If you have your Bible (and I hope you do), please turn with me to Exodus 15 (page 110 in the red pew Bible in front of you). If you’re willing, stand with me for the reading of God’s Holy Word. Exodus 15, beginning with verse 22:
22 Then 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. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” 25 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 fit to drink. There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. 26 He said, “If you listen carefully to 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.” 27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.
May the Lord add His blessing to the reading of His Holy Word!
“Now this is the story all about how...”
This is the story of Israel’s post-salvific journey. That is, these verses tell what happened after the Lord saved the Israelites from the Egyptians.
The Lord brought His people through the Red Sea, drowned their enemies before their very eyes. The people worshipped, singing to the Lord for what He had done and for what He would do.
And now…well, now, immediately after their salvation...the people grumble.
It makes sense, if you think about it. You’d grumble, too, if were wandering through the desert with several hundred thousand of your closest friends and you couldn’t find any water.
No water is a problem.
If you’ve ever been overseas or in a country where you’re instructed to not drink the water, you know how precious good drinking water is.
For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.
That’s a problem. But then, they come to Marah. I’m sure some of them saw it in the distance. “A mirage, maybe.” But then, they got there and saw the water.
Some probably dove in head-first. After three days with no water, Marah was the best thing they’d seen. Some likely dove right in. Others ran to the side of the water, dropped to their knees, cupped their hands and filled them with water, bringing them up to their mouths...only to spit it out.
Bitter. Bitter, nasty water. When you need a drink and the only water around is bitter and nasty—that’s a problem.
What, though, should the people of God have done here? When they face this problem—a valid, serious problem—what should God’s people have done?
Lack of water is a problem, absolutely. But the actual problem is found in verse 24. What we find in verse 24 is a bunch of grumbly Gus-es. Their question is valid: “What are we to drink?” Their question—“What are we to drink?”—is not out of line.
But their attitude is sinful. Their reaction is sinful. Bitter water is no good. Even worse is bitter people; the reaction of the people, the attitude of God’s people is sinful.
To whine and complain and grumble is a sign of spiritual immaturity. One day, the people were dancing on the beach, singing praises to God. And now, only a few days later, they were on the verge of open rebellion. This is a clear sign that they were still in their spiritual infancy.
Unfortunately, people of any age (both then and today) can be stuck in spiritual infancy. This applies to pastors, church leaders, longtime church members.
Our readiness to complain, to grumble, to whine reveals just how mature (or rather immature) we are.
What’s our first reaction to change? What’s our reaction when we face inflexibility? How do we react when we don’t get our way or when we don’t get what we want the moment we want it?
The text says so the people grumbled against Moses. This is common. People find someone to grumble about or to and it’s usually about or directed toward the leader closest to them. Poor Moses takes the flack; but that’s just the price of leadership.
Here’s the real problem: the people aren’t just grumbling against Moses. Moses was their human leader; he was, from a human perspective, in charge. But who’s really leading them?
Hint: It’s not Moses.
The people have been led by the Lord since coming out of Egypt:
21 By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Who’s leading the people? It’s not Moses; it’s the Lord. So then, it’s not Moses who has led them to this place with bitter water. It’s the Lord.
The people grumble against Moses because Moses is the human representative for the Lord and Moses is easy to blame; he’s right there in front of them. They can go to him and let rip: “What are we to drink, Moses? Hmmm, buddy boy!?! What would you have us drink? Tell us!”
Douglas K. Stuart comments very directly: “The people did not have what they expected and [they] failed to trust God to provide it. Since the Garden of Eden, that has been a formula for disobedience.”
They grumble. They complain.
This is not unlike us. I can’t tell you the number of times something goes awry or differently than I would have it, and, instead of trusting, I grumble. Instead of trusting, I complain. Instead of trusting, I act like a petulant three-year-old, or, as the case may be a petulant Israelite—throwing a fit, insisting I get my way or else.
And yet sometimes, the gripe is real. Sometimes, it’s a major issue (like going without water for three days). Sometimes, it’s life and death. But, even then, grumbling and complaining is not the way forward.
What we suffer may be bitter in itself, but however bitter it is, it doesn’t need to make us bitter. The main problem at Marah was not the water, bitter though it was; the main problem is the bitterness in the hearts of God’s people.
The Psalms teach us there’s a way to cry out to the Lord, to give to Him our cares and concerns, to lament (there’s an entire book of the Bible entitled Lamentations); there’s a way to bare our souls, to question Him (Psalm 13): “How long, Lord?”
Complaining, grumbling is as much of a problem as a lack of water while wandering in the desert. Spiritually speaking, faithless grumbling is a much more serious issue, in fact. What the Israelites do here and what we tend to do the majority of the time is, unfortunately, faithless grumbling.
This is as much of a problem as a lack of water while wandering in the desert. Spiritually speaking, faithless grumbling is a much more serious issue.
