One hundred miles north of El Paso is White Sands National Park. Everywhere you look, there are dunes of powdery white sand. When we climbed them, we left deep footprints like when you walk through deep snow—except that it was blazing hot! People bring sleds and slide down the dunes.
Imagine walking away from the tourist center without a bottle of water. White Sands isn’t that big, but one could easily get lost in the hilly stretches of blinding white sand.
Just imagine: You wander around for hours before nightfall comes. The next day, you wander around again. You have no water. Your throat is parched. Your hair and skin feel like sandpaper.
You are going to die if you don’t get water soon. You’ve been praying this whole time. Why isn’t God answering your cries for help? Can you trust Him to take care of you in the desert?
Life is hard. Sometimes it feels like we’re in the desert, without water, and God isn’t listening. How do we usually respond in those situations?
Turn to Exodus 15, as we look at a time that the Israelites were in a desert without water.
22 So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. 23 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.
24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? 25 And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them,
26 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: for I am the Lord that healeth thee.
27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters. (Exodus 15:22–27)
Sometimes life feels like a desert. We’re lost, thirsty, and God doesn’t seem to care. This historical account can teach us both how we shouldn’t respond and how we should respond in those times. We start with…
THE VICTORY AT THE RED SEA
Exodus 15:22a So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur;
The biggest event in Israel’s history—bar none—was the exodus from Egypt. With the Lord’s help, and Moses to lead them, they escaped Egypt and made it into “the wilderness of Shur.”
The climax of their exodus was the crossing of the Red Sea. We can read the historical account in Exodus 14—
21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. (Exodus 14:21–22)
This must have been incredible! They were not wading through ankle-deep water like some suggest. There were walls of water! And when they got across, the walls of water fell in on their enemies. The Israelites were finally free!
How would you feel after such an amazing victory? Would you vow to follow the Lord all of your remaining days? Of course!
But because you experience a great spiritual victory today does not mean that tomorrow will be easy.
NO WATER AND WORSE
Exodus 15:22b and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.
Just three days earlier, they could have stuck their cup in a wall of water and gotten a drink! But now, their throats are parched! And then, just when they thought they found water…
Exodus 15:23 And when they came to Marah [MARE-AH], they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.
They see an oasis in the distance. Water! Fantastic! See, God came through for us again! No problem. Thank you, Lord!
But then they try drinking the stuff. Arg, it’s “bitter.” It’s rancid! Was God playing a cruel joke on them?
They name the great disappointment, “Marah,” which is the Hebrew word for “bitter.”
Sometimes new Christians are disappointed by the appearance of trials on the road to Heaven. They thought it would be easier now that they were saved.
But older Christians can also be surprised by suffering. “Lord, I was faithful for thirty years, why is this happening to me?”
And sometimes Christians are stunned that, after a time of great spiritual growth (like at Bible Camp) they immediately walk into a time of suffering.
The great lesson here is that a season of victory can pass into a season of trial. Beware of thinking that you’ve earned the right to an easy life. Otherwise, you will fall into bitterness when the next trial comes. And when we get bitter, we start complaining.
Someone walked into a restaurant and asked, “Do you serve crabs here?” The hostess responded, “We serve anyone—please have a seat!”
I don’t know if there are any crabs in the Red Sea, but I know that there were some crabs who crossed the Red Sea! Three days later, the crabs started crabbing—
Exodus 15:24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
Israelite’s complaint seems, from a human perspective, to be a fair complaint. Water is a basic necessity of life. And three days without water is about how long the human body can endure. Yet God still characterizes their complaining as sinful!
That should be a warning to us when we are tempted to complain about what we feel are basic necessities of life: water, food, clothing, our dignity, our rights, our comfort, and so on. God can test us by removing anything He wants.
Why was the complaining of the Israelites a sin?
1) They forgot what God had done just three days ago! They were ungrateful for His work.
7 Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt; They remembered not the multitude of thy mercies; But provoked him at the sea, even at the Red sea. (Psalm 106:7)
Complaining comes from an unthankful heart. Before you start complaining about something, check yourself: are you being ungrateful? Are you forgetting how God has gotten you through a tough spot before?
2) Complaining hearts are selfish. Sin is spelled with an “i” in the middle.
A lot of complaining by Christians is just because we want things done our way. We want to sing only the songs that we like. We want the pastor to preach only so long. We want to have our comforts met first of all. And if our wants or needs aren’t being looked after—we complain!
We say, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Maybe the squeaky wheel needs to remember that the church is not a unicycle!
3) Complaining is what immature believers do. They aren’t mature enough to recognize what God might be doing in the situation, instead they panic and start griping.
Complaining is what children do because they don’t have the perspective to look at their situation properly. For instance, kids don’t understand how long it takes to drive 500 miles. So they call out from the backseat, “Are we there yet!”
The next time you want to complain about something, first ask yourself what God might be wanting to accomplish in you through it. What do you need to learn?
We do not grow strong and mature without difficulties, and if you keep complaining about every difficulty, how will you ever grow strong and mature?
4) The big problem here was that the complaining Israelites lacked faith. They did not believe that God would or could take care of their needs.
