In West Berlin shortly after World War II, there was a play that was performed called The Sign of Jonah. In the play, there are a number of characters: a concentration camp guard, an industrialist, a citizen. Each of them defends their own involvement or lack of involvement in the Holocaust. And in defending themselves, they end up becoming accusers. At one point they all cry out, “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’s what they do- they put God on trial. And in the play, God is prosecuted, convicted and sentenced. And the sentence is peculiar: God must “become a human being, a wanderer on earth, deprived of his rights, homeless, hungry, thirsty. He himself shall… lose a son, and suffer the agonies of fatherhood. And when at last he dies he shall be disgraced and ridiculed.”
In Exodus 17, as the Israelites are traveling from Egypt to Canaan, we find the people putting God on trial.
All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 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?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
We know this is a trial of sorts because there are three names given to the place where the action happens. It starts out as Rephidim, which means “rests” or “resting places.” But this ‘resting place’ has no water for the Israelites to drink. So while they are there the Israelites turn the resting place into a courtroom, bringing charges against Moses and against God, quarreling so much that when they leave the place has changed its name- to Massah, ‘testing,’ and Meribah, ‘quarrelling’ or ‘lawsuit.’
The focus of the trial is on the ‘Immanuel question’: Is God with us or not? This should have been an obvious answer. Ever since God heard their cries in Egypt and delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh, He has been with them in different ways ever since; personified in a pillar of fire and present in miracles like the parting of the Red Sea. But, the people’s thirst is greater than their memory or their theology and they persist in asking the question, is God with us?
There are a lot of people in our churches asking the question “Is the Lord among us or not?” in various forms. New parents and new spouses who want to know if God will protect their child or their marriage, and be with them as they figure it all out. People whose companies are failing, that have had to take pay cuts, that are applying for new jobs who are wondering if God cares about their work and will help them through it. Those living without a loved one who has died recently wondering where God was when they died and whether He’ll comfort them in their loss. Those moving to a different state to start over, or heading off to a new school who hope that God will open doors and be there when they fall on their face.
Is God there and does He care and act in our lives?
What’s the result of this trial? The Israelites come to a guilty verdict pretty quickly. The results of an ancient trial was often a stoning, and they’re ready to stone- not God, since that’s impossible, but certainly God’s representative, Moses. But God responds, with amazing patience and love. Now, He could have opened up the earth and swallowed half the camp, saying, ‘You think I’m the one on trial, guess again!’ He would have been just in doing so- and in fact He will do something like that in the future. But, instead, he tells Moses to take his staff and strike a rock so that it will provide water for the people. And the same staff that deprived Egypt of water when it turned the Nile River into blood now provides Israel with all the water it needs.
There’s an amazing detail that I never saw until I sat down and really studied this passage. Verse 6 says, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock.”
Why would God stand in front of the rock?
Peter Leithart writes, “Striking Horeb won’t bring water; what brings water is striking Yahweh. Yahweh Himself is the Rock who provides water in the desert when Moses strikes Him with the plague-dealing staff. The people want to stone Moses for plotting to kill them, but Yahweh is the One who brought them out to the wilderness and He bears responsibility for it and them. He stands in for Moses, taking Moses’ punishment and absorbing the judgments of Egypt into Himself. By this, Yahweh ends the trial. He proves He is in their midst. If there is water in the wilderness, Yahweh, the Lord of life, must be there.”
Instead of calling off the trial, God allows the trial to go forward and submits Himself to judgment. R.C. Sproul says about this passage that, “The judicial language is strong here. God would take the place of the accused and receive the punishment of the rod.”
Ultimately, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 10:4, this story points to Jesus. Exodus 16 is an image of Christ’s incarnation- the manna God sent foretold us that Christ will be the Bread of Life. Exodus 17 is an image of Christ’s crucifixion- the rock that was smitten. Interestingly, when Jesus died, a soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and what came out was both blood and water. Blood to forgive our sins, and water to show that by his death he gives life. Jesus even speaks of Himself as a source of water, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” Whatever you need, Jesus can give you. He’ll quench your deepest spiritual and emotional thirst.
CS Lewis wrote a book called God In the Dock (the dock is the defendant’s seat in a trial). He writes, “[Modern man] is 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.” Accusing God and making Him answer to you is the most absurd thing you could ever do.
But there’s a deeper truth here. When people have crises in their lives, such as losing their job, going through a breakup or divorce, or having a close friend or family member die, they often get angry with God and wonder whether He cares and if He’s even real. But, this story reminds us that God is involved in your suffering. Not only is He involved, but He suffered as much as anyone has ever suffered. Unlike any other religion’s god, the God of the Bible left His place of power, and as that German play described, He “became a human being, a wanderer on earth, deprived of his rights, homeless, hungry, thirsty… And when at last he died he was disgraced and ridiculed.”
Do you know suffering? God does. And, in His resurrection, He shows that there is healing on the other side of suffering. No matter what you go through, nothing good will come from accusing and blaming God. The only way to get through the trials of life is to trust the One who holds your future in His hands