Paul warned the church in Corinth (and by extension, us) not to grumble:
10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
The lack of good drinking water is a problem. And so is the reaction/attitude of the people. The first two movements in this passage could be labeled “Problem #1” and “Problem #2.”
The people grumble against Moses—“Thanks a lot, Moses. Brought us to the desert where there’s nothing to drink. Good for nothing...”
Instead of grumbling back at them, Moses turns to the Lord and cries out to Him.
That’s the right answer. That’s the proper reaction. You know Moses was just as thirsty as the rest of the Israelites. He’d been traveling with them, three days with no water. I’m sure he felt a little grumbly himself, a little complain-y.
But what does Moses do? Verse 25: then Moses cried out to the Lord.
There you go! That’s the way! Cry out to the Lord! Cast your cares on Him! Tell Him what you need, what you’re dealing with, what you’re struggling to handle.
Moses cries out to the Lord, and as He does, the Lord hears Moses and shows [Moses] a piece of wood [a tree].
The Lord hears Moses and gives him an answer. The Lord shows Moses the way to remedy the water situation.
The Lord shows Moses a piece of wood, a tree, a branch, something. Moses throws it into the water, and the water becomes sweet.
Ha, what?!?! How’s that?
Some people with more brain power and more research time than me speculate that there was some special kind of tree in that region that when added to water would counteract the sodium and mineral levels in the H20 and would give the water a sweet taste.
Others aren’t so sure there’s anything to the certain kind of branch, specific tree theory.
I’m of the opinion that the Lord could have told Moses to put anything in the water—it didn’t need to be a piece of wood or a tree.
“Toss some sand in there, Moses.”
“You’re pretty sweet, Moses; dip your toe in the water, stir it around, sweeten it up a little.”
“Touch the water with your staff; that’ll fix it.”
“Okay, Moses, this is what I want you to do: find the grumbliest Israelite and hold their head under the water for a bit. That may or may not sweeten the water, but at least you’ll feel better.”
I think it could have been anything; no reason or significance in the piece of wood. Maybe it was just what was laying there handy.
This is a miracle, though. This is supernatural. This is the Lord taking care of His people, the Lord showing His power over His creation, proving once more that He is Lord of all.
It’s a miracle, but not the only miracle here.
The real miracle is not making the bitter sweet, though the Lord does that, friends—just ask Naomi!
Naomi, after losing her husband and sons, says to everyone: “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.”
And then, in the fulness of time, she’s given a new family and a grandson named Obed. And she’s no longer Mara.
The Lord makes the bitter sweet. For His people, He is in the business of healing and transforming the bitter moments of our lives and making them sweet.
Maybe not all in this life; we might suffer much that is bitter. But He will, one day, make everything sad come untrue. And He will make all the bitter things sweet.
The real miracle is not making the bitter sweet, though the Lord does that, friends. Making the bitter sweet is a miracle, but the amazingly sweet part is that the Lord is willing to do this for a bunch of lousy grumblers.
This miracle is what we might call “Grace”—undeserved favor. Anyone who has experienced God’s grace knows just how sweet it is.
What is remarkable is not that God was able to perform the miracle at Marah, but that he was willing to do it for such a bunch of malcontents.
My good friend, John Calvin commented, “Herein shone forth the inestimable mercy of God, who deigned to change the nature of the water for the purpose of supplying such wicked, and rebellious, and ungrateful men.”
This is the miracle: God’s unfathomable mercy and grace shown toward a whole mess of grumblers who deserve every drop of that bitter water; who deserve no water at all.
Grace. Grace. God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all of our lousy, faithless, petulant grumbling and complaining. Grace greater than all our sin—miracle of miracles.
That God provides for the Israelites amid their grumbles is due His grace, and His grace alone. There is no other reason for it.
The Lord has a reason for all of this with the Israelites, believe it or not. This is not some random set of circumstances that His newly freed people have stumbled into. "Whoopsie daisy! Should have thought about what they’d have to drink!”
The Lord has a reason for all of this, and a goal.
The lack of water and the bitter water at Marah was a test.
The second half of verse 25 begins with a location: There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test.
The bitter waters of Marah were a test. After three days with no water, then finding water that was undrinkable—what would the people do? How would the people react? Would they trust the Lord had it handled? Or would they lack faith in the Lord who just delivered them and, in turn, grumble and complain?
You tell me: how’d the people do on this test? What would their score be?
The wilderness would be the people’s teacher. Charles Haddon Spurgeon described the desert as “the Oxford and Cambridge for God’s students, where God taught and trained them.”
The Goal is that His people would listen to Him, to do what was right in His eyes, pay attention to all His decrees, and keep all of His commands.
The goal, in a word: sanctification. The Lord wants His people to grow in holiness, to be more and more like Him and less and less like the world. This happens little by little as His people obey Him and trust Him and do what He says.
