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When God separates a people unto Himself, it is not only needful that that people should be redeemed with “precious blood,” and then brought near as purged worshippers, but it is also part of God’s wise purpose that they should pass through the wilderness ere they enter into the promised inheritance. Two chief designs are accomplished thereby.
First , the trials and testings of the wilderness make manifest the evil of our hearts, and the incurable corruption of the flesh, and this in order that we may be humbled — “to hide pride” from us; and that we may prove by experience that entrance into the inheritance itself is also and solely a matter of sovereign grace, seeing that there is no worthiness, yea, no “good thing” in us.
Second , inasmuch as when Jehovah leads His people into the wilderness He goes with them and makes His presence and His love manifest among them. Inasmuch as it is His purpose to display His power in saving His redeemed from the consequences of their failures, and thus make their need the opportunity of lavishing upon them the riches of His grace, we are made to see not only Israel, but God with them and for them in the waste howling desert.
Trial and humiliation are not “the end of the Lord” ( James 5:11), but are rather the occasions for fresh displays of the Father’s long-sufferance and goodness. The wilderness may and will make manifest the weakness of His saints, and, alas! their failures, but this is only to magnify the power and mercy of Him who brought them into the place of testing. Further:
God has in view our ultimate wellbeing — that He may “do thee good at thy latter end” ( Deuteronomy 6:18); and when the trials are over, when our faithful God has supplied our “every need,” all, all shall be found to be to His honor, praise, and glory. Thus God’s purpose in leading “His people through the wilderness was (and is) not only that He might try and prove them ( Deuteronomy 8:2-5), but that in the trial He might exhibit what He was for them in bearing with their failures and in supplying their need.
The “wilderness,” then, gives us not only a revelation of ourselves, but it also makes manifest the ways of God. “So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur.” This is the first time that we read of them being in “the wilderness.” In 13:18 we are told that “God led the people about the way of the wilderness,” but that they had not then actually entered it is clear from v. 20 — “And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness.” But now they “went out into the wilderness.” The connection is very striking and instructive. It was their passage through the Red Sea which introduced God’s redeemed to the wilderness. Israel’s journey through the Red Sea speaks of the believer’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection ( Romans 6:3,4): Typically, Israel were now upon resurrection-ground. That we may not miss the force of this, the Holy Spirit has been careful to tell us that “Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness.” Here, as in many other passages, the “three days” speaks of resurrection ( Corinthians 15:4).
It is only when the Christian’s faith lays hold of his oneness with Christ in His death and resurrection, recognizing that he is a “new creature” in Him, that he becomes conscious of “the wilderness.” Just in proportion as we apprehend our new standing before God and our portion in His Son, so will this world become to us a dreary and desolate wilderness. To the natural man the world offers much that is attractive and alluring; but to the spiritual man all in it is only “vanity and vexation of spirit.” To the eye of sense there is much in the world that is pleasant and pleasing; but the eye of faith sees nothing but death written across the whole scene — “change and decay in all around I see.” It has much which ministers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life,” but nothing whatever for the new nature. So far as the spiritual life is concerned, the world is simply a wilderness — barren and desolate.
Precisely such is this world. It is the place through which man journeys from time to eternity. And faith it is which makes the difference between the way in which men regard this world. The unbeliever, for the most part, is content to remain here. He settles down as though he is to stay here forever. “Their inward thought is, their houses shall continue forever, and their dwelling-places to all generations; they call their land after their names” ( Psalm 49:11).
Every effort is made to prolong his earthly sojourn, and when at last death claims him, he is loath to leave. Far different is it with the believer, the real believer. His home is not here. He looks “for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God” ( Hebrews 11:10).
Consequently, he is a stranger and pilgrim here ( Hebrews 11:13). It is of this the “wilderness” speaks. Canaan was the country which God gave to Abraham and his seed, and the wilderness was simply a strange land through which they passed on their way to their inheritance. “And they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water” (v. 22).
This is the first lesson which our wilderness-life is designed to teach us.
There is nothing down here which can in anywise minister to that life which we have received from Christ. The pleasures of sin, the attractions of the world, no longer satisfy. The things which formerly charmed, now repel us.
The companionships we used to find so pleasing have become distasteful.
The things which delight the ungodly only cause us to groan. The Christian who is in communion with his Lord finds absolutely nothing around him which will or can refresh his thirsty soul. For him the shallow cisterns of this world have run dry. His cry will be that of the Psalmist: “O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee; my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee, in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” ( Psalm 63:1).
