In the Wilderness, pt. 2
by Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)
24And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them, 26And said, “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee.” 27And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
“And the people murmured against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (v. 24). Very solemn is this. Three days ago this people had been singing, now they are murmuring. Praising before the Red Sea gives place to complaining at Marah! A real trial was this experience, but how sadly Israel failed under it. Just as before, when they saw the Egyptians bearing down upon them at Pihahiroth, so now once more they upbraid Moses for bringing them into trouble. They appeared to have overlooked entirely the fact that they had been led to Marah by the Pillar of Cloud (13:22)! Their murmuring against Moses was, in reality, murmuring against the Lord. And so it is with us. Every complaint against our circumstances, every grumble about the weather, about the way people treat us, about the daily trials of life, is directed against that One Who “worketh all things after the counsel of His Own will” (Ephesians 1:11). Remember, dear reader, that what is here recorded of Israel’s history is “written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11). There is the same evil heart of unbelief and the same rebellious will within us as were in the Israelites. Therefore do we need to earnestly seek grace that the one may be subdued and the other broken.
And what was the cause of their “murmuring”? There can be only one answer: their eye was no longer upon God. After the wonders of Jehovah’s power which they had witnessed in Egypt, and their glorious deliverance at the Red Sea, it ought to have been unmistakably evident to them that He was for and with them in very truth. But so far from recognizing this, they do not seem to have given Him a single thought. They speak as if they had to do with Moses only. And is it not frequently so with us? When we reach Marah, do we not charge some fellow-creature with being responsible for our hard lot? Some friend in whom we trusted, some counsellor whose advice we respected, some arm of flesh on which we leaned has failed us, and we blame them because of the “bitter waters!”
“And he cried unto the Lord” (v. 25). Moses did what Israel ought to have done — he took the matter to God in prayer. This is what our “Marah’s” are for — to drive us to the Lord. I say “drive,” for the tragic thing is that most of the time we are so under the influence of the flesh that we become absorbed with His blessings, rather than with the Blesser Himself. Not, perhaps, that we are entirely prayer-less, but rather that there is so little heart in our prayers. It is sad and solemn, yet nevertheless true, that it takes a “Marah” to make us cry unto God in earnest. “They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty their soul fainted in them. THEN they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distresses.... Therefore He brought down their heart with labor; they fell down, and there was none to help. THEN they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses.... Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they drew near unto the gates of death, THEN they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saveth them out of their distresses... They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. THEN they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He bringeth them out of their distresses” (Psalm 107:4, 5, 12, 13, 18, 19, 27, 28). Alas that this is so often true of writer and reader.
“And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, which, when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet” (v. 25). Moses did not cry unto God in vain. The One who has provided redemption for His people is the God of all grace, and with infinite longsufferance does He bear with them. The faith of Israel might fail, and instead of trusting the Lord for the supply of their need, give way to murmuring; nevertheless, He came to their relief. So with us. How true it is that “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). But on what ground does the thrice Holy One deal so tenderly with His erring people? Ah, is it not beautiful to see that at this point, too, our type is perfect — it was in response to the cries of an interceding mediator that God acted. In His official character Moses is seen all through as the one who came between God and Israel. It was in response to his cry that the Lord came to Israel’s relief! And blessed be God there is also One who “ever liveth to make intercession for us” (Hebrews 7:25), and on this ground God deals tenderly with us as we pass through the wilderness: “If any man sin we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2:1).
The form which God’s response took on this occasion is also deeply significant and instructive. He showed Moses “a tree.” The “tree” had evidently been there all the time, but Moses saw it not, or at least knew not its sweetening properties. It was not until the Lord “showed him” the tree that he learned of the provision of God’s grace. This shows how dependent we are upon the Lord, and how blind we are in ourselves. Of Hagar we read, “And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:19). So in 2 Kings 6:17 we are told, “And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” Clearly “the hearing ear, and seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them” (Proverbs 20:12).
And what was it that the Lord “showed” Moses? It was “a tree.” And what did this “tree” which sweetened the bitter waters, typify? Surely it is the person and work of our Blessed Savior — the two are inseparably connected. There are several Scriptures which present Him under the figure of a “tree.” In the 1st Psalm it is said, “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth His fruit in His season, His leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever He doeth shall prosper” (v. 3). Again, in Song of Solomon 2:3 we read, “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my Beloved among the sons. I sat down under His shadow with great delight, and His fruit was sweet to my taste.” Here is the second great lesson of our wilderness-life — nothing can sweeten the bitter cup of our earthly experiences except reposing under the shadow of Christ. Sit down at His feet, dear reader, and you shall find His fruit “sweet” unto your taste, and His words sweeter than the honey or the honey-comb.
