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7. God’s Grace and Faithfulness: Water, Manna, and Quail (Ex. 15:22-17:7)

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None of us likes tests. I remember in school the dread that struck my heart whenever a teacher would enter the classroom and announce that we were having a test. Unscheduled tests really reveal whether you have been paying attention or not. Though we do not like them, is it not true that life is full of tests, not just academic tests but physical tests and experiential tests? Every time we make a decision, we face a test of sorts - what car to buy, who to marry, what college program to take.

Tests actually strengthen us. If you don’t push yourself to exercise, you’ll never develop muscles. If little babies don’t fall, they will never learn how to walk. If children don’t jump from a high wall, they will never learn to trust tehri dads to catch them. If you don’t sweat over the books, you will never pass exams. Tests enable us to deal with life’s pressures and to mature in our outlook and relationships. In other words, test mature us.

That’s the way it is with spiritual tests as well. That’s why God passes s through deep waters sometimes, so that our faith grows under the stress, so that our trust in God becomes strong, so that we learn much abut our selves and about God.

Throughout their wilderness journey, the Israelites faced many tests. In this passage, we will see the Israelites quickly transition from the triumph of the Red Sea to the tests of thirst and hunger. These tests go right the heart of basic human existence – food and water. The primary lesson that we learn from this significant event is that if we fail the test, God still responds with grace and faithfulness. Notice first…

I. God Responds To Our Bitter Complaints With Sweetness (Ex. 15:22-27)

Hardly had the Israelites departed from Egypt, after God had secured their freedom from slavery in Egypt by the ten plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn at the Passover, than the people began to grumble. Looking behind them they saw the Egyptians pursuing them and they were terrified (14:10). On the one hand they cried out to the Lord for help, but on the other hand they complained to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11). Any thankfulness they may have had to God for His deliverance or to Moses for his leadership was gone. Thus began a 40 year cycle of their complaints, Moses’ intervention on their behalf, and God’s gracious provision.

Hardly had they experienced a further demonstration of God’s power and faithfulness in the crossing of the Red Sea (14:15-31), which they celebrated by worshipping God with great enthusiasm (15:1-21), than three days later, as they journeyed in the wilderness without finding water (15:22), “they came to Marah, but they could not drink the water at Marah because it was bitter” (15:23). That’s how quickly life’s circumstances can change. Joseph experienced this when his brothers sold him to Midianite traders who, in turn, sold him to Potiphar in Egypt. One day Joseph was the favorite, preeminent son of his father, made evident in his royal clothing, and the next he was sold like a chattel and reduced to slavery.

How do you explain this? Why would God miraculously deliver the Israelites one day at the Red Sea, and three days later, when they desperately needed water, bring them to a place of bitter water that they could not drink? Is God cruel and malevolent? Would He tempt the Israelites with exuberance one day and desperation the next? No! Of course not. That would be contrary to God’s nature and character.

So, how do you explain this? Often we can’t - our theological system fails to adequately address this mysterious issue of how God works in the world. The great hymn writer, William Cowper, faced this dilemma in his own life, at one time being confined to an insane asylum, struggling with intense depression for much of his life, even trying repeatedly to end his own life. Yet, he was also a deep theological thinker, expressing his thoughts about the vicissitudes of life most succinctly in the hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”

While there are many experiences in life that we cannot adequately explain, one thing we do know with absolute certainty is that God is good, gracious, and kind at all times. Everything He does and that He causes us to experience is for our ultimate good and blessing (Rom. 8:28). It may not seem that way at the time, but later we can look back and see how God used those circumstances for our good.

1. God blesses us with refreshment for our spirit (15:23-25a). First there was no water at all (15:22); then “they came to Marah” (15:23). They must have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the water at Marah. But their relief soon changed to frustration when they discovered that the water was bitter. How bad is that! – to be desperately thirsty in the desert and when you finally find water, you discover that it is undrinkable. If there is one thing you need in the desert, it is water. I have spent quite a bit of time in Burkina Faso in west Africa, teaching pastors and helping to establish a Christian education centre there. Burkina is sub-Saharan, basically desert, with sometimes unbearable heat and blowing dust. One of the first thing you have to get used to there is to carry water with you wherever you go.

