Old Testament Exodus Bittersweet


After finishing the section on the song of Exodus in chapter 15 we continue our journey in the wilderness wanderings. We often forget about these passages of Scripture and we think of Passover, crossing the Red Sea, song of Moses and then the ten commandments at Mount Saini. But we have the interesting account of these stories that are found in chapter 15-18. Paul actually brings them up in 1 Corinthians 10, mentioning that these things took place as an example for us that we should not desire evil (1 Cor 10:6). They happened as an example, but also for our own instruction (1 Cor 10:11). That this time, known as the wilderness wanderings is written down for us, but even specifically these pages of scripture, often overlooked are great lessons of faith for Christians today. These stories appear frequently throughout the Old and New Testament. We often see them as separate stories, but we see one constant theme throughout these stories, and how the authors of Scripture refer to this portion of Scripture. The word which is used is testing. We see that hear in our passage today, at the end of verse 25, “there he tested them”. We see this in other portions of Scripture (Eg Ex 16:4, Dt 8:16). However, it is not only that God tested his people but also his people tested God (eg Ps 95:9, Ps 106:14). As Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We need to be aware of what is happening in these very important stories of testing in the wilderness. In Numbers 14:22 that the people of God tempted him ten times in the wilderness and still did not listen to his voice.

Before we begin we need to understand something at work in these passages and that is these passages are not about hunger, thirst, or conflict inside and outside the camp, they are about faith. The people of God’s faith in God, which we will see as unfaithfulness, but also God’s faithfulness to his people. God provides, protects, directs and never leaves them. These are not tests of resilience of physical ability, but tests of spiritual humility, as we are told in Deuteronomy 8:2, “And 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.” Testing their sinful hearts and their obedience to his word. All for the purpose to do good to them in the end (Deut 8:16). So we need to see that these are tests of faith, trusting and obeying God. So we will see in this portion (Ch 15-18) 5 problems that the people of God face in the wilderness. We have seen one at the edge of the Red Sea (Ex 14:10-14). Now we will see five which we will look at over the next seven weeks. Here is a quick overview:

  1. Marah (Bitter Water); The Lord will heal you
  2. Wilderness of Sin; The Lord will provide for you
    1. Food
    2. Rest
  3. Meribah/Massah (no Water); The Lord will be with you
  4. Conflict outside (Amalek); The Lord will protect you
  5. Conflict inside (Lack of Leaders); The Lord will direct you

Barren and Bitter Wilderness (vs 22-23)

After just a joy filled passage at the beginning of chapter 15 we not come to the first of these tests in the wilderness. We see these sections divided up with change of locations, this one begins with the shift from the Red Sea to the wilderness of Shur. This is on the top left quadrant of the Peninsula between Egypt and Israel (modern day Saudi Arabia). As they travel down the west coast of the peninsula, we find out they have a problem. A realistic issue when traveling in the wilderness, they have no water. Three-day journey, and no water. They finally come to a place where they find water, but the water is bitter. Now we need to pause here and place ourselves in the people of God’s sandals. Days earlier they had sung the song of Exodus praising God for his great salvation and redemption as God not only saved them from bondage but also the army of Pharaoh. They sang, “You will bring them (us) in and plant them on your own mountain” (Ex 15:17). But now, only three days into the journey, they have no drinkable water. The pot plant is withering and does not look like it is going to survive (the story of any plant that has entered out house).

To add salt to the wound, that this place is called Marah, bitter. This is the exact same word used in chapter 12, the Passover meal included bitter herbs. As a meal that they would be celebrate annually the people are to be reminded about the harsh slavery that they endured under Pharaoh. We are told at the beginning of Exodus that, “So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves” (Ex 1:13–14). But now, just weeks after been freed from slavery, and days after been saved from Pharaoh’s army they now have been handed more bitterness. Here is a very important principle to distill in our minds. That we think once we are saved then everything will be fine and dandy. However, that is not what happens in God’s word to God’s people. Many times, obedience is met with difficulty. We are about to start to study the life of Elijah in the book of first kings in our Wednesday Night Bible study, and I would encourage you to come and join us or call in to listen, because Elijah’s obedience leads him to places where he requires faith in God and his promises. Our thoughts of the heroes of faith are their great accomplishments and think of them as heroes, when in fact what is most prevalent in Hebrews chapter 11 is their faith when they do not have what is promised. James expresses this thought in James 1:2-4, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” That these testing of faith results in you having something you did not have before, normally not what we want, but what we need. Or as Paul points out in Romans chapter five, we have obtained faith into this grace, but also that we rejoice in our sufferings, because it produces endurance, character, and finally hope (Rom 5:1-4). We rejoice in our sufferings, not because we love to suffer, but because suffering has a purpose and provides something we lack, hope, which does not put us to shame (Rom 5:5). However, see the response from the people of God, it is not rejoicing, it is grumbling.

