Snapshots: Day 65

Snapshots: Day 65

The Snapshot: “In the desert the whole community grumbled.” (Ex 16:2) A desert, a place of dryness, brings out the worst in us. How do we overcome that? Remember three things. First, the glory that got you here, the goodness of God that saved you out of ‘Egypt’ (the world). Second, the duration of this desert experience; it is supposed to be temporary. Don’t accept it as a permanent experience; expect and seek for better. Third, remember the goal, there is a better day ahead, a ‘Promised Land’, in the days to come here on earth and in the promised eternity that is our inheritance. Don’t let the enemy have cause to rejoice when he witnesses the children of God acting as less than those children. Bonus: fourth, remember who you are!

Further Consideration: Let’s consider in some more detail the three ways of overcoming the negative feelings that can arrive when we are going through a ‘desert experience’. But’s let’s be honest first of all and acknowledge that such an experience is normal. The teaching that the various experiences of Israel also act as ‘types’ of the experiences of believers, has us now in the Promised Land, a place where we inherit the goodness of the Lord and have to battle to remove the old inhabitants who still have a habit of rising up (e.g. anger?) Yet the truth is that even in the Promised Land Israel went through times of drought that made for desert-like conditions. Each of us will experience all of these things and, as we said above, they tend to bring out the worst in us – which is why the Lord allows them, so the work of sanctification can continue, a joint activity between Him and us.

So, first, remember where you came from, the facts of your new birth. That reminds us we are supernatural works of God and He is the One who now has plans and purposes for the long-term of our lives.

Second, this is a temporary experience and although it seems temporarily dry and barren, the Lord has not left you (declare the truth of Heb 13:5) and His grace is still available in this time of difficulty.

Third, the outworking of this time is a new day where we have learnt afresh the Lord’s grace and goodness and have come through into a place where light and love flow again.

But perhaps we should add a fourth thing: see this time of dryness as a testing time, a trial, an exam to be passed. Perhaps we have brought it on ourselves but it is still a time to learn lessons. The Lord has certainly allowed it; it is still a time to learn lessons. In other words, and you may consider this a fifth thing, we should view such a time positively. “Consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces…” (Jas 1:2) James adds perseverance but there may be many more benefits.

27. Redeemed From (3)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 27. Redeemed From (3)

Eph 2:1-3    As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.

Following ‘Passion’?  I’m never quite comfortable with our interpretation of Paul’s words in verse 3 above even with, “We all lived like that in the past, and followed the impulses and imaginations of our evil nature,” (JBP version) and even less with, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat,” (Message version), or “All of us used to be just as they are, our lives expressing the evil within us, doing every wicked thing that our passions or our evil thoughts might lead us into.” (Living Bible). What these various paraphrase versions show us is that we struggle with the idea that Paul is seeking to convey here. Now when you look up synonyms for ‘passion’ you do come across such words as craving, desire, or appetite. The various paraphrases above also use such words as ‘impulses’ and ‘felt’, both implying responses to feelings.

Going on feelings? Christian preachers or teachers often say ‘don’t go on your feelings’ and that is what this is all about, but when Paul says in the NIV “gratifying the cravings of the flesh” he is implying something more than just feelings; he is directing us towards thinking about desires that stem from physical or bodily expressions so, for example, we get hungry because we haven’t eaten for a while. Sexual drive can also be linked to physical state. Now psychologists often distinguish ‘desire’ from ‘emotions’ for ‘emotions’, they say, arise from a person’s emotional state.

So we have two ideas here which come out of Paul’s writings: motivation by physical gratification and motivation by mental state, and both of these, implies Paul, are things that should be consigned to past history. However our studies in redemption have suggested that so often God’s work in us has to be an ongoing process because, although our identity has changed, and we now also have a new power source, it is so easy to allow these things of the past to still ‘echo’ in the present and hence Paul had to instruct us to Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” (Col 3:5) i.e. you make an effort, an act of will to do this. The teaching is clearly that the old is still there waiting to rear up and we have to positively put it down.   Now when we moved into the fifth Part, I thought of our sub-heading as ‘Practicalities’ but changed it to ‘Nuts & Bolts of Redemption’. These things, the nuts and bolts of our lives, have very practical outworkings in our lives.

Physical Desires: We shy away from such words as ‘greed’ or ‘gluttony’ but they are words that fit when it comes to physical appetites. However, as Christians, perhaps we should call a spade a spade and call these things ‘lack of self-control’. Food: Obesity is the Western pandemic and is clearly (in the vast majority of cases) a consequence of lack of self-control. But that lack of self-control may have two origins. First, it may just be giving way to greed: I like this and I want more and more and more. Second, it may be what we call ‘comfort eating’, it is a way we deal with mental anguishes (I feel rubbish about me) and seek to bring physical pleasure to compensate for the loss of mental peace.  The first needs simple self-control, the second needs a reality check about identity, realizing afresh the truth about ourselves, loved by God and special to Him, people with purpose in life. All of these things need working through and really taking on board.