The intuitive human response to tests is to complain. Finding that the water was undrinkable, the Israelites “grumbled to Moses, ‘What are we going to drink?’” (15:24). Their victory song had suddenly changed to a bitter complaint. I think we can understand that, from a human perspective, thirst in the desert would have been a life-threatening obstacle. But one wonders why or how they could have so soon forgotten God’s great power, of which they had so recently been the blessed recipients. Did they not remember how just three days earlier on the shores of the Red Sea, they had openly and jubilantly praised God, the God who had drowned Pharaoh’s chariots and army in the sea, the God who was their strength, their song their salvation, the God who they confessed was a warrior, whose right hand shattered the enemy etc. (15:1-4)? And could not such a God as this also provide water to quench their thirst?

But, such is the fickleness of the human heart. How quickly we forget God’s wonderful provision and grace in days gone by! That was then and this is now. And the “now” always seems to take precedence over, and obscure, the “then.” Effectively, our hearts seem to mirror the bitterness of Marah’s water. Indeed, is that not what was displayed at the cross? When Jesus cried out on the cross, “I’m thirsty,” those who were nearby “fixed a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it up to his mouth” (Jn. 19:28-29). What cruelty, to offer a dying man sour wine to quench his thirst! And yet the bitterness of the sour wine was a reflection of the bitterness of their wicked hearts.

I suppose too, the Israelites’ experience here at Marah is not unlike many of our own experiences. We benefit from God’s boundless grace and mercy and forgiveness every day, and yet when we come to a Marah in our lives, we so quickly forget God’s power and goodness to us, instead becoming consumed with the bitterness of the moment. And many of life’s experiences are bitter, we would not deny that. Such is the consequence of living in a sinful, fallen world. But should we not turn immediately to the God of our salvation, the God who has provided for us all along the way, the God who has delivered us over and over again “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Ps. 136:12)? Is He not sufficient for the bitter Marah experiences just as He is for the mighty Red Sea victories?

But notice that, despite our complaints, God extends his grace toward us. He doesn’t say, “When they stop complaining I’ll do something. Look what I just did for you! How much more do you want?” No! At Marah he hears our cry and refreshes our spirits. “So (Moses) cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he threw it into the water, the water became drinkable. The Lord made a statute and ordinance for them at Marah, and he tested them there” (Ex. 15:25). God often uses the most unlikely instruments to accomplish his purposes. Moses’ rod was a most unlikely instrument for parting the waters of the Red Sea. And now, instead of his rod, it’s a tree which, when Moses threw it into the water, it became sweet.

There is a divine purpose in tests. God uses tests to prove the genuineness of our faith and, ultimately, to bring glory and honour to the name of Christ. God tests our faith to see if we truly love and trust him in any and all circumstances. That’s why he tested Abraham’s faith in commanding him to sacrifice Isaac, the son of promise. Effectively, through tests God asks us, “Do you love me more than anything or anyone else?” as he asked Simon Peter (Jn. 21:15). The big question is: Do we love God only in the good times, or at all times? Do we trust him only after a Red Sea victory, or also at the bitter waters of Marah?

When gold is refined by fire and the dross is removed, only what is pure remains. That’s the point of tests, it seems to me. 6 In this (i.e. salvation) you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” ( 1 Pet. 1:6-7).

I think the problem is that we misunderstand the nature of the Christian life. We expect that our lives as Christians should be one continuous mountaintop experience, free from troubles and trials. After all, has not God said, “I will never leave you or abandon you” (Heb. 13:5; Deut. 31:6)? Does the Bible not say that “My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19)? Yes, but Jesus also warned “you will have suffering in this world” (Jn. 16:33). What we want is the conquering, not the suffering. And I understand that, but it’s not reality. In fact, in my experience, we face more defeat and hardship than we do victory and success. So what is our encouragement under such circumstances? How do we deal with life and especially when we fail the test. Well, we have Jesus’ own encouragement: “Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (Jn. 16:33). Furthermore we have the assurance that if we may fail the test, God still responds with grace and faithfulness.

