Sunday’s Sermon — Exodus 15:22-27 Bitter Waters and God’s Blessings

5 Sep

Exodus 15:22-27
Bitter Waters and God’s Blessings

INTRODUCTION: We come back this morning after several weeks of special services and series, to the book of Exodus. When we last saw Israel they were celebrating God’s triumph over Egypt at the Red Sea. Having crossed safely to the other side, Moses and Miriam led Israel in a song of celebration.
God has worked powerfully on their behalf. After all those years of slavery, He has answered their cries for deliverance and has sent plagues on Egypt and delivered Israel by His mighty hand. Now He is going to make them, more than ever before, into a nation and into a people who are His very own. But where is He going to do this? In the wilderness. This is probably not what the Israelites were expecting. They were probably thinking that the God who delivered them from Egypt would quickly and easily bring them to the promised land.
And I think we as Christians sometimes think that way. We see the power and grace of God in saving us. We see how He has miraculously delivered us from our sins through the death of His Son and so we, in our excitement, expect our Christian experience to be one “parting the waters” experience after another. And when we find ourselves in the desert instead, we get dismayed. We wonder what we did to deserve this. We wonder why God is silent in our pain.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who opposed Hitler during WWII said it like this, “We too pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the Promised Land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness. All this is not mere reverie but holy, godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace.”
The good news of the passage we’re going to look at this morning is that God is at work in the wilderness times of our lives. He is showing us His glory, His provision and His grace. And He is shaping us in the wilderness. Growth in holiness, growth in grace comes through times of testing not times of blessing. Those blessed times are wonderful, but most people don’t say, “I went deepest with God on my happiest days.” But many people say, “When my need was deepest, God met me there and lifted me up. I realized when I had nothing that I had everything in Him.”
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 that the things that history of the people of Israel was, at least in part, for our benefit. He says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of ages has come.” So the story of Exodus and Israel’s time in the wilderness is not just a but of history for us to study, it has real and lasting application for our lives. I hope you’ll see many of those applications as we work through our passage today.

Exodus 15:22  Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.
It’s interesting that Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea. Looks like Israel wanted to stay in the place of celebration. We like the mountaintops. We don’t want the mission trip to end. We don’t want the great Christian concert to conclude. But we’ve got to come off the mountaintop eventually. It’s right to celebrate God’s victories but we also have to keep moving, because we are not home yet. We can’t live in the past.
Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt, they were saved but they were not yet sanctified. God had not yet grown them in holiness and connected them in deep relationship to Him. So it begins, almost as soon as Miriam stops singing. Moses leads the people into the wilderness, the place of testing and growth. The Israelites probably expected the journey to be fairly uneventful. Its only around 200 miles from Egypt to the promised land. But Israel will not go directly from grace to glory. They would only get to the promised land through the wilderness. And so will we. As Philip Ryken says, “The church is now living in the wilderness between the first and second comings of Christ. He came once to save us; he will come again to lead us home. In the meantime we are on a long and difficult pilgrimage, which God is using to make us holy. As the Scripture says, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This does not mean our salvation is not secure. It is secure, and God will bring us to our journey’s end. But the way is still hard. We will face disappointment and difficulty, discouragement and doubt.” I sometimes think our biggest problem as Christians is false expectations. The thought that only good things will come to me because I know Jesus is a way of thinking that sometimes leads to real discouragement. We need to hold a more biblical view of life, a John 16:33 view, where we remember Jesus’ words, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” Life is hard but God is good and He will see us through.
We see the first signs of difficulty for Israel at the end of verse 22, as they journey for three days and find no water. The three days journey brings to mind Moses’ request to Pharaoh that Israel journey three days into the wilderness to worship. The irony here is that when they actually get three days into the wilderness, they don’t worship, they complain.