Drink: So far we have been considering desires that focus on food, but they can equally apply (if not more so) to alcohol. Now I don’t have a problem with drinking alcohol within limits (though I rarely drink) but I am sure there is a common assumption (and it appears in Christian circles) that alcohol creates a social environment that promotes sociability. There may be an element of truth in that but there are at least two difficulties with it. First, it is false that you cannot be sociable without alcohol and if for you it is true, then you have a personal identity problem again. Second, regular drinking (‘to be sociable’) becomes a pattern and a pattern often develops into a bondage and that brings about what we call alcoholism and all the health and social problems that go with that. In passing, may I note that in all these sorts of things there is so often deception here, for the individual strongly denies that there is a problem, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of sex.

Sex: All of these things we consider here, that God is seeking to lead us away from, are excesses of things that He gave us as a gift to be used within confines. Sex, the Bible reveals, is for within a lifetime committed relationship. Now I am aware that when we say that in the Western world it is like calling for light in darkness, it is so alien, but merely because the world casts off God’s design criteria, that should not be true of us Christians. It is almost impossible to watch TV without being bombarded by the philosophy that sex is all right with whoever you like, whenever you like, and however you like, and becomes no more significant than eating a cheese sandwich. The result is to debase sex and create whole rafts of relationship problems and where to speak of love is banned except after the relationship based on sex has existed for a long time (watch long running historical ‘soaps’ such as ‘Friends’ or ‘Big Bang Theory’ to see the truth of this.) Deception reigns! Fortunately voices are gradually (if only occasionally) being raised by newspaper or magazine columnists that this approach is having disastrous effects, and we will have to face some of these things as we progress down the path of redemption. For some, sex comes by computer screen and is called pornography but all that does is stimulate mind and body in ways that are less than God had in mind with His design for couples.

Wandering in the Desert: My feeling about all these things that are rising up in the Western world, is that they are expressions of life in the wilderness or the desert, life that is arid and where people are resorting to things outside the parameters of  God’s design for human beings, to try to make sense of this crazy godless world, and try to find pleasure in it, yet trying by eating more and more, or drinking more and more, or having more and more sex, simply works on what economists call ‘the law of diminishing returns’. As any junkie would tell you, you need more and more to get the same pleasure. But we’re not meant to live in deserts; the truth is that at the edge of every desert is a wonderful world that is lush and green and full of good things. This ‘desert living’ is what God seeks to deliver us from and so perhaps we should move on in the next study and move away from the depressing area (when you have eyes to see it) of the desperate scrabbling for pleasure and meaning that is so prevalent in modern Western society. So let’s move out of the desert and see the world that the Lord seeks to deliver us in to.

And So? But before we do that, let’s go right back to the beginning and remind ourselves what Paul has been saying: don’t base your life on desires or emotions, there is a better way. It is a way that is first and foremost founded on a relationship with the Lord and out of that relationship we live according to His design parameters and know His blessing in all aspect of our lives. His word, His will, His way, His wonder, and all these bring light and life and blessing and goodness, and that is what He is working to lead us towards in this path of redemption. He HAS redeemed us from that old life of self-orientation, of self-pleasures, self-concerns, self-desires, self-based-emotions, and He is now in the process of redeeming us on a daily basis into a new world. We’ll see more on to that in the next study.

9. Human Glory

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.9.  Human Glory

Isa 40:6   A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The significance of the passing of time in Scripture is fascinating.  For instance, there are periods of waiting, waiting for seeds to grow, waiting for the right time, waiting for time to pass. Sometimes when we are waiting we think it is the end. Israel must have felt that when they went into the Exile.  Israel might have wondered about it in Jesus day when there has been silence from heaven for over four hundred years. The disciples thought it when Jesus body lay in the tomb until the third day.

One of the things about time passing is that it is so easy to forget what God has said when His word comes, or even to be led into doubt that we have heard aright. That must have been the case when Sarai urged Abram to take the servant girl, Hagar, to use here to continue the family line (Gen 16:1-4). Time passing challenges our faithfulness.

Now Israel are in a ‘desert state’ or ‘wilderness state’ as the word of the Lord comes to comfort them. No doubt time has passed but now the Lord has said He is coming’ it seems their period of waiting is coming to an end, but for God to be rightly received there needs to be a right perspective, a right way of thinking about Him, and that right thinking always has to start with a recognition of what we are. In comparison to the Lord we small and insignificant and in the verses to follow in this chapter we are going to be reminded of something of the Lord’s greatness, but before we do that we have to see our smallness, and our frailty. Humility requires right understanding.

