The People’s Court

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God desires his people to trust in him for his provision, his protection and his presence.

Exodus(40) (Part of the Rescued(39) series)
by Marc Webb(80) on June 30, 2024 (Sunday Morning(348))

God's Presence(8), God's Timing(3), God's Will(10), Promises(15), Protection(11), Provides(13)

People’s Court

It is not uncommon for people to shake their fists at God in the midst of tragedy and suffering. The Bible includes the stories of righteous men who questioned God for what they considered poor management of creation. But Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers has taken his complaints to court. In October 2007, Sen. Chambers sued God for "causing untold death and horror" in the form of "fearsome floods…horrendous hurricanes, [and] terrifying tornadoes." Furthermore, says the senator, God has wrought "widespread death [and] destruction" and terrorized "millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants." Chambers filed the suit to make a statement about the American court system. Outraged by a recent lawsuit he considered frivolous, the senator intends to demonstrate that "anybody can file a lawsuit against anybody." His motion against God, then, is tongue in cheek; Chambers, who has a history of antagonism against Christians, has no vested interest in his suit against the Almighty. Nevertheless, the case raises important questions about God's activity in this broken world. Is God to blame for poverty, warfare, and natural disaster? Chambers seems to think so. To him the facts are clear: there is suffering everywhere, and God is everywhere. Therefore, God must cause suffering. But God Is not the only being who is everywhere. So are sinful human beings.

In our scripture this morning found in Exodus 17:1-7, the Israelites put God on trial. The Israelites feel they have been suffering ever since they left Egypt. They suffered when they saw the Egyptians closing in on them at the Red Sea. They suffered when they had gone three days without water and only found bitter water at Marah. They suffered in the Desert of Sin when they thought they were starving. Now once again they are suffering, and the facts are clear. Moses and by proxy, God, is to blame for their suffering and today they will put them both on trial. The People’s Court is now in session.

You know, the Israelites weren’t wrong. It was the Lord who led them out of Egypt into the desert. It was the Lord, who was leading them the long way to the Promised Land. It was the Lord who led them to bitter waters. It was the Lord who led them to a place where there was no food. It was the Lord who was testing them to see if his people would trust in, rely on and be obedient to him. And this morning, we will see that it was the Lord who led them to a place where there was no water. The people will put the Lord on trial for three things: not providing for them, not protecting them and not being present with them. And we do the same thing today. How many times do we make demands of God, not wanting to wait on his will and timing? How many times do we accuse God of wanting to harm us during our trials and testing? How many times do we think that God has abandoned us in our wilderness? We have all put God on trial one way or the other. But we need to remember that the Lord will test us in order to grow us up spiritually and to strengthen our relationship with Him. He wants us to pass these tests that he brings into our lives. That brings us to our big idea this morning that Moses wants us to understand: God desires his people to trust in him for his provision, his protection and his presence.

Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing us to your house this morning and fill us with your Holy Spirit. Let us not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we study your Word. Thank you for your promises found in your Word, especially those for provision, protection and your presence. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Our first point is Crisis and Complaint found in Exodus 17:1-3, 7b. This is what God’s Word says, “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (7b) and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The Israelites continue to move from place to place in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. In Exodus 16:1, we learn that they left the oasis in Elim and traveled to the Desert of Sin. Now they leave the Desert of Sin and come to Rephidim. If you look at the map on the screen, you see Marah is #4, Elim is #5, and then Dophkah is #6. In between Elim and Dophkah is the Wilderness or the Desert of Sin. We learn from Numbers 33:13–14 that they traveled from The Desert of Sin to Dophkah and then to Alush, which is not on this map, and then they arrive at Rephidim which is #7. This is what the author means by “place to place.” Nothing of importance happened at Dophkah and Alush so nothing is reported. Rephidim would be the final stop before Mt. Sinai where God would give them the law.

We notice a few things about this journey from the Desert of Sin to Rephidim. One, it was the Lord who was leading them. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire at night is still going before the people. In the wilderness, he was leading them to testing in order to grow them up spiritually and to strengthen their relationship with him. Two, they camp at Rephidim. To camp meant that they would eat, drink and rest before starting out on the next part of their journey. In fact, Rephidim means, “to rest.” Three, at Rephidim, there was no water for the people to drink. Now we see the crisis. There was no water to drink where they camped, and it was the Lord who had led them there. The Lord led them on purpose to a place where there was no water to continue to test them to see if they would trust in him, rely on him and be obedient to him. The Lord had already provided water once, quail and manna, so, surely, they would trust him to give them water again. But sadly, no they didn’t trust the Lord. Enns says, “To have two similar episodes (lack of water) so close together points out the absurdity of the people’s lack of trust in Yahweh.” He was testing them to trust Him to provide for their daily needs, in this instance, for water (Big Idea) and they failed.

