God on Trial (Exodus 17:1-17)
Big Idea: When we suffer, we’re quick to accuse God rather than trust him. And yet God offers to bear our judgment so that we can live.
It’s a question that repeats itself often. We face it after the Humboldt disaster. We face it when a young woman dies of cancer well before her time, or when missionaries in the Congo are killed in a car accident.
The question is this: How could God allow this to happen?
Actually, there are a lot of questions, or different ways of expressing this question. How do you deal with life when it seems so difficult and unfair? We face the theological questions: how could a good and powerful God allow this to happen? We face the emotional questions: what are we supposed to do with our hurts? And then we face another problem: how are we supposed to relate to God when we’re disappointed in him? Can we even admit that we’re disappointed in him?
I remember years ago when Philip Yancey wrote a book called Disappointment with God. I wasn’t sure that you were allowed to even admit that you’re disappointed with God. It seems a little sacrilegious somehow. But the truth is that we sometimes are disappointed with God. What do we do then? And how does God respond? What do you do when you’re angry at God, and when God doesn’t seem to be doing what you expect?
We need to know the answer to this so that we’re prepared for the tough times that come, and they will come! We need to know how to respond, because as we’re going to see today, there is a right way to respond, and there’s also a way that’s dangerous to our souls. We also need to figure this out, because it reveals something about God that all of us need to know.
So let’s look at the book of Exodus. We’re in the middle of a series in this book. Let me catch you up. God has taken the small nation of Israel and brought them out of slavery in Egypt. A couple of weeks ago we looked at what may be the most important event in this nation’s history in the Hebrew Scriptures: God rescued them out of Egypt. He saved them out of slavery miraculously. It was amazing.
But now, Israel’s in trouble.
Let’s look at this story. We’re going to see three things. Let’s look at our circumstances, the root issue, and then what we learn about God.
The last time we looked at Exodus, God had just led them out of Egypt and completely destroyed the army that was pursuing them. It was amazing. God answered prayer. God provided for them.
But now they’re in the wilderness, and the wilderness is hostile territory. We read in chapter 15 that after they left Egypt, they journeyed for three days in the wilderness without finding water (Exodus 15:22). If I told you to walk the next three days, but that you can’t have any water until Thursday, you wouldn’t be happy. Israel had entered hostile territory. They were about to enter a period of suffering and testing.
It’s not the last time that they’re going to run into problems. This is going to be a recurring theme.
- In chapter 15, they lack good water.
- In chapter 16, they lack good food.
- In chapter 17, they lack good water again.
Israel runs into problem after problem in the wilderness. Why? A couple of reasons. First: problems are what we run into in the wilderness.
The wilderness is a hard place. It is a place to meet with God, to be sure, and yet it is always a difficult place. It is barren and desolate. Thus the Israelites were setting out on a long and arduous journey. They had seen a great salvation, but for them it would not be “happily ever after.” They still had a pilgrimage to make, a pilgrimage that was both spiritual and physical. (Phil Ryken)
Israel shouldn’t have been surprised by troubles — and neither should we. We have the sense that things aren’t what they’re supposed to be, that the world is wrong. And this is right. The world isn’t what it should be. But in this world that’s been broken by sin, we should expect suffering. “Pain and suffering are part and parcel of our planet, and Christians are not exempt” (Philip Yancey).
Never believe the message that once you follow Jesus that your life will be easy! The Bible says, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
The wilderness is supposed to be hard. Never believe the message that you may hear from some prosperity preachers that we’re meant to live trouble-free lives once you follow Jesus. As long as we’re in this world, we’re going to face all kinds of troubles and trials. We live in a world of accidents, illnesses, and sin. We will all die. We all live in a world that’s been broken by sin. Expect to suffer.
But there’s another layer to the question. It’s related, but separate. We read in Exodus 15:25: “There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them…”
What does it mean that God tested them? It’s not that God is trying to trip them up. James says that God doesn’t tempt us (James 1:13-15). But God does sometimes bring trials into our lives to reveal our allegiances. He does expose us to situations in a controlled way to reveal to us what we’re trusting in other than him. “While God may test or prove his servants in order to strengthen their faith, he never seeks to induce sin and destroy their faith” (Douglas Moo). Like a geological process uses pressure and suffering to refine, purify, and mold clay into semi-precious gems, so God uses pressure and suffering to refine, purify, and mold us into more beautiful souls.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we always understand the reason behind our suffering. I am saying that God can use suffering for our good. God regularly does this. In fact, God took the worst thing that ever happened in our universe — the death of Jesus on the cross — and used it for our good. God isn’t the author of evil, but he can use even the suffering in our lives for our benefit.
Friends, if you are going through a hard time right now, understand that this is not unusual. We live in a sinful and broken world that is full of suffering. Expect it. And don’t think that God is necessarily absent when we go through hard times. It just may be that God is at work in your suffering for your good. He is at work exposing you so that you are are changed and transformed within. God is the God of the desert.