When we face difficulties in life, do we really believe that God will take care of us in them? To not complain is a hard lesson for all of us to hear. We are tempted not to learn the lesson of the Israelites here, but Paul says that we must—
10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition… (1 Corinthians 10:10–11)
And in Philippians 2, Paul also writes:
14 Do all things without murmurings and disputings: (Philippians 2:14)
This is something we must learn! Are you a complainer?
A man was placed in a monastery and was given the opportunity to say only two words every five years. After the first five passed, he was called in and allowed to say two words.
He said, “Food bad.” Five years later, his two words were “Bed hard.” After a total of fifteen years, he said, “I quit.”
The bishops responded, “We’re not surprised. You’ve been complaining ever since you got here.” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book: Over 4,500 Illustrations and Quotations for All Occasions [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997], 80)
Difficulties and disappointments will come our way. Rather than complaining about them, we need to…
TAKE IT TO THE LORD IN PRAYER
Moses knew where to go for help. He took their complaint to God. He did what they should have done in the first place.
Exodus 15:25a And he cried unto the LORD;
Be honest…when you complain to someone about something, have you first taken it to the Lord in prayer?
God wants us to take every matter to Him. Why would we not pray about something that is bothering us first? Why do we feel the need to complain without really consulting God?
Because, I think, we are afraid that God will change our mind. Because we like to, in our sinful nature, complain.
Moses begins where we all should begin—on our knees in prayer. The way through a trial begins with prayer.
Someone has said, “If Christians spent as much time praying as grumbling, they would soon have nothing to grumble about.” (Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations [Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2000], 752)
The Israelites soon had nothing to grumble about—
Exodus 15:25b and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet:
People have tried to identify some sort of tree that might absorb the minerals in the water. But the text doesn’t indicate anything about kind of tree. Rather, it just seems to be an issue of Moses’ faith—would he obey the command to cast the tree into the water or would he think it was silly?
Moses obeyed. It was trust and obedience that was what the Lord wanted the Israelites to learn!
We might complain at this point that it would be easy to trust and obey if the Lord provided a solution to our problems He did for Moses.
God answers prayer, but He might not provide the fix for the problem we have because it’s not the problem He wants to fix!
Have you ever not liked an answer to a prayer? Has God, as you prayed and read scripture, clearly showed you what you should do, and you refused to obey?
“Lord, I was really hurt by what Sally said to me. Please give me justice. Make her understand how bad what she said was. Okay, Lord.” Then you turn in your Bible reading and you read,
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; (Matthew 5:44)
What do you do at that point? It’s clearly an application for you. Do you try to ignore it? Complain that you can’t do it?
This is why I think many people do not read their Bibles and pray—they are afraid to hear what God has to say! They just want to keep complaining!
Moses had faith to take the tree that God pointed out and throw it in the water, even though logically, it seemed that it wouldn’t do anything except add slivers of wood to the water! He had to trust and obey.
As we read on, we see that God brings out this issue of trusting and obedience even more—
Exodus 15:25c …there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved [tested] them, Exodus 15:26 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…
What was God doing here? He was proving, or testing, the Israelites. Their obedience to His voice and His commands would be the test. Would they trust Him? Would they have faith? Faith will show itself in obedience. As someone said,
It had yet to be demonstrated by testing whether the children of Israel were a worshipping people who occasionally murmured, or if they were a murmuring people who occasionally worshipped. (David Guzik, Exodus, David Guzik’s Commentaries on the Bible [Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik, 2013], Ex 15:25b–27)
Their trust and obedience would result in blessing—
Exodus 15:26 And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD…I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
We need to understand that the Lord wasn’t saying that they wouldn’t ever get sick. He was talking specifically about the plagues He had brought on the Egyptians. But, at the same time, many of the Old Testament laws had health benefits.
For instance, in Leviticus 13, we find the practice of quarantining someone who showed symptoms of leprosy. Circumcision also had health benefits. Following God’s laws would result in a life that was generally healthy.
Many of the troubles that people get themselves into are because they don’t obey the clear teaching of scripture. People mistreat their bodies with drugs or alcohol. They run from one sexual relationship to another. Then they wonder why they have bad relationships or lung cancer, etc.
Obey God and, while you may be sick from time to time, you’ll find your life generally more healthy and blessed.
1 Blessed is the man That walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord; And in his law doth he meditate day and night. 3 And 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. (Psalm 1:1-3)
A BETTER PLACE
After the bitter test at Marah, and the Lord’s lesson in obedience, the Lord showed His love and care for the Israelites:
Exodus 15:27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
The Lord took them to another oasis that was a better place. There they found good water to drink, as well as “palm trees” for shade. It was a little bit of Heaven on earth. It wasn’t the Promised Land, to be sure, but it was a nice stop along the way.
Life is hard. It’s like trudging through the desert sometimes.
We have victories—Red Sea moments, to be sure. In fact, everyone who becomes a Christian has an exodus from their Egypt of sin. This exodus happens when we trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sin.
We also have our Elim’s along life’s journey. These are the times that, generally speaking, life is good.
But in-between the victories and the Elim’s, we have deserts. How will we respond in those times? Will we pass the test?
Will we complain? Or will we take to the Lord in prayer?
Will we forget God? Or will we trust the Lord to carry us through?