That is where I got to as I approached these verses but then I realised something. There is a difference between verses 6 and 7. If verse 7 was absent, we would think that verse 6 is really good; it is only when the balance or counterpart of verse 7 comes that we find our aspirations dashed. So think again. The truth is that there are two sides to revelation about mankind and the way God thinks about us, and it is important to consider them both and so we will take verse 6 here and verse 7 in the next study.

The prophetic word rolls out: A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” (v.6a) Isaiah hears the word, the instruction to call out to his people and his instinctive reply is to ask what he is to call. It could be anything. It could be about their sinfulness, it could be about God’s greatness, it could be about judgment, it could be about blessing, it could be about another nation or people, but instead it is a general declaration about mankind: All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (v.6b)

Right, stop right there. Think about this description as it stands. We are like grass. Grass? Grass covers a lot of this earth.  God must like grass. Grass is useful for feeding cattle and when it turns into straw it has other uses. There are also many sorts of grass, and some of them are purely ornamental (we have at least five different sorts of ornamental grasses in our garden apart from the grass on the lawn.) Grass is quite a good picture.

But then he speaks about “the flowers of the field”. I don’t know if you have ever observed a ‘meadow’   Listen to Wikipedia’s definition of a meadow: “A meadow is a field habitat vegetated by grass and other non-woody plants. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions.” Those ‘other non-woody plants’ are either flowers or other plants we often refer to as weeds. There is a big thing in the UK about growing ‘meadows’ specifically because of the wild flowers that grow in a meadow. There is something quite special about the wild flowers that grow in the midst of grass.

Now, there is a key word in the midst of picture language, ‘faithfulness’ and we said above that the passing of time challenges our faithfulness. Some versions have the word ‘beauty’ instead but incorporate a note about ‘constancy’ or ‘faithfulness’.  The versions that lack ‘faithfulness’ have just half the picture, I believe, because it is not only about frailty, it is about faithfulness and when we go on into verse 7, frailty shown in failing faithfulness. We will consider some more about that aspect in the next study, but for the moment consider our faithfulness as a flower that stands out in the midst of a field of grass. It is beautiful in the eye of the Lord.

Elsewhere in Scripture we find, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psa 8:4,5) and the writer to the Hebrews takes that quote and slightly extends it: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little] lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them.” (Heb 2:6-8) Before we let the enemy put us down, let’s remember this is how God sees us, this is what He designed us to be, and in the present prophetic picture our faithfulness (when it is there) is something beautiful to behold, something that blesses the Lord. Let’s make sure we hold on to it.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord help me remain faithful to you in every area of my life. Thank you that you have a plan for my life, you are blessed by it and yet have more for me. Open my eyes to your possibilities for me.

7. How to Prepare (2)

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.7. How to Prepare (2)

Isa 40:3a,4  make straight in the desert a highway for our God, Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

We are considering all the obstacles to be removed and the most direct route to be achieved as spoken of in the verses above. We noted so far some of the obstacles, unrighteous attitudes, words and behaviour, that act as obstacles that need to be removed on this ‘Holy Way’, and then thought about being those who yearn for the Lord to come, making a direct path. Now we need to perhaps consider some of the things to be dealt with, that we see in these verses, and consider what they do and why they need dealing with. We have considered the idea of a straight highway implying a need for a hungry heart that yearns for God to come quickly, so now let’s pick up on the ‘ground features’ of verse 4, the details, and see what they say to us.

“Every valley shall be raised up.” Valleys are low places on the earth and speak of the low times of our lives or perhaps, to be more precise, the low feelings we have. When we have allowed the enemy to pull us down we no longer feel we are the glorious children of God that we are in reality. Low self-esteem (and especially low spiritual self-esteem) is an enemy and obstacle to seeing the glory of the Lord come. We need to take hold of the truths of who we are, we need to raise up these valleys so that the highway of faith can allow the coming of the Lord.

Now before we press on with each of these we need to remind ourselves of something we considered before – that these could be words of declaration from heaven, declaring the sovereign will of God that will be executed, and so we need to see each of these as God’s intentions; He is working to do these things, so taking that first one, He is working to lift your faith and impart those truths into your heart.

“every mountain and hill made low.” In this context mountains are major obstacles that obscure vision. You just can’t grasp the panorama of God’s plan, purposes and intents when there is a big mountain obscuring the view. ‘Hills’ in this context are smaller vision obstructions that we take for granted, and that is the difference here between a mountain and hill; the mountain we are very much aware of but the hill we take for granted and just live with. The ‘mountain’ dominates us. Addictions are mountains, failing relationships tend to be mountains, mounting debts are mountains. They are things that fill our view, dominated our subconscious thinking at the very least, if not our conscious thinking, and they are things we feel are beyond us. We know they should not be there, but they are, and we don’t know how to remove them.

