy Greene: The point of this whole account is that the Lord is, indeed, among the people. But they’re warned that He is not among them as one who serves their own carnal and fleshly thirsts and desires, but rather as the one who is, Himself, their abundant, never-ending source of life-giving water. (cf. Ps. 95:7-11; 81:7, 11-16; Deut. 6:16; 9:22; 33:8) To truly understand this would put an immediate and complete end to all of our “testing” of the Lord! But in the end, the people of Israel didn’t heed the warning or learn the lesson.