Bible Studies in Israel's Wilderness Wanderings
Bitter waters and tranquil trees
by F Gordon
We are back in Exodus and this is the second message on Israel's wilderness
wanderings from Egypt to Canaan. Last time we talked about the Red Sea
crossing, how Pharaoh had pursued the nation of Israel and wasn't going to
let them go. The nation was boxed in and they were brought to a position
where they were in lots of trouble and they had no way out. The only one
that could really deliver them was God and He opened up the Red Sea and
they all went through and He defeated their enemies. So they get out on the
other side and in chapter 15, which is called The Song of the Redeemed
there is a song which was sung by Moses and Israel and it is really a song
exalting in God who actually brought about that victory. You also have
Miriam and she is out there with all the women on their tambourines and
they have a really good thing going. Then we are told concerning this that
all of these things that happened to Israel (1Cor.vs.10 &11), happened
as examples for us. So there are always truths that the nation experiences
which we can learn from. It is very much like that, when you are first born
again, when you come out of 'Egypt' and there is a song in the heart! There
is always something that makes you glorify God for what He has done for
you. Just as the nation did here, God had opened up the Red Sea and He did
something for them that they couldn't do for themselves. He delivered them,
and it is exactly the same for us; we have been delivered from Satan's
power over us, from the power of death's sting and so there is a song in
our heart and things are really good. When you are first saved it is like
the honeymoon period when everything is going well. All the experiences are
there and you drive to town and ask for a car park and you get one!
So the context of chapter 15 is that there is a song and they are singing
it, and really glorifying God. He has delivered them from slavery which is
just how we feel when we are first saved. For those that are married,
everyone knows that the honeymoon period doesn't last. There comes the time
when you get into your first squabble and you think what the hang is
this!?! Israel was about to experience this!
When the music fades and all is stripped away...
Exo 15:21-27 Miriam answered them, "Sing to the LORD, for He is highly
exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea." (22) Then
Moses led 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. (23)
When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they
were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. (24) So the people grumbled at
Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" (25) Then he cried out to the LORD,
and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the
waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and
there He tested them. (26) And He said, "If you will give earnest heed to
the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give
ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the
diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your
healer." (27) Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of
water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.
So God has delivered Israel from the Egyptians, and they have this massive
song in their hearts; but then they are led somewhere else by God. Here you have a completely different scenario. They
have journeyed three days out from Egypt and the water which they brought
with them from there has been used up. Gone is Egypt's provision. They have
come out of Egypt and they are on their way to Canaan and God is now their
guide. Egypt is behind them, and Canaan is in front but gone is all their
ability to provide for themselves. At the moment we have a drought where I
live, but the full effects of that is not really tested because we can
still go to our tap and turn it on and out comes water. At present things
are really hard for the farmer but there is still the provision of water.
You can still shower at night and you can still turn the tap on and get a
drink, but for the nation of Israel all of these things had gone. They no
longer had the ability to draw water which they had in Egypt. They had food
and water supplies with them, but after three days' journey it is gone.
They hadn't been able to find any water at all. Humanly speaking it is
possible to go three days without water, but then your body will start to
break down. So all the things that they had depended upon back in Egypt are
actually taken away from them and they have to learn to rely on God because
He is their guide. So this is the first real test for the nation. The
nation experiences thirst...and there is only One that can meet this need and
that is God. When I was reading this I thought that is so true. When you
are first saved you are really hungry for the things of God. The things of
Egypt no longer have the same pull that they once had and you know that
what you are actually looking for in life is not found back there. So the
nation experiences thirst for the first time. They needed to thirst! It was
necessary for them to come to know God. I was reminded of the words of
Jesus when He said 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me and I will give
him living water'. So here we have the first real test for the nation. What
are they going to do?
(23) When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for
they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah.