How to overcome mountains? It’s a long-term process, I suggest, to build faith and it comes by you spending time with God in His word and in prayer, and when we have the opportunity on a Sunday with the people of God, giving ourselves wholeheartedly to worship and when opportunities arise, receive prayer. When Jesus said, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you,” (Mt 17:20) he was speaking about faith actions and faith comes from hearing and faith grows. It has to exist, and it only needs a mustard seed portion, but it does need faith. David overcoming Goliath is an example of overcoming a ‘mountain’ (see 1 Sam 17) and we should learn from him.

Overcoming and removing ‘hills’? The first thing is to recognise them. They are part of the landscape but not blatantly obvious. We remove them the same way as mountains. Remember, anything that diminishes vision – too much TV, too much computer games, too much sloppy reading and so on. Don’t tolerate it.

“rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” Rough ground is stony and hard and rugged places are tough going. They speak to me of hard-heartedness, set in my ways, refusing to be open to correction. If these things remain, they will hinder and prevent the coming of the glory of the Lord.

If that’s what you want, then accept the misty, grey, unchanging life of dark places, little vision, little excitement, but realise that that is not what God wants for you and He is there just waiting for your heart change that says, “Lord, I want more, I want vision, I want life, I want to see you!” When you can say that genuinely, watch out, He will be there!


4. God in the Wilderness?

Meditations in Isaiah 40: No.4. God in the Wilderness?

Isa 40:3   A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

We cannot leave this thought of God coming to the wilderness. It is an amazing thought and dare I suggest, one I have never heard preached about, perhaps implying we take it for granted. But that is what the prophet is saying here, that a highway is to be made in the desert so that God can come along it, in the desert. This is God in the desert. To catch the full impact of this we need to remember how we finished the previous study, with this thought about ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ being pictures of those spiritually dry times of life, times that are sometimes frustrating as we look for blessing and all we see is disorder, grumblings and lack of vibrant power and life in the church.  It is to such times that this word now comes.

There are a surprising number of times in the Bible when God turns up in the desert or wilderness. We concluded the last study with mention of Moses at the burning bush. There God comes to the desert with revelation, so first, desert can be a place of fresh revelation, fresh direction, fresh calling and sending, when God turns up.

Second, we find God leading Israel through the desert to the Promised Land (see Ex 15-19) – the journey through the desert had to be taken before Israel could reach the Promise Land BUT the Lord was with them throughout their journey. So, second, we can know the Lord’s presence with us in such desert times.

Third, we find God providing manna for Israel, food that kept on appearing for forty years there in the desert. Bread is sometimes a picture of God’s word on which we have to learn to feed. So, third, the desert experience can still be a time and a place of feeding on God’s provision, His word – yes, there in the desert!

But, fourth, water was also an issue in the desert and there they had to learn that although the environment was dry and arid, they would still, nevertheless, have provision from the Lord of water. Water so often is a picture of the Holy Spirit and so, fourth, even in the desert (before the circumstances change) we have to learn that the supply of the Spirit is there for us. Rely on Him, seek Him, receive of Him.

Yes, there was also, fifth, a time of battle while in the wilderness – against the Amalekites and God gave them victory. So surprisingly, fifth, the desert can still be a place of victory with God over our enemies.

Now remember, these are all illustrations of what can happen when God turns up in the wilderness, but there is yet a further dynamic picture to be considered.  In Ezekiel 47, the prophet has a vision of a river that flows out of the temple and down into the land and he is told, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows….. where the river flows everything will live. …. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.” (Ezek 47:8-12) This river is the river of life that flows out of the presence of God and here is the incredible thing – it transforms the desert!

As God comes down this highway in the desert, His presence transforms the desert, your life and mine and the world around us through us.  Can you grab that truth by faith and live it?  He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs” (Psa 107:35). “I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together.” (Isa 47:18,19) Your life and mine?

87. A Sign for the Rebellious

Meditations in Exodus: 87.  A Sign for the Rebellious

Num 17:10  The LORD said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die”

In the previous chapter we observed the plague that was coming as God’s judgment after the Lord had threatened to judge all the people for their grumbling, but as the priests interceded for them, the Lord had mercy on them and the plague was stopped. We marveled at why the Lord had not finished completely with this people. It might be helpful to itemize again the order of the things that had recently happened:

  • They arrived at Kadesh on the border of the Promised Land (Num 13), spies had gone in and ten of the twelve brought back a bad report that swayed the nation who then refused to enter the Land (Num 14).
  • Because of this the Lord decreed that the whole of the nation over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness in the coming years and the younger generation would only enter when the older generations had eventually died out. (Num 14:29-35)
  • Subsequent to this, presumably still at Kadesh but it may be later, Korah and at least 250 community leaders had risen up against Moses and Aaron and had been destroyed when the earth swallowed them up (Num 16).
  • Incredibly this was followed by the people grumbling against Moses (16:41) and when the Lord sent plague against them, it was only stopped by Moses getting Aaron as High Priest to make atonement. (16:46-50)

Thus we arrive at a point of time when Israel are consigned to a life in the desert, have been on the verge of being wiped out by the Lord for their ongoing rebellious attitude, and are teetering on the brink of existence. What will they do? What will the Lord do? How can they carry on?