Fumbling and Faltering Faith (vs 24)

Just a few days a ago they stood before a huge body of water that was going to be the death of them. And God delivered them by parting the Red Sea, now they stand before a body of bitter water and they see the problem, and ignore God. They turn to Moses to save them crying out what shall we drink. Now we need to get used to this response, the question is not the great problem here in this passage their response of grumbling is their great lack of faith. Every time this word is used in the Hebrew it refers to the People of God grumbling against God and his appointed leader(s) either Moses or Joshua. That the focus is not on what they lack, but the grumbling is against God, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me” (Num 14:27). That the great sin is not that they are grumbling because they have no drinkable water, they, in Exodus 15:24 they grumble against Moses, God’s appointed leader. What they are saying is not, we want to drink water. They are saying that God is not powerful enough to provide for us, he is mighty enough to save us, he is not going to keep his promises, he will not heal us. The grumbling is against God. There is a great difference that we all need to be able to understand. It is not that God requires blind obedience and that we can never ask questions or even feel upset. The bitter water shows the bitter heart. As Deuteronomy points out “And 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” (Deut 8:2). Again, as I said before, this is not a test of resilience of physical ability, but a test of spiritual humility. It is a spiritual echocardiogram. Placed in a position of faith, how do their faith muscles work. As John Calvin puts it, “He might have given them sweet water to drink at first, but He wished by the bitter to make prominent the bitterness which lurked in their hearts.”[1]

So we also have these in our lives as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 10, that we might not desire evil as they did (1 Cor 10:6). Specifically, drawing out attention to verse 10, “nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.” This passage is speaking of Number 14, but we need to point out that the sins Paul brings to our attention is that of idolatry, sexual immorality and grumbling. We often do not place such a sin on such a list and yet Paul does. The grumbling is the symptom but the echocardiogram revealed the deeper problem, unbelief. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:16-19).

Glorious and Great Grace (vs 25-27)

What is God’s response to this grumbling? The Lord shows Moses a log, which he then throws in the water which changes it from bitter to sweet. God’s response is grace. Now two interpretations have been given here one to try and explain away the supernatural and the other to try and see the cross. The first is that some scholars believe this is a bitter tree (willow) which heals the bitterness, while others speculate it is a sweet tree (Pomegranate/date) to cancel out the bitterness. We are not told so it is mere conjecture. The focus is on what God does, not what type of tree it is. The second is that early church theologians had a simple metric which they used, something red was often symbolic of blood and something made out of wood is often symbolic of the cross. However, we need to be very dangerous with models like this because we do not really see this applied in the Bible. So what is the focus of this event. We are told, in verses 25b-26,

“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.”

We are told what God requires of his people, to listen and to obey. We will talk more about this when we get to the ten commandments in chapter 20, but we need to notice that this is given prior to the commandments. The requirement to listen to God and do what is right in his eyes, is a principle that predates the giving of the moral law. This promise is given that if you, then God will not put any diseases on them that fell upon the Egyptians. This is a theme that you can see throughout the Old Testament, obedience as a nation is found in blessings and curses, that pestilence is one of the ways God uses to discipline his children for their disobedience. Now briefly a pastoral comment, we need to note this is one of the ways, not the only way. We need to be cautious to make a formula to work out how God works. Because everyone in the hospital is a sinner, therefore they are in hospital because of their sin. NO because everyone outside of the hospital is a sinner as well. Sometimes illness, particularly in the Old Testament (sometimes in the New) is because of disobedience. But sometimes it is because of the sinful fallen world. And often in the Old Testament the sickness comes upon a large group of people, the nation of Israel (even this example the diseases of Egyptians).

The end of this section is where I want to end, “The Lord is their healer.” Now if we merely see this as a physical test then we see their lack being met by potable water. But that is not what is the problem, their healing is not their bitter water but their bitter hearts, their sin. We could go many different ways here as we think of Christ been the great physician that came to heal the sick, sinners to repentance. You could turn to Isiah, as the famous passage of the suffering servant, “and with his wounds we are healed.” But listen to Jerimiah’s plea in chapter 3, “A voice on the bare heights is heard, the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons because they have perverted their way; they have forgotten the Lord their God. “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.” “Behold, we come to you, for you are the Lord our God” (Jer 3:21–22). That in the midst of their forgetfulness, the voice cries out for them to be healed of their faithlessness. That in the midst of the unfaithfulness of the unbelieving generation in Mark 9, one father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Yet look once more with me at Exodus 15, verse 27. Not only does God show grace to them by giving them water, he also provides from them an oasis, in spite of their faithlessness. That we see God’s great blessing given, to God’s grumbling people.

May we recognize that amidst our own barren and bitter wilderness experiences, God’s grace remains glorious and great, offering healing and restoration to our faithless hearts.


[1] John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 265.

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