When I used to work in the forestry in the summer, we wouldn't actually
realize how much water we got through. We would easily need five litres per
day just through physical work and sweating. We used to be away down in the
blocks of trees and there would be these little stinky ponds where the
water wasn't flowing and it would be an orangey brown colour. You were
there with an empty bottle just looking at it. Some of the guys would
actually drink it, because they needed it but I couldn't bring myself to do
so because it just didn't look right. But it is really hard when you can
see water and you need it, but can't drink it. So for the nation it was
like this. The water was bitter. When I was thinking about this it
interested me because if you remember they were led by God. So God is
actually leading the nation to bitter waters. Whatever happened to the
nation happened as an example to us. Every Christian will at some point go
through bitter waters. You will be led into situations and scenarios that
are not nice. It may be at the beginning of our Christian walk, in the
middle or at the end, but at times we will go through bitter experiences. .
For every Christian it is the same. It can be many things, such as the loss
of a loved one. It can be persecution that can cause bitterness. It can be
sickness. It can be wrongs that are done to you. You can be completely
innocent, but almost like Joseph, have all of those sets of circumstances
that happen to you and it doesn't seem fair. But this happens to you, and
that happens to you and you are totally innocent but it just keeps rolling.
Bitter experiences are going to come to every Christian, bitter waters. So
it is really all about how you react to those scenarios. God had led the
nation into this problem, so we shouldn't really expect anything different.
In fact bitter experiences come to everyone, but God orders all things in
our lives and he has some things that are tailor made for everyone.
So how did the nation react?
(24) So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?"
You could say (and there is merit in this), they were tired, they had
walked for three days; they were parched, and were getting a bit scratchy.
Fair point. But as far as Israel is concerned this was the start of a
continual moaning, complaining, and winging about what God was actually
doing. It starts right here and it is a continual theme throughout all of
their wanderings. And we are exactly the same. Remember they have only gone
three days journey. Where is the song? Where are the tambourines? They have
just had a massive experience at the Red Sea crossing. And here they are,
so soon after, saying where is God? Where is God that can do the
I remember when I did my first short term mission trip to the Philippines
and I came home and said to Mum 'I am never going to complain again,'
because I had seen all the suffering that the villagers were going through
and just what they didn't have and I said 'I am never going to complain
again, we have so much.' It was about two, maybe three days later, that I
came out to my car and it was on blocks and all the wheels had been taken!
It didn't take long and I grumbled, I complained. Six o'clock in the
morning trying to start the car and nothing is happening, its' not moving!
(I actually hadn't seen anything because it was dark.) So verse 24 is the
start of it...but when I look at Israel I know that I am no different. None
of us are different. We have times of victory and we have times of defeat.
We all have times of grumbling, groaning and complaining.
But there is hope in a tree. A tree?
(25) Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he
threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for
them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them.
So Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree. The Hebrew
word there for 'showed' means 'instructed and taught.' So God actually
instructed and taught Moses something about the tree that he was to cast
into the waters. It was at this point that Moses really had a deeper
insight into God's overall plan. What is the tree significant of? It is
actually the Cross. You have the same picture that sin would be dealt with
upon the tree. Scripture says, 'Cursed is every man that is hung upon a
tree.' 'Christ was made a curse for us to redeem us from the curse of the
law.' When you get to Revelation a tree is mentioned there which is for the
healing of the nations. So the tree speaks about the Cross of Christ and
this is what is being cast into the waters to heal their bitterness. The
cross makes the bitter waters sweet. The truths of the Cross are really
vital because the Cross actually robs death of its sting, but also robs
life of its bitterness. But the big question really is 'HOW'. How is all
this worked out?
Discipline and bitterness
I want to take two scriptures in the New Testament concerning bitterness
and look at the context of them. The first one is in Hebrews 12:11-15.
Hebrews 12 is actually about discipline and it is saying that if God loves
you He will discipline you in the same way that a loving father has to
discipline his children. It is exactly the same as our relationship with
our children - you use discipline because you love your child and you can
see areas in your child's life that need to be corrected. It is the same
with God. He will allow situations, just like He did with the nation, to be
instructive regarding their walk with Him. So from there right through to
11-15 it is all about God's love for His children and also that He actually
disciplines those that He loves.
