Lessons from the Wilderness | Exodus 15:22—17:7
Brian Hedges | November 6, 2022
Let’s turn in our Bibles this morning to the book of Exodus. We’re going to be in Exodus 15, 16, and 17.
All of us go through difficult times in our lives. We all face uncertainty, disappointment, grief, and loss. One way or another we face trials, tribulations in life. That can come in a number of different forms. It may be through relationship difficulties, it may be through financial hardship, stressful work environments. It may be a physical sickness or some kind of suffering. It could also come through seasons of spiritual difficulty, where we experience something like spiritual dryness or drought or even feelings of desolation and despair.
No one is immune to this. No one is exempt from this. All of us face trials. In Christianity, these seasons of trials and tribulations have often been called “wilderness experiences.” When Christians talk about going through a wilderness, we often are referring to these kinds of seasons in our lives, where we’re going through difficult times, we feel like we’re in a desert, we feel like we are challenged by trials and tribulations at every hand.
This morning we’re going to talk about what it means to walk by faith in a wilderness experience, a wilderness season in our lives. It’s really drawing from the wilderness experiences of the children of Israel in Exodus 15-17.
In this study in the book of Exodus—we’ve called it “Exodus: The Story of Redemption”—we have seen that the book of Exodus gives us the vocabulary, the images, the stories, the motifs for understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this book is also very instructive about the life of faith. It shows us how to walk with God, what it means to walk with God, and to walk with God through these different seasons of life.
This is especially true in the section of Exodus that we are currently in. We are between the time when God delivered his people Israel out of bondage in Egypt, we’ve looked at that; we’re between that and God then constituting the children of Israel as a nation under his direct, kingly rule, and then giving them his law in Exodus 19-20 and the rest of the book. The period in between is the period in the wilderness, where the children of Israel are journeying towards Mount Sinai.
This morning we’re going to look at three stories in particular from Exodus 15:22-17:7. There are three stories that have a lot in common. There are some common threads and themes that run through these stories of Israel in the wilderness. I believe that they will teach us three things. They’ll teach us that first, the wilderness is a place of testing; second, the wilderness is a place of provision; and third, the wilderness is a place of judgment and grace.
We’re going to work our way through these three chapters, not reading every verse but reading some of the most relevant sections. I really do believe that this is one of the most practical and helpful sections in the book of Exodus, and that if we will take it to heart this can have life-changing effects in our lives.
1. The wilderness is a place of testing
Let’s look first at the wilderness as the place of testing, and we’re going to begin by reading in Exodus 15:22-27. Hear the word of the Lord. It says,
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 [or a tree], 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.
This is God’s word.
This is actually the first of three testing stories that you have in Exodus 15, 16, and 17. I want you to just see the occasion of each and how this language of testing is used in each story.
The first is this, which we have just read, Marah, where the bitter springs are made sweet. The key verse there is Exodus 15:25: “There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them.”
Then you have a lengthy story that will be familiar to many of you, the story of manna in the wilderness, the wilderness of Sin. By the way, that’s not talking about sin as a moral concept; the Hebrew word is related to Sinai. It’s the wilderness as they were on the way, journeying to Mount Sinai.
There in the wilderness the Lord provided manna, bread from heaven. But as he did so, he also was testing his people. The key verse is Exodus 16:4. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.’”
Then the third testing story is the story at Rephidim, or Meribah, and it’s the story of water from the rock. We’ll look at that at the end of the message this morning, but the key verse there is Exodus 17:7: “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”
We just have to understand the nuance of this word, “to test.” It means to prove or to put to the test. It’s to put someone to the test so as to see what is in them; to ascertain their quality. It can also carry the idea of training or even of discipline. The word can be used in both a positive way and a negative way. When the Lord here is testing his people Israel, it’s actually with a positive intention, as the Lord is seeking to develop his people and to test their faith and to prove the reality of their faith.
We can see this from a cross reference in the book of Deuteronomy. This takes place after the 40 years in the wilderness, and Moses is now looking back, and in Deuteronomy 8:2 and 5 we read these words. He said, “You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” And then verse 5: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son the Lord your God disciplines you.”
This is what God was doing with the children of Israel in the wilderness; he was testing them, he was training them, he was disciplining them. They were in the school of faith. The wilderness is a place of testing and training.
