The Bitter Blessing of a Wilderness Life

Now if you would please take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn with me to the book of Exodus, chapter 15, on page 57 of the church Bibles. Then once you have your Bibles open before you, would you join with me and bow your heads as we go to God and ask Him for His help as we seek to understand His Word. Let’s pray.

 

O Lord, we stand in awe knowing that the ink on the page before us is the very word of God, the God of infinite majesty and might, immortal, invisible, the only God. And we bow in wonder that we have such access to Your voice. We pray that You would pour out the Holy Spirit upon us, that we may have ears to hear what He says to His church, that we may receive and rest on Christ as He comes to us in the Scriptures, and may be enabled to live by His grace in new obedience for His glory. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

 

Exodus 15 at the twenty-second verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

 

“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, saying, ‘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.’

 

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.”

 

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.

 

The Help-Rejecting Complainer

In his 1964 book, Games People Play, psychiatrist Eric Berne describes what he calls the “Yes, but…” pattern. Being Scottish, it’s really a natural and national characteristic that we respond to people’s optimistic solutions to our problems with the answer, “Yes, but…” I didn’t know there was a psychological category for it but apparently there is. The “Yes, but…” pattern you probably recognize it in your own life. We’ve all done it. Here’s how it goes. First someone articulates a particular problem, next someone else responds with some suggestions on how to fix the problem, and then the person with the problem says, “Yes, but…” and proceeds to shoot down any and every solution that is offered. There’s always a problem with every solution. I wonder if that sounds familiar. Maybe you’ve done some of that in your home or in your workplace. Berne goes on to explain what is going on. “Problem solving,” he says, “is not the purpose of the exchange. Its purpose is to allow the subject to gain sympathy from others in his inadequacy to meet the situation.” There is, apparently, even a name for this type of person. They are rather predictably perhaps, help-rejecting complainers. Help-rejecting complainers! Not a very nice title, but the truth is, at least if you’re anything like me, you probably are one from time to time, right? A help-rejecting complainer?
 

 

As we turn our attention to the last six verses of Exodus 15 we are going to see the emergence of a pattern in Israel’s national life as they finally begin the long trek at last through the wilderness toward the land of promise. We’ve seen the first hints of this pattern already back in chapter 14 at verse 11 where, if you will recall, the Egyptian army came barreling down upon the trapped, cornered, Israelite people with their backs against the Red Sea; nowhere for them to go. It looked as if this was the end and how did they respond? Not in crying to the Lord but rather in turning on Moses and beginning to complain that they were brought out into the wilderness only to die here at the hands of their former masters. But now God has delivered them. He has parted the waters of the Red Sea. They have been rescued and saved from their enemies in a marvelous act of redemption. And the bulk of chapter 15, you will recall, the first twenty-one verses, records for us the marvelous celebratory worship service that took place on the eastern shore of the Red Sea in the wake of God’s mighty redeeming work and saving mercy. The people burst into jubilant song at the sight of our great God’s great salvation. That’s chapter 15 verses 1 to 21. And as you read through those verses, it’s a marvelous anthem of praise.

 

And then you come to verses 22 to 27 and they’re almost like a slap in the face, moving very abruptly from that scene of triumph and worship and gratitude to God to this one, now so full of complaint and bitterness and unbelief. And it becomes even more perplexing when, as you read on in the story, you see how this is a pattern, almost a national characteristic of Israel at this point in their history. They are wonderful examples of help-rejecting complainers, as we’ll see, and yet, although the people complain against God again and again in this part of Exodus, God nevertheless has a plan for their wilderness journey, their complaints notwithstanding. He wants to teach them, and actually He wants to teach us, the bitter benefits of a wilderness life. You may remember the quote from Jim Boice - I said this in the early service and someone quickly came up to inform me that Jim Boice got his quote from Matthew Henry. You’ve got to be careful what you say around here! Matthew Henry, quoted by Jim Boice, outlines the story of Exodus like this - “Moses was forty years in Egypt learning something.” He was sent off, remember, to be schooled in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. “Forty years learning something, forty years in the desert learning to be nothing.” He served forty years having fled from Egypt in the backside of the desert as a Midianite shepherd. “Forty years learning something, forty years learning to be nothing, and forty years in the wilderness leading the people of Israel proving God to be everything.”