Our verse above explains what follows as the Lord’s activity seeking to end their grumbling so that they will not yet be destroyed. The Lord proposes a strategy whereby His will and the sanctity of the priesthood will prevail. Observe:

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.” (Num 17:1-5) It is very simple. Each tribal leader is to present their staff with their name on it – and Levi’s will have Aaron’s name on it. These staffs are to be put in the Tent of Meeting overnight and whoever’s staff buds by next morning will be the one chosen by the Lord. That will put an end to all the grumbling about who is a leader and who is not. This they do (v.6,7)

What follows is amazing: “The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” (v.8) It is undoubtedly a miracle because it not only budded, but leaves had formed AND blossom AND fruit appear on it.

Moses takes all the other staffs and gives them back to their owners – unchanged! – and the Lord tells him to put Aaron’s in the Tent as an ongoing reminder to everyone that Aaron, the high priest is His chosen on. (Num 17:9-11) The impact on the leaders and the people is instructive and obvious: “The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?” (v.12,13)

Now, interestingly, they are not given an answer, or at least one is not recorded. What is recorded is Aaron, his sons and his future sons, and the Levites being appointed to serve in the Tabernacle for the centuries to come.  The Lord is very specific: “You are to be responsible for the care of the sanctuary and the altar, so that wrath will not fall on the Israelites again.” (Num 18:5) The priesthood is to be the means of the salvation of the Israelites by providing atonement for them whenever they sin (stated elsewhere). The rest of the chapter is about how they are to be provided for, not ever having land of their own. Chapter 19 is all about killing and burning a red heifer, a cow, outside the camp and using its ashes as a cleaning agent in water whenever uncleanness occurs. It is simply a law about maintaining or regaining cleanliness. In other words the whole emphasis swings away for a couple of chapters away from the failures of Israel to the Lord’s provision for them of a priesthood which they have already seen can stand in for them and preserve them when, in reality, they deserve death.

The whole affair of the staffs, and the laws that follow establishing the priesthood, clearly speak of the Lord’s grace that is doing everything it can to preserve this foolish people. We may wonder about this because they are a people condemned to die in the wilderness – well the older generation at least – but what we have here are the Lord’s actions to head off further folly which could contaminate the younger generation. The Lord’s intent is for that younger generation to grow up in the wilderness, to learn from it all, and be ready to go in and take the Land when the older generation has died off. All we have been reading about has been the Lord’s activity, working to help bring that about. How amazing!  This is the God of grace and mercy with whom we have to deal. Praise and worship Him!

55. A Lesson in Obedience

Meditations in Exodus: 55. A Lesson in Obedience

Ex 16:13-15   That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

In Numbers 11 there is a further more detailed account of what happened here that reveals the provision of Quail as a semi-judgment on the people but here the emphasis is on the manna and so we will ignore the Quail and focus on that.

The Lord has said He will provide for them and in the morning there appears what appear thin flakes of some unknown food and The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” (v.31) You will see from a footnote to this verse that “Manna means ‘what is it?’ hence the link with verse 15.

Now so often when we come to this story we focus on the fact that this was God’s provision for Israel in the desert and “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan.” (v.35) This was God’s supernatural food for Israel as long as they stayed in the desert. It was supposed to only be a matter of months but it turned out to be forty years. So, it was a sign of His love and provision for His people throughout their time in the desert. When they get to the Promised Land they can eat the fruit of the land but for now in a sandy wilderness, manna is their provision.

So, yes, it is right to focus on the provision aspect of this story but the detail of the account show there is a bigger issue at stake here. We see it when we look at the instructions for collecting this manna, which we have already briefly noted but which is now spelled out in more detail. So let’s turn now and look at the details of the collection of this manna.

First of all, Moses explains what it is: “Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.” (v.15) Not literal bread maybe but God’s provision that is the equivalent to their staple diet, the basics of what they need to stay alive. He then tells them (FIRST instruction) that they are each to collect it and how much to collect: “This is what the LORD has commanded: `Each one is to gather as much as he needs. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’” (v.16) Your footnote will tell you that an omer is about 2 litres or 2 quarts measure. A small bucketful perhaps. Note in passing that each person was to go and collect their own. It was a very personal provision.

But then something strange is recorded: “The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.” (v.17,18) They went out and gathered it and when they then came back and measured it, everyone seemed to have the same – sufficient. The apostle Paul quotes this verse (2 Cor 8:15) and appears to imply they simply shared it out and it balanced out. As a community they got what was sufficient.

