Bible Studies in Israel’s Wilderness Wanderings

Bitter waters and tranquil trees

By Fraser Gordon

 

Introduction

 

We are back in Exodus and this is the second message on Israel's wilderness wanderings from Egypt to Canaan. Last time we talked about the Red Sea crossing, how Pharaoh had pursued the nation of Israel and wasn't going to let them go. The nation was boxed in and they were brought to a position where they were in lots of trouble and they had no way out. The only one that could really deliver them was God and He opened up the Red Sea and they all went through and He defeated their enemies.  So they get out on the other side and in chapter 15, which is called The Song of the Redeemed there is a song which was sung by Moses and Israel and it is really a song exalting in God who actually brought about that victory.  You also have Miriam and she is out there with all the women on their tambourines and they have a really good thing going. Then we are told concerning this that all of these things that happened to Israel (1Cor.vs.10 &11), happened as examples for us.  So there are always truths that the nation experiences which we can learn from.  It is very much like that, when you are first born again, when you come out of ‘Egypt’ and there is a song in the heart! There is always something that makes you glorify God for what He has done for you. Just as the nation did here, God had opened up the Red Sea and He did something for them that they couldn't do for themselves.  He delivered them, and it is exactly the same for us; we have been delivered from Satan's power over us, from the power of death's sting and so there is a song in our heart and things are really good.  When you are first saved it is like the honeymoon period when everything is going well.  All the experiences are there and you drive to town and ask for a car park and you get one! 

 

So the context of chapter 15 is that there is a song and they are singing it, and really glorifying God. He has delivered them from slavery which is just how we feel when we are first saved. For those that are married, everyone knows that the honeymoon period doesn't last.  There comes the time when you get into your first squabble and you think what the hang is this!?!  Israel was about to experience this!

 

When the music fades and all is stripped away...

 

Exo 15:21-27  Miriam answered them, "Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea."  (22)  Then Moses led 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)  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah.  (24)  So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?"  (25)  Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them.  (26)  And He said, "If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer."  (27)  Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.

 

So God has delivered Israel from the Egyptians, and they have this massive song in their hearts; but then they are led somewhere else by God. Here you have a completely different scenario. They have journeyed three days out from Egypt and the water which they brought with them from there has been used up. Gone is Egypt's provision. They have come out of Egypt and they are on their way to Canaan and God is now their guide. Egypt is behind them, and Canaan is in front but gone is all their ability to provide for themselves. At the moment we have a drought where I live, but the full effects of that is not really tested because we can still go to our tap and turn it on and out comes water. At present things are really hard for the farmer but there is still the provision of water. You can still shower at night and you can still turn the tap on and get a drink, but for the nation of Israel all of these things had gone. They no longer had the ability to draw water which they had in Egypt. They had food and water supplies with them, but after three days’ journey it is gone. They hadn’t been able to find any water at all. Humanly speaking it is possible to go three days without water, but then your body will start to break down. So all the things that they had depended upon back in Egypt are actually taken away from them and they have to learn to rely on God because He is their guide.  So this is the first real test for the nation.   The nation experiences thirst…and there is only One that can meet this need and that is God. When I was reading this I thought that is so true.  When you are first saved you are really hungry for the things of God.  The things of Egypt no longer have the same pull that they once had and you know that what you are actually looking for in life is not found back there.  So the nation experiences thirst for the first time. They needed to thirst! It was necessary for them to come to know God. I was reminded of the words of Jesus when He said “If any man thirst, let him come to Me and I will give him living water”. So here we have the first real test for the nation. What are they going to do?  

 

(23)  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. 