Ah, here is the believer’s Resource: God alone can satisfy the longings of his heart. Just as he first heeded the gracious words of the Savior, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink” ( John 7:37), so must he continue to go to Him who alone has the Water of Life. “And when they came to Marah they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore the name of it was called Marah” (v. 23).
A sore trial, a real test, was this. Three days’ journey in the hot and sandy wilderness without finding any water; and now that water is reached, behold, it is “bitter!” “How often this is the case with the young believer, aye, and with the old one, too. We grasp at that which we think will satisfy, and only find bitter disappointment. Has it not proved so? Have you tried the pleasures, or the riches, or the honors of the world, and only found them bitter? You are invited to a gay party. Once this would have been very delightful; but now, how bitter to the taste of the new nature! How utterly disappointed you return home. Have you set your heart on some earthly object? You are permitted to obtain it; but how empty! Yea, what you expected to yield such satisfaction only brings sorrow and emptiness” (C. Stanley).
Israel were now made to feel the bareness and bitterness of the wilderness.
With what light hearts did they begin their journey across it? Little prepared were they for what lay before them. To go three days and find no water, and when they reached some to find it bitter! How differently had they expected from God! How natural for them, after experiencing the great work of deliverance which He had wrought for them, to count on Him providing a smooth and easy path for them. So, too, is it with young Christians. They have peace with God and rejoice in the knowledge of sins forgiven. Little do they (or did we) anticipate the tribulations which lay before them. Did not we expect things would be agreeable here? Have we not sought to make ourselves happy in this world? And have we not been disappointed and discouraged, when we found “no water.” and that what there is was “bitter?” Ah, we enter the wilderness without understanding what it is! We thought, if we thought at all, that our gracious God would screen us from sorrow. Ah, dear reader, it is at God’s right hand, and not in this world, that there are “pleasures for evermore.”
As we have said, the “wilderness” accurately symbolizes and portrays this world, and the first stage of the journey forecasts the whole! Drought and bitterness are all that we can expect in the place that owns not Christ. How could it be otherwise? Does God mean for us to settle down and be content in a world which hates Him and which cast out His beloved Son?
Never! Here, then, is something of vital importance for the young Christian. I ought to start my wilderness journey expecting nothing but dearth. If we expect peace instead of persecution, that which will make us merry rather than cause us to groan, disappointment and disheartenment at not having our expectations realized, will be our portion. Many an experienced Christian would bear witness that most of his failings in the wilderness are to be attributed to his starting out with a wrong view of what the wilderness is. Ease and rest are not to be found in it, and the more we look for these, the keener will be our disappointment. The first stage in our journey must proclaim to us, as to Israel, what the true nature of the journey is. It is Marah. “And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?” (v. 24).
Very solemn is this. Three days ago this people had been singing, now they are murmuring. Praising before the Red Sea gives place to complaining at Marah! A real trial was this experience, but how sadly Israel failed under it.
Just as before, when they saw the Egyptians bearing down upon them at Pihahiroth, so now once more they upbraid Moses for bringing them into trouble. They appeared to have overlooked entirely the fact that they had been led to Marah by the Pillar of Cloud ( 13:22)! Their murmuring against Moses was, in reality, murmuring against the Lord. And so it is with us. Every complaint against our circumstances, every grumble about the weather, about the way people treat us, about the daily trials of life, is directed against that One Who “worketh all things after the counsel of His Own will ( Ephesians 1:11). Remember, dear reader, that what is here recorded of Israel’s history is “written for our admonition” ( Corinthians 10:11). There is the same evil heart of unbelief and the same rebellious will within us as were in the Israelites. Therefore do we need to earnestly seek grace that the one may be subdued and the other broken.