 

God is at work in the wilderness trials of His people to prove themselves utterly deficient and to prove Himself utterly sufficient for all the challenges that life might bring them. The wilderness journey of Israel is a picture to us of the Christian life. Speaking about this period in Israel’s story, Paul says these things took place as examples for us that we might not desire evil as they did. “These things happened to them as an example but they were written down for our instruction on whom the end of the ages has come” - 1 Corinthians 10 verses 6 and 11. The Christian life is a wilderness journey toward the Promised Land. All along the way God is working to strip us of our confidence in ourselves and to teach us to rest our confidence entirely upon Him. That’s what’s really going on in our passage this morning. God is at work sanctifying His people and teaching them by hard trials to trust Him. Teaching them to trust Him.

 

I.  Life In The Wilderness Can Make Us Forget

 

Let’s take a look at it together please. The first thing I want to highlight - two things we’re going to see - the first of them is the fact that life in the wilderness, if we’re not careful, can sometimes make us forget. Life in the wilderness, if we’re not careful, can sometimes make us forget. Verses 22 to 25. After the Red Sea deliverance, God has now sent the Israelites on their way three days’ march into the wilderness of Shur. And for three days they find no water to drink until they come to the oasis at Marah. Marah, we’re told, verse 23, means bitter. You remember Naomi in the book of Ruth - after she has lost everything she returns back to Bethlehem broken and dejected and she told the women who greeted her no longer to call her Naomi but to call her Marah because “the Lord has dealt very bitterly with me.” Marah means bitter. And no sooner do the people of Israel taste the bitter water than they begin to grumble against Moses saying, verse 24, “What shall we drink?”

 

The Short-Term Memory of God’s People

Now what’s so remarkable, stunning really, about this moment isn’t simply that the people are unhappy or that they are venting their spleen at Moses. What is so remarkable is that this all takes place only three days after God had split the waters of the Red Sea and brought them across in safety by a mighty act of redemption and deliverance and destroyed all His and their enemies. What’s so remarkable about this episode is that while they complain, they live under the shadow of the pillar of cloud and at night in the light of the pillar of fire. The presence of God made manifest right in their midst. He is with them and still they complain. What’s so remarkable is that the kind of forgetfulness of God’s past mighty deeds that was so characteristic of Pharaoh - you remember Pharaoh? Again and again God displays His power before Pharaoh and it seems as though Pharaoh would change his mind and then he seems to forget and hardens his heart and turns back to unbelief. The kind of forgetfulness of God’s mighty deeds that so characterized Pharaoh, the anti-God, anti-Christ figure in this whole story, now seems to characterize God’s own covenant people themselves. That is stunning I think. And while we shake our heads and roll our eyes at Israel’s behavior, do let’s not forget Paul’s reminder. These things happen to them as examples for us. In other words, as we read Israel’s story we are looking in the mirror. We are looking in the mirror. The fact is, when the hardships of life in the wilderness really begin to press us and stretch us, yesterday’s salvation is so terribly easy to forget. Isn’t that so?

 

Busy Life Syndrome

I was reading an article by a BBC reporter about some researches who are attempting to treat a growing phenomenon they have been tracking in modern life. The technical term they use is “subjective cognitive impairment.” The researchers in the article simply called it “busy life syndrome.” I can tell by the ripple that went through the congregation some of you are very well acquainted with “busy life syndrome.” Forgetfulness, the researchers have found, is linked to an overly busy life and to constant mental bombardment, especially by digital information. Forgetfulness, the frantic pace of modern living, is making people forget. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s probably true spiritually as well as psychologically. Some of us are beset by “busy life syndrome” and when the next crisis strikes God’s great salvation in Jesus Christ very, very easily looks to us like old news, something we can move on from, not enough for today’s burdens.