We now see their complaint. They did more than grumble, they “quarreled” with Moses and “demanded” he give them water. This word “quarreled” is significant because it meant that the people were beginning legal proceedings against Moses. They were in effect taking him to court and presenting charges against him. Moses responds with a familiar refrain reminding them that it was the Lord who led them here not him. By mentioning the word, “test”, he is reminding them that this is a test from the Lord but now they are putting the Lord to the test. They are trying to manipulate the Lord to act in their timing, not his. They were trying to force the Lord to jump through their hoops and make him accountable to them. Putting the Lord to the test is outright sin and rebellion against the Lord. In Matthew 4, Jesus totally rejected this idea when Satan tested and tempted Him by trying to manipulate him to act.

But the people weren’t listening to Moses. Their “thirst” had taken over just like their “stomachs” had in the previous passage. They were blind and deaf because of their thirst. Commentators agree that the situation seems to be more serious than Marah and the Desert of Sin. They weren’t faking their thirst, but they weren’t trusting in the Lord to provide water as he had done before. They were refusing to wait on God to give them what they desperately needed. They continue to make complaints and accusations, viciously attacking Moses. We again hear a familiar accusation, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die?” They even included their children and livestock in the complaint showing the intensely personal nature of what they were feeling. The people had felt close to death before because of hunger and thirst but God had come through every time. The Lord was testing them to trust Him to provide their daily needs, in this instance, the protection of their lives (Big Idea). He had protected them from Pharaoh and the Egyptians in slavery and at the Red Sea. He had protected them from death by thirst at Marah and death by hunger in the Wilderness of Sin. They weren’t saying that the Lord’s timing was slow, they were accusing the Lord of not being a good God, not being a faithful God and that he didn’t care about them. They wanted the Lord to prove he was a good God and to do it immediately. They tested the Lord because they doubted he could take care of them. They accused Moses and the Lord with attempted murder.

Now in verse 7b, we see their third complaint and accusation: “Is the Lord among us or not?” Think about what they are saying. These people have been traveling for about six weeks now with a supernatural pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night going before them. Back in chapter 16:10 we see these words, “While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.” These same people less than two weeks ago saw the “glory of the Lord” appear in the cloud and they have the audacity to ask “if the Lord was among them or not.” The Lord was testing them to trust Him to provide for their daily needs, in this instance, His presence (Big Idea).

After all they had seen the Lord do for them, the Israelites still did not trust the Lord to provide for their needs of provision, protection and His presence. But we shouldn’t be surprised. We do the same thing. We don’t trust the Lord for our daily needs all the time either, even when we know God’s promises found in the Bible and have experienced them for ourselves. God promises to provide for us. In Luke 12:24 it says, “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” God promises to protect us. In Isaiah 41:10 it says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” And God promises His presence to us. In Deuteronomy 31:8 it says, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” We see God’s promises in his Word for provision, protection and His presence with us. We can be assured and trust in the Lord that he will keep his promises to us, which brings us to our first next step on the back of your communication card. My next step is to trust in the Lord for my daily needs of provision, protection and presence.

Not only can we trust in the Lord for our daily needs, we can also trust in the Lord for our deepest need. That brings us to our second point, Court-martial and Christ, found in Exodus 17:4-7. This is what God’s Word says, “So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me!” 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. 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, so that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. Then he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

Moses does what he is supposed to do and what he has done in the past, he cries out to the Lord. But he also seems to lose his focus on the Lord. He says, “What am “I” to do with these people?” It seems that Moses is getting fed up with the people’s grumbling, complaining and now quarreling. He is probably thinking, “How much more can I take?” What really has Moses upset, though, is that the people are almost ready to stone him. He was about to be court-martialed and sentenced to death. Stoning was the normal sentence carried out on someone who was seen as a threat to the survival of the community. It was a legitimate and legal form of punishment. Cole says, “This is the last stage of rejection of a leader in Israel. Christ (John 10:31), Stephen (Acts 7:58) and Paul (Acts 14:19) all faced stoning at the hands of God’s people, the very ones to whom they had been sent.”

Moses had forgotten that he could trust the Lord for his provision, protection and presence. He was the Lord’s instrument, and the Lord would provide what he needed, would protect him from the quarreling people and his presence would always be with him. Next, we see the Lord’s answer to Moses. And it’s not a rebuke for forgetting he could trust Him but His provision and Presence to him. The Lord was going to give the people what they wanted even though they were putting the Lord on trial and putting him to the test. He would do this in miraculous fashion. First, it would be a public miracle. He told Moses to take some of the elders and walk ahead of the people. Moses was being vindicated as God’s chosen leader. Second, it would be witnessed by the elders who would be the jury and would see the evidence presented by the Lord proving his provision, protection and presence. They would make the ruling in the People’s Court, and it would become part of what they know, teach and how they judge the people in the future.