 

When I used to work in the forestry in the summer, we wouldn't actually realize how much water we got through.  We would easily need five litres per day just through physical work and sweating. We used to be away down in the blocks of trees and there would be these little stinky ponds where the water wasn't flowing and it would be an orangey brown colour. You were there with an empty bottle just looking at it.  Some of the guys would actually drink it, because they needed it but I couldn't bring myself to do so because it just didn't look right. But it is really hard when you can see water and you need it, but can't drink it.  So for the nation it was like this. The water was bitter. When I was thinking about this it interested me because if you remember they were led by God.  So God is actually leading the nation to bitter waters.  Whatever happened to the nation happened as an example to us. Every Christian will at some point go through bitter waters. You will be led into situations and scenarios that are not nice. It may be at the beginning of our Christian walk, in the middle or at the end, but at times we will go through bitter experiences. . For every Christian it is the same. It can be many things, such as the loss of a loved one. It can be persecution that can cause bitterness. It can be sickness. It can be wrongs that are done to you.  You can be completely innocent, but almost like Joseph, have all of those sets of circumstances that happen to you and it doesn’t seem fair. But this happens to you, and that happens to you and you are totally innocent but it just keeps rolling. Bitter experiences are going to come to every Christian, bitter waters. So it is really all about how you react to those scenarios. God had led the nation into this problem, so we shouldn't really expect anything different. In fact bitter experiences come to everyone, but God orders all things in our lives and he has some things that are tailor made for everyone.  

 

So how did the nation react?

 

(24)  So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" 

 

You could say (and there is merit in this), they were tired, they had walked for three days; they were parched, and were getting a bit scratchy. Fair point. But as far as Israel is concerned this was the start of a continual moaning, complaining, and winging about what God was actually doing. It starts right here and it is a continual theme throughout all of their wanderings.  And we are exactly the same.  Remember they have only gone three days journey.  Where is the song?  Where are the tambourines? They have just had a massive experience at the Red Sea crossing.  And here they are, so soon after, saying where is God?  Where is God that can do the impossible?    

 

I remember when I did my first short term mission trip to the Philippines and I came home and said to Mum “I am never going to complain again,” because I had seen all the suffering that the villagers were going through and just what they didn't have and I said “I am never going to complain again, we have so much.” It was about two, maybe three days later, that I came out to my car and it was on blocks and all the wheels had been taken! It didn't take long and I grumbled, I complained.  Six o’clock in the morning trying to start the car and nothing is happening, its’ not moving! (I actually hadn't seen anything because it was dark.)  So verse 24 is the start of it…but when I look at Israel I know that I am no different.  None of us are different.  We have times of victory and we have times of defeat.  We all have times of grumbling, groaning and complaining.   

 

But there is hope in a tree. A tree?

 

(25)  Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them.   

 

So Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree. The Hebrew word there for “showed” means “instructed and taught.” So God actually instructed and taught Moses something about the tree that he was to cast into the waters. It was at this point that Moses really had a deeper insight into God's overall plan. What is the tree significant of? It is actually the Cross. You have the same picture that sin would be dealt with upon the tree. Scripture says, “Cursed is every man that is hung upon a tree.” “Christ was made a curse for us to redeem us from the curse of the law.” When you get to Revelation a tree is mentioned there which is for the healing of the nations. So the tree speaks about the Cross of Christ and this is what is being cast into the waters to heal their bitterness. The cross makes the bitter waters sweet.  The truths of the Cross are really vital because the Cross actually robs death of its sting, but also robs life of its bitterness. But the big question really is “HOW”. How is all this worked out? 

Discipline and bitterness

 

I want to take two scriptures in the New Testament concerning bitterness and look at the context of them. The first one is in Hebrews 12:11-15. Hebrews 12 is actually about discipline and it is saying that if God loves you He will discipline you in the same way that a loving father has to discipline his children. It is exactly the same as our relationship with our children – you use discipline because you love your child and you can see areas in your child's life that need to be corrected. It is the same with God. He will allow situations, just like He did with the nation, to be instructive regarding their walk with Him. So from there right through to 11-15 it is all about God's love for His children and also that He actually disciplines those that He loves.