And what was the cause of their “murmuring?” There can be only one answer: their eye was no longer upon God. After the wonders of Jehovah’s power which they had witnessed in Egypt, and their glorious deliverance at the Red Sea, it ought to have been unmistakably evident to them that He was for and with them in very truth. But so far from recognizing this, they do not seem to have given Him a single thought. They speak as if they had to do with Moses only. And is it not frequently so with us? When we reach Marah, do we not charge some fellow-creature with being responsible for our hard lot? Some friend in whom we trusted, some counsellor whose advice we respected, some arm of flesh on which we leaned has failed us, and we blame them because of the “bitter waters!” “And he cried unto the Lord” (v. 25). Moses did what Israel ought to have done — he took the matter to God in prayer. This is what our “Marah’s” are for — to drive us to the Lord. I say “drive,” for the tragic thing is that most of the time we are so under the influence of the flesh that we become absorbed with His blessings, rather than with the Blesser Himself. Not, perhaps, that we are entirely prayer-less, but rather that there is so little heart in our prayers. It is sad and solemn, yet nevertheless true, that it takes a “Marah” to make us cry unto God in earnest. “They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty their soul fainted in them. THEN they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distresses.... Therefore He brought down their heart with labor; they fell down, and there was none to help. THEN they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses.... Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they drew near unto the gates of death, THEN they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saveth them out of their distresses... They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. THEN they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses” ( <19A704> Psalm 107:4,5,12,13,18,19,27,28).
Alas that this is so often true of writer and reader. “And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, which, when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet” (v. 25).
Moses did not cry unto God in vain. The One who has provided redemption for His people is the God of all grace, and with infinite longsufferance does He bear with them. The faith of Israel might fail, and instead of trusting the Lord for the supply of their need, give way to murmuring; nevertheless, He came to their relief. So with us. How true it is that “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” ( <19A310> Psalm 103:10).
But on what ground does the thrice Holy One deal so tenderly with His erring people? Ah, is it not beautiful to see that at this point, too, our type is perfect — it was in response to the cries of an interceding mediator that God acted. In His official character Moses is seen all through as the one who came between God and Israel. It was in response to his cry that the Lord came to Israel’s relief! And blessed be God there is also One who “ever liveth to make intercession for us” ( Hebrews 7:25), and on this ground God deals tenderly with us as we pass through the wilderness: “If any man sin we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” ( 1 John 2:1).
The form which God’s response took on this occasion is also deeply significant and instructive. He showed Moses “a tree.” The “tree” had evidently been there all the time, but Moses saw it not, or at least knew not its sweetening properties. It was not until the Lord “showed him” the tree that he learned of the provision of God’s grace. This shows how dependent we are upon the Lord, and how blind we are in ourselves. Of Hagar we read, “And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” ( Genesis 21:19).
So in 2 Kings 6:17 we are told, “And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” Clearly “the hearing ear, and seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them” ( Proverbs 20:12).
And what was it that the Lord “showed” Moses? It was “a tree.” And what did this “tree” which sweetened the bitter waters, typify? Surely it is the person and work of our Blessed Savior — the two are inseparably connected. There are several Scriptures which present Him under the figure of a “tree.” In the 1st Psalm it is said, “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth His fruit in His season, His leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever He doeth shall prosper” (v. 3).
Again, in Song of Solomon 2:3 we read, “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my Beloved among the sons. I sat down under His shadow with great delight, and His fruit was sweet to my taste.”
Here is the second great lesson of our wilderness-life — nothing can sweeten the bitter cup of our earthly experiences except reposing under the shadow of Christ Sit down at His feet, dear reader, and you shall find His fruit “sweet” unto your taste, and His words sweeter than the honey or the honey-comb.
But the “tree” also speaks of the cross of Christ: “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the Tree” ( 1 Peter 2:24), “The cross of Christ is that which makes what is naturally bitter sweet to us. It is the fellowship of His sufferings ( Philippians 3:10), and the knowledge of its being that, what suffering can it not sweeten!....
Let us remember here that these sufferings of which we speak are therefore sufferings which are peculiar to us as Christians. This ‘bitterness’ of death in the wilderness is not simply the experience of what falls to the common lot of man to experience. It is not the bitterness simply of being in the body — of enduring the ills which, they say, flesh is heir to. It is the bitterness which results from being linked with Christ in His own path of suffering here. ‘If we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him.’ Marsh then is sweetened by this ‘tree’; the cross, the cross of shame; the cross which was the mark of the world’s verdict as to Him — the cross it is that sweetens the struggles. If we endure shame and rejection for Him, as His, we can endure it, and the sweet reality of being linked with Him makes Marsh itself drinkable” (Mr. Grant). A beautiful illustration is furnished in Acts 16. There we see Paul and Silas in the prison of Philippi; they were cruelly scourged, and then thrown into the innermost dungeon. Behold them in the darkness, feet fast in the stocks, and backs bleeding. That was “Marah” for them indeed. But how were they employed? They “sang praises,” and sang so lustily that the other prisoners heard them ( Acts 16:25). There we see the “tree” sweetening the bitter waters. How was it possible for them to sing under such circumstances? Because they rejoiced that they were “counted worthy to suffer shame for “His name” ( Acts 5:41)!
