Main Idea: On our wilderness journey, we learn to trust God for our provision, just as we trust Christ for eternal life.
- Israel in the Wilderness
- Test 1: Bitter water (15:22-27)
- Test 2: Bread from heaven (16:1-36)
- It was supernatural (16:11-15).
- It was sufficient (16:16-30).
- It was sacred (16:31-36).
- It was sanctifying (Deut 8:3).
- Test 3: Water from the rock (Exod 17:1-7)
- They demanded God’s provision (17:2a).
- They questioned God’s protection (17:3).
- They doubted God’s presence (17:7).
- Christ in the Wilderness
- Christ passed the test that Israel failed (Matt 4:2-3).
- Christ is the bread we need for eternal life (John 6:25-59).
- Christ is the rock that was struck for our salvation (1 Cor 10:1-5).
- Two Responses to the Wilderness Story
While I was the first guy in my family to graduate college, the other men in my family are still smarter than I am in most subjects. And they like to remind me of it! From trivia games to skills in building million dollar homes, the men in my family have reminded me that there are some things that I could not learn in the university. But as Christians, there is a school that we all attend. God trains us, disciplines us, and sanctifies us in “Wilderness University.” Spurgeon called the wilderness “the Oxford and Cambridge for God’s students” (“Marah”).
In this chapter we are going to look at Israel’s wilderness experience. Ryken says, “Going through the wilderness was not necessary for Israel’s salvation, but it was necessary for their sanctification” (Exodus, 414). Clement of Rome, an early church father, said about the sanctifying94 purpose of the wilderness, “After this [Red Sea crossing], Moses, by the command of God, whose providence is over all, led out the people of the Hebrews into the wilderness ... that [He] might root out the evils which had clung to them by a long-continued familiarity with the customs of the Egyptians” (ibid., 434; emphasis added). Yes, God is rooting out the evils that clung to them.
Like Israel, we too are sojourners, who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, who have crossed over to the other side by grace, and who are now on the way to promised land. In this faith journey, in our wilderness, God is sanctifying us and teaching us to trust Him, love Him, and follow Him.
We need to learn some things from Israel’s wilderness experience since their story is our story. To do so, let us reflect on this story in two parts. First, let us consider Israel in the wilderness, examining the three tests that they took. Second, let us consider Christ in the wilderness and note three ways His experience was connected to Israel’s wilderness experience.
Israel in the Wilderness
Three consecutive stories have to do with food and water. Israel gets hungry and thirsty, and they complain. Their grumbling serves as a warning to us, but it is also not surprising to us. Have you ever been on a road trip and gotten irritable when hungry? One of the biggest parts of the drama of road trips often has to do with food. I remember when I took a group, of 45 people to Israel, and though they were not a grumbling group there were some complaints about food. Many questions before the trip had to do with food, and many during the trip had to do with food. So Israel’s grumbling about the Wilderness University meal plan should not surprise us. Yet we are not to follow their example (1 Cor 10:9-10).
Test 1: Bitter Water (15:22-27)
The first test here is sort of like a “pre-test.” It includes a bit of a preview of tests to come and a minicovenant that anticipates fuller understanding of God’s ways. In verse 22 we find a description of the land. It was a huge, rugged, wilderness region in northern Sinai, stretching from what in modern times is the eastern side of the Suez Canal to the Negev of Israel. It was not exactly a great place for six hundred thousand 95men—plus women and children—to camp. The problem in the desert is that the water is bitter; as a result, they called it Marah (v. 23). Our most basic physical need is water, so the lack of water troubled the Israelites. They were in a desert and thought they had found water, only to discover it was undrinkable. Have you ever been overseas in a place where you cannot drink the water? In those occasions you live with sort of a fear, always boiling your water, keeping bottles of water, and doing everything to ensure you will not get sick. You can identify a bit with the Israelites here.
The Israelites responded to their need and fear by grumbling against Moses (v. 24). “What are we going to drink?” they asked. Complaining and grumbling are signs of ungratefulness, self-centeredness, immaturity, and insecurity. It is what children do in minivans and in response to homework assignments. We have a “whining and arguing” chart on our refrigerator for our kids. We are trying to teach our kids to be grateful and respectful, contrary to the Israelites here.