But when it says that the people of Israel tested the Lord, that has a very negative connotation. It really carries the idea of provoking the Lord. We have to remember the situation. We have to remember that these are the people of Israel who have seen the mighty hand of God. They have seen God deliver them from Egypt through the ten plagues, these mighty acts of judgment, these signs and these wonders. They have seen God rescue them through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. They have been led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They have seen God split the Red Sea for them and lead them through on dry land and then drown Pharaoh and his chariots in the Red Sea. They’ve seen all of this.
Now they’re seeing God provide for them in the wilderness. But even as they’ve seen all of this from the hand of God, they continue to provoke him, they continue to question whether he is really among them; they continue to respond to their trials with grumbling and with unbelief rather than with faith. That’s why when they test the Lord in Exodus 17 it’s such a negative, provocative thing. It is a part of their rebellion against God.
So the wilderness, we see here, is a place of testing. I think this actually has some very practical lessons for us. I want to suggest three lessons from this first point.
(1) The first is simply this, that God tests or disciplines every one of his children. This is something that every single one of us is going to face. We are going to face times in our lives where we are being tested by the Lord, where we are being disciplined by the Lord.
We understand this from a number of passages in Scripture, including the book of Hebrews; Hebrews 12:7-8. Let me read these words to you. It says to endure hardship as discipline. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
What the author is saying there is that God disciplines every single believer. Every person who is a child of God, every person who is a true Christian, every person who is a true believer, is going to receive discipline from the Lord.
Don’t misunderstand: this is not saying that God is punishing us for our sins. The real punishment for our sins, the punitive response to our sins, took place on the cross, when Jesus died on the cross. He’s the one who suffered the punishment for our sins. The discipline is things in our lives that come to perhaps correct us or perhaps just to train us and to develop our faith and to grow us and help us to mature.
The author is saying that God is a good Father. Just as all of us who are parents know that if you never discipline your children, you’re not actually a good parent. If you don’t ever say no to your children, if there are never consequences for wrong actions or attitudes for your children; if your children never experience any kind of discipline, you know what your children are going to grow up to be? They’re going to grow up to be spoiled, entitled. They’re going to grow up to be immature. They’re not going to be well-adjusted adults. The children need discipline; they need training as they are growing and maturing. In the same way, we need discipline and training, and God is a good Father. He disciplines every one of his children.
This led the 18th-century poet William Cowper to reflect on suffering and to reflect on the experience of discipline or (to use the older word) the experience of chastisement in the life of the Christian. William Cowper in one of his poems put it like this. He said,
’Tis my happiness below
Not to live without the cross,
But the Savior’s power to know
Sanctifying every loss.
Trials must and will befall,
But with humble faith to see
Love inscribed upon them all.
This is happiness to me.
He’s saying, “Trials come, but because they are sanctified by God they are a source of joy and of happiness to me. God is using them; love is inscribed upon them all.”
Then he says this:
Did I meet no trials here,
No chastisements by the way,
Might I not with reason fear
I should prove a castaway?
Bastards may escape the rod,
Sunk in earthly, vain delight,
But the trueborn child of God
Must not, would not, if he might.
Those are strong words, but it’s really just echoing what Hebrews says, that if you never have trials, you’re not actually a true child of God. Only an illegitimate child would not be disciplined by the parent; that’s what Hebrews is saying, and Cowper is reflecting on that.
The point here is that God disciplines every one of us. The trials we face in our lives are a part of that training, disciplining, educating process, which means we should not wish away our trials.
(2) In fact (here’s the second lesson), I think we can confidently say that God uses everything in your life in this discipline and training process. He was using every experience that the children of Israel had in the wilderness. When they faced thirst, God was testing them, he was disciplining them. He was training them. When they face hunger, he’s providing for them the manna, the bread from heaven, but he’s doing so in a way that is testing their faith and their obedience. Everything they face is a part of God’s process to train them. The same thing is true in our lives. Every unmet need, every relational difficulty, every trial you face, every emotional or spiritual problem, every financial loss, every time you have a struggle with health or with your job or your family, it’s all used by God. None of it is wasted. It’s all part of the curriculum; it’s all part of the process that God is using in our lives.
Our problem is that so often we don’t view our trials in that way. We don’t understand what it is that God is doing in our lives.
If I could use an illustration that some of you will remember—you remember the movie from the 1980s The Karate Kid? Remember that movie? Remember how Mr. Miagi is training this teenage boy, Daniel (he calls him Daniel-son), how to fight; he’s training him in karate. But you remember the method he uses for training—he’s doing all these menial tasks. He’s waxing the car—you remember “wax on, wax off.” He’s painting the fence. He’s doing all these menial chores, and Daniel grows really frustrated. “When am I going to learn karate? You’re not teaching me karate; I’m just doing all these chores!” But there comes that moment in the film when he suddenly realizes that all these things he’s been doing have been training him in exactly the movements that he needs to master in order to have these fighting skills in karate.
