Lessons from the Wilderness

“This is my prayer in the desert, when all that’s within me feels dry.  This is my prayer in my hunger and need.  My God is the God who provides.”  (Desert Song, Hillsong United)

I often think the Bible is filled with stories of people doing good that I could never achieve or evil that I would never fall to.  I know there is much to learn in those stories, but I have to admit, they don’t always feel personally relevant to me.  The journey of the Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land (Exodus 6- Joshua 4) is not one of those stories.

I relate to so many of their foolish mistakes, their doubtful and stubborn hearts, their rebellion, and their absolute refusal to trust the Lord.  If you aren’t familiar with the story, here’s a quick playback:  The Israelites, God’s chosen people, were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years.  God creates an exhibition of signs and wonders to convince Pharaoh to set His people free… think plagues, death, and destruction. (Exodus 7:14-12:32)  Finally it seemed as if they are going to get to be a free people!  Pharaoh relented and told Moses to take his people and get outta town.  He soon rethinks that decision, but when his armies pursue God’s people, they are destroyed in the Red Sea.  If you have never seen the 1998 animated Prince of Egypt, please pause and watch it now.   I’ll wait…

In case you didn’t watch the animated musical masterpiece, it ends with a triumphant group of Hebrews on the other side of the Red Sea.  They cry, hug one another, and rejoice in song.  The Lord brought them out of captivity!  They were slaves, but now they are not only free, they are being ushered into a decadent land overflowing with milk and honey, which God promised to Abraham’s descendants.  But the rejoicing didn’t last long.

Mistakes in the Wilderness

Most historians say that even with the colossal number of Hebrews making the journey from Egypt to Canaan, the trip should have taken about 11 days.  It took them 40 years…  Did they run out of gas a billion times?  It shouldn’t have been so hard to just do what the Lord asked of them, right?  Anyone else in the Hebrews’ position would be thankful and trusting, right?  If I watched God do the insane miracles they had witnessed, I wouldn’t forget that He that was leading us to a new and better home!  Except, I make the same mistakes almost every day.

  1. Complaining.  Can we talk about all the ways that the Lord provided for these people? They screamed that it would have been better to die than to be brought to this “evil place” with no water.  God gave them abundant flowing water from a rock. They were hungry.  God made manna rain. From. The. Sky.  Their response?

Oh that we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”  (Numbers 11:4-6)

John Piper sums it up this way, “The months passed, and soon the miraculous manna was old hat (like the gift of air and health and freedom and family and even salvation). They forgot its source and felt no more wonder at God’s power and grace.”  So the Lord gave them meat.  A lot of meat. They responded by turning against Moses.

  1. Doubt.  About two and a half years into their journey, they reached the Promised Land. They sent in spies to find out exactly how formidable the inhabitants of the land were and if the land was actually worth fighting for.  After 40 days, the spies returned and told the people that while the land was beautiful and fertile, the cities were too well protected and its inhabitants too large and numerous to fight.  Only Caleb stood before the people and reminded them that they could and would win this battle because the Lord had promised the land to them. (Numbers 13) The people asked if they could return to Egypt as slaves.

It might seem ridiculous to compare their lives to yours, but it isn’t.  If you know the Lord and He is your Savior, He has already done AMAZING things in your life and made you some AMAZING promises. (Revelation 21:3-7 is filled with enough of them to give us a lifetime of things to praise Him for, and it’s only five verses.)  But how often do you complain about your life or doubt that God has good plans for you?  

How long will this people despise Me?  And how long will they not believe in Me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Numbers 14:11)

Promises in the Wilderness

It may not seem like it, but the wilderness of Sinai wasn’t just a punishment for some foolish and stubborn people.  God had good and loving reasons for their time in the desert and for ours as well. “It is not easy. Almost nothing worthwhile on Earth is easy. But it is absolutely essential if your destination is the Promised Land,” said John Piper.

  1. Endurance. I know something about myself that not everyone has had the opportunity to learn.  I can withstand a lot.  The Lord has grown in me the ability to endure and that is a gift that only comes through times in the wilderness.  It only comes through the testing of your heart, your faith, and your dependence on the Lord. The Israelites were offered endurance in spades.

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”  (Hebrews 10:35-36)

  1. Provision. Even though His people continuously earned His ire, He was unbelievably kind and generous to them.  “They spoke against God, saying ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’” (Psalm 78:19)  And He did!  God spread a table of grace and bounty before a rebellious, insolent, forgetful, unthankful people.  They drove Him to anger and jealousy at every turn, and “Yet He commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and He rained down on them manna to eat…He rained meat on them like dust… and they ate and were well filled.” (Psalm 78: 23-24, 27, 29)  How much more will He bless those who believe? 
  2. Humility.  God knew His people.  He knew what would happen to them if they entered the prosperity of Canaan before they had grown in endurance or learned that every single thing they had was a gift from their Father. In Deuteronomy 6, the Lord warned them to remember that the abundance of Canaan, the amazing cities they did not build and the houses full of riches they did not fill, were all a gift from Him. They should remember that it was the Lord who gave them the water, the food, and the very breath in their lungs.

Our self-sufficiency and pride threaten to drown our faith, but there is promise in the suffering and in the wilderness.  If we will endure, we will see the Lord more clearly.  In time, we will see what He has done for us and we will know all the more that He is faithful!  There are many things in this life we don’t get to choose, but whether we will trust God is always our choice.

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” (Deuteronomy 7:9)

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