Three, it would be a continuation of the miracles God did in Egypt. Moses was to take in his hand the staff that he struck the Nile with in the first plague. It would be the same staff, the same power, the same grace and the same God. Then the Lord instructed Moses to “go.” “Go” meant to follow the Lord’s leading. Four, the miracle would happen by God’s presence. The Lord would lead him to the rock at Horeb and “stand before” Moses. We are acutely aware of the Lord’s presence here. The people accused the Lord of not being with them and again he graciously showed that he was there with them and had never left them. The Lord commanded Moses to strike the rock and he promised to lovingly and graciously provide water for the people even though they had again failed his testing. And Moses obeyed the Lord in the sight of the elders. The Israelites needed more than physical water; they needed spiritual water. They thought they needed water to drink but what they really needed was the Lord, which was their deepest need

Notice that we aren’t explicitly told that water came out of the rock but we can be assured it did. But Moses wants the people to know their testing ended in failure. They failed the greatest test in light of God’s greatest gift – himself. We see this in the verdict, so to speak, as Moses gives what I call a closing statement. Moses called the place Massah, meaning “to test” and Meribah, meaning “to strive, to argue, to contend.” The famous Old Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad thus concluded that the names Massah and Meribah “imply that legal cases were investigated and decided by ordeal there.” One commentary called these places, Testingsville and Complainingsburg. How would you like to live in a place with those names? Not me. These places received their names because the Israelites quarreled with Moses and tested the Lord. They didn’t trust in the Lord for his provision, protection or His presence but he lovingly and graciously gave them what they asked for without rebuke or punishment. (Big Idea)

The play “The Sign of Jonah” is about a group of people who put God to the test. They wanted to know who was responsible for the Holocaust—the destruction of millions of Jews and others in the Nazi concentration camps. The play not only asks the question, “Who’s to blame?” but it also draws both the cast and the audience into the answer. No one is really to blame. A storm trooper merely followed orders. An industrialist merely kept up production. A citizen simply did not become involved. Yet in defending their own innocence each of the accused becomes an accuser. All are guilty. Some are guilty by words; others by silence. Some by what they did; others by what they did not. And suddenly the accused accusers all take up another cry. “We are to blame, yes, but we are not the most to blame. The real blame belongs much higher. God is to blame! God must go on trial!” So that is what the people do: They put God on trial. In the play God is accused, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced. What is the sentence? The characters decide that God must “become a human being, a wanderer on earth, deprived of his rights, homeless, hungry, thirsty. He himself shall die. And lose a son, and suffer the agonies of fatherhood. And when at last he dies, he shall be disgraced and ridiculed.” Of course, that is exactly what happened. God sent his Son into the world, and people did to him what the Israelites wanted to do with Moses. The Son of God was a man without a home, a wanderer on earth. He was hungry and thirsty. And when his life was almost over, he was deprived of all his rights. He was stripped, mocked, beaten, and then condemned to die the most disgraceful and excruciating death—death on a cross.

The rock that Moses struck with his rod was Christ and symbolized God and his salvation. It showed how God would submit to the blow of his own justice so that out of him would flow life for his people. The rock was Christ because like the rock, Christ was struck with divine judgment. The judgment that Christ received on the cross is the proof of our protection. It shows that we will not suffer eternal death for our sins. God has taken the judgment of our guilt upon himself, and now we are safe for all eternity. The rock was also Christ because it flowed with the water of life. In his Gospel John records how, in order to confirm that Jesus was dead, “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” The blood was the blood that he shed for our sins. But John also mentioned the water, not simply to prove that Jesus died on the cross, but also to show that by his death he gives life. Jesus also said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” He is our provider as well as our protector. More than that, everyone who comes to Jesus by faith is filled with the Holy Spirit, and now his life flows within us. Jesus went on to say, “Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” In Christ, God is for us what he was for Israel—our provider, protector, and ever-present Lord. This is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 10:3-4, “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” Paul calls the rock at Horeb a type of Christ, pointing us to Christ just like the Passover Lamb. In the same way that God was with Israel at Horeb, he is with the church in Christ. Our Lord is our Rock, and we trust in his provision, his protection, and his presence. Israel’s and our deepest need is Christ, our living water. Let’s purpose to trust in Christ, our living water, for our salvation – which is our deepest need. Which brings us to our second next step which is to trust in the Lord for my deepest need.

As Gene and Roxey come forward to lead us in a final song, let’s pray: Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. May you be honored and glorified by our lives as we live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ this week. May we trust in you for our daily needs of provision, protection and presence and may we trust in you for our deepest need, salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Opening: “God on Trial” (article in Preaching Today)

Conclusion: Ryken’s Commentary on Exodus