The same thing is true in our lives, brothers and sisters. We go through things that seem like menial, insignificant, purposeless trials to us. “What could be the point of this?” But what we don’t realize is that God is developing us, he is training us, he is discipling us, disciplining us. It’s all a part of the curriculum, and we need to respond to it with faith.
(3) In fact, the third lesson for us just relates to that. It’s that God’s purpose in these tests is to prove our faith. I think that’s the implicit focus of the passage. You can see it in Exodus 15:25, where God says that he is testing his people, whether they will obey him, whether they’re going to hear him and do what is right and keep his statutes and his commandments. In fact, if you read through these three chapters (Exodus 15:22-17:7) you’re going to see that there is a focus on the statutes of God, the commands of God, the laws of God. These words pop up again and again.
Why is that? It’s kind of interesting, because it’s before the Ten Commandments have been given. It’s before the giving of the book of the Law that will happen later in this book. Yet God is saying, “I’m testing to see whether they will obey me, whether they will obey and keep my laws.”
I think what’s going on is this: it’s not that the obedience was going to merit anything from God—it wasn’t that—it’s that their obedience to the word of God, the voice of God, the instruction of God was an evidence of genuine faith. What God is looking for is to see if they trust him, and if they trust him they’re going to do what he says.
I think this becomes evident when you recognize that there is a contrast here between another testing story that happens earlier in the Pentateuch, in those first five books of the Bible. The earliest testing story we have is in Genesis 22 with the story of Abraham, who is the father of the nation of Israel and he is the preeminent man of faith, a man who walked with God by faith. You remember that God tested him, and he told him, “I want you to go to this mountain, I want you to offer your son, your only son Isaac, offer him up to me as a burnt sacrifice.”
Abraham obeys. Abraham is willing to do it, and of course God stays his hand at the last moment; he provides a ram in the thicket and Isaac is spared. But all of it was to test Abraham to see if he really did trust God.
I love the summary that we get of this in Hebrews 11:17-19. It shows us how Abraham passed the test. Listen to what it says. “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.” How did Abraham pass the test? He did it by faith.
In contrast to that, here are the children of Israel. They have seen God’s mighty hand at work again, again, and again; and when they face a new test, do they respond by faith? Are they trusting in the promise of God? No. Instead, we see the exact opposite of faith. What we see is their complaining. We see them turning away from the Lord.
Abraham, in contrast, is the man who by faith had fulfilled the law. We see that in Genesis 26:3-5. I’ll just read verse 5, but these are the words of God to Isaac, the son of Abraham, and Abraham is described in verse 5 as one who “obeyed my voice, kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Here’s the man who had been tested by God, he had responded in faith, and in doing so he had kept God’s law, even though the Law in its codified form (the Ten Commandments) had not been given yet. In contrast to that, God here is now testing his children, the people of Israel, to see whether they will keep his law, but they don’t respond in faith. Instead, they respond with grumbling.
We’ve only seen it in one passage so far, in chapter 15, but if you read all the way through 15, 16, and 17 (and I encourage you to do that) you’ll see that there is a theme of grumbling. This is the characteristic response of the children of Israel to their trials: they grumble, grumble, grumble. In fact, ten times in these three chapters we read that they grumble. Or, if you’re reading the old King James version, they murmur.
I think this is important for us, because it’s showing us that there is a stark contrast between responding to our difficulties in faith and responding to our difficulties with grumbling.
We have to check ourselves, because grumbling, while it is one of the more “respectable sins” in our culture today, its pervasive presence in our lives is actually a symptom of something that is really, really dangerous. It’s a symptom of a deep spiritual problem. You might think of it like a mole or spot on your skin, and initially it’s not painful, it’s not hurting you. It looks kind of innocuous. But you go to the dermatologist, they check it out, and it turns out that it’s a malignant cancer, and it’s really dangerous. And grumbling is like that in our lives.
If you’re grumbling your way through your trials, do a heart check here and ask, are you actually living by faith, and are you trusting in God? The response of faith is not to grumble, it is to lean into the Lord and to trust in his provision, and not to respond with a murmuring, complaining, grumbling spirit.
The wilderness is a place of testing, where God is disciplining us, taking us through the school of faith, to help us grow.
