50. Bitterness in the desert – Marah

Meditations in Exodus: 50. Bitterness in the desert – Marah

Ex 15:23   When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter.

In the previous meditation we noted that, Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.” (v.22) Remember we are talking about possibly over a million people (or two million even) with their flocks and herds. No doubt they had some water with them but as the days pass this must surely be getting used up. They are experiencing a new environment. They had no doubt been in desert conditions before but not as their own masters in control of their own destiny – except they are not that now for it is the Lord who is leading them. That is very significant for if anything appears to be going wrong, He is going to be the focus of their ‘why’ questions.

Again, to be fair to them, it is well to remember their only knowledge of the Lord is what has been passed down through the generations about how He dealt with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That story ended in Egypt and for over four hundred years the story had gone silent. It was only when Moses arrived back after a forty year absence that they hear through him of His encounter with Moses, and then the leaders see the miracle of the staff and the leprous arm. From then on they are observers of the plagues, largely as bystanders. The stories of Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh filter back but mostly, as far as experience goes, they have been bystanders watching God from a distance as He deals with Pharaoh and his people. But now He is ahead of them leading them through the desert and water is running out – and then they come to Marah.

It is thought that Marah was probably a waddi, which is a valley or ravine that is dry except in the rainy season.  In other words it was not a natural source but was a collection source; the water ran into it from the surrounding land and hills. Now I am told that in the present day waddi that is believed to be the site of Marah, it is in fact a water collection laced with calcium and magnesium, again possibly washed in there from the surrounding area and so the high mineral content makes the water almost impossible to drink. Moreover this water has a very high purging or laxative affect so any of the first people arriving and trying it would very shortly be having severe stomach problems – and we’ll leave it there for the moment!

As our verse at the top records,

When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter.(v.23) They have a problem, and as we noted above, God is their guide and  so, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink? (v.24) Moses is God’s mouthpiece so he is the one to whom they complain. Now, as I said, to be fair to them, they are in a learning situation and all that is going on is about that. What follows is amazing: Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.(v.25a)

Now whether this is a straight forward miracle or whether something in the wood, its sap maybe, or maybe the bark, affected the water and suddenly it is clear and sweet to drink. I am less supposed to accept the idea of a natural outworking becausethis one ‘piece of wood’ seems to affect all the water which appears sufficient to meet the needs of all the people and their flocks and herds.

The key words that stand out to me in that verse are “the Lord showed him”. Was there something special about this particular piece of wood or was it just that it was a piece of wood? We don’t know but the important understanding is that here naturally was polluted water and the Lord showed Moses a way (possibly miraculously) to cleanse it so that the people could drink. i.e. God provided for them what they needed from the limited natural supply. A fundamental lesson for God’s people. He is a miraculous provider.

Now there are a number of lessons that flow on from this and we’ll consider them more fully in the next meditation. However we might start that exercise by asking ourselves how we cope in such circumstances. How might we have responded if we had been part of Israel at that time. I suspect the truth, if we may dare be honest, is that we too would have grumbled. I say that as a grumbler. I am not very good when things go wrong and God seems at a distance. Yes, I will pray for help, which is a good start but I think my life is a bit like that water – polluted with the ‘chemicals’ of modern life, like the desire for instant responses. Why doesn’t God answer straight away? Or the complaint of ‘why had God let this happen?’  I know God tests and trains and is in the process of changing me but although I have known Him over forty years, I still don’t find it easy when things go wrong. You may be a highly sanctified individual who copes well when things start going pear-shaped but the majority of us, I am fairly sure, don’t do terribly well!

Now this is not to get morbid and guilt-laden, it is simply to recognize our frailty and humanness while at the same time rejoicing in the fact that the Lord loves and understands us as we are. It is not an excuse to sit back and be complacent but it is a cry for honesty which then in turns reveals God’s grace even more. The story of these wanderings to Sinai are a story of God’s grace as He patiently seeks to teach these people that not only is He there, but He is there for them and when things are too difficult for us, they are never too difficult for Him.

After Sinai, it is different but for the moment, this is Junior School for Israel. I think, looking back, I may often have struggled with the trials but He has never failed me and always been there in them, even if I have only realised it afterwards. That is what this Christian life is about; it’s not that we have arrived, but that we have begun the biggest learning course going.  It is all about, initially at least, learning that God IS our provider, but more of that in the next study.