The key, it seems to me, is to turn the bitterness of Marah into the beauty of Jesus, not by complaining against Him, but by drawing close to Him, by “spreading the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place” (2 Cor. 2:14f.). During my ongoing struggle with the long-term effects of Lyme disease (28 years and counting as of this writing), I have found that I have learned more about God and his goodness in the dark days than I could have ever learned in the light. In fact, on one of those dark days, I wrote this poem to express my innermost feelings:

“In Quietness And Confidence” (Isa. 30:15; Psalm 23)

You make my way perfect, as you guide me with your eye;
You whisper, “Come this way and in green pastures lie.”
You help me climb to heights that men have never trod;
You draw me to your presence to feel the heart of God.

As I rest in you, Lord, I know that you are there;
As I wait upon you, Lord, I know your tender care;
For it’s only when I’m quiet, peaceful, and still,
That I learn the truth about you and your perfect will.

Lord, I want to know you more dearly every day,
To be more like you as I tread this earthly way.
Lord, I want to serve you with vigor and with grace,
Then hear your sweet “Well done” and see your blessed face.

Then, free from all the troubles of this present place,
I’ll revel in the sweetness of your strong embrace.
I’ll praise you, precious Saviour, in your home above;
I’ll rest from all my labor and glory in your love.

You see, the truth is that God does not leave us alone in the darkness of life’s experiences nor in the bitterness of Marah, but, in the midst of those circumstances, he draws near to us and reminds us that he has not changed, his promises are true, so that in the midst of trials we can say with the Psalmist, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Remember, that God himself experienced unimaginable sorrow when he gave his one and only Son to be our Savior. And the Lord Jesus Christ himself endured incomprehensible suffering at the cross. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, He said, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see! Is there any pain like mine, which was dealt out to me, which the Lord made me suffer on the day of his burning anger?” (Lamentations 1:12). Again, in the words of the Psalmist, “All your waves and billows have swept over me” (Ps. 42:7).

Well, not only does God bless us with refreshment for our spirits, but also…

2. God blesses us with a promise for our journey (15:25b-26). 25b The Lord made a statute and ordinance for them at Marah, and he tested them there. 26 He said, ‘If you will carefully obey the Lord your God, do what is right in his sight, pay attention to his commands, and keep all his statutes, I will not inflict any illnesses on you that I inflicted on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you’” (Ex. 15:25b-26). Having made the bitter water sweet, God declares to the Israelites the purpose of this test at the waters of Marah. He wants their undivided obedience and loyalty, no matter what their circumstances may be. In return he promises the Israelites that he will protect them from the plagues that he had inflicted on the Egyptians.

What a promise for the journey. “If you are obedient and if you trust me, I will not exempt you from tests, but I promise you this, you will experience none of the diseases which I brought on the Egyptians.” Why? “Because I am the Lord who heals you.” “I’ll heal your thirst. I’ll heal your ailments. You will not die out here in the wilderness.” Far better to be in the wilderness with a gracious, all-powerful God than in Egypt with Pharaoh’s task-masters. But to experience the abundant blessing of God, the Israelites would have to trust Him.

Similarly, should we face bitter disappointments or unexpected challenges, God will faithfully lead us through them to the other side. But he demands our unswerving obedience and loyalty all the way through. Notice that the covenant is conditional. If you…then I.” Don’t think that you are entitled to God’s blessings. Don’t think that because you’re a Christian, God will automatically intervene on your behalf. Don’t presume on God’s grace. God wants us to trust him before he blesses us. He wants us to demonstrate our love and obedience. This faith-life is not a one-way street. This isn’t an all-benefits insurance policy. The life of faith is one that demands our fidelity to God based on his word, his grace, and his faithfulness.