As I was preparing this, I read verse 26 and saw four imperatives, four to-dos:
26 He said, “If you listen carefully to 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.”
Listen carefully. Do what is right. Pay attention. Keep all [the] decrees.
I read those and thought, “Oh yeah! That’ll preach! There’s the sermon right there.”
I saw those four points, but missed the object; I missed the point. These are not general commands: “Listen. Do what’s right. Pay attention!”
These are commands that will help the Lord’s people to become more and more like Him.
“Listen carefully to the LORD. Do what is right in His eyes. Pay attention to His commands. Keep all His decrees.”
Understand: these requirements were not the basis for Israel’s salvation. They were already saved! These were not items on a list the Israelites had to check-off in order to be saved; salvation was handled 100% by the Lord—the Lord delivered them from Egypt, the Lord brought them through the sea.
These commands (and their obedience to them) won’t save the people. But they will sanctify the people—these commands will make the Lord’s people more and more like Him, more and more holy, distinct, set-apart.
God didn’t say, “Do this and I will save you.” (God never says anything of the sort; there’s nothing you can do to contribute to your salvation).
God saved His people, and then He said, “Now, here are some things I want you to do as my people.”
If God had done it the other way around, then their salvation would have come by works.
But as it is, salvation always comes by grace through faith. Always, always, always.
We’re not saved by doing. But we are sanctified by the power of His Holy Spirit as we listen to Him and do what is right in His eyes; as we pay attention to His commands and keep all of His decrees—we become more and more like Him, more and more distinct; more and more, we reflect Him.
Because saving faith is always followed by joyful good works, the goal here is that the Lord’s people would want to do all of this.
If they don’t want to listen to Him and do whatever He says is right; if they don’t want to pay attention to His commands and keep all His decrees, they show that they are not truly His people.
They are no different than the Egyptians, and the consequences for their disobedience would be that they suffer the same plagues they had witnessed in Egypt.
But if His people learn to trust and obey, there is a promise: He would spare them from the plagues and would also heal their diseases: for I am the Lord who heals you; I am the Lord your healer.
God has demonstrated His healing power by curing the bitter waters of Marah and making them sweet. And this was intended to teach the Israelites to trust Him for every kind of healing.
The saved people of God should listen to Him. The saved people of God should seek to do what is right in His eyes. They saved people of God should pay attention to His commands. The saved people of God should keep all of His decrees. That’s the goal and the reason for the test.
The blessing is found in verse 27:
27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.
Just as the Lord led them to Marah, now He leads them to Elim. It reads rather matter-of-factly: then they came to Elim.
But this is blessing. This is abundant provision. This is another taste of salvation.
In a dry and weary land, the Lord provides water. And not just a little water, but 12 springs (one for each tribe of Israel) and 70 palm trees (a full, complete number; this was botanical gardens).
What the Lord gives is perfect, full and complete. The Lord satisfies their every need, abundantly so. That is His blessing.
It would be enough for God to give us what we need to survive, but ordinarily He gives us enough to thrive. Blessing.
>The Problem—The Reaction—the Miracle—the Goal—the Blessing
>The Problem—The Reaction—the Miracle—the Goal—the Blessing
This seems to be the pattern of our lives.
Like the Israelites, we have a problem—sin and disobedience, trouble and hardship. Life is far from easy; it’s more like wandering in the desert looking for water to drink.
Unfortunately, our reaction is akin to the Israelites’ reaction: we grumble, we complain. We doubt the Lord can do anything about our condition; we fail to trust Him through the bad times.
The miracle of all miracles is this: God steps-in. He intervenes. He makes sweet what once was bitter. He showers us with grace—not because we deserve it, but because He is faithful.
You see, what the Lord wants for us, the goal He has for us in whatever we face is that we (as His saved people) would become more and more like Him. That we would trust Him more. That we would listen to Him and do whatever He says is right, pay attention to His commands and keep everything He has decreed.
And, boy oh boy, is there blessing on the other side of obedience—blessings heaped upon blessings; more than we can fathom. He leads us to a place of abundance, just because. And He meets all our needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus.
The One who gave the Israelites everything they needed has given us His only Son. And it’s Jesus, friends, who offers us living water.
38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
Wherever you’re at, grumbler, complainer, sinner—Jesus has a water that is far sweeter and far more satisfying than anything this world offers.
It’s living water. It’s water that satisfies your every longing.
Like the Samaritan woman at the well who was searching far and wide for something to satisfy, moving from one relationship to the next in search something sweet.
But all she kept coming up with was bitter. One husband after the next, bitter. Turns out, no earthly relationship can give you what you need. And even if it seems like it does, it’s only temporary.
The woman who had come to draw water from the well found Jesus instead. The woman who had come to draw something to drink found Jesus who gives water that wells-up to eternal life.
And, because she found Jesus—the Living Water—she had need of nothing else. And so she left her water jar (John 4:28) and returned home as one who was forever changed, transformed.