 

The Way Forward: Looking Back

The song of Moses in the first part of the chapter was an attempt to teach the people of God we never move on from God’s saving work, His definitive redemptive work. Instead, we are to constantly look back at what He has done that we might garrison and bolster faith for future grace. The opening twelve verses look back at the deliverance at the Red Sea and then the remainder of the song looks forward to a future. They celebrate a future Israel has not yet come to enjoy. Looking back equips them for life trusting God for the days ahead. It sought to teach them that the God who began the work will certainly finish it. The Lord who saved will save still. The one who put our feet on the path is going to bring us through the wilderness all the way home at the end one day. That was the lesson. But isn’t it easy to sing the songs like the song Israel sang, and hear the sermons, and even repeat the truths ourselves without learning the lesson? How easy to forget that God, having given His Son for us, will never desert us in the wilderness. Take your eyes off the cross and today’s crisis will easily eclipse every one of God’s past kindnesses to you. Let the demands of your daily pilgrimage fill your vision and you’ll find the very next difficulty you run in to will make grumbling against God seem plausible and entirely justified. The only way forward, do you see, is to keep looking back. Do not forget the cross.

 

Robert Murray M’Cheyne talked about his regular, disciplined times of personal devotion. And he explained that he had - we would call it a daily quiet time - not because he was attempting to store up grace for the day ahead for, he said, “manna will corrupt if laid by.” Rather, he said, “I have a daily devotional time early in the morning every day, I’m in the Word, I’m calling out on God, not to store up manna for the day ahead but rather to train the eye, to give the eye a habit of looking in a particular direction that will last all the day long.” And I think that is part of the lesson of Exodus 15. We must train our eyes never to wander from the cross, to give our eye the habit of constantly looking back to God’s mighty deliverance lest today’s troubles overwhelm us. If you keep your eyes on Jesus, on Calvary, on God’s great redemption, you will never begin to grumble or give plausibility to your complaint that God is insufficient for today’s trials. “He who gave His own Son, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?” You think He will withhold mercy for today’s trials, grace to sustain you in today’s troubles if He has already gone so far as to give His own Son to Calvary for you?

 

Keep your eyes on the cross and instead of doing what Israel did at Marah, you will do what Moses does. What a contrast between the people of God and Moses. Look what he does. Verse 25 - “Moses cried to the Lord and the Lord showed him what to do.” He cried to the Lord. That’s what faith does in trials. Not panic, not despair; he cries out to God upon whom he rests all his confidence and God answered and intervened and provided. “Be anxious for nothing but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. And the peace of God that surpasses understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Forgetfulness of God’s past salvation leads to grumbling in today’s crises, but faith in the cross produces prayer in daily troubles. So that’s the first thing I want you to see here. There’s a reminder, a warning. If we’re not careful, life in the wilderness can sometimes make us forget, and so we need to train our eyes and fix them on God’s mighty redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

 

II.  Life In The Wilderness Helps Us Obey

 

The Sweetness of Obedience

But then secondly I want you to see that life in the wilderness is intended to help us obey. Verses 25-27. Notice in verse 25 as Moses prays the Lord shows him a log that makes the bitter water sweet. Now there are two temptations that face most commentators here. One is to spiritualize the log. You know, there’s a tree thrown into the bitter waters - that’s the cross; the cross makes bitter waters sweet. It’s tempting but it’s probably not right. The other is to look for a naturalistic explanation. What kind of wood was it that changes the taste of the water? This is clearly a supernatural event but either way that’s not the point. The point really has to do with the word translated in our version, “showed” - “The Lord showed Moses a log.” It’s a word that comes from the same root as the word Torah - God’s Law, His teaching, His instruction. God instructs Moses on where to find this particular log and what to do with it and as Moses carefully obeys the water is made portable and drinkable and sweet. And that, I think, is to be a kind of acted parable, an object lesson for the people of God at this point because in the second half of verse 25 and into verse 26 God points the whole people of God to His Law, to His teaching. He uses a string of synonyms for the Torah, His statutes, His rules, His voice, His commandments. If they will obey the instruction of the Lord then He tells them that the diseases that fell on Egypt, who also forgot God’s mighty acts in their midst, would not fall on them because He is, verse 26, “the Lord your healer.” When the people of God obey in faith, the bitter waters of our wilderness journey are made sweet by the grace of the Lord our healer.