2. The wilderness is a place of provision
Secondly, the wilderness is a place of provision. We see a number of provisions from God in chapters 15-17. We don’t have time to look at all of them, but I want to just list them off and then draw some practical lessons from these.
There’s the provision of the bitter springs that are made sweet at Marah, in Exodus 15:22-25. Then they journey, they go to a new place called Elim, and in that place God provides twelve springs of water for them. This should be assuring them that God is going to be faithful to take care of them. But about six weeks later they’re in the wilderness of Sin, and again they begin to grumble and complain, but God is providing for them even there. There is a vision of God’s glory in the cloud in the middle of Exodus 16, and then the provision of quail and manna, this bread from heaven, and the gift of rest on the Sabbath. All of that is part of God’s provision, his gift to his people, in chapter 16. Then there’s the water from the rock at Rephidim in chapter 17.
All of these episodes are showing God’s faithfulness and his kindness to his people, and together they teach us some valuable lessons. I want to suggest three, once again.
(1) The first is this, that the Lord is able to make the bitter things in our lives sweet. I think that’s the lesson for us in Exodus 15:22-25. Let me read it again.
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 [it’s this bitter, brackish water; that’s why it’s called Marah. That means bitter.]. . . . And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And [Moses] cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log [or a tree, maybe a little shrub or bush], and he threw it into the water, [and the Lord did a miracle] and the water became sweet.
What’s the lesson here? It’s showing us that when we are going through these bitter trials in our lives, when those trials are sanctified by God they can become sweet, they can do us good.
You know, Christians of previous generations, when they prayed about their trials, they weren’t mainly just praying, “Lord, please remove this from me.” Now, it’s appropriate to ask God to remove something; Paul does that. He prays three times that God would remove the thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians. God doesn’t remove it; God says instead, “My grace is sufficient for you. I’m going to use this. My strength is going to be made perfect in your weakness.”
The Christians understood in previous generations that God doesn’t always remove our trials; in fact, God purposefully uses those trials, and they used to pray like this: “God, would you sanctify this trial to my good? Would you use it for my good?” Sanctify the trial, sanctify the affliction. Not just, “Take it away,” but, “If I’m going to go through this, if I’m going to drink this cup, if I’m going to go through this desert, if I’m going to go through this wilderness, if I’m going to face this hardship, use it for my good!” That’s the way they would pray.
In fact, John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” who wrote a number of different hymns in the Olney hymnal, wrote a hymn called “Begone, Unbelief.” You get his perspective on trials in this wonderful hymn, “Begone, Unbelief.” Let me read you just three stanzas from this hymn.
The first stanza goes like this:
My Savior is near,
And for my relief
Will surely appear.
By prayer let me wrestle,
And he will perform;
With Christ in the vessel,
I smile at the storm.
You get the idea here. He’s going through trials, but he’s saying, “If Christ is in the vessel with me—if he’s in the boat through the storm—I can smile at it, because he’s in control.”
Then he says (here’s another stanza),
Why should I complain
Of want or distress,
Temptation or pain?
He told me no less;
The heirs of salvation,
I know from his word,
Through much tribulation
Must follow the Lord.
In other words, this is what you have to expect. Through many tribulations we will enter the kingdom of God. This is the Christian life. There is going to be suffering; there are going to be trials; there are going to be tribulations. We should expect nothing less.
Then in the last line he says this:
Since all that I meet
Shall work for my good,
The bitter is sweet,
The medicine food.
Though painful at present,
’Twill cease before long,
And then, O how pleasant
The conqueror’s song!
"The bitter is sweet, the medicine is food." Why? Because God sanctifies it for my good.
Listen, believer: if you believe that, if you actually believe that, it changes everything. It changes your perspective on your difficulties. It changes your perspective on that difficult job situation that you just wish you could get out of; or that difficult, hard marriage or family relationship that brings so much pain into your life; or that diagnosis that you were not expecting. It changes your perspective, because you believe God is going to work it for my good. The bitter is sweet, the medicine is food.
There are countless stories of Christians—if you read the biographies you’ll see it again and again—countless stories of Christians who went through unspeakable trials and hardships. But those who walked in faith, they say, “God was never nearer to me than in that moment. I learned more through that trial than all the other blessings in my life. God did something in my life through that situation.” The bitter is sweet, the medicine is food. God is able to turn the bitter things in our lives and make them sweet. That’s the first lesson: the wilderness is a place of provision, and the trials themselves are a part of his process, not just to train us but to bring good into our lives.