In fact, the circumstances we face in life are often the very means by which God tests our obedience and loyalty. Do you see how sickness, sorrow, disappointments, economic downturns, career interruptions, relationship tensions etc. are all used by God to test the reality of our faith, which is manifest either in complaining or obeying? We only enjoy the Lord’s promises to the extent that we obey him, trust him, and love him, no matter what. That’s when we experience and realize afresh that “I am the Lord who heals you.” He “heals” us of our “bitter waters” - sicknesses, sadness, separations, setbacks, defeats, despair, and disappointments - by pouring the healing balm of his Holy Spirit into our lives. If you want to receive the Lord’s blessing, then you need first to obey him. In this passage we learn that “just as obedience is the proper expression of faith so also faith makes obedience possible” (J. A. Motyer, “The Message of Exodus,” 183).

So, first, God blesses is with refreshment for our spirit. Second, He blesses is with a promise for our journey. And third…

3. God blesses is with an oasis in our desert (15:27). After journeying for three days in the wilderness they found no water until they came to Marah, where the water was bitter and the people complained. But God made the bitter water sweet and he made an ordinance and a statute for them there (15:22-26). That was a big test, which is now followed by a big blessing. “Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs and seventy date palms, and they camped there by the water” (15:27). Healing the bitter water of Marah was good. But how much better were the twelve wells of Elim! One well would have been good enough, but the abundant grace of God supplies twelve – one for each tribe. The wilderness thirst could kill you, but the water is life-giving. The blazing sun was exhausting, but the seventy palm tress shaded them from the heat. This was an oasis in the desert.

Isn’t it true that after our times of testing, God grants us oases in the desert? After the darkness comes God’s glorious light. After the tears comes God’s gracious comfort. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). After the worry comes God’s wonderful relief. After the doubt and confusion comes God’s abiding truth. After the temptation comes God’s powerful deliverance. God was true to his word. His provision was abundant. Truly, with the Psalmist we can say: 1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have what I need. 2 He lets me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters. 3 He renews my life; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:1-3).

Well, the test of bitter waters reminds us that if we fail the test, God still responds with grace and faithfulness. First, then, there is the test of thirst at the bitter waters where God responds to our bitter complaints with his sweet blessings. Then, second, there is the test of hunger where…

II. God Responds To Our False Accusations With Faithfulness (Ex. 16:1-36)

From the bitterness of Marah to the blessing of abundance of Elim’s oasis (15:27), the Israelites now move on to the barrenness of the wilderness of Sin (16:1). Thus, the vicissitudes of wilderness life continue, that never-ending cycle of ups and downs and the accompanying responses. 1 The entire Israelite community departed from Elim and came to the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left the land of Egypt. 2 The entire Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat and ate all the bread we wanted. Instead, you brought us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of hunger!’” (Ex. 16:1-3).

Only a month and a half after they had left Egypt and things aren’t looking good for the Israelites. Despite the great victories that they had seen God accomplish on their behalf, they fail to trust him when faced with thirst and now with hunger. Isn’t it peculiar that our intuitive response when things don’t go our way is to wish for the good old days? The Israelites actually wished that they had died with their stomachs full in Egypt under Pharaoh, rather than face hunger in the wilderness with God. Suddenly, Egypt never looked so good. The years of cruelty were so soon forgotten. Present circumstances quickly overshadowed their previous misery and suffering in Egypt and their cries for deliverance from their Egyptian oppressors. Evidently, the Israelites still did not trust God. Though God had proved himself absolutely trustworthy, they proved themselves consistently untrusting. The Red Sea deliverance was just a distant memory now.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of viewing life through the “if only” lens. If only I had done this or that. If only so-and-so had not treated me like that. An “if only” life is full of regrets rather than thankfulness. Oh, I don’t deny that life has a way of dealing us some hard knocks. And I don’t doubt that there are things we all have done or said that we wished otherwise. That’s not what I am talking about. There is a place for regret, but regret must be dealt with by repentance and reconciliation. If you live your life always looking through the rearview mirror, you can so easily become paralyzed by resentment and revenge. Instead, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” ( 1 Jn. 1:9), thus enabling us to live with freedom and joy.

“If only” can soon lead to false accusations against those we think have wronged us. “You brought us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of hunger” (16:3b). But despite our false accusations, God still responds with his constant and gracious provision. In so doing, He again tests their faith. Notice two characteristics of God’s provision…

1. God tests their faith in the trustworthiness of his word (16:4-18). Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day… On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days” (16:4-5). In response to their complaint, God acts with grace, promising to provide enough food to satisfy each person’s hunger every day. Food would literally rain down from heaven each day. Just enough - no more and no less.

