You are familiar with the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Satan presents three temptations, all of which Jesus refutes, each time by quoting Scripture. For one of the temptations Satan sets Jesus on the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and says to him,
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“ ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus responds by quoting from the Law: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matthew 4:5-7).
Testing God is precisely what the recurring theme is as the psalmist recounts the waywardness of the Israelites. Three times it is mentioned – verses 18, 41, and 56 – each time presenting a different scenario that gives us insight into the different perspectives between them and God about relationship.
Test 1 – Demanding Cravings to Be Met – You’re testing my word
The first reference is in verses 17-20.
17 Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
18 They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
19 They spoke against God, saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
20 He struck the rock so that water gushed out
and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread
or provide meat for his people?”
The first test is a demand for cravings to be satisfied. We will allow poetic license from the psalmist. The people did complain about food but both before and after the provision of water from the rock. Before the rock, God had already provided manna, the bread from heaven; although not before the people had complained about food service: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).
Later on, after the rock-water miracle, they got tired of the manna: “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4-6).
Poor Israelites. They had it so nice in Egypt – all that they could eat and delicious variety! Now they are stuck with this plain manna. And God listened and provided, just as verse 29 says: “And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.”
Yes, God provided but he also got angry:
But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
31 the anger of God rose against them,
and he killed the strongest of them
and laid low the young men of Israel.
What angered God? Moms, it’s not for the same reason you get irked when your family says, “Not turkey casserole again!” God is not put out with a family that doesn’t appreciate his cooking; he is angered that they are testing his promise to provide for them. God’s version of the people’s complaint goes like this. According to him, they said, “Who will give us meat to eat?” And when Moses actually questions God about providing meat, God responds, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not” (Numbers 11:18, 23).
So their demand that their cravings be satisfied led them to test God’s ability to keep his promises to provide for his people.
Test 2 – Complaining Spirit – You’re testing my patience
The second reference to testing is found in verses 40-41. Here, the test is not a specific incident but an ongoing complaining spirit.
40 How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the desert!
41 They tested God again and again
and provoked the Holy One of Israel.
How bad was this ornery spirit? Going back over the account of the wilderness journey, I counted twenty individual incidents of complaining or disobeying. Here is a sample:
Exodus 15:24 – three verses after the “Song of Moses” celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea: “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’”
Exodus 32:1 – “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us.’”
Numbers 11:1 – “And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes…”
Numbers 14:2 – “And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregations said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!’”
Numbers 21:4-5 – And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
They wouldn’t let up! They complained about food, about water, about Moses’ leadership, about Moses being absent, about being in the wilderness, about the promised land that they were about to enter. God gives them manna, but they don’t trust the restrictions he puts on how much to collect. They break the Sabbath; they worship idols; they refuse to enter the promised land. They create illusions of how good they had it under enforced slavery in Egypt. They wear Moses out with the multiplicity of complaints against one another, against him, and against God so that he loses his temper and disqualifies himself from entering into the promised land that he held so dear.
What were they testing? This is an easy one to figure out – the patience of God. After their refusal to enter the promised land, God has had it. If Moses had not interceded, God was ready to wipe out the whole lot. Even after Moses’ intercession, God says to him,
I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it (Numbers 14:20-23).
That is when he condemns the nation to forty years of wilderness wandering.
Test 3 – Idolatry – You’re testing my law
So, the people crave and test God’s promises. They complain and complain, testing his patience. What more? They test his law. Look at verses 56-58:
56 Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies,
57 but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers;
they twisted like a deceitful bow.
58 For they provoked him to anger with their high places;
they moved him to jealousy with their idols.
We are out of the wilderness now. The people are in the land of Canaan, the promised land. And they are as unruly and disobedient as every. God had warned them not to worship false images, and he specifically told them to destroy the high places they would find in Canaan. They not only fail to destroy those places; they make these places their own! God knows what they are doing – they are testing his law. Just as they tested whether he would back up his promises to provide, now they are testing his resolve to back up his law.
59 When God heard, he was full of wrath,
and he utterly rejected Israel.
60 He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt among mankind,
61 and delivered his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
62 He gave his people over to the sword
and vented his wrath on his heritage.
63 Fire devoured their young men,
and their young women had no marriage song.
64 Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows made no lamentation.
Let’s recap. The Israelites tested God’s ability to keep his promises through their demands that their cravings be satisfied. They test his patience through their incessant complaints. And they test his resolve to keep his law by breaking his commandments. Whatever they learned or did not learn from their testing of God, we should learn that God does not like to have his word tested. That is what it comes down to. If he says he will provide, he will; if he gives commandments, he expects obedience and will keep his word to punish if those commandments are disobeyed. He will do what he says he will do.
The author of the Book of Hebrews is very helpful in getting to the heart of why God dislikes being tested. He contends that such testing comes from unbelief, which leads to disobedience. He quotes a section from Psalm 95, which, like Psalm 78, refers to a time that the people tested God. After the author quotes from the psalm, he gives this application: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).
The people did not believe God would come through. They got hungry and thirsty, and they did not believe God would provide. They tired of the journey and did not believe that God would sustain them. They got antsy with an unseen god who seemed far-off and so they turned from his commandments to pursue idols and whatever else met their felt needs. And so they fell away from the living God.
And so we shake our heads, especially when we consider all that God had done for them. This is the point of Psalm 78. God did so much for them, and they acted as though he had done nothing. These people saw the ten plagues. They were not like us who only can read about the miracles or watch Charlton Heston on video. They saw the rivers turned to blood; the swarms of flies and frogs that took over the land; the locusts and hail that destroyed the crops and livestock; and the final, most terrible plague of all – the death of the firstborn. They saw these things with their own eyes.