(2) Here’s the second lesson: the Lord wants us to depend on him for daily bread. This is one of the primary lessons from the story of the manna. I want to read just one section from Exodus 16:13-21. Let’s read this, and notice here the specific instructions that are given to the people of Israel, how they are to get their bread.
In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer [that was a measurement that was about two quarts], according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
Now, why these instructions? Why does God give them bread, but they have to go out every morning to get it? I think part of the reason is because God was teaching them to depend on him daily. He’s not giving them a storehouse of food that’s going to last them for six months. In fact, if they store it up, overnight it’s going to stink, except for on the Sabbath, and there is a provision for that, where they can gather two days so they can receive this gift of rest.
But God doesn’t want them to store it up. He’s not giving them everything that they’re going to need for the whole journey, he’s giving them what they need daily, because he’s teaching them the same lesson that Jesus taught his disciples in the Lord’s Prayer to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s daily dependence upon the Lord.
Brothers and sisters, that’s part of God’s process for us, is teaching us to depend on him daily. It certainly doesn’t mean that there’s not some wisdom, if we have the means, to have an emergency fund or something like that. The book of Proverbs teaches that. But we’re never meant to depend on that; we’re to depend on the Lord, and we’re to hold our possessions loosely, and be willing to be generous with what we have so that we can depend on God day by day.
(3) Here’s the third lesson. One of the ways that we express our dependence on the Lord is by daily feeding on his word. I think this is a legitimate application because of Deuteronomy 8:3. Again, it’s looking back on the 40 years in the wilderness, where God had fed his people every day with the manna, but Moses tells them why God did it this way. Notice what he says. “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The bread was a picture of their daily dependence and their dependence on the word of God.
You remember that Jesus himself, when he is tempted for 40 days in the wilderness, kind of living out the story of Israel in his own experience—he’s tempted 40 days in the wilderness, and you remember that when Satan comes to him and tempts him to turn the stone into bread, do you remember how he responds? He quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, and he says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
I think one of the applications to make from this is in our lives to express our daily dependence on the Lord through daily feeding on his word. Christians for generations have seen that lesson in the story of the manna.
In fact, Charles Spurgeon's’ devotional Morning by Morning gets its title from Exodus 16:21: “Morning by morning they gathered it.” Spurgeon preached a wonderful sermon called “Lessons from the Manna,” and he just points out some of the spiritual lessons from this story. I want you to see this for application for your own life. You and I need regular intake of the word of God. I think it is one of the most desperate needs of discipleship in our generation. There are dozens and dozens of Christians—this would apply to some of us in this room—who are not in any kind of regular, ongoing relationship with the word of God; not spending time with God in his word or in prayer.
If we take the lesson of the manna, we learn that we need to daily gather it. It’s not enough to just go get it once a week. If all the Bible you’re getting is what you’re getting on Sunday mornings, you’re malnourished! You’re not getting enough. Each household was responsible to gather, and in the same way each of us is responsible for self-feeding. Don’t try to get all of your spiritual nourishment secondhand. You have to be taking in the word of God for yourself.
The stored manna stank. When they stored it up, it bred worms and it stank. In the same way, trying to live on past experiences will never do. We need daily, fresh supplies of the word of God. Spurgeon said, “The manna was to be sought continually; so must your spiritual food. Do not try to live on last year’s manna,” he said. “Stale experiences are poor food. I know no dish that is worse than cold experience. You need to have a daily realization of the things of God. Hourly feed on Christ, for the food of past years will be of small account to you.” We need a daily realization of the things of God, daily time with God.
Back in the 20th century there was a British preacher named Stephen Olford, and he wrote a little booklet called Manna in the Morning. I recommend it to you. It’s out of print now, but you can find a PDF online. It’s 13 pages long, and Olford gives practical instructions, based on this principle from the manna, practical instructions for how to have a quiet time. That’s what they called it back then: a quiet time. A time with God where you get quiet in solitude. He essentially said you need to have a definite time and place, you need to have a good Bible that’s easy to read (good print), you need a prayer list and a plan for prayer, you need a personal notebook where you are writing down what you are learning as you have these times with the Lord, and you need a spirit of expectancy.
Brothers and sisters, could I just say to you this morning that some of you are spiritually famished? Some of you are grumbling your way through trials and through difficulties in your life. You’re discontent, you’re dissatisfied, you are full of doubts and fears; and the reason is because you are spiritually malnourished, because you are not feeding on the word. What you need is daily, regular intake of the word of God. Make it a priority. Seek it out. Begin, if you’ve never done so before, or renew it if you’ve had it in the past. If you’ve had a devotional life in the past and you’ve let it go, renew it. Come back to the Lord and engage in personal relationship with God through a disciplined, regular reading of the word of God and prayer. Get your manna from the Lord.