By now you would think the Israelites would have learned to cry out to God in prayer rather than complain. Instead, they show their immaturity. However, Moses does cry out to God, and the Lord answers Moses (v. 25a).
Is your first reaction to trouble faith-filled prayer or grumbling and anxiety? Some have called anxiety “functional atheism.” When you worry, you do not believe in God.
Moses brought his trouble to the Lord. In response, the Lord told him what to do. Obediently, Moses threw a log into the water and the water became sweet. Some have tried to find a scientific explanation for this. The best way to understand it is to believe it as a miracle. What is amazing here is not just that God can do a miracle, making the water sweet, but that He is willing to do it for these complainers! This is grace. God’s grace is sweet.
As we continue, we see that God tested His people (vv. 25b-26). He made a small covenant with them, providing the terms of their relationship. If they kept His word, He would bless them. Heeding His voice and doing what is right included Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and the consecration of the firstborn. Later, God would reveal more through Moses. However, if they did not follow God’s ways, He said that they would experience “diseases” that fell on the Egyptians.
From this we can identify three applications. First, we can apply the pattern of instruction to our lives today. Israel was first rescued and then96 they began to learn about obedience and following God’s word. These requirements were not the basis of their salvation. They were conveyed after they were saved, in order to teach them how to now live for God’s glory. This is the same pattern for the Ten Commandments, which we will examine later. God brought them out of Egypt, and then He instructed them on how to live.
Second, we have the same restoring God who was with Israel. He is Yahweh-Rophe’, “the God who heals.” Here again is a pattern in Exodus. God did wonders so everyone might know that He is the Lord. In the next chapter we will see Him conquer one of Israel’s enemies and provide another name for Himself (17:15). Here it is rophe’. Ryken says rophe’ refers to “wellness and soundness, both physically and spiritually” (Exodus, 421). The miracle at Marah shows that God can heal the waters and the body. He is the restorer. Then in verse 27 we see a beautiful picture. God brought the people to Elim, “where there were 12 springs of water and 70 date palms.” The text says, “They camped there by the waters.” Wherever this was located, it was obviously a place of abundance and refreshment. God restores and refreshes.
Third, we have the same God who is able to care for His people by a miracle (healing the water) or by His providence (taking them to a place that has water). Both are gifts, and they should cause us to be grateful for them both.
Test 2: Bread from Heaven (16:1-36)
This is a very important story, referred to in numerous places in different ways elsewhere in Scripture. In verses 1-12 we find Israel complaining against Moses about food after setting out from Elim. In His mercy, the Lord provided both manna and quail.
Over and over we read about Israel’s “grumbling” (vv. 2, 7, 8, 11). Complaining is a serious sin, more serious than you might think. (See 1 Cor 10:1-12. Notice the sins mentioned there.) Paul told the church in Philippi, “Do everything without grumbling and arguing” (Phil 2:14). What did the children of Israel complain about? They grumbled under Pharaoh (Exod 2:23). They grumbled at the Red Sea (14:11-12). They grumbled at Marah (15:23-24). They grumbled about their leaders (16:2-3; 17:3-4; also Num 11). God just did a miracle turning bitter water into sweet water; He showed Israel that He would care for them; yet they still complained. What would you have done if you had brought97 out the people from Egypt and they began to murmur, “[in Egypt] we sat by pots of meat”? I would have been angry.
I remember coming back from Ukraine with our four newly adopted kids after spending 40 days out of the country. When we landed in Memphis, I took everyone to get barbeque! I was so excited. I like a lot of Ukrainian dishes, but I missed some of my favorite foods, like pulled pork. I asked the kids what they wanted, and they each picked out a barbecue plate. To my shock, when I set it down they complained and said they did not want to eat it. My shock turned to anger. I was so upset because I thought they were ungrateful. I thought they should be excited, considering where they came from and what they used to eat. This was Memphis barbeque! I eventually cooled down. In contrast, God reacted with mercy here to the Israelites. He still provided for them in spite of their ingratitude.
