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In the Wilderness, pt. 1

by Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)


22So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.  23And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter:  therefore the name of it was called Marah.


 “So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur” (15:22). When God separates a people unto Himself, it is not only needful that that people should be redeemed with “precious blood,” and then brought near as purged worshippers, but it is also part of God’s wise purpose that they should pass through the wilderness ere they enter into the promised inheritance. Two chief designs are accomplished thereby. First, the trials and testings of the wilderness make manifest the evil of our hearts, and the incurable corruption of the flesh, and this in order that we may be humbled — “to hide pride” from us; and that we may prove by experience that entrance into the inheritance itself is also and solely a matter of sovereign grace, seeing that there is no worthiness, yea, no “good thing” in us. Second, inasmuch as when Jehovah leads His people into the wilderness He goes with them and makes His presence and His love manifest among them. Inasmuch as it is His purpose to display His power in saving His redeemed from the consequences of their failures, and thus make their need the opportunity of lavishing upon them the riches of His grace, we are made to see not only Israel, but God with them and for them in the waste howling desert.

Trial and humiliation are not “the end of the Lord” (James 5:11), but are rather the occasions for fresh displays of the Father’s long-sufferance and goodness. The wilderness may and will make manifest the weakness of His saints, and, alas! their failures, but this is only to magnify the power and mercy of Him who brought them into the place of testing. Further: God has in view our ultimate wellbeing — that He may “do thee good at thy latter end” (Deuteronomy 6:18); and when the trials are over, when our faithful God has supplied our “every need,” all, all shall be found to be to His honor, praise, and glory. Thus God’s purpose in leading His people through the wilderness was (and is) not only that He might try and prove them (Deuteronomy 8:2-5), but that in the trial He might exhibit what He was for them in bearing with their failures and in supplying their need. The “wilderness,” then, gives us not only a revelation of ourselves, but it also makes manifest the ways of God.

“So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur.” This is the first time that we read of them being in “the wilderness.” In 13:18 we are told that “God led the people about the way of the wilderness,” but that they had not then actually entered it is clear from v. 20 — “And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness.” But now they “went out into the wilderness.” The connection is very striking and instructive. It was their passage through the Red Sea which introduced God’s redeemed to the wilderness. Israel’s journey through the Red Sea speaks of the believer’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3, 4): Typically, Israel were now upon resurrection-ground. That we may not miss the force of this, the Holy Spirit has been careful to tell us that “Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness.” Here, as in many other passages, the “three days” speaks of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:4).

It is only when the Christian’s faith lays hold of his oneness with Christ in His death and resurrection, recognizing that he is a “new creature” in Him (see II Cor. 5:17), that he becomes conscious of “the wilderness.” Just in proportion as we apprehend our new standing before God and our portion in His Son, so will this world become to us a dreary and desolate wilderness. To the natural man the world offers much that is attractive and alluring; but to the spiritual man all in it is only “vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 1:14). To the eye of sense there is much in the world that is pleasant and pleasing; but the eye of faith sees nothing but death written across the whole scene — “change and decay in all around I see.” It has much which ministers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life,” (I John 2:16), but nothing whatever for the new nature. So far as the spiritual life is concerned, the world is simply a wilderness — barren and desolate.

The wilderness is the place of travelers, journeying from one country to another; none but a madman would think of making his home there. Precisely such is this world. It is the place through which man journeys from time to eternity. And faith it is which makes the difference between the way in which men regard this world. The unbeliever, for the most part, is content to remain here. He settles down as though he is to stay here forever. “Their inward thought is, their houses shall continue forever, and their dwelling-places to all generations; they call their land after their names” (Psalm 49:11). Every effort is made to prolong his earthly sojourn, and when at last death claims him, he is loath to leave. Far different is it with the believer, the real believer. His home is not here. He looks “for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Consequently, he is a stranger and pilgrim here (Hebrews 11:13). It is of this the “wilderness” speaks. Canaan was the country which God gave to Abraham and his seed, and the wilderness was simply a strange land through which they passed on their way to their inheritance.

“And they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water” (v. 22). This is the first lesson which our wilderness-life is designed to teach us. There is nothing down here which can in anywise minister to that life which we have received from Christ. The pleasures of sin, the attractions of the world, no longer satisfy. The things which formerly charmed, now repel us. The companionships we used to find so pleasing have become distasteful. The things which delight the ungodly only cause us to groan. The Christian who is in communion with his Lord finds absolutely nothing around him which will or can refresh his thirsty soul. For him the shallow cisterns of this world have run dry. His cry will be that of the Psalmist: “O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee; my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee, in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Psalm 63:1). Ah, here is the believer’s Resource: God alone can satisfy the longings of his heart. Just as he first heeded the gracious words of the Savior, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink” (John 7:37), so must he continue to go to Him who alone has the Water of Life.

“And when they came to Marah they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore the name of it was called Marah” (v. 23). A sore trial, a real test, was this. Three days’ journey in the hot and sandy wilderness without finding any water; and now that water is reached, behold, it is “bitter!” “How often this is the case with the young believer, aye, and with the old one, too. We grasp at that which we think will satisfy, and only find bitter disappointment. Has it not proved so? Have you tried the pleasures, or the riches, or the honors of the world, and only found them bitter? You are invited to a gay party. Once this would have been very delightful; but now, how bitter to the taste of the new nature! How utterly disappointed you return home. Have you set your heart on some earthly object? You are permitted to obtain it; but how empty! Yea, what you expected to yield such satisfaction only brings sorrow and emptiness” (C. Stanley).

Israel were now made to feel the bareness and bitterness of the wilderness. With what light hearts did they begin their journey across it? Little prepared were they for what lay before them. To go three days and find no water, and when they reached some to find it bitter! How differently had they expected from God! How natural for them, after experiencing the great work of deliverance which He had wrought for them, to count on Him providing a smooth and easy path for them. So, too, is it with young Christians. They have peace with God and rejoice in the knowledge of sins forgiven. Little do they (or did we) anticipate the tribulations which lay before them. Did not we expect things would be agreeable here? Have we not sought to make ourselves happy in this world? And have we not been disappointed and discouraged, when we found “no water,” and that what there is was “bitter”? Ah, we enter the wilderness without understanding what it is! We thought, if we thought at all, that our gracious God would screen us from sorrow. Ah, dear reader, it is at God’s right hand, and not in this world, that there are “pleasures for evermore.”

As we have said, the “wilderness” accurately symbolizes and portrays this world, and the first stage of the journey forecasts the whole! Drought and bitterness are all that we can expect in the place that owns not Christ. How could it be otherwise? Does God mean for us to settle down and be content in a world which hates Him and which cast out His beloved Son? Never! Here, then, is something of vital importance for the young Christian. I ought to start my wilderness journey expecting nothing but dearth. If we expect peace instead of persecution, that which will make us merry rather than cause us to groan, disappointment and disheartenment at not having our expectations realized, will be our portion. Many an experienced Christian would bear witness that most of his failings in the wilderness are to be attributed to his starting out with a wrong view of what the wilderness is. Ease and rest are not to be found in it, and the more we look for these, the keener will be our disappointment. The first stage in our journey must proclaim to us, as to Israel, what the true nature of the journey is. It is Marah.


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