3. The wilderness is a place of judgment and grace
We’ve seen that the wilderness is a place of testing and the wilderness is a place of provision. I don’t know how the time has gotten away in this service, but I’m running a little late; give me five more minutes to show you that the wilderness is a place of judgment and grace.
I want us to go to chapter 17 and read those first seven verses, the story at Rephidim. It says,
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 [that’s a very strong word that carries the idea of bringing a legal charge against someone] 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?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
You see what’s going on there? Moses is on trial. The people of Israel have no faith—“Why have you brought us out here to kill us?” They’re forgetting everything that God has done, and they’re ready to execute Moses. I want you to see what God does in verse 5. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile . . .’”
What is this staff? It is the shepherd’s staff that had been consecrated by Moses to the Lord, and it had been the instrument God had used to bring judgment on Egypt. This is the staff that had struck the Nile River and turned it to blood. This is the staff that Moses would wave and a plague would come upon Egypt. This is ominous. What’s God going to do? “Moses, take the staff and go before the people.” Take the staff. Is he about to judge his people? That’s what they deserved; they deserved judgment. But notice what happens in verse 6.
Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The Lord stands before Moses there at the rock and says, “Moses, strike the rock with this rod of judgment.”
I think what’s going on here is that, though the people of God deserve the judgment, the Lord himself stands, and he takes the strike of judgment. He takes the blow of divine justice so that the people can receive the water of life, the water of grace.
Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon on Christ as the rock, viewed this as a type, an allegory pointing to Christ. This is what he said. He said, “This rock, like our Savior, gave forth no water till it was smitten. Our Lord Jesus was no Savior except as he was smitten, for he could not save man unless by his death. It is not Christ who is my salvation unless I put it with his cross. It is Christ on Calvary who redeems my soul. The rock yields no water until it is smitten, and so the Savior yields no salvation until he is slain.” There’s grace. Why? Because God himself takes the blow of divine justice.
You might look at that and think, “You know, Spurgeon, you’re a great preacher, but that’s stretching the text a little too far.” But listen to what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. He said, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
Christ is the smitten Rock from whom the water of God’s grace and eternal life flows. In fact, everything in this passage, everything in these three episodes, points us to Jesus. Jesus in Matthew 4 is the true and faithful Israelite who goes into the wilderness of temptation. He doesn’t grumble, he doesn’t complain. He meets the tests of obedience with faith in God and with obedience at every turn.
He’s not only the smitten Rock, but in John 6 we find that Jesus himself is the Bread of God sent down from heaven. Just read John 6:31-35. The people have seen the miracles of loaves in the wilderness, they’ve seen Jesus make bread, they bring up the manna; but Jesus says, “It wasn’t Moses that really gave you the bread from heaven. I am the true Bread who has come down from heaven, and if you’ll come to me, the Bread of life, you will not hunger. If you will drink from me, you will not thirst.” It’s all pointing us to Jesus.
In closing, let me just ask you, brothers and sisters, are you hungry this morning? You feel like you’re in a wilderness, you feel like you’re in the desert, where you’re facing difficulties and trials and you don’t know where to turn. Look to Christ, who is the Bread of life. He is the provision of God. Do you thirst? Then believe in him; drink from him. He is the source of living water. Don’t grumble and murmur your way through the wilderness in unbelief; instead, look to Christ in faith and trust the goodness of God, that he is for you and he is not against you. Let us pray.
We taste thee, O thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon thee still;
We drink of thee, the fountainhead,
And thirst, our souls from thee to fill.
Lord, we come to you this morning hungry and thirsty. We come in the wilderness of our lives; we come needing your provision, your grace, your mercy, your help. We need a new perspective on our trials. We need renewal and repentance—repentance from our unbelief, our grumbling, our murmuring, our complaining; and renewal of faith and trust in you that sees that you are a faithful God who will provide for every need and who will sanctify the very trials that we face and make the bitter things sweet in our lives. Lord, would you help us believe that? Would you help us receive that this morning into our hearts, and help us learn to walk by faith, not by sight.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may we come with repentant and believing hearts; may we come trusting in your faithful word. We ask you to do a work in us this morning that only you can do. Draw near to us, Lord, as we draw near to you. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.