The Sin of Unbelief
(17) Yet, they still continued to sin against him, to rebel against the Most High in the desert. (18) They tested God in their hearts by demanding the food they craved. (19) They spoke out against God, saying, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? (20) Behold he struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he give bread and provide meat for his people?” (21) Therefore, when Yahweh heard (this), he was furious, and a fire was kindled against Jacob and his anger rose against Israel, (22) because they did not believe in God, nor trust in his saving power.
The historic events that serve as a background to this segment are recorded for us by Moses in Exodus 16 & 17. Not long after Israel had been delivered from the pursuing armies of Egypt by God’s astonishing miracle of parting the waters of the Red Sea (Ps. 78:12 & 13), they grumbled about the lack of food in the appropriately named Desert of Sin. Having seen God work miracle after miracle in the plagues of Egypt and having experienced his wondrous deliverance from four hundred years of bondage, they dared to question his ability to provide for their needs.
The words used in Exodus 16 are even stronger than the statements of Psalm 78:19 & 20. The Israelites, according to Moses’ account, made the following accusation against God: “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Ex. 16:3). With this kind of ingratitude, it is no wonder that Yahweh’s anger was kindled like a raging fire.
I. Israel’s sin (17-20)
- in general: rebelling against God (17)
- specifically: questioning God’s ability to provide (18-20)
II. God’s anger because Israel did not trust in his power (21 & 22)
Israel’s refusal to believe that the one who delivered them from bondage in Egypt would also sustain them in the wilderness aroused Yahweh's fury.
These verses effectively illustrate a fundamental principle regarding our relationship with God: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). By faith we initially receive God’s gift of life and are saved. Likewise by faith we are sustained day by day in our walk with God. We are to live our lives entirely by faith in God from first to last as Paul put it: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). That last phrase comes directly from Habakkuk 2:4, the most frequently quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament.
Upon reading Psalm 78 we should ask, “How could the Israelites have witnessed the miracles God had performed in Egypt and not have believed that he would provide for their needs in the wilderness?” Such unbelief seems inconceivable to us. Yet, each of us has within our hearts a similar tendency to doubt God’s goodness whenever we find ourselves in difficult situations. We are just as prone to ask “Why me?” or “Why did this have to happen?” when things fail to go the way we expect or we experience a sudden loss or reversal. Before we condemn the Israelites for their failure to trust God, we need to look in the mirror and ask, “Do I personally trust God the way I should?”
During those forty years of wilderness wandering, the entire generation died before entering the Promised Land because of unbelief. The following is a numerical description of their experience: 40 years x 365 days/year = 14,600 days of wandering. Divide that into 2,000,000, the estimated population of the nation, and the result is an average of 137 funerals per day. If the Israelites had erected grave markers, each one could have been inscribed with the epitaph, “This one did not believe in God nor trust in his saving power” (Ps. 78:22). We should make every effort to avoid having that become the summary of our lives when we die.