Ah, just one thing to pick up that the most studious will have noticed and wondered about. A piece of wood was thrown into the water and changed it. Two pieces of wood provided the means for the Son of God to die in our place and open the door for our blessing. Here’s a thought: the Cross is the answer to EVERY difficulty. Jesus’ work on the Cross deals with every moral issue and his work on the Cross opens the way up for heaven to bring changes in our lives that otherwise could not happen. Jesus’ work on the Cross opens the way for my life to be purified of those ‘chemicals’ of modern life I referred to. His work on the Cross opens the way for a supply of living water to be made available to me, clean and pure and sweet. And for you too. Hallelujah.


27. Be Honest

Meditations in Job : 27 :  Be Honest

Job 10:1 I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.

As a Christian pastor I sometimes struggle at coping with people. It is not the people who are loud or angry or bitter or hostile. No, they are not the problem; it is the Christians who cannot be real. These are the Christians who are ALWAYS ‘fine’! They always have a testimony of how wonderful God has been to them. They also tend to be a bit brash. And they never tell about their doubts and fears because “Christians shouldn’t have doubts and fears.” It is only when the disasters of life fall, that their superficial exterior is cracked and the real shows through. Now before we go on to look at Job, I think I am required to say to those who feel hurt by these words that, yes, I do believe in victorious Christian living but it is more the “glory in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7). Jesus came full of grace and truth, and we are to be a people of truth, not afraid to face how we really are.  How are we really? Frail but glorious children of God who on a bad day can feel very frail, weak and even alone – and that is not a sin!

When we continue to look at what Job is feeling, we need to remind ourselves yet again that at the end of the book the Lord did not chide him for speaking badly against Him. That is important to hang on to. For some of us who feel somewhat insecure in God’s love for us, we may struggle with this and we prefer to point fingers when someone doesn’t measure up to our expectations. The only thing is that the Lord doesn’t have the same approach because He knows the future as well as the present and He knows how it will turn out and how we will work out. Perhaps this is why He doesn’t deal with us harshly, as some of us expect Him to do.

There are many who have the James and John mentality, Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Lk 9:54), “But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (v.55) Jesus is more concerned to help us change than he is to destroy us. Perhaps he remembers his Father’s words, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23). Father and Son much prefer us to be changed and saved rather than destroyed. They are working to change us. They understand what we are like. It is only those who are utterly set in their ways, like Pharaoh in Exodus (and we won’t know who they are) and who the Lord knows will not change, that He removes. Even then, I am sure there are other reasons why the Lord takes His children home prematurely sometimes. So let’s see where Job has got to.

As we start chapter 10 we find him reiterating what he feels about his life and we have to say again, by way of reminder, that if you’ve never been in this state, you would do well to hold in any negative comments about him. He is desperate which is why he comes out with what, in any other circumstances, would be a very silly comment: therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” Because he is past caring, he’s just going to speak out. Now if you are insecure in God’s love, you may read with horror Job’s words and you may look for a lightning bolt that you expect to come and strike him down! But God understands His kids. That’s got to be a major underlying lesson that comes through in these studies. When little children come home from school, the wise mother knows that they are cranky because they have low blood sugar levels, and so rather than chide them, simply seeks to get some calories into them. If someone is nasty to us about us, we may be sufficiently insecure about ourselves that we get stressed, but God is too big to do that. He is utterly secure in Himself and doesn’t have to feel defensive about silly words from some of His children in bad places. He understands and has compassion!

So listen to where Job dares to go in this “I don’t care” attitude. He pours out a whole load of accusatory questions. “I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me.” (v.2). Why doesn’t God answer him here? Because He hasn’t got a whole load of charges against Job, so He just lets His son pour it all out.

“Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” (v.3). No son, this is breaking my heart and so I certainly don’t smile over what is happening to you, but I’ll wait until you get here to tell you about that and you can watch with me how my Son is going to anguish over my people when he goes down in human form.

“Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees?” (v.4). Well actually in this moment in history, no, son, but in the wider history yes, so that I do actually know it now, because we are going to step into human flesh and live out some thirty three years on earth, but you wouldn’t understand that at this moment if I told you, so I won’t.

“Are your days like those of a mortal or your years like those of a man, that you must search out my faults and probe after my sin.” (v.5,6) No, son, I don’t have to be picky and pick up on other people’s faults. Those are the actions of the insecure and hurting and I am neither of these, but you won’t understand that yet, so forgive me if I don’t reply!

“Though you know that I am not guilty and that no one can rescue me from your hand?” (v.7) You speak truth, son, for indeed I do know you are not guilty and indeed you are helpless in these circumstances which I have allowed,  but hang in there because they won’t last forever, but I can’t say that to you at the moment, because part of it is coping with not knowing that.