 

Heb 12:11-15  All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.  (12)  Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble,  (13)  and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.  (14)  Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.  (15)  See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;

 

Here it is talking about us working with God with whatever is happening in our situation. We are to “Lift up the feeble hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” In other words, don’t give up hope in God, but carry on.  Work with God in it. It also speaks of not allowing a root of bitterness to spring up. An example of this would be Naomi in the book of Ruth. Remember she left the land of Israel, and went down to Moab and terrible things happened to her. She lost her husband and both her sons; yes she came back with Ruth who turned out to be a real blessing to her, but when she arrived back she said “I want you to call me Mara not Naomi.” Call me this because I am bitter. Mara means bitterness. Now it was all to do with how she actually viewed God.  She saw God as hard, someone who was punishing her. There is a passage in Hebrews in which God is saying “look out that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble and many become defiled by it.”  A lot of our trouble comes from a faulty view of God. Do you see God as a loving God who really wants the best for you in the long term – as He did here for Naomi. Yes, things are going to come your way that are going to be really hard and not taste nice, but we need to understand that He does love us.  He loves us. He loves us.  He loves us, and He really cares for us!  And we are not to see God in a wrong light; we need to work with Him. Each difficult circumstance is to strengthen our hands and our feeble knees, and to make straight paths for our feet. Work with God in whatever is happening and don’t let bitterness toward Him spring up, don't let it rise so that you start to question God's love for you. Just as a parent loves his child so much that when he sees the child going wrong he knows he has to discipline the child, even though in his heart he would rather not have to, it is the same with the nation of Israel. God led them to bitter waters that He might prove something about Himself and also to show the nation that there was something wrong with their heart.

 

Another example of bitterness is in 1 Samuel 1. The Bible talks about this guy with two wives; one was Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children in abundance and Hannah had none. So Peninnah used to mock her. Hannah was loved by her husband but Peninnah mocked her continually and it says that “she was bitter of soul”. Do you remember when she came up to the temple and was asking God to give her a son? How that turned out to be a real blessing to both her and the nation because her prayer was answered and her child became Samuel, the great prophet!  So here is another woman just like Naomi, who had an issue in her life that caused bitterness of heart, but God was gracious to her and heard her prayer. I found one little quote that seems appropriate: He who carries bitterness to bed with him will find the devil creep between the sheets.   

 

So this passage in Hebrews tells us that bitterness is something that defiles many. It is quite widespread and it has its tentacles going out in all directions, so we need to keep on our guard regarding bitterness.

 

The other scripture is found in Ephesians ch.4:30-32. In the context of this passage it is really about putting on the new man. Laying aside our fleshly attitudes and fleshly ways and putting on Christ. 

 

Eph 4:30-32  Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  (31)  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  (32)  Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

 

I am glad He says that we are “sealed” in this verse, but we can grieve God.  And one of the ways we can grieve Him is in the next verse. Bitterness, if it is allowed to grow, will grieve the Spirit of God that is within us. The context here really is about relationships. The wrongs that are done to you by someone can actually cause you to become really bitter. I have found that sometimes these things can take quite a while to actually work through. Some people can apply the Cross of Christ instantly to the scenario and if you can do that you can deal with it straight away. But for others it can take quite a bit of time and probably for most of us it can a while to work through wrongs and things that we need to forgive others for so that bitterness doesn't actually grow.  Sometimes you don't actually want to forgive someone, you are quite happy not to. You are quite happy (or think you are) to live with something that is not right – it is wrong to do this but sometimes it just takes time. It is like the man who went to the Christmas party; it was a festive time of the year, and he had always had a problem with one of his colleagues at work. His boss said “look, this is the festive time of the year and I want you to go across and wish him a happy new year, be cheerful, and do the right thing.” So he walked across to the man on the other side of the room and said to him “I would like to wish you a happy new year, but only one.”  This is what we are like sometimes! If we could just forgive quickly we would stop bitterness in its tracks.

