Wilderness Meditations: 3. Dining with God in the Wilderness
Psa 78:19 “they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”
Varied Landscapes: In a natural wilderness food and water are in short supply. It is a strange thing but the Promised Land was a place of great provision and yet also terrain that sometimes went by the name, wilderness. There was land in the north near Dothan they called wilderness (Gen 37:12,22). There was the Desert of Beersheba to the south (Gen 21:14), the desert of Paran, to the south of the land (Gen 21:21), the wilderness of Judea, the land to the west side of the Jordan valley (Mt 3:1). Yes, in many ways a land of contrasts. And isn’t that just how life is, a history of contrasts. Sometimes we go through times of great abundance, and other times they are times of great shortage.
Spiritual Variations: Our trouble is that we tend to only measure these times in terms of material things, but the truth is that there can also be varied times spiritually. There can be times when we know great spiritual blessing and there can be times when the Lord seems miles away and we feel spiritually barren and empty. Another thing to be noted is that the material and the spiritual don’t always run in parallel. We can be materially very well off but spiritually barren (usually without realising it!). Alternatively we can be materially poor but spiritually very rich.
Israel Struggling: “they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psa 78:19) This was Israel in negative mode, the psalmist recalling how they hadn’t handled the limitations of their time in the wilderness well. Asaph the psalmist recounts how God had been there for Israel prior to their travelling through the desert (not a place to stay forever!) but they had forgotten His blessings, His provisions so far. They had forgotten His miracles of deliverance from Egypt. This of course in now before they reached the land, probably in the Sinai Peninsular wildernesses, a place, as we noted previously designated by God for them to pass through where they would learn a number of things from Him and about Him.
Present Wilderness: Many people have felt their early months of the 2020 Pandemic crisis to have been a wilderness experience for them. Previously, in the West at least, we had freedom and abundance. If we wanted to go out for coffee or shopping, we could. With the lockdown for some three to four months, that was all curtailed. Most shops (except the essentials such a food stores) were shut, restaurants and cafes were shut. Our gymnasiums, health and fitness clubs were shut; all things that made for affluent Western lifestyles were removed. Suddenly we were in a wilderness. But that was just the material side of it all. I believe, without realising it, most of the church has been in a spiritual wilderness. I recently heard a well-known church leader say, “the truth is that we have been deeply ineffectual as churches and denominations. There is very little evidence of the power of God among us and virtually no evidence of the transformation of society because of us.” I thought that was remarkable in its brevity and its accuracy! But it also says we have been in a spiritual wilderness without realising it, long before Covid-19 arrived.
Can it change? That is what the Israelites asked of Moses in the wilderness when they asked about God’s provision. Can God provide for us under these circumstances. This wilderness, these circumstances, are devoid of life, devoid of provision (and we don’t know how long we will be here!) That picture used by Asaph is very graphic isn’t it: “spread a table in the wilderness”. On another occasion they declared, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Num 11:5) They had lived fairly well previously (and had not realised it and taken it for granted) even though they had been slaves. Now they are complaining because they cannot see how God could provide such abundance in a wilderness! By definition, a wilderness or desert is a place of limitation and shortage. The challenge they experienced is the same one we experience. Every difficulty brings a challenge with it: can I trust God in this time to provide for me, care for me, protect me – however long it continues?
Jehovah Jireh: How often we delight in hearing the teaching – Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides (Gen 22:14) – but we hear it in good times and so now, is it still true in the wilderness? Of course it is! We may be in a time of diminishing resources, fewer things available to us, but that doesn’t matter when God is with you. He knows our need: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” (Mt 6:31,32) How are we to respond? The Message version puts it well: “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” (Mt 6:33) That is the truth and with an uncertain economic future we may need to hold on to that more than we’ve ever done before. Perhaps this is a time when we’ll learn the truth and reality of Jesus’ promise here.
Be Encouraged: In the meantime, Isaiah cried out, “To the testimony!” (Isa 8:20 NKJV) i.e. remember your testimony, remember what God has done for you so far, let that be an anchor for you! Struggling? Remember what God has done for you so far. Praise Him for it and watch your spirit rise.