Is that how the Lord might have been thinking as He listened to Job? Perhaps, perhaps not, but from what Scripture tells us of the Lord, I suspect they may not be far from the truth. You see it is a strange and mind-bending truth that God operates in the present, it seems, but knows everything in the future. So at this moment He is listening to Job ranting on, but He peeks into the future and He sees Job’s humble responses at the end of the book, and so in His love, He remains silent, does nothing but just feels with Job.

Does all this excuse Job?  Well why do you want to assess and judge him? God is not judging him, (that is clear later in the book), so why should we?  Is Job being silly? In any other circumstances, possibly, but in the living hell he is experiencing, perhaps not, and if you’re still not sure, ask the Lord to take you in your imagination into what it must be like, to have had everything you own snatched away, everyone you love (except a nagging wife!) snatched away, and then dumped on with some terrible disease that disfigures you, causes you intense pain and discomfort. If you can think into that, then think about how you would like the Lord to deal with you, as you mutter (yes you will, you do when the weather is bad or you get a cold!) and grumble and far worse. In the place of ‘I’m past caring’ you will say silly things. Afterwards, you will be incredibly glad that God’s love just coped with you and felt with you and did nothing more!  You need the revelation? Pray for it!

38. Changed Lives (2)

Ephesians Meditations No.38

Eph  4:29-32 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you

We continue with this list of very practical things that Paul is writing about, ways of living out the life we now have with Christ. We remind ourselves again that the Christian life is first of all about what has been done to us by God’s Holy Spirit on the basis of the finished work of Christ on the Cross, and then about how that works out in our everyday lives, the part we have to play in it all. In the previous meditation we saw the first three things that Paul highlighted – the way we speak (truthfully), the way we feel (limiting anger) and then the way we respect other people’s possessions (no stealing). So let’s see how he continues.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” Now that is challenging, especially in the light of the today’s tendency to be free and easy in respect of speech. Recently we watched a comedian known for one line jokes, performing for about ten minutes. For the first seven minutes you could not fault his humour but in the last three minutes he slid into sexual innuendo (and not innuendo!). It was as if he just couldn’t keep away from it. We heard of another comedian who decided to do an evening without swearing and found he got just as many laughs and so decided to reduce the language from then on. Comedians (and our acceptance of them) are good gauges of society and sadly in the Britain, we don’t show up very well. It used to be said, “Only say what you could have said in front of your grandmother.” Why a grandmother? I think it is because of our assumption that standards used to be much tighter. We’ve lost a lot. Have you? If you have, it’s time to do a clean up on your language if you are a Christian.

But Paul doesn’t leave the language issue negatively. He continues: “but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” He says what Solomon so often says in the Proverbs: your tongue can be a means of blessing others. Do you bless other with what you say to them? Do they feel built up and encouraged by you?

But then there comes a hidden implication: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” The And’ means that is a continuation from what has just been said. In other words you have the capacity, by what you say, of grieving or upsetting the Holy Spirit who lives in you. He is holy and pure. Is your language holy and pure? If not you will be upsetting the Lord who lives within you. (And then we have the nerve to ask things of Him!!). When you first met your husband/wife/partner and fell in love, I am sure you would have only said things to them that you know would have blessed them, and not said things you knew would have upset them, so why do we say things that we know will upset God?

He then continues with a sweeping list: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” The fruit of the spirit is gentleness (Gal 5:22,23) so how can we equate that which He wants to work out in us with any of the things in this list? We shouldn’t need to work our way through this list should we? These things are things in the life of someone who is disturbed and not at peace with themselves or with God; these are the outworkings of a person who is out of control of their life. Yet the fruit of the Spirit is also self-control (Gal 5:23) and we are told to add self-control to our lives (2 Pet 1:6). Rage and anger’ are expressions of a person out of control, but as Christians this should not be us.Slander and malice’ are expressions of a person out of control, unable to be gracious and that must not be us. ‘Bitterness’ is an emotion that has taken us over, and we must not let that happen.Brawling’ is out of control (drunken?) behaviour that often results in harm or damage – and that must not be us. Check it out: get rid of these if they occur in your life!

But again Paul puts in the positive to counter these negatives: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” This is a totally different sort of person and this is what Christ calls us to. Is that you? Good hearted and gentle and caring and feeling for people? Is that you? Not holding onto grievances? The message is simple and straight forward: Christians are supposed to be nice to be around! In an article I came across recently, an atheist grudgingly conceded that “Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” I thought that was a tremendous testimony, especially coming from an atheist! But that’s how it is supposed to be. As another writer wrote, “Part of the reason for Christianity’s rapid spread, historians have remarked, was simply that the early Christians were such nice people.” Let’s keep it like that!

