By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. – Hebrews 11:17-19 ESV
This story deserves a second look. There are four little words that should raise a certain amount of suspicion and create a bit of confusion in our minds – “when he was tested.” The account of this story found in Genesis says, “After these things God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1 ESV). God tested Abraham. The Hebrew word for “tested” is nacah and it can mean “to test, try, prove, tempt, assay, put to the proof or test” (Hebrew Lexicon :: H5254 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Web. 8 Feb, 2016). We might ask ourselves, why would a good God test Abraham? We might also ask why an omniscient, all-knowing God would have to test Abraham. What was the purpose of the test? Was it to prove, test or try Abraham’s faith? Wouldn’t God have already known what the outcome of such a test would be? Didn’t he already have a ram ready to serve as a substitute offering in place of Isaac? Was God really waiting to see what Abraham would do? It would seem that God was testing Abraham, not for His own enlightenment, but for Abraham’s. God already knew the outcome. The psalmist would have us remember that God is all-knowing.
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:1-4 NLT
God did not need to know what Abraham would do. But Abraham needed to know what God would do when he was fully obedient – even in the face of an impossible, illogical request. The test was for him. There is another story that speaks of God’s testing. It is found in the book of Exodus. It took place early in the story, immediately after their deliverance from Israel and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea.
Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them… – Exodus 15:22-25 ESV
In recording this event, Moses used the same Hebrew word, nacah. God tested them. But notice the difference between the two stories. In this case, the people, who had just witnessed God’s divine deliverance, arrive at Marah and immediately begin to complain about the lack of water. Remember, they had seen God send ten plagues on the people of Egypt. They had seen Him destroy Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. But when they found themselves in the wilderness without water, they grumbled and complained, saying, “What shall we drink?” They didn’t even take their problem to God, the one who had delivered them. They complained to Moses. And Moses took the need to God. Despite their complaining, God took care of their need and provided them with sweet water. There he tested them. But again, who was the test for? Did God not know how they were going to react? Was He not fully aware of their hearts and completely unsurprised by their reaction? Wasn’t He the one who led them right to that spot, fully knowing that there was no water? This was a test for them.
And God, after providing them with drinkable water, said to them, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer” (Exodus 15:26 ESV). God wanted them to know that He could be trusted. He wanted them to know that He was all-powerful. He was testing their knowledge of Him and their faith in Him – for their benefit. The lack of water at Meribah showed them that they did not really know or trust God. It revealed their lack of faith. When they had stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the army of Pharaoh bearing down on them, Moses had told them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13 ESV). And God had delivered them. But as soon as they faced their first problem, they doubted God. They failed the test.
But Abraham passed his test – with flying colors. God was not surprised. He knew Abraham would be obedient. He even had a ram caught in a thicket to serve as the stand-in for Isaac. But that day Abraham learned a great deal about himself and about His God. His faith grew. His hope in God’s promises increased. His conviction in the things promised by God, but not yet seen, deepened. The test was for Abraham’s benefit, not God’s. He learned what true obedience to God looks and feels like. In a way, Abraham was testing the faithfulness of God, counting on Him to come through. He even told his son, Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 ESV). He was putting all his faith in God, counting on Him to spare his son or even raise him back to life should he have to follow through with God’s command. God was not testing Abraham in order to see what he would do. The test was so that Abraham could see what God would do and grow in his faith. The apostle Peter gives us an insight into the tests we face in this life.
So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT
Like Abraham, our faith will be tested at times. We will find ourselves facing situations and circumstances that will reveal whether our “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Will we allow the lack of water to cause us to complain? Will we balk at God’s seemingly unreasonable request and refuse? God knows what we will do? He is never surprised. But the question is whether we know what God will do? And are we willing to trust Him with the outcome? Paul gives us a word of encouragement.
For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! – 2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT