On the First Part of the Journey: Trusting God in Bitter Waters

Posted On March 2, 2018

Exodus 15:23, “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.”

I used to listen to the 70s folk-rock band, America, sing about a “Horse with No Name.”[1] “On the first part of the journey,” Dewey Brunnell sang, “I was looking at all the life. There were plants, and birds, and rocks, and things, there was sand and hills and rings.” And everything in the desert seemed great. But then “the heat was hot, and the ground was dry,” and the voice of the song began to see visions in the desert. Things turned bad, really bad. Some thought he was writing about a Peyote hallucinogenic trip. But as it turned out he was writing about the desert. Dewey Brunnell wrote the song as a teenager living in England on a rainy day where his dad was an American serviceman, and his mother was English. He said that he was thinking about Arizona where they had been stationed before. He missed the desert. And “Horse with No Name” hit number one on the charts.[2]

I thought about the song as I read Exodus 15:22-27: “On the first part of the journey” is where we find Israel in this text. And it is often where we find ourselves: at the beginning, with trials and opportunities abounding on the first part of the journey. Thus, we begin the reading finding Israel still singing from their deliverance from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea.

Exodus 15:22-29, “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log,3 and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them,  saying,” If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.”

1 Peter 2:21-25, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”[3]

Sometimes the hardest place to be is at the beginning. I don’t mean right at the beginning. I mean just after you have started, down the road. I mean after the honeymoon is over and your first month living as a couple has started, electric bills, student loans, in-laws, and everything. I mean not just the acceptance letter to the perfect college. I mean the beginning of the semester when you learn that the professor is not as excited about you being at her university class as you thought you were. I don’t mean the very beginning, when the new pastor and his wife are introduced to the congregation, and all of the waiting and wondering, the praying and the wondering about the future are behind you, and the future seems as bright as the new pastor’s smile, I mean the next month; that beginning, when he introduces his vision for spiritual leadership that sounds so different from what you were used to.

Now. I think you know what I am talking about. I suspect that some of you are “on the first part of the journey” today in some area of your life. I remember how excited my wife and I were to complete seminary and to get going on preaching and founding a church and a school in Overland Park, Kansas. In fact, “on the first part of the journey,” my back went out, I was in a car wreck, and we were unable to get into our home and were forced to live with another family. It all hit on the morning at around 4:30 AM as my wife and I let our emotions out before the Lord in tears. I had turned down the security of a staff position at a large congregation to return to Kansas with no members and only a dream and a prayer.

Israel was forced to move from the place of praise over God’s deliverance of them at the Red Sea to the first part of the journey. Verse 22 tells us that “Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea…”

“The form is a hiphil imperfect third person masculine singular, converted, and is normally causative in function. Hence Moses had to ’cause’ the people to move out after Yahweh’s marvelous deliverance.”[4]

No sooner had they started the journey to freedom they ran out of water. They moved to the wilderness of Shur: “Shur means ‘wall’ and probably indicates, in this case, the wall built by Egypt to control the immigration of foreigners into Egypt from the east, the Asiatics.”[5] (Never let anyone tell you the Bible is not contemporary. Building a wall to regulate illegal immigration is not a new idea!)

Yet, as the people come to a place of water, the water is unfit to drink. Marah means bitter. So, the people grumble. Moses cries out to God. God instructs Moses to throw a log into the water. John Calvin wondered about this when he wrote:

“A question also arises as to the tree, whether it inherently possessed the property which it there exercised. But although probable arguments may be adduced on both sides, I rather incline to the opinion that there was indeed a natural power concealed in the tree, and yet that the taste of the water was miraculously corrected; because it would have been difficult so speedily to collect a sufficient quantity of the tree for purifying a river; for 600,000 men, together with their wives and children and cattle, would not have been contented with a little streamlet.”[6]

When the people are satisfied with drink, they are given an instruction to follow God, and they will not have the diseases that He put on the Egyptians. In this God reminds them that He is the Great Judge and the Great Physician. He wants the Hebrew children to trust Him. He says, I am your healer, which is a new revelation of the meaning of the Covenant Name of God: Jehovah Roffa. Israel had trusted in the modernity of Egypt. They were ready to rest in the victory at the Red Sea. But, the journey would be long. They needed to trust the God who turns bitter water into life-giving streams. And they needed to see that His way of transforming Marah would be as amazing as how He saved them at the Red Sea.

In all of this God comes to you and me today. The beginning of our journey of following Christ, the beginning of a new phase of following Christ, is filled with an opportunity to renew our faith in the God who transforms bitter water into living streams. Yet, He is calling us to respond to His gracious invitation: “trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

How do we live this kind of life? How do we follow God in the desert days of faith? How do we trust and obey as we follow Him in this life? From Exodus 15:22-29, I lean on three words to express how we trust and obey God in the desert days of life.

Listen

God told Israel to “diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God…”

Israel had witnessed God’s call to them to turn to Him on Passover and be saved. They listened and were saved. Israel listened to Moses as the Man of God gave them the Word of God to walk through the Red Sea and be saved. But, their listening had not gone far. The Word had entered the ear, but not the heart and the soul.

When I served as an intern under Dr. D. James Kennedy, I witnessed a consistent and long line of missionaries coming to meet with the famed preacher and pastor and founder of Evangelism Explosion. Of course, with a large congregation comes the responsibility of supporting many missionaries and at that time Coral Ridge most certainly did. I once asked a missionary about his experience of speaking with the noted senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. He told me, “I love to go see Dr. Kennedy. Of all of the pastors we see, who support us in our mission [this was an overseas missionary], Dr. Kennedy alone listens with his heart. I feel that when I speak about our situation this man of God hears and seeks to help me meet the needs we have.”