This way I will test them to see whether or not they will follow my instructions” (16:4b). This test of faith had to do with the quantity of food and the regularity of the food supply. Would God provide enough food for each person? And would he supply it every day? Their faith in this regard would be tested as to whether they would follow God’s instructions to gather only enough food for that day and to gather only enough for each person. The test really is would they hoard some food, just in case there wasn’t enough or just in case it didn’t come very day? It is easy to see how they could wonder whether there would be enough for everyone every day. It certainly would raise the question as to how God was planning on supplying this food, out there in the wilderness every single day? You can see how some might decide that they would get there before everyone else, just to be sure that they got enough for themselves. And you can see how some might take more than they needed, just to be sure if the supply failed to come every day.

So, Moses and Aaron assured Israel that God would provide. In fact that very evening “‘you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the Lord’s glory because he has heard your complaints about him...’ Moses continued, ‘The Lord will give you meat to eat this evening and all the bread you want in the morning, for he has heard the complaints that you are raising against him’” (16:6-8). It seems that all these tests of faith relate back to the Lord’s deliverance of them out of Egypt. The question seems to still linger: Did their exodus convince them once and for all that the Lord is God? It seems that over and over again Moses has to assure them, and God has to prove to them, that their exodus was orchestrated and carried out by God – no one else. In fact, their exodus was designed to convince them of who God is.

But apparently the exodus itself was not enough. They needed to be reminded over and over. And so God says, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will eat bread until you are full. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God” (16:12). Surely, that would convince them. Of course, God kept his word. That evening quail covered the camp and the next morning there were fine flakes on the desert surface which, Moses explained, “‘is the bread the Lord has given you to eat’” (16:13-15). So each person gathered what they needed, two quarts per person (16:16-18).

So, despite their fickle and, often, false accusation and complaints, God graciously provides for their needs. He keeps his word. The question is whether they would believe it and obey it. Hence, first, God tests of their faith as to the trustworthiness of his word. Second…

2. God tests their faith as to the nature of his provision (16:18-30). Only enough for each person for each day was provided - they were not to store it up (16:19) for two reasons: (1) To prove whether they trusted God to provide; and (2) To prove their obedience as to the nature of the food he provided. Of course, God kept his word and provided for each person’s need, so much so that the person who gathered a lot had no surplus, and the person who gathered a little had no shortage. Each gathered as much as he needed to eat” (16:18). But there remained the fact that this food could not be stored up. It had to be gathered every day. “Moses said to them, ‘No one is to let any of it remains until the morning’” (16:19).

I know what I would be tempted to do and so do you – gather as much as you could because this abundance might not last. We’re so prone to skepticism and distrust, even when God has proven himself over and over to be faithful. “We’ve seen this before,” you would say, “What’s here today is gone tomorrow. The land of Goshen looked oh so good to Jacob – but it didn't last. So set some food in storage while the going is good. Make hay while the sun shines.” Or, you might say: OK, we’ll just do what the Lord said and only gather enough for one day, but we’re going to ration it so it will last longer just in case the supply gets cut off – after all, you never know, this might not last forever.”

And that’s exactly what they did. They were commanded to eat everything in the day they gathered it – not to leave any of it until the morning, “But some people left part of it until the morning of them left part of it until the morning and it bred worms and stank (16:20). They had never seen quail before, nor had they ever eaten manna, so I suppose it never occurred to them that it had to be stored in a fridge - except, when they gathered double the amount on Fridays to last them through Saturday. In that case, Moses told them how to prevent it from spoiling. On Friday, they were to bake the bread they needed for Saturday and bake what you want to bake, and boil what you want to boil, and set aside everything left over to be kept until morning” (16:23). And guess what? When they did that, it didn’t breed worms or stink (16:24).