Heb 12:11-15 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but
sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it
yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (12) Therefore, strengthen
the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, (13) and make
straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be
put out of joint, but rather be healed. (14) Pursue peace with all men,
and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. (15) See
to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of
bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;
Here it is talking about us working with God with whatever is happening in
our situation. We are to 'Lift up the feeble hands which hang down, and
strengthen the feeble knees.' In other words, don't give up hope in God,
but carry on. Work with God in it. It also speaks of not allowing a root of
bitterness to spring up. An example of this would be Naomi in the book of
Ruth. Remember she left the land of Israel, and went down to Moab and
terrible things happened to her. She lost her husband and both her sons;
yes she came back with Ruth who turned out to be a real blessing to her,
but when she arrived back she said 'I want you to call me Mara not Naomi.'
Call me this because I am bitter. Mara means bitterness. Now it was all to
do with how she actually viewed God. She saw God as hard, someone who was
punishing her. There is a passage in Hebrews in which God is saying 'look
out that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble and many
become defiled by it.' A lot of our trouble comes from a faulty view of
God. Do you see God as a loving God who really wants the best for you in
the long term - as He did here for Naomi. Yes, things are going to come
your way that are going to be really hard and not taste nice, but we need
to understand that He does love us. He loves us. He loves us. He loves us,
and He really cares for us! And we are not to see God in a wrong light; we
need to work with Him. Each difficult circumstance is to strengthen our
hands and our feeble knees, and to make straight paths for our feet. Work
with God in whatever is happening and don't let bitterness toward Him
spring up, don't let it rise so that you start to question God's love for
you. Just as a parent loves his child so much that when he sees the child
going wrong he knows he has to discipline the child, even though in his
heart he would rather not have to, it is the same with the nation of
Israel. God led them to bitter waters that He might prove something about
Himself and also to show the nation that there was something wrong with
Another example of bitterness is in 1 Samuel 1. The Bible talks about this
guy with two wives; one was Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had
children in abundance and Hannah had none. So Peninnah used to mock her.
Hannah was loved by her husband but Peninnah mocked her continually and it
says that 'she was bitter of soul'. Do you remember when she came up to the
temple and was asking God to give her a son? How that turned out to be a
real blessing to both her and the nation because her prayer was answered
and her child became Samuel, the great prophet! So here is another woman
just like Naomi, who had an issue in her life that caused bitterness of
heart, but God was gracious to her and heard her prayer. I found one little
quote that seems appropriate:
He who carries bitterness to bed with him will find the devil creep
between the sheets.
So this passage in Hebrews tells us that bitterness is something that
defiles many. It is quite widespread and it has its tentacles going out in
all directions, so we need to keep on our guard regarding bitterness.
The other scripture is found in Ephesians ch.4:30-32. In the context of
this passage it is really about putting on the new man. Laying aside our
fleshly attitudes and fleshly ways and putting on Christ.
Eph 4:30-32 Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were
sealed for the day of redemption. (31) Let all bitterness and wrath and
anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all
malice. (32) Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each
other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
I am glad He says that we are 'sealed' in this verse, but we can grieve
God. And one of the ways we can grieve Him is in the next verse.
Bitterness, if it is allowed to grow, will grieve the Spirit of God that is
within us. The context here really is about relationships. The wrongs that
are done to you by someone can actually cause you to become really bitter.
I have found that sometimes these things can take quite a while to actually
work through. Some people can apply the Cross of Christ instantly to the
scenario and if you can do that you can deal with it straight away. But for
others it can take quite a bit of time and probably for most of us it can a
while to work through wrongs and things that we need to forgive others for
so that bitterness doesn't actually grow. Sometimes you don't actually want
to forgive someone, you are quite happy not to. You are quite happy (or
think you are) to live with something that is not right - it is wrong to do
this but sometimes it just takes time. It is like the man who went to the
Christmas party; it was a festive time of the year, and he had always had a
problem with one of his colleagues at work. His boss said 'look, this is
the festive time of the year and I want you to go across and wish him a
happy new year, be cheerful, and do the right thing.' So he walked across
to the man on the other side of the room and said to him 'I would like to
wish you a happy new year, but only one.' This is what we are like
sometimes! If we could just forgive quickly we would stop bitterness in its
A Japanese / Korean illustration
I read quite a cool illustration about when Japan invaded Korea, just after
the turn of the last century. They were brutal and slaughtered men, women
and children. The Christians really had a hard time under them. The
Japanese boarded up all of the churches, but there was one pastor in a
village who kept requesting the Japanese police about holding a service. He
kept coming to the police because there were still Christians there and
finally they agreed. So the Police took the wood off the doors and the
Christians came and they were all singing. It came to the hymn 'Nearer My
God to Thee' and while they were singing that hymn the Japanese police
chief ordered his troops to barricade the door again. Then he ordered his
men to dowse the church in kerosene and set fire to it. The place was
packed, the Christians were all inside and the church started to burn down.