23  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah.
The hardship is magnified in verse 23 because water is found, but it is undrinkable. It’s not just hard because they had no water, it is harder because they had water but it was undrinkable. So they called the place Marah for its bitter waters.
Now I think its important in one way that we are not too hard on the Israelites. They deserve real criticism for some of their actions in this passage, but it is undeniable that they faced a real emergency. We can’t imagine three days without water, but it is a very serious thing. Imagine the mothers among the Israelites with their babies and there’s no water. Imagine the father with a young son who is dying of thirst or an older woman trudging through the desert parched and desperate. So the trial is real.
What’s interesting to me about the trial is how it so quickly follows the great victory of God at the Red Sea. I have seen this so often in my own life that I couldn’t help but notice. It seems that God often brings great trials right after a great victory. I see it in Abraham, who followed God to Canaan only to find a famine there. I see it in Abraham, who saw his miracle son Isaac born in his old age only to be called by God to offer him as a sacrifice a few years later. I see it in Moses, who followed God’s call to go to Pharaoh to demand the freedom of Israel, only to be rebuffed at first and hated even by his own people. I even see it in Jesus. Do you remember the great scene at Jesus’ baptism? The Spirit comes down, the Father speaks those great words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But do you remember what happened right after Jesus’ baptism? The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
So it often is with us. God helps us through some great trial, He answers prayer but then the trial comes, the time of testing arrives.
In the time of testing God is calling us to deeper faith. I think one of the reasons trials often follow victories is so that we would draw strength from the victories in order to trust God more fully in the trial. God brings us into these trials so that we will trust Him more fully and call on Him more fervently.
The Israelites failed here not because they were thirsty and distressed, but because they did not call on God for help. They had just seen the mighty works of God delivering them from Egypt. This deliverance came as a result of their crying out to God. We see this in Exodus chapter 2.
When Israel was enslaved, we read that, 2:23  . . . the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25  God saw the people of Israel–and God knew. And then when God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, notice the reason He gives in Exodus 3:7, Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8  and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
In response to prayer the Israelites had seen God raise up Moses, bring the plagues, defeat the powerful Egyptian empire and deliver Israel at the Red Sea. They especially knew that God controlled the waters. They had seen Him turn the Nile to blood, they had seen Him part the waters at the Red Sea. And we can’t forget about the pillar of cloud and fire that was always with Israel. God was present with them in their trial. He had not abandoned them. Psalm 106 goes so far as to say that at the heart of Israel’s sin in the wilderness was a failure to remember the good works of God on their behalf. Psalms 106:7  Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the Sea, at the Red Sea.
In spite of all God’s goodness and past faithfulness, the Israelites did not cry out to God for help. They took a more typically ungodly approach.

24  And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
The people grumbled against Moses. They said, “What shall we drink?” But obviously this wasn’t just an innocent question. Now remember, 1 Corinthians tells us these things are for our instruction. This is a strong warning against complaining, particularly complaining in contrast to calling on God. When we go to others to vent our grievances instead of going to God in prayer, we are sinning against God and short-circuiting His work on our behalf. God wants us to bring Him our problems in prayer. But is it not often true in your life that you are more likely to tell somebody else how bad everything is rather than going to God? Even if you’re just talking to your cat, you fall into despair.
We grumble and complain for several reasons. One, it’s more immediately gratifying to gripe to somebody than to go to God. Going to God means I’ve got to submit my will to His will, even as I call on Him for help. If I’m whining to my friend I can keep my will supreme. We grumble because we value the gift over the giver. We find our satisfaction and our hope in what God provides rather than in God Himself. Grumbling can also be a sign of pride. We think we know better than someone else does, whether its our boss or our spouse or a church leader, so we grumble because they are so clueless and we are so wise. If only they would do things the way I think they should be done, everything would be great.
Israel’s faith was tested in a tough circumstances and they failed the test. They had a weak faith. The weakness of their faith was seen in their failure to go to God and their eagerness to complain. It’s hard for us to know what we each do in our own life of prayer. I don’t see how much time you spend in prayer or how fervently you pray. But your friends can see how much you complain, and you can see how much I complain. And that is one indicator of where we are in our faith. If you are a grumbling, complaining person, your lack of faith is showing. Remember the sinful roots of grumbling in your life and seek to turn complaining into fervent prayer and submission to the will of God.
The contrast to the complaining spirit is seen in Moses in verse 25 . . .

25  And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them,
The people complained, Moses cried to God. Moses didn’t turn back to get into a shouting match with the Israelites. He called on God. Moses knew only God could deliver the people and he knew that no amount of grumbling would change anything. Moses knows he wasn’t working the miracles Israel had seen in the past. He had no power in himself. But God is almighty, and Moses can trust Him.
And when Moses cries out to God, we see God miraculously provide him with a solution. God shows him wood, which he throws into the water to sweeten the water, so that it is drinkable.
There are a couple of truths I see here which are significant. First, look at the patience of God here. He has just delivered Israel from Egypt by His mighty hand, but when they turn to complaining, God does not forsake them or punish them. He does not speak against them, He just provides for them. He gives them fresh water to drink. Calvin says, “Herein shone forth the inestimable mercy of God, who deigned to change the nature of water for the purpose of supplying such wicked and rebellious and ungrateful men.” God’s grace is so amazing that he even provides for whiners. God is so gracious even though we are so ungrateful.
God blesses His people. In the first plague, God cursed Egypt by making their water undrinkable, turning the Nile to blood. Now God does the reverse for Israel, making the undrinkable water drinkable. God blesses His people and judges His enemies.
I am also reminded here of the significance of the wood. I don’t want to press this too far, to say that the central point of the passage is the wood that brings healing, but I can’t help but notice how often healing trees are featured in the Bible. We see the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. We see the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. And of course we see the tree on which Jesus was cursed, the cross, where through His death we are set free from the bitter penalty of our sin. So we have here in the healing wood a little shadow of what is to come.
We also see through this event that Moses is farther along in his spiritual maturity than the people he leads. We see this in his attitude of prayer. We see this in his refusal to take offense at their grumbling. We see this in his trust in God in a very difficult circumstance. Moses is our positive model in the passage, the Israelites are our example to avoid. So are you more like Moses when you face bad circumstances? Or are you more like the Israelites? Are you waiting in faith or are you whining?
In the aftermath of His provision, God sets a statute. Singing and rejoicing is not enough, you must also hear and obey the voice of God. In other words, the freedom God has granted doesn’t mean Israel now lives any way they want, continually entitled to God’s blessings. Instead, they are now free to serve God, whose ways will lead them to real life instead of bitter disappointment. We see the content of the statute in verse 26 . . .