But the “tree” also speaks of the cross of Christ: “Who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the Tree” (1 Peter 2:24), “The cross of Christ is that which makes what is naturally bitter sweet to us. It is ‘the fellowship of His sufferings’ (Philippians 3:10), and the knowledge of its being that, what suffering can it not sweeten!.... Let us remember here that these sufferings of which we speak are therefore sufferings which are peculiar to us as Christians. This ‘bitterness’ of death in the wilderness is not simply the experience of what falls to the common lot of man to experience. It is not the bitterness simply of being in the body — of enduring the ills which, they say, flesh is heir to. It is the bitterness which results from being linked with Christ in His own path of suffering here. ‘If we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him’ (II Tim. 2:12). Marah then is sweetened by this ‘tree’; the cross, the cross of shame; the cross which was the mark of the world’s verdict as to Him — the cross it is that sweetens the struggles. If we endure shame and rejection for Him, as His, we can endure it, and the sweet reality of being linked with Him makes Marah itself drinkable” (Mr. Grant). A beautiful illustration is furnished in Acts 16. There we see Paul and Silas in the prison of Philippi; they were cruelly scourged, and then thrown into the innermost dungeon. Behold them in the darkness, feet fast in the stocks, and backs bleeding. That was “Marah” for them indeed. But how were they employed? They “sang praises,” and sang so lustily that the other prisoners heard them (Acts 16:25). There we see the “tree” sweetening the bitter waters. How was it possible for them to sing under such circumstances? Because they rejoiced that they were “counted worthy to suffer shame for ‘His name’” (Acts 5:41)! This, then, is how we are to use the Cross in our daily lives — to regard our Christian trials and afflictions as opportunities for having fellowship with the sufferings of the Savior.
“There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them and said, ‘If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians’” (vv. 25, 26). It is very important to mark the context here. Nothing had been said to Israel about Jehovah’s “statutes and commandments” while they were in Egypt. But now that they were redeemed, now that they had been purchased for Himself, God’s governmental claims are pressed upon them. The Lord was dealing with them in wondrous grace. But grace is not lawlessness. Grace only makes us the more indebted to God. Our obligations are increased, not cancelled thereby. Grace reigns “through righteousness,” not at the expense of it (see Romans 5:21). The obligation of obedience can never be liquidated so long as God is God. Grace only establishes on a higher basis what we most emphatically and fully owe to Him as His redeemed creatures.
This principle runs throughout the Scriptures and applies to every dispensation: blessing is dependent upon obedience. Israel was to be immune from the diseases of Egypt only so long as they hearkened diligently to the voice of the Lord their God and did that which was right in His sight! But let us be clear on the point. The keeping of God’s commandments has nothing to do with our salvation. Israel here were already under the blood and had been, typically, brought through death on to resurrection-ground. Yet now the Lord reminds them of His commandments and statutes. How far wrong, then, are they who contend that the law has nothing to do with Christians? True, it has nothing to do with their salvation. But it is needful for the regulation of their walk. Believers, equally with unbelievers, are subject to God’s government. Failure to recognize this, failure to conform our daily lives to God’s statutes, failure to obey His commandments, will not forfeit our salvation, but it will bring down upon us the chastening “plagues” of our righteous Father (John 17:25).
A separate word is called for upon the closing sentence of verse 26: “For I am the Lord that healeth thee.” This has been seized upon by certain well-meaning people whose zeal is “not according to knowledge.” They have detached this sentence of Scripture and “claimed” the Lord as their Healer. By this they mean that in response to their appropriating faith God recovers them from sickness without the use of herbs or drugs. From it they deduce the principle that it is wrong for a believer to have recourse to any doctor or medical aid. The Lord is their Physician, and it is distrust of Him to consult an earthly physician. But if this scripture be examined in its context, it will be found that instead of teaching that God disdains the use of means in the healing of His people, He employs them. The bitter waters of Marah were healed not by a peremptory fiat from Jehovah, but by a “tree” being cast into them! Thus, in the first reference to “healing” in the Bible we find God deliberately choosing to employ means for the healing and health of His people. Similarly, did He bless Elisha in the use of means (salt) in healing the waters at Jericho (2 Kings 2:19-22). Similarly did God instruct His servant Isaiah to use means (a fig-poultice) in the healing of Hezekiah. So also in Psalm 104:14 we read, “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle and here for the service of man; that he may bring forth good out of the earth.” So we find the apostle Paul exhorting Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). Even on the new earth God will use means for healing the bodies of the nations which have lived through the millennium without dying and being raised in glorified bodies: “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).
“And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and three-score and ten palm trees, and they encamped there by the waters” (v. 27). This does not conflict with our remarks upon the previous verses. Elim is the complement to Marah, and this will be the more evident if we observe their order. First, the bitter waters of Marah sweetened by the tree, and then the wells of pure water and the palm trees for shade and refreshment. Surely the interpretation is obvious: when we are walking in fellowship with Christ and the principle of His cross is faithfully applied to our daily life, not only is the bitterness of suffering for His sake sweetened, but we enter into the pure joys which God has provided for His own, even down here. “Elim” speaks, then, of the satisfaction which God gives to those who are walking with Him in obedience. This joy of heart, this satisfaction of soul, comes to us through the ministry of the Word — hence the significance of the twelve “wells” and the seventy “palm trees”; the very numbers selected by Christ in the sending forth of His apostles. (See Luke 9:1-10:1!) May the Lord grant that we shall so heed the lesson of Marah that Elim will be our happy lot.
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