The provision of manna includes a number of important lessons. We will look at the nature of this provision and make some running application. Consider four aspects of God’s provision:
It was supernatural (16:11-15). God miraculously provided bread from heaven (16:4, 11-13). Now, most people work for bread. That is the way God designed it. Paul told us that a man who is not willing to work should not eat (2 Thess 3:10). Some refuse to work because in a fallen world work is very toilsome. In Genesis 3 God said to Adam that one of the results of the fall for men is that their work would be difficult. He said, “You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow” (3:19). So from the beginning, bread has been a result of man’s hard labor. Most of the world has not lived like us in America. We go to the grocery store and we have cinnamon-raisin bread, Texas toast, Italian ciabatta rolls, crusty French baguettes, and more. We purchase it with a debit card and go on our merry way. Yet most people throughout history have had to work diligently to have bread.
However, Israel received bread from heaven! It was a supernatural provision of God. They received bread apart from their labor (except for going to collect it). And God did it for 40 years (v. 35)!
Another sign that this was miraculous is how the Israelites responded to the manna. They called it “manna,” which is related by similar sound to the expression “What is it?” (vv. 14-15, 31). They were totally mystified by it, showing us that they had never seen anything like it. Verse 31 gives a further description: “It resembled coriander seed, was white, and tasted like wafers made with honey.” Apparently, it was very tasty.98 Some have tried to give a human explanation of this, saying this was something that was common in the wilderness. That is not the picture here. This was a curious type of wafer with honey. The psalmist says it was “the bread of angels” (Ps 78:25). Further, they also received quail at one particular time, in spite of their grumbling (Exod 16:12-13). These quail flew in and were able to be captured by hand! God provided meat just as He said. The psalmist says, “He rained meat on them like dust, and winged birds like the sand of the seas” (Ps 78:27).
It was sufficient (16:16-30). In verses 16-21 we see that God gave enough for the day. The text says that God gave them manna every day for 40 years. God also said, “Do not try to hoard it.” If they were to think, “Hey, this ‘crispy crème stuff’ is pretty good, I think I’ll save some for later in case God doesn’t keep His word,” then they would learn that God was providing enough for their daily bread only. Each person was to gather as much as they could eat; when they did so, there was no lack among any of them.
Paul cited Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15, “As it has been written: The person who gathered much did not have too much, and the person who gathered little did not have too little.” Paul encouraged Corinthian Christians to give generously to those in need. He reminded them not to hoard the good gifts of God. Paul went on to say more about God’s sufficiency and how we should be cheerful givers (2 Cor 9:6-15).
They were told not to leave some until the next morning, but some tried, and it bred worms and stank (Exod 16:20). Once again, they failed to trust God.
God gave enough for the Sabbath (vv. 22-30). God was teaching them about “daily bread” and the Sabbath principle. He was their provider every day. The exception to the day-by-day rule was the sixth day (v. 22). On that day, they were allowed to collect enough for the Sabbath. God was teaching them about the solemn rest they needed. In this case, the bread would not have worms in it (v. 24). Again Israel failed to trust God and listen (vv. 27-30). They went out to find bread on the seventh day, but they found none, and they received God’s rebuke.
In the giving of the Ten Commandments, the fourth begins with “Remember the Sabbath day.” It assumed that they were familiar with the idea of resting on the seventh day. They knew about it from the manna experience, and of course the Sabbath goes back to creation. The Israelites had a hard time believing that God would provide for them if they kept the Sabbath. It sounds like people today. The Sabbath 99was a day for rest, and it distinguished the Israelites from the Egyptians and surrounding nations. It was a sign of God’s provision, His goodness, and their faith, and it pointed to a future rest.