26  saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”
It’s very important to recognize that this statute was not what saved Israel. They were already saved. God brought them out of Egypt. But now they are to grow. Again, as Tim Keller has said so well, salvation is not “I obey God, therefore I am accepted.” Salvation is, “I am accepted, therefore I obey.” God had set His love on Israel and delivered them from slavery. And now He begins to give them His laws, He begins to graciously show them how to walk in holiness.
It’s also very important to recognize that this statute was not a promise that no Israelite would get sick. This is not the kind of teaching sometimes seen in the health and wealth evangelist on TV, who says “if you’ve only got enough faith you’ll always be healthy, wealthy and wise.” The promise here is that if Israel would listen to and obey God, He would not bring on them the plagues He brought on Egypt.
The last line of the verse brings the truth of the verse home. “For I am the Lord, your healer.”  It is very interesting that God says He is the healer of Israel, not the water. God’s main concern was not to fix all of Israel’s outward circumstances. His goal was to work on the hearts of the Israelites. More important than the sweetening of the waters was the sweetening of the souls of the Israelites. God cares about the circumstances of our lives but His main focus is on transforming the inner lives of His people, on growing our faith. For if we are people of faith, we can both endure hardships and receive blessing without forsaking God. So God wants to grow our hearts for Him. And He doesn’t only grow our hearts through hardship, He encourages us with blessing. Look at verse 27 . . .

27  Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.
Elim was a place of abundance. The numbers 12 and 70 are numbers of fullness and blessing. There were twelve tribes in Israel and 70 elders of the people. So life in the wilderness is not all hardship. God gives us wonderful blessings in the midst of this life as we wait for the greater blessing of eternity with Him.
Matthew Henry says of this verse, “See how changeable our condition is in this world, from better to worse, from worse to better. Let us therefore learn both how to be abased and how to abound, to rejoice as though we rejoiced not when we are full, and to weep as though we wept not when we are emptied. Here were twelve wells for their supply, one for every tribe, that they might not strive for water, as their fathers had sometimes done; and, for their pleasure, there were seventy palm-trees, under the shadow of which their great men might repose themselves. God can find places of refreshment for his people even in the wilderness of this world, wells in the valley, lest they should faint in their mind with perpetual fatigue: yet, whatever our delights may be in the land of our pilgrimage, we must remember that we do but encamp by them for a time, that here we have no continuing city.”
As I think about God leading Israel from despair to hope to abundance, I think about the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. John 7:37  On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” This same Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” In John 7, Jesus was talking about the indwelling Holy Spirit. The refreshing spring of the Holy Spirit in our lives is our Elim, our place of abundant blessing. It is He who comforts, convicts, guides and teaches. It is He who carries us through our trials and brings to mind God’s blessings.

CONCLUSION: Is your life characterized by bitterness, or by the refreshment that comes with walking with God? Many people connect bitterness with age. Older people are more bitter because they have faced more hardship. It isn’t true. I know bitter old people for sure, but it is just as easy to be a bitter teenager or a bitter working man or woman or a bitter mom or dad. The only thing that will take away that bitterness is to turn to God. Complaining about your circumstances won’t help you. Trying to make everybody around you as miserable as you are won’t help you. Losing hope won’t help. Only turning to God, submitting your heart to Him and walking in faithfulness to Him will help. Are you struggling with bitterness today? Maybe you feel like someone has mistreated you. Maybe you feel like your life has not been a success or has been harder than what others have faced. My call to you today is to trust and obey. God will bring us into the wilderness, but He will also bring you through it. Trust Him today.

2 Responses to “Sunday’s Sermon — Exodus 15:22-27 Bitter Waters and God’s Blessings”

  1. Humphrey Aliero September 20, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    Iam encouraged a lot and I have learnt on how to trust God in all seasons.The main reason why God takes us through wilderness is to make us more intimately connected to Him.

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