Then he gives them a SECOND Instruction: “Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” (v.19) This was provision for TODAY and not tomorrow; they were to trust that the Lord would bring it again tomorrow. We are then shown what happened when they didn’t do this and tried to provide for tomorrow: “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.” (v.20) The lesson is very clear: the provision is for TODAY and only today. It was to be collected early morning because, “Each morning everyone gathered as much as he needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away.” (v.21)

What follows appears to have been the result of a THIRD Instruction: “On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much–two omers for each person–and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses.” (v.22) The report of the community leaders appears to have been a confirmation to Moses that the people had obeyed for Moses instructed, “This is what the LORD commanded: `Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’” (v.23) What was amazing on this sixth day was that, “they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it.” (v.24) Then comes the clarification: “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a Sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.” (v.25,26).

So note what we’re seen of this manna:  i) It came every morning, ii) if they didn’t collect it straight away it would melt as the sun got hot, iii) it was provision for that day and if they tried to keep it, it went mouldy, iv) on the sixth day they could collect two days’ worth and it would not go off on the second day because, v) on the seventh day none would be provided.

Now we need to return to what we said at the beginning of all this, that there is a bigger issue here; it is of training and obedience and learning to trust. We see this emphasised when some of the people wouldn’t stick to the rules: “Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” So the people rested on the seventh day.” (v.27-30)

So we see two sets of disobedience and two ways of correction. Initially some tried to collect two days’ worth and it went mouldy and then later in the week some went out to look for more on the Sabbath and received a rebuke. This account is a mixture of divinely supernatural provision and a training course on trust and obedience. The thing is that by the second week of this provision, we can be fairly sure that the people were complying with the rules, if not then certainly by the third week – and forty years later they were still doing it!  This is not a one-off provision such as the water at Marah, but this is a daily trusting and obedience for each and every person (adults at least).

What parallels are there with modern day Christian experience? It is still all about provision but that provision, in whatever form it takes, comes through the Holy Spirit. The lesson is still the same – the provision is for today. We see the failure of this so often in church life: we get blessed with one particular way of meeting with God on a Sunday, say, and so assume that that is the way for every week, instead of trusting Him for fresh direction week after week. But that is a bit challenging isn’t it, whether it is church services, Bible Studies, prayer meetings or whatever and so often we therefore fail to get the new provision for TODAY. May it not be so.

54. Complaining about food

Meditations in Exodus: 54. Complaining about Food

Ex 16:2,3   In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Memory is a strange thing. I often think it is distorted by time, but it is also distorted by present circumstances which make us have memories of what we wished it had been like. Israel are back in the desert and now “the whole community” it seems “grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” The cause of their grumbling was two fold: first, they lack food and, second, they have these memories of better days back in Egypt.

Consider the first of those: they have no food. Pardon? Excuse me! They have large flocks and herds, they have a walking larder, they just don’t want to start using them up. But then the memory: they had been slaves, slaves who “sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted”. A different sort of slavery with abundant provisions from the sort of slavery history usually shows us!

The truth is that they are fearful. They don’t know where they are going and how long it will take and they foresee their food resources being depleted and depleted until they are left with none. That hasn’t happened yet but it will do if we carry on like this. It is a fear grounded in their uncertainty about God. They haven’t realised that all that is happening is to teach them to trust Him.

So the Lord shares with Moses His intentions: Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” (v.4,5) Now that is interesting! He doesn’t say what the provision will be but He does use again that word ‘test’. There is going to be a testing element to what is going to happen. The Lord seeks to get Israel to trust Him and that trust will be shown by obedience. There are two instructions for Israel here: first, they are to go out daily collecting this provision and, second, on the sixth day of the week they are to collect twice as much as usual with the inference that on the seventh day there would be no provision. Interesting!

Now what is more interesting is the way Moses now teaches Israel: “So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” (v.6,7) He doesn’t start with the news that the Lord will provide food for them, but he confronts them with what they are doing in grumbling against Moses and Aaron is actually grumbling against God. He reiterates this: “Moses also said, “You will know that it was the LORD when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the LORD.” (v.8) Yes, the Lord will provide food for them in such a way that there will be no doubt about where it came from.

To back this up, the Lord (implied) calls for the people to face Him: “Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, `Come before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’ ” While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the LORD appearing in the cloud.” (v.9,10) Moses calls for the people to face God and, bearing in mind it is still daytime, the Lord’s fire appears in the pillar of cloud. The Lord reiterates He will provide for the people: “The LORD said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, `At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’”  (v.11,12)

There is a simple but important lesson in this passage. The Lord takes note of our grumbling and in what follows He shows that He does not want us to grumble and that He will deal with us accordingly. Now I have sought to be honest in the past meditations, confessing I am a grumbler but what I now need to do is tell you that the Lord disciplines me with more of the same thing! There is good news and good news about this. The first bit of good news is that the Lord does understand why we are like we are and He still loves us. The second bit of good news is that He will keep on and on with our training (disciplining) until we come to the point of trusting Him. He doesn’t give up. I am sure if it was us in His position we would give up very early on in the game, with comments like, “Oh, for goodness sake, let’s give up on this blind bunch, let’s go and find some more receptive people and start over again.”