Listening with your heart is a gift. But, it is a gift that can be cultivated by each of us. And as we follow the Lord and learn to trust and obey we must, first, just learn to listen.

The second word that describes how to trust and obey God in order to move successfully through the desert days of life is this:

Learn

The Lord told the Children of Israel through the voice of Moses, “. . .  do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes. I will put none of the diseases on your that I put on the Egyptians . . .”

Now, this has a ring of scolding in it as Calvin acknowledges.[7] God intends to give it that tinge. They have been disobedient. If their unfaithfulness were to continue unchecked, such faithlessness would lead to disaster. Thus, the Lord calls them to learn by remembering: remembering how He is the Lord of judgment and of grace. The Egyptians suffered greatly because of the unrepentant heart of the Pharaoh and, it seems, even because of the unkind treatment of the Hebrews by the Egyptians. Despite the documented medical advances which were present in Egypt in that day, their wisdom could not undo the sentences of the Almighty.[8]

Recently, I taught a seminary class. In the class I called on each student there to remember the work of God in his life as he went into his study to prepare a sermon, as he made his rounds at the hospital, as he received parishioners in his study, and as he climbed into the pulpit on the Lord’s Day. Why? Because the holy memory of the divine encounter of God and the sacred calling of Jesus Christ on his life to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ will condition his ministry: give life to his studies, bring empathy to his visitation, give insight into his counseling diagnoses and spiritual treatment, and call down unction on his preaching. Similarly, we must enter the Christian life by recalling the acts of God in our lives. If there is something that seems an impossibility to you now, remember when God overcame your impossibly stone-cold heart to breathe new life into you and make you His own child. If there is a dryness or a thirst in your life, remember that you serve the God who has led you this far. Will He leave you in your depression, in your sickness, in your isolation, in your pain? To trust and obey God is to listen and it is to learn, learn His providential ways; learn about His loving provision; and learn that He will never leave you nor forsake you.

Finally, a third word to sum up how we trust and obey:

Live

Yes. That is it. Just the word, “live.” “Live,” a verb with all of its fresh, vibrant possibilities streaming out of the thought. God told Israel, “I am the Lord, your healer,” In the old King James, the covenant name of God, which is not pronounced by our Jewish friends, even today, was not pronounced by our own forefathers. So, they used the word “Jehovah.” The Hebrew word is only consonants with no vowels, so it is not to be pronounced. The word for healing is “Rapha:” to heal, to make whole, to restore, to repair. Thus, we read in the King James, “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.”[9]

Now how did God heal their problem here? He did so His way. He did so with a log, that is with a tree. Now whether the tree had properties that cured the bad water so quickly and was able to allow 600,000 men with wives and children to all drink and be quenched to health or whether it had no relationship other than an act to demonstrate God’s power over creation, it is all miraculous.

God then sends them on to live. And they came to Elim, and it says there was twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees and they camped by the water. Elim was a resting place with rich symbolism: twelve tribes of Israel and seventy representing the seventy members of the house of Jacob that came into Egypt. They are now, for this night, together, all gathered beneath the care of the Lord. Trusting and obeying, a response to God’s grace, bringing life.

Conclusion

Now, the Old Testament story is not just a “once upon a time” story to be read for moral character building, nor is it a mere history. The self-attesting claim of the Bible is that it is the living Word of God given for a continuing charge from God to His people. Thus, the story we have read and reviewed is the Word of God to us today. The bitter waters we face in life come and often when we are the thirstiest. But the story of Marah is connected to the larger story of God’s provision to His people. Peter told us that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. “By His wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)). Yes, we are on the journey. But Christ is our perfect Guide. He goes before us and above us. He changes Marah into a place of life. He leads us all the way home.

Wherever you are on your journey, you will run into the desert eventually. It may even be that the Lord will lead you there. The desert is not only a place with “plants and birds and rocks and things” but a place with divine lessons. So, listen, learn, and, then, live: live by drinking from the well that never runs dry. Live by drinking from the One who died on an old tree that always makes the bitter waters sweet.

[1] “Horse with No Name,” from Dewey Brunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek, America, America, Warner Bros., 1972, vinyl recording.

[2] For an interesting and scholarly reflection on Billboard’s Top Ten see Ernest A. Hakanen, “Counting down to Number One: The Evolution of the Meaning of Popular Music Charts,” Popular Music 17, no. 1 (January 01, 1998), accessed August 06, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/853274?ref=search-gateway:63cc77dc49edff0ef0a171adc283b1bd.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

[4] Eugene Carpenter, Exodus, ed. H. Wayne House and William D. Barrick, vol. 1, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), 662.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin and Charles William Bingham, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 265.

[7] Calvin, 265.

[8] There is an abundance of evidence for medical practice in ancient Egypt. See, e.g., Warren R. Dawson, “THE BEGINNINGS OF MEDICINE: MEDICINE AND SURGERY IN ANCIENT EGYPT,” Science Progress in the Twentieth Century (1919-1933) 22, no. 86 (October 01, 1927), accessed August 06, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/43430010?ref=search-gateway:1b16078dde50bebe74287af010b37eef.

[9] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Ex 15:26Open in Logos Bible Software (if available).

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