(This will be the end of the series in Ephesians for a while – we’re going to have a break but will come back and finish the book in a couple of weeks time)

19. Out of Hopelessness

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 19

Job 7:11 Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

We said the other day, that not only is the book of Job about the testing of Job, but it was also the testing of the friends – AND it tests us. Jesus, in his teaching, indicated that how people responded to him, revealed the state of their hearts before God. How could any person with a good heart before God criticise Jesus when he did so much good, healing the sick, delivering the possessed and raising the dead. How could any righteous person criticise his teaching. No, the critics revealed the state of their hearts. It’s the same for a person who criticises a beautiful piece of music and reveals they have no music in their soul, or the person who criticises a wonderful work of art, who shows they have no comprehension of beauty or art. No, we are revealed by our responses, and Job reveals our state of heart more than most people in the Bible.

If you have come to these readings and find yourself criticising Job, you simply tell me that you have led a sheltered life and have never been through trying circumstances. People who have ‘been through the mill’, people who have been crushed by the adversities of life, tend to be people of understanding, people of gentle spirit, people of compassion. If you have missed out on the anguishes of life, be thankful. Give thanks for the Lord’s goodness that you have known. If you have walked the corridors of darkness, thank the Lord that He has brought you through, a tried and tested and purified person – and feel for Job!

Remember Job has already expressed something of what he feels: life is just one long ongoing blur of pain with no hope of anything good at the end of it, just death. In other words, as we’ve noted previously, it has imposed on him a sense of utter hopelessness. So, can we understand, that it is because he feels hopeless (no sense of a future) that he speaks intemperately. At the beginning of our verse today is that crucial word, “Therefore”. It says that as a result of all that has gone before (which we’ve just looked at) he’s not going to keep quiet, but he’s going to let out all the anguish, pain and frustration that he feels inside. He is going to speak out of the anguish of my spirit, and because he feels there is a cause to be addressed, he says he will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Note the word ‘complain’. When we have a complaint, we feel there is something wrong that needs putting right, and we do it by complaining to whoever it is who has the power to correct it. Obviously here, God has the power to do that! So he’s going to talk to the Lord about it.

Let’s see the beginning of his complaint: “Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard?” (v.12) Solomon spoke about the Lord who, “gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command,” (Prov 8:28). The picture is of the Lord limiting the extent of the sea to give mankind land to live upon. Without restraint the oceans are dangerous and destructive. Similarly some of the great sea creatures are dangerous if unrestrained by the sea. Thus Job is complaining as if to say, “Excuses me, but am I dangerous that I need reigning in by suffering?”

Then he continues as if to say, “Yet, look at what you’ve made me. Was this necessary?” (implied) : “When I think my bed will comfort me and my couch will ease my complaint, even then you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions.” (v.13,14). He’s saying, “Look I am a physical wreck. When I feel so weak that I collapse on my bed and try to sleep, all that happens is that you seem to give me nightmares! There is no respite, awake or asleep!” And the result? Anything is better than this! “so that I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine. I despise my life; I would not live forever.” (v.15,16a). This is what it’s come to; this anguish is so great and there seems no possible end, he would rather someone came along and killed him.

Earlier on, in his initial lament, he cried out against the fact that it seemed that his life was being prolonged instead of being allowed to die, so now he concludes, “Let me alone; my days have no meanin.” (v.16b) From his terrible perspective he can see no point whatsoever to what is happening and so he wants the Lord to leave him alone and let him die but, as we observed previously, he has only partial vision, he can only see a part of the whole thing. He doesn’t realise that all of heaven is looking on and watching to see if he will uphold the Lord’s faith in him, because that is what this is all about. The Lord trusts Job to come through this well, just like us today, the church: “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” (Eph 3:10) The way we respond on earth to such trials, can bring glory to God as the heavenly watchers see God’s grace in us.

Don’t be surprised at how Job is responding because he is under the worst forms of suffering possible. Remember that even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane shied away from the ordeal in front of him: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” (Mt 26:39). We are dealing with natural human responses here and, yes, today we can take comfort in the revelation that we now have that. “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not an ordeal, and Job didn’t have that revelation yet. No, Job only has half a picture – the bad half – and it seems hopeless. He can’t see the end of the story where he will be completely restored. That’s the trouble, so often, we can’t see the end of the episode through which we are going. If we could it might help considerably. The writer to the Hebrews referred to Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” (Heb 12:2). Jesus totally trusted everything he knew about his Father, that the end of this was going to be great joy in heaven, which is why, in Gethsemane, he concluded that earlier prayer with, “ Yet not as I will, but as you will .” (Mt 26:39). For us today, with the revelation we have, we must trust to the knowledge that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8) and that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28 ). We have all these helps today. Job didn’t have. Job is walking in virgin territory and it’s difficult for him.