I suspect that most church leaders feel like this at some time or other. God’s people really are like sheep sometimes, getting themselves into all kinds of difficulties of belief and behaviour. The temptation after you have been preaching about something for weeks on end and it still seems to be falling on deaf ears, is to want to give up and go and find some more receptive people. The lesson of these passages is that the Lord keeps on with them even though they appear to be slow to learn. The Lord doesn’t call us to change people – only He can do that – but to pray, to teach and preach and love and care and leave the rest to Him. Yes, the Lord may discipline His people but unless it is a sin against the community, let’s just keep on doing what we are called to do and preach and teach and leave the conviction to Him, until maybe the point will arrive when people come to us and confess they want to talk about their lives because they need our counsel.

This also applies even if we are not a leader. You see slow growing young Christians? Love them, pray for them, be there for them until they feel sufficiently secure in your love that they open their lives to you and you are granted permission to speak into them. I recently saw a quote that wisdom is knowing when to speak and when not to speak. Love them like the Lord loved Israel and wait for your time to speak.

53. The desert of Sin – Contrasts

Meditations in Exodus: 53. The Desert of Sin – contrasts

Ex 16:1   The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.

There is a temptation here to jump to a wrong conclusion and try to make something of the name but the Sin that makes up the bigger name Sin-ai is not the sin we know about. Centuries before, a warlord from the north by the name of Naram-Sin came south to conquer this land. He headed a cult that worshipped the moon-god Sin (pronounced sign). Over the years his descendants continued to worship the moon-god Sin and thus the region along the Gulf of Suez became known as the wilderness of Sin and entire peninsular named Sinai.

The Sinai that is mentioned in verse 2 is likely to be the mountain that they eventually reach where they encounter the Lord. They don’t know it yet, but this was the place where Moses had encountered the burning bush and been commissioned, and where Aaron had met Moses (Ex 4:27). It is clear (and Moses would know this) that the Pillar of Cloud is leading them in that direction. Moses might well wonder if the Lord has some purpose behind this that has not yet become clear.

For the purposes of meditation there are some interesting things in this verse 1. First, The whole Israelite community set out.”  Just catch the reality of this, because is it significant in the things that follow. It has been suggested that there may well have been a million or even over two million people – men, women and children – in this group. It is a massive group of people making their way slowly through the desert. So large a crowd was it that they no doubt stretched out over miles of track or dunes.

The point I would make is that the further you were from the front, the less sense you had of being led by this incredible pillar of cloud. It was no doubt sufficiently big that it could be seen from a distance but when you are a distance from the presence of God it is easy to feel that distance and feel separated from His wonder. I think this when every now and then reports come in of the Lord moving powerfully in this area or that area but in my area of the desert all is quiet. The fact is that the Lord does move in different geographical locations and it takes faith to believe what others are experiencing. It is important if you are ‘further back’ not to let the enemy sow negatives.

But then we read, “The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai.”  Elim was the place of God’s blessing and abundant provision and Sinai was the place of encounter and law-giving (though they don’t know that yet). They are part way between these places of provision but this present place is just desert, a desert with a murky history of moon-worship, a place of nothingness. If only the Christian life was a smooth even ride, we might think, but it isn’t. The word that describes it is ‘change’ and many of us don’t like change, but change is the name of the game in the world at large and it is the same in the Christian life. Yesterday may have been a day of abundant blessing but today seems quiet, and so we are left wondering.

If you were Moses, you would be anticipating the arrival at Mount Sinai but that is some way off yet. Often we live with anticipation of something we know is coming – we look forward to birthdays, anniversaries, even Christmas perhaps, Thanksgiving, or other memorable and happy times. Because we are post-modern people there is a tendency to be living in an ‘experience-orientated’ life and so are either living on the memories of the last big experience (the last holiday perhaps) or in the anticipation of what we see coming. The danger in that is that we miss out on the significance of TODAY.

Ah, but ‘today’ is simply a desert experience for many of us, the same old thing, the same routine but it is never just the same for we live in a fallen world and things go wrong – at work, at school, at home even – and so the desert keeps on. The ‘same old’ can give a sense of being dry and arid and one of my biggest concerns to do with local church is that so often we do the same thing week in, week out, and so it becomes routine and we lose any sense of anticipation of God turning up. He may turn up in the place of the news but back home here, it is another thing altogether. Be honest, is your church life more like a desert, does little change, does little happen? The life of the Spirit surely should be full of ‘life’ and life brings change in people, change in circumstances; isn’t this what our church life should be?