So, the question is: Will they trust God every day? Some of them did not, so they went out looking for food on Saturday, the day of rest, but they didn’t find any (16:27). There seems to be always this underlying distrust of God, a “we-know-better-than-God” attitude. They probably thought: “This food might not keep coming so here’s our chance to get ahead of the game. Let’s go out and gather food on Saturday, even though we shouldn’t and even though we don't need it!” And that brought a sharp rebuke from the Lord: “‘ 28 How long will you refuse to keep my commands and instructions? 29 Understand that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he will give you two days’ worth of bread. Each of you stay where you are; no one is to leave his place on the seventh day.’ 30 So the people rested on the seventh day” (16:28-30). Notice that this no ordinary bread. It was like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey (16:31) – “angel” food (Ps 78).

How good is God’s constant provision! Not just to supply food consistently and abundantly, but tasty food. And they ate it every day for 40 years until they reached Canaan. They didn't have to work for it – it was delivered to their doorstep every day. I remember when I was a boy, milk and bread was delivered to the door every day. So, this was the first fast food home delivery program. They didn’t have to grind it, knead it, or bake it. It was the best fast food ever known.

But despite God’s constant provision, they hated the food. First they grumbled because they were hungry. Then they grumbled because it was always the same – they wanted the variety of Egyptian food - cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (see Num. 11:5-6).

Talk about self-centeredness! They don’t thank God for his faithful, unfailing, abundant supply. Instead they said, “We just don't like it! It’s yukky!” Doesn’t this just show us our own hearts, so often? God graciously and faithfully and abundantly provides for our needs and we fail to acknowledge his provision. Sometimes we even grumble about it! This really challenges my own heart. Do I really recognize that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17)? Do I really appreciate the common grace of God that sends the rain on the just and the unjust, so that I can have food to eat and water to drink?

First, then, the test of faith at Marah: God responds to our bitter complaints with his sweet blessings. Then, the test of faith in the Wilderness of Sin: God responds to our fickle accusations with his constant provision. Finally, the test of faith at Rephidim...

III. God Responds To Our Angry Demands With Grace (Ex. 17:1-7)

Previously they had water at Marah, but it was bitter – they complained and God made it sweet. Now, at Rephidim they have no water at all. Ironically, Rephidim means “resting place,” but what God intended as a place of rest became for them a place of angry rebellion. Their complaints have escalated to angry demands – “Give us water to drink (17:2). They were so angry that they were ready to stone Moses (17:4). But, as Moses rightly pointed out, they’re complaint to him was actually “testing the Lord” (17:2b). They were doubting God, not Moses. Moses was only God’s appointed leader, who spoke to the people for God.

To test God is serious. They were challenging God as to his goodness and his power. “Give us water to drink,” they angrily demanded. So rebellious had they become that Moses feared for his life (17:4). And God responded to their angry demands by manifesting his abundant grace (17:5-7). In producing water from the rock…

1. God manifested grace through his divine power (17:5). Again, God uses Moses’ rod as the instrument to perform this miracle and in so doing to manifest his power. 5 The Lord answered Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you. Take the staff you struck the Nile with in your hand and go.”

If it is hard to make bitter water sweet, how much harder is it to produce water from a rock? Rock is the most unlikely place to find water. But the God who produced plagues in Egypt and parted the Red Sea is the God who can produce water from a rock. What greater manifestation of divine power could there be than this?

If the people didn’t trust God, Moses did, for he immediately and fully obeyed what God commanded, even though it must have seemed impossible.

2. God manifested his grace in his divine presence (17:6a). 6 I am going to stand there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” God did not send Moses alone. Perhaps this was His grace to Moses, given the anger of the people - God himself would stand there in front of Moses. In God’s power and with God’s presence Moses would be the instrument of divine intervention on their behalf, an intervention which they did not deserve, but which God graciously provided.

3. God manifested his grace by his divine protection (17:6b). “…when you hit the rock, water will come out of it and the people will drink.” Instead of God striking the Israelites for their unbelief and rebellion, God instructed Moses to strike the rock, out of which God graciously produced life-giving water. The rock, in this sense, acted as their substitute.