This is the problem: like is hard. Expect it. But then let’s dig a bit deeper. Let’s not just look at the problem; let’s look at our problem.
Our Root Issue
The core issue they faced was water. But that’s not the root issue. The root issue they faced was mistrust of Lord. Think about it. Think about what they had just seen God do. God had demonstrated his power to the most powerful nation on earth and freed them from slavery. He had performed miracle after miracle for them. He had split the sea open so they could walk through. This is the third episode in a row. It points out absurdity of Israel’s lack of trust in God. How much do they have to see before they trust in God?
Their root issue isn’t their circumstances. Their root issue is their distrust of God. And it’s our root issue too.
We will occasionally enter periods of testing like Israel did. We will enter the badlands, and it will be hard. So how will we respond? We learn in this passage a critical distinction between complaining before God and accusing him.
It’s one thing to complain to God. There’s a way to complain to God that is good and is to be encouraged. God can handle your honesty. Just read the Psalms. They are full of complaints to God. They can serve as good models for us when we have complaints. Take a psalm of complaint like Psalm 142: “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” Find a psalm like that — there are many — and use it to pour out your heart before God. As Philip Yancey says:
Throw at him your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment—he can absorb them all. As often as not, spiritual giants of the Bible are shown contending with God. They prefer to go away limping, like Jacob, rather than to shut God out. In this respect, the Bible prefigures a tenet of modern psychology: you can’t really deny your feelings or make them disappear, so you might as well express them.
The problem isn’t complaining before God. That’s okay. Our problem is when we go farther than that and begin to accuse him. It’s okay to complain to God; it’s never okay to accuse God.
Verse 2 says:
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?” (Exodus 17:2)
The word quarrel there is a strong one. It’s probably a bit mild to capture the meaning. It could be translated contend or even litigate. The people have a legal dispute. They are pressing formal charges against Moses, and by extension against God.
What is the charge? Look at verse 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?” (Exodus 17:7)
They had been given their freedom. They had been guided by the pillar of cloud. Their needs had been miraculously met. And yet they still ask, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
The charge is essentially that God has abandoned them. It’s a charge of neglect, criminal negligence, manslaughter. They somehow thought God was on trial in the desert, not them.
It’s one thing, you see, to complain to God. It’s another thing altogether to accuse him.
Something’s happened, and we need to take notice. C.S. Lewis has written:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite 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 is in the dock. (God in the Dock)
The problem isn’t that we complain to God. By all means, complain. God can handle your honesty. We can plead with God to stay true to his Word. We can use the psalms to express our laments and sorrows.
But it is a different thing altogether when we start to accuse God. R.C. Sproul captures it best:
It is acceptable to bring all our cares to God, including matters that may move us to frustration or anger. However, we must not come to God in a spirit of complaint or anger against Him, for it is never proper to accuse God of wrongdoing. (R.C. Sproul)
Be honest with God, but never think you know better than God. Never cross the line into accusing God and putting yourself on the judge’s seat, and putting God in trial.
Two quick lessons for us here.
We need a clearer picture of God! The more we understand who God is, the more we’ll be able to trust him, the more we’ll be able to walk by faith and not by sight. God is good. We don’t always understand his ways, but we never need to doubt his goodness. One of the reasons we do this every week is so that we remind ourselves of God’s goodness, so we get to know him better, so that when the tough times come we will trust him.
But there’s a warning. I sometimes hear us thinking that we know better than God. We sometimes struggle when God disagrees with us, and we even think that God should correct his views to align better with us, because after all, we must be right! When we do this, we’re making the same mistake as Israel. We need to hear this warning from Paul in 1 Corinthians:
We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:9-11)
This story is meant to warn us of accusing God, of thinking that God has to answer to us. Let’s guard against that attitude. Let’s get to know God better so that we can fully trust him, even when we don’t understand his ways.
We need to finish. We’ve seen that we live in a world full of suffering, and that God can use this suffering for our good even though he’s not the author of evil. We’ve seen that we can complain to God but not accuse him. There’s one more thing to see, and then we’ll close.
This is the most startling thing in the whole passage today. How does God respond to the problem of evil? How does God respond to even our failures when we accuse him?
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. (Exodus 17:6)
Rather than summoning the people to stand before him, God offers to stand before Moses. And God stands upon the rock, symbolizing his identification with it. When it is struck, God himself was struck. God willingly bears judgment he didn’t deserve. As a result, life-giving water flows and the people are satisfied and live even though they’re guilty.
Centuries later, Paul writes, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). Jesus is the great Rock of Ages who was struck for our sins so that we could drink the water of life and live.
Friends, drink from that Rock today. When we suffer, we’re quick to accuse God rather than trust him. And yet God offers to bear our judgment so that we can live. Come and live today.