Topical Scripture: Exodus 16-18
As I write this commentary from my study in Dallas, Texas, I have just been to church in England. The Methodist Church of Great Britain has started the Internet’s first virtual church: churchoffools.com. I was able to slip electronically into a worship service, sit in a pew, listen to a sermon, and participate in conversation.
The “church” still has some problems to work out—one user named himself “Satan” and began cursing at the pulpit, and the first “live” sermon was interrupted when the minister’s computer crashed. But organizers believe their effort has enormous potential. Only seven percent of Brits regularly attend church services, but 68,000 visited the Church of Fools in its first two days.
Churches these days are more intentional about meeting the needs of their members and communities than ever. According to recent surveys, the number of Americans who claim no religion has doubled in the last ten years. More and more congregations are trying new strategies to interest and attract unchurched people.
D. L. Moody was right: the message must never change, but the method must always stay relevant. Entrepreneurial, creative ministries and worship services have a significant role to play in reaching the unreached.
The problem with need-centered innovation, however, is that we can learn to rely on our methods more than the message. We can trust our creativity, our new programs and strategies, our buildings and resources. But only the Holy Spirit can change a life, convict of sin, convert sinners, transform homes, or do anything else which is eternal. Only God can meet the deepest needs of our hearts and lives.
What needs are most obvious in your life this week? In the hearts of those you will teach this Sunday? Are you tempted to bring your hurts to God only after you have been everywhere else? To ask him to bless your solutions rather than seeking his? To seek his guidance only after yours has failed?
Even the omnipotent God of the universe cannot give his children that which they will not receive. The Hebrews learned faith lessons we still need to remember today, if we would welcome by faith the help and hope our Father longs to give. For each event there is the complaint of the people, the provision of God, and the principle for our lives today.
Turning bitter water sweet (Exodus 15:22-27)
Four principles will guide God’s people to trust his provision for our needs. The first teaches us how to find God’s help in transforming pain to promise, making bitter waters better. It may be that you are dealing with a painful family conflict, a dead-end work environment, or a debilitating physical challenge. How can God transform and use our present frustrations for his glory and our good?
The Desert of Shur (also known as the Desert of Etham, Numbers 33:8) was located in the northwestern part of the Sinai peninsula, just east of the Red Sea. It was not unusual for a travel to wander for days there without finding water. For this reason, travelers typically kept to the road by the Mediterranean Sea, or used trade caravan route to the south.
But as we saw in the last study, such a travel route would have led the Israelites into organized opposition from the Egyptian military outposts and Canaanite guards. And so the Hebrews began their travels across an arid region where water was difficult if not impossible to find.
There may have been two million people in this exodus. After three days, their stores of portable water have run dry. And three days is the longest our bodies can typically survive without water. Their families and livestock are in danger of dying from dehydration in the hot sun and arid climate.
So the people “grumbled” (the word means to murmur or complain) against Moses: “What are we to drink?” They found a spring (known as ‘Ain Hawarah today), but its waters were too bitter to drink. And so their spirits turned as bitter as their water.
God knew their need before they did. He did not bring them this far to leave them. He knew precisely how he would give them the water they must have. And he showed his provision in a miraculous way.
“Moses cried out to the Lord” (v. 25), which is exactly what we must each do when the need arises. Moses didn’t try to solve the problem himself, or ask God to bless his decision. He went to the Father first, as his consistent response to trouble (cf. Exodus 15:25; 32:30; 33:8; Numbers 11:2, 11; 12:13; 14:13-19).
And God gave him a divine answer: “the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet” (v. 25). This may have been a barberry tree, often used by modern Arabs to cover the mineral taste of the bitter spring at ‘Ain Hawarah and make its water palatable. Whatever means he used, God provided for their need by his grace.
Here is the lesson God wanted his people to learn: “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (v. 26).
The Lord further proved his provision by leading the people to Elim (called Wadi Gharandel today, seven miles to the south of ‘Ain Harawah), where they could camp near abundant water. He could have brought them to Elim first, meeting their need in this natural way. Instead, he chose to turn the bitter water sweet to demonstrate his provisional power to his people.
Jesus made the same point to his disciples: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).
So long as we follow God by faith, he will meet all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). But we must follow by faith. No shepherd can lead his sheep where they will not go. Even God cannot give what we will not receive.
Where do your circumstances need the transforming grace of God? What bitter waters must become sweet? Give your problem to God first, and do what he says. There will always be a log at hand, and a spring nearby. With God, Marah leads to Elim.