The apostle Paul relates this incident to the cross where God struck Christ, “the Rock” of our redemption (1 Cor. 10:4), thus protecting us by the rod of His judgement falling on Christ instead of on us. At the cross, Christ took our place as our Substitute, so that we would not have to bear God’s just punishment for our sins. At the cross, blow after blow of God’s wrath was poured out upon Christ instead of on us. Christ protected us from the penalty of our sins when he took the punishment of God that we deserved, dying the death due to us. Consequently, from our Rock flowed the life-giving spiritual water of redemption. From Him poured out a fountain of living water, which if a person drinks of it, he / she will never thirst again, for it will spring up into eternal life (Jn. 4:14). That’s why Jesus could cry out: 37 If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him” (Jn. 7:37-38). This is God’s gracious protection and deliverance of us through Christ.

Moses named the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites complained, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (17:7). Massah means “tempted” or “testing” and Meribah means “protest” or “contention.” Here the Israelites complained to Moses, which, by inference, was a protest against God.

The Israelites’ spiritual blindness and rebellion are shocking. “Is the Lord among us or not?” They actually doubted God’s presence among them, even though it had been manifested to them over and over again. This was a direct insult to God by denying the obvious and inferring that what God had done was not good enough. They thought they deserved better.

Could they not remember? Or was it that they thought God could save them once but not now? Perhaps they were like those who don’t believe in the eternal security of the believer. They believe that God can save us but he does not preserve us, that somehow God acts for our redemption but later changes his mind and lets us go. What an indictment to have Moses permanently name this place after their doubt and rebellion against God, a permanent epitaph to their unbelief – testing followed by contention.

Final Remarks

These then are the principles we learn from this passage…

I. God Responds To Our Bitter Complaints With Sweetness (Ex. 15:22-27)

II. God Responds To Our False Accusations With Faithfulness (Ex. 16:1-36)

III. God Responds To Our Angry Demands With Grace (Ex. 17:1-7)

Tests assail us all in our Christian life. You may be going through serious testing right now - tests in your marriage, tests in your attitudes, tests in your habits, tests in your employment or schooling, and you want to hang on to things as they were before. But that’s not how it works. We have to move on from Egypt to the Red Sea to Marah to Elim, to the wilderness of Sin, to Mt. Sinai and, ultimately, to Canaan. The grace and power of God that he demonstrates on our behalf to deliver us from Egypt are sufficient and available to carry us through this journey. That’s our comfort and source of courage for the tests that come our way as we travel home to heaven.

More often than not we react to God’s tests like Israel with bitter complaints, false accusations, and angry demands. That’s the course we take when we fail the test - complaints lead to accusations which lead to rebellion against God. And we repeat this cycle over and over. Like Israel, we don't seem to learn the lesson.

It’s one thing to know God and his truth; it’s another thing to put it into practice. You can say, “Yes, I trust God for everything in my life.” But do we? That takes strong faith. Like Israel, we cry to God for deliverance from taskmasters but then we complain and rebel over a much lesser test. You would think that thirst and hunger would be insignificant for Israel compared to their beatings in Egypt. But when put to the test, they hanker for Egypt.

Tests are meant to prove whether we believe or not, whether we truly trust God or not, whether we truly love God or not. This was God’s purpose for the tests of the Israelites in the wilderness, as Moses reminded them: “Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commands. He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat…so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:2-3).

So often we are like them, aren’t we? All of a sudden, our previous circumstances look good and we want to go back to the diet of Egypt. When we get out into the wilderness, our previous circumstances begin to look so attractive. If we don't learn from our wilderness tests, then God will repeat them until we get it. Thank God that he is not fickle and failing as we are, but even if we fail the test, He still responds with grace and faithfulness.

Let’s learn to enjoy what God gives us. If it’s manna, then let’s accept it from him with thanks. If it’s quail, then let’s accept it from him with thanks. Let us never forget that everything we have and are comes from Him, as Moses taught the Israelites: “When you eat and are full, and build beautiful houses to live in, and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold multiply, and everything else you have increases, be careful that your heart doesn’t become proud and you forget the Lord your God…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,’ but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth” (Deut. 8:11-20).

Related Topics: Christian Life

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