And then, most of all, they walked through the Red Sea! How do you forget something like that? The Egyptian army chariots are bearing down on you; a pillar of cloud and fire come between you and the army, while Moses stretches out his arms and the sea divides! You walk through on dry land with walls of water on either side. You come to the other side; the chariots pour in after you, and then the walls collapse, drowning the whole army. How do you ignore that and then complain the first time you get thirsty? Before then you were oppressed slaves forced to do heavy labor for the expressed purpose to keep you down. Your sons were killed at birth. And then you have the audacity to reminisce about the “good old days”? You’re not sure the God who performed great, powerful miracles will be able to come up with water and food?
Now that’s the psalmist’s position, who is presenting God’s perspective. And we should acknowledge the rightness of that teaching and learn from it. But I want to try to give some perspective from the side of the Israelites so that we might take to heart some application for ourselves. Here is how I think the people would have tried to explain their behavior.
Yes, God did perform mighty works delivering us from bondage. And we were thrilled. We come through the Red Sea, the army is destroyed, and then…well, then there is a big desert. Have you ever walked through a desert for a few days? Do you know the kind of thirst one gets from three days walking in the desert sun, and when you do get to water, you find that it is too bitter to drink? Do you know real hunger? Do you know what is like to know real enemies with armies who are watching for an opportunity to attack you? That’s what life was like on the other side of the river. The very greatness of the deliverance led us to expect an easier life. But we found life just as tough, if not tougher.
Yes, we know about the promised land, but meanwhile we have the desert wilderness to travel through. And when we do get a report about that land, yes, it’s nice, but even getting in requires war. God does not move the inhabitants out ahead of us. We have to fight. Maybe those ten spies did exaggerate about how big the warriors were, but not by much. You try fighting hand-to-hand combat again and again, and then lecture us about lack of faith. God provided, yes; but he provided only what was enough for the moment. He made sure that the journey ultimately rested on faith and not on sight.
So, what do you think? Can you empathize? Can you identify? Have you ever said to yourself, “I thought the Christian life would be easier”? Have you ever found yourself grumbling, “What did I do to deserve this? I thought broken relationships would be healed, but they are only worse. I thought I would be given power to have victory over sin, but I’m just as entangled in it. I thought the cravings would ease, but they seem just as powerful as ever. I thought I would feel God with me; I thought I would feel Jesus abiding in me, but sometimes I feel completely alone and abandoned. What gives? I thought redemption promised so much more.”
The Christmas season for many is the symbol of failed expectations. We celebrate the coming of the Son of God who brings redemption and, with that redemption, love and peace and joy. How many of us actually go through the Christmas season without anxiety and short-tempers and frustrations? For how many of us is the season a reminder of the troubles in our families or the loneliness of our lives? It is the very power of the redemption story that heightens how powerless we feel.
Maybe things were great on the day of your salvation. You remember with sweet longing the days of excitement reading Scripture and every word touched your soul. You remember how sweet was the fellowship of believing friends, praying together, building each other up, singing of the love of God. You remember real victory over sin and the healing of relationships. You were bold then as you witnessed for Christ.
But the journey has been long, and you now feel like you are walking in a desert. You are still walking, but sometimes more out of stoic resignation than from expectant faith. Maybe some of you have strayed away. You are here today to be kind to your family. Or you have been acting a role that you’ve given up believing in. You are tired of the journey. What does God want from you anyway?
Well, he does want something from you and me. Indeed, he is actually doing to us what he so clearly does not like being done to him – he’s testing us. As the people neared the end of their journey and stood by the river Jordan, Moses told them:
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
After reminding them how God did take care of them, he warns them to be careful when they do achieve prosperity, lest,
…you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end (8:14-16).
What does God want from us? He wants to be believed. He wants to be trusted. He wants to be acknowledged for who he is – our sovereign God, who is our Creator and Redeemer and Provider.
He knew how tough the journey for his people would be. He planned it! But he was going to provide. He didn’t expect them to rejoice being thirsty and hungry. But he did expect them – instead of their self-serving moaning that it would have been better to die by their enemies or their questioning why they had been brought into the desert to die – to respond in faith that despite the hardship, despite how dire the circumstances seem, they know that the God who displayed such power in delivering them will carry through his promise to bring them to the promised land.
That is what he wants to hear from us. He wants us to testify that the God who provided such a wondrous redemption, who brought that redemption into our lives will sustain us to our journey’s end. He wants to hear from us that we will keep his commandments whatever the circumstances may be, that we won’t cave in because life was harder than we thought it would be. He wants to know that love for our Lord, not satisfying the cravings of the flesh, will be what sustains us in our journey. And he wants us to be so enthralled by our redemption, so captivated by what awaits us at journey’s end that we will count ourselves blessed whatever happens in this life’s journey; that our testimony will be about all the good the Lord has done for us.
The Tenth Press article this morning by David Apple recounts a moving experience in a nursing home where we bring worship services. I remember in my younger days of ministry leading worship at such a home. The attendants wheeled in a frail woman on her bed at the back of the room. When we sang, she made some kind of screeching sound and flailed her arms. Afterwards I went back to her. She was crippled with arthritis and but skin and bones, and she was beaming with joy. According to Eunice, ever since she had been redeemed, the Lord had been good to her. What a wonderful Savior she had. She loved any opportunity to worship him.
What is your testimony about God at the end of this year? What will it be in the coming year? Can you speak, will you speak of the faithfulness of God to carry you through to your journey’s end?
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