This demand for protection was a signal of unbelief. The people didn’t trust God, on the basis of his Word, to protect them and deliver them from their enemies. They wanted some visible manifestation, something that would prove that God was a Father after all. At Massah the sign they wanted was a stream of water. But it would later be other things. The addiction to signs is not easily overcome. They wanted to put God on trial, to make him prove whether he was there and whether he was for them on the basis of something more visible than his Word. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,” the Psalm sings, “when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (Ps. 95:7–9).
The problem for Israel was that they weren’t really able to put God to the test. In reality the Israelites were backing up into a story even older than theirs. Eve, after all, was offered the fruit as a means of protection. Her eating it was a challenge as to whether God was correct when he said that in the day they ate of it they would surely die (Gen. 3:3–4). And after eating it, sin led her and her husband to seek further protection from God himself in the vegetation of the garden (Gen. 3:8). They were testing the sovereignty of God.
At Massah the Israelites themselves were actually being tested. In their grumbling sign seeking, God demonstrated that they had gone “astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways” (Ps. 95:10). The end result was God’s declaration, “I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Ps. 95:11).
It is no accident that Jesus relived the water test of Massah from atop the temple. The temple is all about water. The prophet Ezekiel envisioned a future temple in which water would trickle out, gradually pick up depth, and ultimately flow out as a mighty river, teeming with life, until it poured out at the roots of the Tree of Life (Ezek. 47:1–12). This water, Jesus said, is “living water” that refreshes forever (John 4:1–30; 7:37–39). Jesus didn’t seek to prove the voice of God; he just believed it.
Jesus saw through the satanic deception precisely what neither Eve nor Israel could see. He knew that testing God would mean disqualification from God’s people, from the inheritance of “entering my rest.” Jesus’ name, after all, is literally Joshua. Like the first Joshua, Jesus doesn’t require a certainty of visible victory before marching through the enemy’s camp. He hears the words of God, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). As he looked at the satanic visage and at the precipice below, he remembered what Israel had forgotten: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 20:1).
Moreover, the invisibility of Jesus’ protection was preparation for his kingship. The king of Israel, after all, was required not to return to Egypt to acquire horses (Deut. 17:16). Why not? It is because the Israelite king is to see his protection through the power of God, not by the same standards as the slavery from which his people have come. The king’s power is to be through the Spirit, not by visible might and power.
Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
This article excerpted from Tempted and Tried.
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