Giving this day our daily bread (Exodus 16:1-7)
Sometimes our problem is that our present circumstances need to be transformed. Our marriage needs to be healed, our job made better, our health improved. But sometimes we are in places where we have nothing to transform. No job to make better, no family to encourage. The Greeks had a word we translate “poverty” which meant to have nothing extra. But they also had a word for “poverty” which meant to have nothing at all. Some of us know how the latter word feels.
Now the people have moved on to the Desert of Sin (v. 1), in the southwestern area of Sinai. “Sin” is most likely derived from “Sinai” (and does not refer to moral failure, despite generations of preaching against the “wilderness of sin”). Now the problem is not water but food. Again the people “grumbled” against Moses and Aaron (v. 2), wishing they were enslaved but fed in Egypt.
A year later the people would again complain about their lack of food, and remember fondly their Egyptian diet: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:4-5). In contrast to such abundance, they are now in an arid climate where no food appears to exist.
The people were looking down and around, when God wanted them to look up. The Lord promised Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you” (v. 4). And he did—quail in the evening, and bread in the morning (v. 13). The bread took the form of “thick flakes like frost on the ground” (v. 14). The Israelites had never seen anything like this, and so they asked, “What is it?” “Manna” is the name they therefore gave the bread, for the word means literally “What is it?”
Speculation has centered on the nature of this substance. Some point to the granular honeydew which results from insect secretions on the desert floor. Others suggest that the Tarfa, a species of tamarisk, produces a juice which could become granular and gain the appearance of this substance.
But the “manna” was heretofore unknown to the Israelites, suggesting that it was a new and unusual substance. The fact that it would appear when they needed it, and in twice the daily amount in preparation for the Sabbath, suggests that the manna was divine in origin as well as provision. They were given this food for the forty years of their wilderness wandering, until they reached the ample resources of Canaan (v. 35).
God intended a spiritual result from his physical provision: “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (v. 4). He could have provided all they would need for months to come, but chose to give them their “daily bread” (cf. Mt. 6:11). He intended to give them enough on Friday to last through Saturday, so they would not be required to work on the Sabbath. And he wanted to see if they would trust him each day for their needs that day.
Unfortunately, many failed the test. They kept provisions longer than God instructed (vs. 19-20); and some went out on the Sabbath to gather bread, but found none available (vs. 27-30).
God still wants his people to learn the same lesson: we must trust our Father for each day as each day comes. “Tomorrow” does not exist. It is just a word, an expectation, but not a reality. Even God cannot help us with what does not exist. We should plan for the future but live in the present. And trust God for our needs as they arise, day by day.
All the while, remember the lesson of the manna: when you are so far down you can’t look anywhere but up, you’re ready to see the hand and hope of God.
Finding hope in hard places (Exodus 17:1-7)
There are times when we find ourselves in circumstances which need to be transformed, and times when we have nothing to transform but must receive all we need from God. And there are places in our journey where the answer to our need is found in an act of obedience which transcends all logic.
When God asks us to risk it all with a step of faith which seems foolish in the extreme. As strange as it was to throw a log into the water, or to collect manna and quail provided providentially by God, what came next required a level of faith which Israel would long remember.
The people continued their pilgrimage through the Sinai peninsula, camping at Dophkah, then Alush, then Rephidim (Numbers 33:12-14). Again they found themselves without water. Again they complained (the word this time is “faulted” in the Hebrew) against Moses. Now they were almost ready to stone him, the last step in rejecting a Hebrew leader (v. 4). And again Moses brought their complaint to God.
The Lord instructed Moses to take an action which no one had ever attempted, for obvious reasons. He was to stand before the entire nation, with some of the elders of Israel at his side. Taking his staff in his hand, he was to strike the “rock of Horeb.” God promised that “water will come out of it for the people to drink” (v. 6).
If it did not, Moses would play the fool before all of Israel. And a people on the edge of mutiny would likely cross the line into anarchy and revolt. The very future of the nation, and of Moses’ leadership and even his life, hung in the balance.
Of course, God kept his word. Some have attempted naturalistic explanations such as a hidden spring now exposed by Moses’ blow against the rock. But note that the water was sufficient for millions of Hebrews and their livestock. Such a rushing torrent would not likely have been held by a rock a man could break with a single blow.
