Putting God to the Test

In a recent post I wrote about the two ways Scripture uses the word tempt or test. When the Bible talks about the ways God tests our faith to make it stronger and when Scripture tells about the devil tempting us to sin, it uses the same word.

In this post we will discuss how God’s people test God.

According the Professor David Adams at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the classic story for when God’s people put God to the test is recorded in Exodus 17:1-7:

[1] All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. [2] Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” [3] But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” [4] So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” [5] And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. [6] Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. [7] And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (ESV)

This is the classic testing God story because it is referred to in Scripture so many times. Psalms 78, 81, 105 and 114 all make reference to this story. Isaiah mentions it in chapters 43 and 48.

And in Psalm 96 we have:

[7] “Today, if you hear his voice, [8] do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,s on the day at Massah in the wilderness, [9] when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” (ESV)

This passage from Psalm 96 is also referred to in Hebrews 3:7-9: “Today, if you hear his voice, [8] do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, [9] where your fathers put me to the test.” (ESV)

The message is clear: Don’t be like those thirsty people in the wilderness by putting the Lord your God to the test. It will not end well.

The main way in which the people of Israel tested God in this story is revealed in verse 7: “They tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

The main test was not for God to give them water, it was whether or not the Lord was among them. Was God still with them as he had been when he brought them out of their Egyptian slavery or had he abandoned them?

In the same way today, when we are thirsty, when we are in the wilderness we are tempted to ask the same question; “Is the Lord among us or not?”

For church workers such as myself there is an additional reason why his people should not put the Lord to the test; we get caught in the middle with God on one side and his people on the other side and church workers in the middle.

That’s what happened to Moses in this story:

[2] “And Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’ [3] But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’ [4] So Moses cried to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.'”

There are a couple of other reasons that this is an important story in the Bible. One of those reasons is the rock from which the water flowed. Again, according to Professor Adams, you can make a pretty compelling case for that rock being Jesus.

There was a strong Jewish tradition that an actual rock accompanied the people of Israel in the days in the wilderness. And in I Corinthians 10 the Apostle Paul says:

[1] For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, [2] and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, [3] and all ate the same spiritual food, [4] and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. [5] Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (ESV)

If there was a Jewish tradition about a rock accompanying the people of Israel in the wilderness the learned Apostle Paul surely would have been aware of it. And in I Corinthians he says that rock was Christ.

Based on the original Hebrew word that is used for the word “rock” in this story, Professor Adams maintains that is was a dry rock or wilderness rock. This makes the miracle of Moses bring water from it all the more striking.

And if the rock was Christ and it flowed with life-giving water when it was struck, isn’t this a clear connection to the cross? Jesus’ body was struck repeatedly by his enemies on the cross. He died and life flowed out. The only way his death on the cross counts is if he truly dies to pay for our sins. A partial death or half death would not count.

As surely as Moses brought life-giving water from a parched rock in the wilderness, God brought a life-giving, sin-cleansing flow of blood and water from the dead body of Jesus on the cross. When he died Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” for the work of salvation from sin had truly been completed.

And the final reason why this story is so significant is because it is included on my list of sacramental passages of the Old Testament. The classic definition of a sacrament is when the Word of God is joined to specific visible elements to accomplish miraculous things.

Here in this story God’s Word is joined to the staff of Moses and the dry rock to bring about a miraculous flow of water. God told Moses which staff to take, the staff with which he had struck the Nile, and which rock to strike, the dry rock. Moses did so and the water flowed.

This happens repeatedly in the Old Testament starting all the way back in the Garden of Eden when God’s Word said that if Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die. They ate. They died, not because there was anything poisonous about the tree itself, but because God’s Word said that eating of it would kill them.

Other similar examples are the bronze serpent that Moses made to save the people from snake bites (Numbers 21:4-9), Samson’s hair (Judges 16:18-22) and the water of the river Jordan that cleansed Naaman of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14).

Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are the New Testament sacraments. In these mysteries God’s Word is joined to visible elements of water, bread and wine to create something holy, something mysterious. These sacraments did not just appear out of nowhere. They have a long history of similarities in the Old Testament going all the way back to this story, and even further, to the Garden of Eden.

Because of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion we don’t have to test the Lord as the Israelites did in this story asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Along with the bread and wine of this sacrament we receive the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are strengthened in the confidence that God is with us.

Because of the cross there is no longer any reason why God wouldn’t be with us. What flowed from his body when it was struck on the cross cleansed us from all our sins. If any sin remained in us God would stay far, far away. But since we are cleansed and holy God comes to us and will never leave us.

“Oh precious is the flow,

That makes me white as snow,

No other fount I know,

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”


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