But then we read this was, “the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.” A month has passed, (Passover was the 14th/15th of the first month) they have been traveling for a month and a lot has happened. When you are plodding on through the desert, time drags. Add that to the difficulties of desert life and it is not surprising when, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” (v.2)

So here is the crunch lesson: when life feels like a desert, and the last great blessing is some way behind you, and any anticipated further good time is some way ahead, how will we act? Jesus said, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8)   He was, of course, referring to his Second Coming, but it is a valid question for us every day. In this desert will we remain a people of faith or will we become grumblers? Yes, I have previously confessed to naturally being a grumbler but that is the natural side of me and by God’s grace I am slowly (very slowly) learning not to grumble in the desert but to praise Him, turn to Him for His daily resources, and look with anticipation to what He might do if I am available.

Don’t let the ‘desert’ get to you. His grace IS sufficient, but we do have to pause up and draw on it on a daily basis. If you are feeling dry, is it because you haven’t paused today to draw from the springs of living water that are there for you that Jesus spoke about? Don’t let the dry feeling continue; His resources ARE there for you right now.

52. Transient Blessing – Elim

Meditations in Exodus: 52. Transient Blessing – Elim  

Ex 15:27   Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

What a contrast. One moment it seems they are in the desert that is dry and barren and for three days there was no sign of water and then when the water came, at a place that became called Marah, the water was polluted. And then we find those incredibly understated words, “Then they came to…”  One minute polluted water, the next, abundance of water. What is going on?

Look at the provision here – first of all, twelve springs. Not just one, but twelve. At the previous place we believe it to have been a waddi, a place where water collected but here there are deep underground springs, twelve of them, which speaks of constant supply. Seeing the number twelve we immediately think of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus. There are lots of other twelves in the Bible but those two alone suggest completeness in God’s plans or God’s will, just the right number. There is an implied suggestion here, therefore, that this is the perfect supply of water for Israel, it is God’s perfect gift for them.

But then there are seventy palm trees. Palm trees provide fruit and shelter. The number seventy, some suggest, is brought about by seven which represents perfection (Seven days to a week), and ten representing completeness and God’s law (Ten Commandments), and so seventy thus represents perfect order and power of God. These trees thus further suggest for those with eyes to see, God’s perfect provision for His people.

Too much water results in drowning, too little water results in dehydration and even death. The right amount of water is essential for balanced, healthy life. These twelve springs suggest God’s perfect provision to enable life to continue. Water is vital for life. Spiritual water is vital for spiritual life. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (Jn 4:10) A little later in Jerusalem he declared, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (Jn 7:38,39)

Perhaps one of the greatest prophetic illustrations involving water was Ezekiel’s river flowing out of the temple and bringing life wherever it went. (see Ezek 47). Water and life are inextricably linked in Scripture, both materially and spiritually. But life isn’t only about the bare basics, the world we have been given provides for all our needs and so food, rest, protection are all elements of life, and these seventy palm trees provide just such things for weary desert travelers.

Before we try to summarise the meaning here, let’s note that these are springs of water and not wells or cisterns. Springs are a natural supply but wells and cisterns tend to be the result of hard human work. Well-digging was a vital part of life in those parts in those days – see Gen 26:15-33. Indeed these pictures were brought together in prophecy by Jeremiah: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer 2:13) God is THE source of life, a ‘spring of living water’ and we try to produce substitutes at our own peril.

So what have we got here?  An abundance of water after a dry time and a time of polluted water. It is as if the Lord says, you may go through dry times, and you may go through difficult times but I WILL bring you through to a place of great abundance of life, of fruitfulness and of rest. It is almost as if the Lord is picking up the spirits of His people after they have been through the dry time and the difficult time. There are such times but they always come to an end and when they do, so often they are followed by an abundance of goodness it seems.

But this ISN’T the Promised Land, it is merely a glimpse of it. Our verse above concludes with, “they camped there near the water” but it was to be a temporary camp, a transient or temporary resting place, a place to recharge the batteries we might say. But we are not to stay there, we need to move on because God will move on and merely because this present moment is full of blessing there is still somewhere to go. He has plans and purposes for us which are greater than that which we have at the present.

In a previous meditation I contrasted desert wanderings with entering the Land using the words trusting and receiving. As I watch and listen my conclusion is that many if not most churches in the UK, and those I have seen in the USA and heard of elsewhere in the ‘Western’ world have more of a Wilderness experience rather than a Promised Land experience. This is not to be condemnatory but simply to state facts. Churches that ‘organise’ their life rather than being led by the Spirit into their ‘life’ are still in the desert and although blessings come, they tend to be sporadic like a stop off at Elim.

There is a difference between ‘taking the land’ – which is about claiming ownership of it through battle – and walking through the land (desert) which is simply a passing through to get somewhere else. When we are simply ‘passing through’ experiences will be transitory and we have testimonies of God’s provision (we testify because they are unusual) but when we ‘take the land’ we enter into a continuous ongoing experience which is a combination of removing the enemy and receiving the fruit of the land. So, Elim is a blessing but it is only temporary. Israel have to get recharged and then move on. Let’s not settle in the desert.