After the nation was given water to survive, it was led to military victory which ensured its continued future. The same rod which turned the Nile to blood, parted the Red Sea, and struck the rock to bring forth water, was now held over the battle with the Amalekites (vs. 8-16). So long as Moses held the rod high, the Hebrews prevailed; when his arms dropped, they did not. So Aaron and Hur helped hold his arms aloft until the people were given complete victory. The God who can turn bitter waters sweet and give manna in the wilderness, can defeat any foe—natural or human.
Israel would long remember the miracle at the rock of Horeb. Some five centuries later, Asaph would record the event in poetry:
He split the rocks in the desert
and gave them water as abundant as the seas;
he brought streams out of a rocky crag
and made water flow down like rivers
(Psalm 78:15-16; cf. Psalm 105:41; 114:8; Isaiah 48:21).
Moses and the nation learned again that their God could use human instruments to do divine work. This One who could bring water from a rock would also part the flooded Jordan river, lower the towering walls of Jericho, and defeat the mightiest of Canaanite armies. He would defeat a giant with a stone’s throw, and a lion’s den with prayer.
But only when we trust his power. Moses had to strike the rock before God would bring forth water. The rod was no more necessary to the rock than it was to the Amalekites. It was God’s way of showing his people that the power was his, not theirs. That faith receives all that God wants to give. That his provision is available by grace to all who will trust his love.
What rod is God asking you to grasp? What rock is he calling you to strike?
Learning to trust God in his people (Exodus 18)
One last episode in our text is worthy of brief consideration. As the people multiplied into the millions, a system of laws and courts was required. Moses is the trial, judge, and jury for their every problem and need. They do not yet possess written Scriptures to guide their decisions, and so turn to Moses for God’s word on every subject.
Just then Moses’ father-in-law Jethro provided timeless help for all who seek to lead effectively: “You must be the people’s representative before God, and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people…[to] serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you” (Exodus 18:19-22).
Consider five keys to spiritual leadership, each as essential today as it was when Jethro first suggested it.
First, represent God. Live in such a way that they can trust the God they see in us. We cannot lead people farther than we are willing to go, or give what we do not possess.
Second, intercede for them. Bring their disputes to God. Do not seek to solve their problems in your wisdom but his.
Third, teach them to know God personally. Teach the decrees and laws of God. Don’t give spiritual fish—make spiritual fishermen.
Fourth, model what you teach. Show them the way to live, by the way you live.
And last, delegate to capable servants of God. Find those men and women who have proven by their faithfulness that they can be used effectively by God. Delegate responsibility and authority as God directs.
Such administrative structure was as crucial to the nation’s survival and health as the physical provisions God gave through manna, quail, and water. Our Father cares about our emotional health as much as our physical needs. We can trust him for both.
However, his answer is often found in his people. We are the body of Christ, his hands and feet. When we give God our need, we must be humble enough to allow him to meet it with other people. To be open to their guidance as his, to their provision as his providence. We who teach and lead others spiritually are typically more comfortable giving than receiving.
If Moses had refused to receive Jethro’s advice and the people’s help, it is likely that he and the nation would have slid into chaos and perished in the desert. Lest the same happen to us, let us learn to trust God in his people.
What needs would you trust to God today? Would you ask him to transform your circumstances, or to give you something from nothing? Would you trust him to use your human frailty to bring miraculous provision? Would you be humble enough to allow him to use his people to help your hurting heart?
This week’s lesson is all about trusting God to meet our needs in his way, by his timing and means. It is about receiving in faith all that he wants to give in grace. It is about waiting on the Lord and trusting him to keep his promises. And waiting can be the hardest spiritual discipline of all.
The Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen was one of the spiritual mentors of this generation. Not long before he died in 1996, he described the kind of faith we are considering today.
He had become good friends with some trapeze artists, who explained to him the very special relationship between the flyer and the catcher. That’s a relationship the flyer would want to be very good, I would think.
As the flyer is swinging high above the crowd, the moment must come when he releases the trapeze and arcs out into the air. He is suspended in nothingness. He cannot reach back for the trapeze. There is no going back. But it is too soon to be grasped by the one who will catch him. He cannot accelerate the catch. In that moment, it is his job to be as still and motionless as he can.
“The flyer must never try to catch the catcher,” the trapeze artist told Nouwen. “He must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him. But he must wait. His job is not to flail about in anxiety. In fact, if he does, it could kill him. His job is to be still. To wait. And to wait is the hardest work of all.”
Are you waiting on God? Or is he waiting on you?