 

A Japanese / Korean illustration

 

I read quite a cool illustration about when Japan invaded Korea, just after the turn of the last century.  They were brutal and slaughtered men, women and children. The Christians really had a hard time under them. The Japanese boarded up all of the churches, but there was one pastor in a village who kept requesting the Japanese police about holding a service. He kept coming to the police because there were still Christians there and finally they agreed.  So the Police took the wood off the doors and the Christians came and they were all singing. It came to the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” and while they were singing that hymn the Japanese police chief ordered his troops to barricade the door again. Then he ordered his men to dowse the church in kerosene and set fire to it. The place was packed, the Christians were all inside and the church started to burn down. People realizing what was happening tried to get out through the windows and were mowed down by bullets. The pastor seeing that they were done for started to sing “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away” then the roof collapsed upon them and everyone in there died.  Because of that, throughout all the succeeding generations there was this bitterness and hatred toward the Japanese people from the Koreans; because it was a despicable act. It went from generation to generation until about 70 years later when a team of Japanese pastors travelled through Korea and came to the very place that this had happened.  Now the Koreans had put a monument on the ground where this church had stood and there was a notice saying what had occurred there. The Japanese pastors read it and they were just filled with shame for what their own people had done. They returned to Japan and went to all the churches raising money and they got enough to build a new church. They sent the money back to Korea and the church was built on the very spot where the massacre had happened. Then when it came time for the dedication the Japanese pastors went over to Korea and went to the new church. Up until this point there had been no forgiveness from the Korean Christians toward the Japanese, but at the dedication service they decided to sing the same two hymns which had been sung when the place had been burned down. “Nearer My God To Thee” and “At The Cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away.” Apparently the Japanese pastors just broke down, came into the middle of the floor, and there was reconciliation. The Koreans realized that they had held this bitterness for so long but they didn't actually need to hold it any more. The reconciliation happened during this song talking about the Cross where the burden of my heart is rolled away. The Cross can make bitter situations sweet. When I read that, I thought that is just so cool. You don't need to hold on to things because God has made a way to take a bad situation and enable you able to cope so that there is no resentment in your heart. There doesn't need to be bitterness but the big question is “how do you do that”.  The only way really is that you have got to rebound as quickly as you can toward Christ.  And you have to realize that whatever is said against you was said against Him.  He has fully identified with every situation that we are going to go through and He is able to give what is needed so that these things don't take root in our lives. It might not turn out all good but you will be able to cope without bitterness actually growing in your life.   

 

I heard this story about a church service in England where they were having a big sing song and everyone was requesting songs and right at the end the Pastor at the front looked over the congregation and there was a paralyzed woman lying right down under the platform. He said to her “Sister do you have a request?” and she replied “yes, Count your many blessings.” She was paralyzed but that was the song she requested. She was not overcome by her circumstances and her eyes were still heavenward! 

 

Alright - Back to the passage in Exodus!

 

Conclusion – A brief stay at Elim, its water and palm trees!

 

(26)  And He said, "If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer."  (27)  Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.

 

To conclude, let’s see how this passage ends. It ends with a trip to Elim. Always after a trial, (pretty consistently anyway), the blessing of God will follow. Now we all like Elim! Feet up between the palm trees in your hammocks, a bit of rest and relaxation... we all love that, but we don't like Marah. There is a whole denomination of churches named after Elim because Christians like it so much, but I have never heard of a church called Marah – because of its bitter waters!  But how much of Christ is learned at a Marah!  We all love the Elim’s because they are easy.  But God has both.  He has the Elim for us and He has the Marah too because He uses them both and they are both needed.  He led Israel there but it wasn’t for a punishment, but only that they might learn something from it. Just as they were dependent upon Him at the Red Sea and God was their only answer there, so God is their only answer at the bitter waters as well. Water is a need, so is God going to provide what is needed for them? He did, He turned bitter water into sweet so that they were actually able to use it for their requirements.