Meditations in Exodus: 51. The Bigger Lessons of the desert
Ex 15:25b “There the LORD made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them.”
Our thoughts in the previous meditations have been about the picture of ‘wilderness wanderings’ and how Israel had been led three days into the desert and when their water was running low they came to Marah where the water was polluted. The Lord led Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water and it was transformed into sweet, drinkable water for all the people. We concluded it with the suggestion that the fundamental lesson for God’s people had been that God is a miraculous provider.
But then we read, “There the LORD made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them.” (v.25b) In this context a ‘decree’ is a divine declaration of order which becomes part of their laws. It follows in the next verse. But note also, “he tested them.” Throughout these wilderness wanderings things are going to go wrong and the Lord is testing His people to see how much they know of Him and how much they trust Him. Spiritual maturity starts with trust but trust only becomes obvious in our responses to adverse circumstances. A test simply reveals the state of knowledge etc.
We need to ponder on this matter of ‘testing’. Satan ‘tempts’ in an effort to bring us down. The Lord ‘tests’ through ‘trials’ to lift us up. The test simply shows us what is lacking, what we need to work on to grow and to mature. Israel are going to go through a number of these ‘trials’ or ‘testings’ on their way to Sinai, times when they are going to be challenged on one fundamental issue – do I trust God? Within that are such questions as, do I believe God truly is a God of love (1 Jn 4:8,16), do I believe God is truly ‘for’ me (Rom 8:31), do I believe He is genuinely working for my good in this? (Rom 8:28) And you and I will continue to go through such trials until it is no longer an issue.
I have love-hate feelings about what James said about this: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:2-4) Count it “pure joy” when things get difficult? The human side of me struggles with that! And yet, would I like to be known as a person who perseveres? (Many years ago when I was still a teenager someone described me to a friend, after we had both been on an army cadet course with the Royal Marine Commandos, as ‘someone who looks like he was about to give up all the time but never did’. That has stuck with me and provoked me!) We learn to persevere by going through tough times that seem to drag on and on.
Bu then the decree follows: “He said, “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) It is of conditional blessing. They will have freedom from the diseases they have seen in Egypt as long as they continue to obey the Lord. If you walk with the Lord in obedience you may know a different experience from that which the rest of the world experiences. If we rejoice over this thought then go to Deut 28 and read, “All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God.” (Deut 28:2) and see the list of things the Lord promises to His people who will be obedient to His ways.
But all this requires faith and faith we have said many times is simply responding positively to what God says. That is another aspect of what is going on here in the desert with Israel: the Lord wants them to learn to be a people of faith, who learn to trust Him and then be obedient to what He says, and of course to the human mind that seems crazy when things seem to be going wrong.
So what is the basic lesson here? It is to turn to the Lord and talk to Him when things seem to be going badly and, as James says immediately after those verses about trials, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (Jas 1:5) Wisdom here is knowing what to do to cope with the problems surrounding us. How many of us, I wonder, go down under difficulties because we simply don’t ask God for wisdom – and then believe what we hear and act on it?
Jesus said we would have tribulation in this world (see Jn 16:33) but we could learn to handle it (Acts 14:22), and if the opposition is a temptation from the enemy, then remember, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Cor 10:13) Satan will whisper to you, “You are alone, no one cares, God doesn’t care, give up,” but the truth is that the Lord IS there, He DOES care, and He IS there for you to give you everything you need to come through this! It may be wisdom, it may be strength, it may be perseverance, it may be a whole load of things covered by that one word, ‘grace’.
The apostle Peter was on this same wavelength when he wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Pet 6,7) We focus on how bad the world is and how things seem to be going wrong; Peter says get a new perspective, see it all as an opportunity to grow in Christ! He continued, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8,9) Faith is not ‘seeing’ God but believing nevertheless and as we believe so our declarations of the truth as we speak it out in prayer or testimony, blesses the Holy Spirit within us who always rejoices in the truth, and His joy is released in us.
This is what is going on in the desert with Israel but sadly they were slow to learn. May we not be so slow as we travel though the desert that is the modern world in which we live.