It was sacred (16:31-36). God told Moses to save a bit of the manna (v. 34). Eventually it was placed in the ark, along with the “testimony,” which refers to the two tablets with the Ten Commandments (Heb 9:4). The ark had not been built yet (Exod 25:10-22; 37:1-9). It served as a way of reminding the people about God’s mighty salvation and His provision. Throughout the exodus, they were told to do several things to “remember.” God did not want His people to forget His blessings. He cared for them with manna throughout the exodus until they entered the promised land. We read in Joshua,
And the day after they ate from the produce of the land, the manna ceased. Since there was no more manna for the Israelites, they ate from the crops of the land of Canaan that year. (Josh 5:12)
It was sanctifying (Deut 8:3). In Deuteronomy, Moses reflected on the manna, and he said that the miracle bread was not intended to just sustain them physically. It was also intended to teach them a deeply spiritual lesson:
Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, 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)
God was not just filling their bellies, He was trying to shepherd their hearts. He said that this experience was intended to humble them and teach them to depend on God’s word. God was disciplining them, shaping them. We need God’s word every day just as the Israelites needed manna every day. The God who was worthy to be trusted for bread is the God who is worth listening to everyday. He sanctifies us through His word (John 17:17).
Test 3: Water from the Rock (17:1-7)
As the Israelites moved on, this time in “Rephidim,” they had no water. Instead of trusting God and seeking God, once again they do something100 else. They “complained to Moses” (v. 2). They demanded water and “grumbled against Moses” (v. 3).
At the end of this event, we read how they were also asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (v. 7). This is awful. Therefore, they named the place “Massah and Meribah,” which means testing and arguing (see Ps 95). Instead of trusting God, they were testing God. Let us learn from their example and not imitate them. What were they doing? Notice three failures.
They demanded God’s provision (17:2a). They demanded water to drink. We do this when we make demands on God at home or in the church, insisting that He work on our terms. There are times we must wait on the Lord patiently.
They questioned God’s protection (17:3). They asked why God brought them out of Egypt. Was it to watch them die? We do this when we accuse God of trying to harm us in our trial. We should remember that He has brought us through a greater exodus; He is worthy of total trust.
They doubted God’s presence (17:7). They doubted if God was with them as He had promised. We do this when we think God has abandoned us in our wilderness. Yet God always remains faithful.
None of these accusations were true. Israel’s great problem was that they refused to remember who God is and what He had done (see Pss 95:9; 106:13). One obvious remedy to our own discontent and unbelief is to remember what God has done for us in Christ.
Then see what God did (Exod 17:4-6). After Moses prayed, God provided water from the rock. God appeared at Horeb where He first met with Moses in the burning bush. Notice the scene described in Psalm 105:41: “He opened a rock, and water gushed out; it flowed like a stream in the desert.” The text does not say how God appeared specifically, but God appeared and the people were saved through the miraculous provision of water when Moses struck the rock with his staff. This miracle demonstrated that God did not bring them out to the wilderness to kill them and that He was indeed with them.
Later, Moses was told to speak to a rock, but he instead struck it twice. God was so angry that Moses was prohibited from entering the promised land because of this failure (Num 20:10-12).
Christ in the Wilderness101
We can see three connections between Christ’s wilderness experience and the Israelites’ wilderness experience.
Christ Passed the Test that Israel Failed (Matt 4:2-3)
We desperately needed Jesus because no one could pass the test. We get a picture of Jesus succeeding where Israel failed in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. After Jesus went through the waters of Jordan, He was tested for 40 days in the wilderness, corresponding to Israel’s 40 years of testing in the wilderness. His first temptation or test concerned bread. The tempter said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matt 4:3). What did Jesus quote? He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He went on to quote Deuteronomy 6:16 and 6:13 (Matt 4:7, 10). Thus Jesus identified with Israel’s wilderness experience, but instead of failing, He did not yield to temptation but triumphed obediently and victoriously.
Often what we think Jesus was doing in the wilderness for 40 days was showing us why we should do Bible memorization. Bible memorization is valuable, but more was happening there. The authors are showing us that there is a truer and better Israel who passed the test in the wilderness triumphantly. And He went on to pass every test, fulfilling God’s law perfectly. Unlike Israel and us, Jesus did not yield to temptation and He did not grumble in His obedience. He lived the life we could not live.
Christ Is the Bread We Need for Eternal Life (John 6:25-59)
After Jesus did the miracle of bread in John 6, everyone wanted to follow Him. But Jesus knew their hearts. He said, “Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal of approval on Him” (v. 27).
