A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/27/1996

Exodus 17:1-7

The Waters of Meribah 1 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; and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Give us water that we may 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 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?" 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, "What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me." 5 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 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 will come out of it, that the people may drink." And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel [Heb. meribah] and because they tested [Heb. massah] the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" INTRODUCTION

One of the verses that Jesus used to withstand the Devil when he was tempted in the wilderness was Deut. 6:16. "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Meribah." Jesus only quoted the first part, but the last phrase shows that the verse he used was originally a reference to the passage that is before us today. Therefore, this passage gives us great insight into what the sin of "testing" or "tempting" God is, and how we can avoid it.


The sin of testing God always flows from a defective faith. This defect can have two forms, so that the sin itself ranges between two poles: doubt and presumption. Doubt is the simpler of the two and the one that we recognize more easily, but presumption is equally a problem for us. So we will look at both forms but pay rather more attention to the second.

A. Doubt

Doubt was the form of testing God that Israel was guilty of here. It manifests itself by the question, "Is God with us or not?" This was a question that the Israelites asked in spite of ample, indeed abundant evidence for the fact that God was with them. But it wasn't just the fact that they were alive while the Egyptian army was drowned in the Red Sea. They could have looked up to the pillar of cloud sitting ahead of them. And if that were not enough, they would only have had to think back as far as breakfast to realize how stupid their question was:

IRONY While the people fretted in their tents And thought of garlic, then of leeks, and frowned, And tried to sleep, and thought hard thoughts against Old Moses, through the night, without a sound, The golden Manna gathered on the ground. (D.T.W.)

Even this miraculous provision would not cure their doubts or inspire them with faith. So persistent were they in raising this question about whether God was really with them that Old Testament scholars speak of "the murmuring motif." It is certainly central to their story.

THE MURMURING MOTIF At the sea, the rushing waters stood; At Marah, bitter waters turned to sweet; At Meribah, they spurted from the rock. The people saw and drank. It was as good As Manna, honey cakes they had to eat. They surely were a richly pastured flock. Still, every time a little trouble came, Like starving goats, that flock began to bleat, And Moses had to listen to them mock. If he thought that was the limit of their shame, He was in for a shock. (D.T.W.)

How does this kind of doubt constitute "tempting" or "testing" God? It "puts God to the test" by asking for, in fact demanding, continual and immediate proof as a prerequisite to faith. It insists on walking by sight, not by faith. If it cannot walk by sight, it refuses to walk at all. But this is a blasphemous insult to God and a serious affront to his goodness. I think God wants us to use good sense and judgment. By giving Moses the signs, by asking us to search the Scriptures, he in effect encourages us to demand reasonable evidence before we believe. How else could we be protected from false religion? Christian faith is not about unwarranted belief. But that is a far cry from failing to trust a God who has already provided sufficient evidence on which to base our trust. It is a far cry from refusing to reckon with the fact that we must indeed in this life walk be faith and not by sight.

This kind of doubt also seriously perverts the proper relationship that should exist between a creature and its Creator. This doubter says, "Show me and I'll believe." God replies, "Believe, and I'll show you." It is he who has the right to test us, not vice versa.

B. Presumption

Satan also tempted Jesus to doubt: "Is God really your Father? Prove it. Make these stones into bread!" But he also tempted him to the equally defective form of faith known as presumption. "Go ahead, jump off of the Temple--God won't let you get hurt!" As doubt asks, "Is God really with us?", so presumption affirms, "Of course God is with us!"

How is this kind of faith defective? As the kind of doubt manifested in this passage is a lack of faith, so presumption might seem to be an excess of faith. But that is really not the problem. You only need as much as a grain of mustard seed; amount is not really the issue, though if it is genuine faith you can't ever have too much. Presumption is faith that is defective, not in quantity, but in quality. This is faith that is misguided, twisted, distorted. It is not true faith at all, though it has an outward resemblance to it. How does it differ? Presumption lacks three connections that are always present in true biblical faith.

First, presumption lacks a sense of the connection between faith and obedience. Paul describes his ministry as that of "bringing about the obedience of faith" among the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5). Now, we are saved by faith alone, not by how well we obey. But the call to believe does not come to us in a vacuum; it comes in the context of obedience. As C. S.. Lewis pointed out, it makes very little sense to say you believe in Christ if you then ignore everything he has to say. True faith, in other words, is shown by the fact that it leads to obedience. It doesn't just ask, "What can God do for me?" (as the Israelites were asking), but also "What ought I to be doing for him?" A faith that does not impel you towards obedience is not faith at all but presumption.

Second, presumption lacks a sense of the connection between faith and the Promises of God, or between faith and the Word. True faith doesn't just believe things in general because we would like them to be so. It is a very specific response to the Word of God. God is not obligated by your subjective feelings of certainty or confidence to keep promises he never made. He is not obligated to keep promises that you have created by taking Scripture out of context! Nor should we be surprised when he declines to do so.

Finally, presumption lacks a sense of the connection between faith and humility. Faith remembers that we are the creature and God is the Creator; presumption reverses those roles. Faith waits on the Lord; presumption barges ahead. Faith serves God; presumption expects God to serve me. Ironically, both doubt ("Is God really with us?") and presumption ("Of course God is with us!") show their kinship despite their apparent contrast in the fact that they both reduce God to the role of a servant. "Where's my water? I'm thirsty!"

What should we do then? We should avoid both doubt and presumption. How? We should trust God by believing what he has said in his Word, believing it enough to act on it in obedience, believing it because it is the Word of God, who is our Master, not we his. God will empower you to do what he has called you to do, not anything you might want to do. He will be faithful to his covenant and to his promises, not necessarily to your whims.


I could very comfortably rail against the doubt shown by liberals and the presumption shown by certain Pentecostals and Charismatics in their excesses, but those examples will occur to you anyway, and they are not the sins which so easily beset us. When we are afraid to do what God has called us to do--say, to share the Gospel with our neighbor--then we are saying like the Israelites, "Is God really with us?" When trials and tribulations of whatever sort make us grumpy and irritable, are we not like the children of Israel, showing a lack of trust in the Father? On the other hand, when we expect God to work in the Sunday service but we do not spend the week beforehand praying for it and for our leaders in the Church; when we do not prepare by getting to bed at a decent hour on Saturday night; when we do not prepare by examining our own lives to see if there is any obstacle to that work in us; when we just waltz in and expect God to bless, are we not guilty of presumption? How about when we expect God to bless our personal lives, but we are not spending regular time in the Word and in prayer? When we are engaging in practices that do not honor the Lord? When we are filling our mind with garbage from ill-chosen popular entertainment? Surely expecting God to bless us anyway is egregious and arrogant presumption! "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Meribah."


God is so good and so patient and so gracious that he gives to us even when we test him sometimes, as he did to the Israelites at Meribah. But instead of being shamed by his goodness and forbearance into bowing in repentance, we take it as evidence that he is some kind of senile old idiot who will actually let us get away with playing these games forever! Well, I say to you today that the time for such games is over. Are we still asking, "Is God really with us?" Are we saying in response, "Well of course he is!" Beware! "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Meribah."

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 10/26/2003