This, then, is how we are to use the Cross in our daily lives — to regard our Christian trials and afflictions as opportunities for having fellowship with the sufferings of the Savior. “There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them and said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians” (vv. 25, 26).
It is very important to mark the context here. Nothing had been said to Israel about Jehovah’s “statutes and commandments” while they were in Egypt. But now that they were redeemed, now that they had been purchased for Himself, God’s governmental claims are pressed upon them.
The Lord was dealing with them in wondrous grace. But grace is not lawlessness. Grace only makes us the more indebted to God. Our obligations are increased not cancelled thereby. Grace reigns “through righteousness,” not at the expense of it ( Romans 5:21). The obligation of obedience can never be liquidated so long as God is God. Grace only establishes on a higher basis what we most emphatically and fully OWE to Him as His redeemed creatures.
This principle runs throughout the Scriptures and applies to every dispensation: blessing is dependent upon obedience. Israel were to be immune from the diseases of Egypt only so long as they hearkened diligently to the voice of the Lord their God and did that which was right in His sight! But let us be clear on the point. The keeping of God’s commandments has nothing to do with our salvation. Israel here were already under the blood and had been, typically, brought through death on to resurrection-ground. Yet now the Lord reminds them of His commandments and statutes. How far wrong, then, are they who contend that the law has nothing to do with Christians? True, it has nothing to do with their salvation. But it is needful for the regulation of their walk.
Believers, equally with unbelievers, are subject to God’s government.
Failure to recognize this, failure to conform our daily lives to God’s statutes, failure to obey His commandments, will not forfeit our salvation, but it will bring down upon us the chastening “plagues” of our righteous Father ( John 17:25).
A separate word is called for upon the closing sentence of verse 26: “For I am the Lord that healeth thee.” This has been seized upon by certain wellmeaning people whose zeal is “not according to knowledge.” They have detached this sentence of Scripture and “claimed” the Lord as their Healer.
By this they mean that in response to their appropriating faith God recovers them from sickness without the use of herbs or drugs. From it they deduce the principle that it is wrong for a believer to have recourse to any doctor or medical aid. The Lord is their Physician, and it is distrust of Him to consult an earthly physician. But if this scripture be examined in its context, it will be found that instead of teaching that God disdains the use of means in the healing of His people, He employs them. The bitter waters of Marah were healed not by a peremptory fiat from Jehovah, but by a “tree” being cast into them! Thus, in the first reference to “healing” in the Bible we find God deliberately choosing to employ means for the healing and health of His people. Similarly, did He bless Elisha in the use of means (salt) in healing the waters at Jericho ( 2 Kings 2:19-22). Similarly did God instruct His servant Isaiah to use means (a fig-poultice) in the healing of Hezekiah. So also in <19A414> Psalm 104:14 we read, “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle and here for the service of man; that he may bring forth good out of the earth.”
So we find the apostle Paul exhorting Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake ( 1 Timothy 5:23). Even on the new earth God will use means for healing the bodies of the nations which have lived through the millenium without dying and being raised in glorified bodies: “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” ( Revelation 22:2). “And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and three-score and ten palm trees, and they encamped there by the waters” (v. 27).
This does not conflict with our remarks upon the previous verses. Elim is the complement to Marah, and this will be the more evident if we observe their order. First, the bitter waters of Marah sweetened by the tree, and then the wells of pure water and the palm trees for shade and refreshment.
Surely the interpretation is obvious: when we are walking in fellowship with Christ and the principle of His cross is faithfully applied to our daily life, not only is the bitterness of suffering for His sake sweetened, but we enter into the pure joys which God has provided for His own, even down here. “Elim” speaks, then, of the satisfaction which God gives to those who are walking with Him in obedience. This joy of heart, this satisfaction of soul, comes to us through the ministry of the Word — hence the significance of the twelve “wells” and the seventy “palm trees”; the very numbers selected by Christ in the sending forth of His apostles. (See Luke 9:1-10:1!) May the Lord grant that we shall so heed the lesson of Marah that Elim will be our happy lot.