People realizing what was happening tried to get out through the windows
and were mowed down by bullets. The pastor seeing that they were done for
started to sing 'At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light
and the burden of my heart rolled away' then the roof collapsed upon them
and everyone in there died. Because of that, throughout all the succeeding
generations there was this bitterness and hatred toward the Japanese people
from the Koreans; because it was a despicable act. It went from generation
to generation until about 70 years later when a team of Japanese pastors
travelled through Korea and came to the very place that this had happened.
Now the Koreans had put a monument on the ground where this church had
stood and there was a notice saying what had occurred there. The Japanese
pastors read it and they were just filled with shame for what their own
people had done. They returned to Japan and went to all the churches
raising money and they got enough to build a new church. They sent the
money back to Korea and the church was built on the very spot where the
massacre had happened. Then when it came time for the dedication the
Japanese pastors went over to Korea and went to the new church. Up until
this point there had been no forgiveness from the Korean Christians toward
the Japanese, but at the dedication service they decided to sing the same
two hymns which had been sung when the place had been burned down. 'Nearer
My God To Thee' and 'At The Cross, at the cross, where I first saw the
light and the burden of my heart rolled away.' Apparently the Japanese
pastors just broke down, came into the middle of the floor, and there was
reconciliation. The Koreans realized that they had held this bitterness for
so long but they didn't actually need to hold it any more. The
reconciliation happened during this song talking about the Cross where the
burden of my heart is rolled away. The Cross can make bitter situations
sweet. When I read that, I thought that is just so cool. You don't need to
hold on to things because God has made a way to take a bad situation and
enable you able to cope so that there is no resentment in your heart. There
doesn't need to be bitterness but the big question is 'how do you do that'.
The only way really is that you have got to rebound as quickly as you can
toward Christ. And you have to realize that whatever is said against you
was said against Him. He has fully identified with every situation that we
are going to go through and He is able to give what is needed so that these
things don't take root in our lives. It might not turn out all good but you
will be able to cope without bitterness actually growing in your life.
I heard this story about a church service in England where they were having
a big sing song and everyone was requesting songs and right at the end the
Pastor at the front looked over the congregation and there was a paralyzed
woman lying right down under the platform. He said to her 'Sister do you
have a request?' and she replied 'yes, Count your many blessings.' She was
paralyzed but that was the song she requested. She was not overcome by her
circumstances and her eyes were still heavenward!
Alright - Back to the passage in Exodus!
Conclusion - A brief stay at Elim, its water and palm trees!
(26) And He said, "If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD
your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His
commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on
you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer."
(27) Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and
seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.
To conclude, let's see how this passage ends. It ends with a trip to Elim.
Always after a trial, (pretty consistently anyway), the blessing of God
will follow. Now we all like Elim! Feet up between the palm trees in your
hammocks, a bit of rest and relaxation... we all love that, but we don't
like Marah. There is a whole denomination of churches named after Elim
because Christians like it so much, but I have never heard of a church
called Marah - because of its bitter waters! But how much of Christ is
learned at a Marah! We all love the Elim's because they are easy. But God
has both. He has the Elim for us and He has the Marah too because He uses
them both and they are both needed. He led Israel there but it wasn't for a
punishment, but only that they might learn something from it. Just as they
were dependent upon Him at the Red Sea and God was their only answer there,
so God is their only answer at the bitter waters as well. Water is a need,
so is God going to provide what is needed for them? He did, He turned
bitter water into sweet so that they were actually able to use it for their