The people did not fully understand, and they said, “What sign then are You going to do so we may see and believe You?” (v. 30). Then they brought up manna: “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (v. 31). Jesus had actually already given them a sign. He had fed the multitude. He was the true and better Moses. But what was most important to Jesus was spiritual life. So He turned the discussion:
Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the real bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
102Then they said, “Sir, give us this bread always!”
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again. But as I told you, you’ve seen Me, and yet you do not believe.” (John 6:32-36)
Jesus said He could do more than supply bread. We need Him more than bread. He was saying, “I am the bread of life, and without Me you cannot live forever.”
Notice what they did in verses 41-42. They did exactly as the Israelites: they grumbled.
Therefore the Jews started complaining about Him because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
They wanted salvation on their own terms. God has given us salvation in Christ, the bread of life, and people still grumble at the thought of a crucified Savior or at the idea that there’s only one way. They should instead fall on their knees and say, “Yes, I will take Christ and live forever.” Jesus went on to say that some would come to Him (v. 37). He said that those who came would come by faith and they would “eat His flesh,” meaning they would receive Him by faith.
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me—not that anyone has seen the Father except the One who is from God. He has seen the Father. I assure you: Anyone who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. (John 6:44-51)
Notice how He said that they ate and they died, but if you take Christ, you never die!
At that, the Jews argued among themselves, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
103So Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, because My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood lives in Me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the manna your fathers ate—and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:52-58)
Obviously, Jesus was not speaking about literally eating Him. He was speaking about believing in Him (notice the repetition of “believe”). Believe in Him and find satisfaction for your soul, and live forever. The religious leaders were looking for a list of things to do to have this bread. They had their pad and paper. Jesus said you simply need to believe.
Christ Is the Rock that Was Struck for Our Salvation (1 Cor 10:1-5)
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul said that the rock was Christ. I take this to mean that the rock was a type or foreshadowing of Christ. Moses struck the rock instead of the striking the people, and water flowed to save people. Jesus, the rock, was struck for our salvation. Instead of striking us, God struck the Son.
Moses is told not to strike the rock again. The second time he is told to speak to the rock. Like this rock, Jesus was struck only one time! After that, He is to be spoken to. Like the rock, when He was struck water flowed from His side (John 19:34). He died the death we deserved to die. Now, by believing in Jesus, we drink from the water of life for eternal life (John 7:37-38). So Jesus gave us the water we desperately needed, and that water could only come through striking. One time. You do not strike the rock after that. Think back to what Isaiah said:
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
104and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the Lord has punished Him
for the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:4-6)
He was wounded, struck, pierced, crushed for our iniquity. He refrained from opening His mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter. He submitted to God’s will. He did not grumble. He took our judgment that we may know God’s salvation. Praise the Rock!
Two Responses to the Wilderness Story
How should we respond to the wilderness story? First, trust in God’s providence for your daily needs. Israel’s wilderness experience shows us that God is with His people and God provides for His people. Will you trust Him, or grumble and worry? Second, trust in God’s Son for your deepest needs. Trust in the One who lived the life you could not live. He passed the test we could not pass. Trust in the One who is the bread you cannot live without. Receive Him and live. Trust in the One who was struck for your salvation. Drink and live.
Reflect and Discuss
- Where have you learned your most valuable information: in school, or in real-life experiences?
- Have you ever been on a trip that was jeopardized or ruined because the food or drink was bad? Why can food and drink cause such strong reactions?
- In what way are grumbling and anxiety symptoms of ingratitude and weak faith? How did God respond to the grumbling and anxiety of Israel?
- Why do you think God provided manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness? How would you respond to someone who proposed a natural explanation for the manna and quail?
- How did the provision of manna teach Israel faith and trust? How did it teach the Sabbath principle? What can we learn from their experience?
- Can you think of a time in your life when God was faithful to you even though you questioned Him and grumbled against Him?
- 105Why did we need Jesus to pass the test in the wilderness?
- Why did the Jews grumble when Jesus said that He was the bread from heaven that gives life to the world? Why do people today resist this truth?
- In what way was manna an undeserved blessing for Israel? How is Jesus as the bread of life even better than manna?
- Why is it important that the Rock is only struck once? In what ways was the rock a “type” of Christ?