 

From Marah To Elim

And just to drive that point home, notice that immediately after the incident at Marah God sends the people on to Elim, a place described in numerals that spoke to Israel of completeness and that echo the structure of Israel itself, the way the people were organized. No doubt these are rounded numbers recorded here to make a theological point. When God’s people depend on Him and trust Him and obey Him, when life in the wilderness is marked by faithfulness to God’s Law, then there is a spring for each of the twelve tribes and a shade tree for all of Israel’s elders. God’s grace, do you see, matches Israel’s need precisely. He is the Lord who heals them.

 

I think we often struggle with this important principle in the Christian life partly because we don’t want to obscure anything, we don’t want anything to obscure the good news that salvation is a gift of God’s free grace, apart from any merit of our own or any work that we might perform. Amen to that. That is a glorious and precious truth. But it must not be allowed to obscure another equally important truth that progress in the Christian life and a good deal of its happiness and blessedness is conditioned upon our faithful, dutiful obedience. The blessed life, the life that’s led by green pastures and quiet waters, the life that finds oasis in the wilderness, is the obedient life. Jesus said in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he is it who loves me and he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” He said in John 15:9-11, “As the Father has loved me, so I love you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” Obedience, Jesus says, leads to an experience of the love of the Father and the Son who come to us with new depth and intimacy and manifest themselves to us. Obedience, Jesus says, leads to abiding in Christ and the fullness of joy. Obedience makes the bitter waters sweet, do you see?

Or Psalm 1 puts it this way in language that echoes the lessons of Marah and Elim. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked nor stands in the way of sinners, sits in the seat of scoffers. His delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yield its fruit in season and its leaf does not wither. In all he does he prospers.” The evergreen life, the blessed life, the life that finds living water in a dry land, is a life of faith that obeys and delights in the law of the Lord.

 

And those two things go together, you know. The life that forgets the salvation of God in Christ and so grumbles about today’s crises is not likely to be a life that joyfully obeys the Lord believing that is it the Lord your healer who will provide you with the water you need for your journey. But a life that clings to the cross, to Jesus who has rescued us, that is a life that knows that God’s ways are the best ways, even when they are the hardest ways. It knows that His paths, though steep, are always sure and that His trials are for our good. It’s a life that listens diligently to the voice of the Lord our God and does what is right in His eyes, an obedient life, a life that finds satisfaction from the hands of Jehovah-Rophe, “the Lord our healer.” A wilderness life can sometimes make us forget if we’re not careful, so keep looking back. Train your eye and give it the habit of looking constantly to the cross. And a wilderness life is designed to teach us to obey. The obedient life is the good life and the bitter waters turn sweet for all who give themselves to it. May the Lord keep us looking to the cross and living a life of obedience to the joy of our hearts and the praise of His name.  

 

Shall we pray together.

 

Our Father, we bless You that though the roads You lead us on are oftentimes hard and steep and sore, You never leave us, You always have grace which is sufficient for us, and Your strength is always made perfect in weakness. Help us not to forget but always to look and linger long at Calvary, at the cross, at Your past redemption, that our faith may be strengthened for today’s crises and help us to give ourselves trusting in Jesus to an obedient life, and as we obey to taste the sweetness of the fullness of joy in communion with our Savior the Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

 


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