God's Leadership in Bitter Waters
Dr. Joe Temple

Introduction

We will be looking at the latter part of chapter 15 of the book of Exodus, but I would like for us to begin with chapter 10 of I Corinthians. Open your Bibles, please, to that portion of the Word of God that we may refresh our minds in regard to a passage of Scripture which I believe has a definite application to our meditation:

I Corinthians 10

1Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;
2And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;
3And did all eat the same spiritual meat;
4And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.
5But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
6Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.
7Neither be ye idolators, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
8Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.
9Neither let us tempt Christ [or test Christ], as some of them also tempted [Him], and were destroyed of serpents.
10Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer.
11Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
12Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.

We have read a resume of the wilderness experiences of the children of Israel–some of the highlights of those experiences. We are interested primarily in two verses in this passage of Scripture. One of them is verse 6:

I Corinthians 10

6Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.

Examples for Admonition

The last part of this verse is not applicable to the lesson because it is not a description of their evil desires, but the first part of the verse is applicable: “These things are for our examples.” In verse 11, the same statement is made with an additional thought:

I Corinthians 10

11Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

If you will substitute the word “age,” as we should to be accurate in our understanding of the Scripture, it reads: “These things happened for examples to us, upon whom the ends of the age are come.”

There is a sense in which people even in Paul's day were living in the end of the age, but the truth related to the end of the age is a progressive truth. The further we get toward the end of the age, the more aware we are that the age is truly coming to an end. It would follow that if people of a long past generation saw indications that they were living in the end of the age, we see even greater indications that we are living in the end of an age, and these things are especially applicable to us.

I wanted you to read this passage in I Corinthians, because we will be making applications of some of the things we see here to Exodus, chapter 15. We want you to realize that it is the Holy Spirit's desire that we do that very thing.

Evidence of God's Mercy

You will remember that the children of Israel have been delivered out of Egypt; they have crossed the Red Sea, and they are to begin their wilderness journey into the land of promise. Keep in mind that between the children of Israel and the land of Canaan was a vast wilderness which they had to cross. Turn, please, to Exodus, chapter 13, verse 17:

Exodus 13

17And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near [that would have been the shortest way to get to the land of Canaan]; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt:

Here was an instance of God's merciful kindness. Had He led them through the land of the Philistines, and had they seen war there, they would have been terribly discouraged. But notice in verse 18:

Exodus 13

18But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.

He led them through the wilderness of the Red Sea as an act of mercy. We re-emphasize that because we want you to keep in mind that no matter how difficult the wilderness experiences were for the children of Israel, their trials were evidences of the mercy of God. If you don't keep that in mind, you will be terrible disturbed as to why God deliberately led these people into such trying circumstances.

Purpose of the Wilderness Experience

Will you refresh your memories by turning to the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 8, and listen as the Holy Spirit reminds the children of Israel of the reason for the wilderness experiences:

Deuteronomy 8

1All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers.
2And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness…

Recognize that in our study of the book of Exodus we are just ready to enter into the wilderness; but as we read chapter 8 of the book of Deuteronomy, the children of Israel have spent forty years in the wilderness and are now on the other side. God is explaining to them why the wilderness experience was necessary:

Deuteronomy 8

2…to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
3And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

Now will you turn to Exodus, chapter 15, keeping in mind these passages of Scripture:

Exodus 15

22So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.
23And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore the name of it was called Marah.
24And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
25And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them,
26And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
27And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.

These verses describe the first experiences of the children of Israel in the wilderness, and may I suggest that these experiences were as different from what we learned last week as daylight is from dark. In the first part of chapter 15, the children of Israel were singing; they were singing at the tops of their voices. They were rejoicing because God had gloriously triumphed. He had led them across the Red Sea, and they were victorious. As they thought about the goodness of God, they thought surely they would sing forever! Had they been able to stay right there on the banks of the Red Sea, perhaps they would have, but they had to leave the banks of the Red Sea and go into the wilderness of Shur.

“Shur” was the name given to the desert that separated the children of Israel in their place at the Red Sea from the land of Canaan. The name “Shur” means “barrier”, and it was like a great wall along the borders of Egypt. They were on the Canaan side of the wall now, ready to go into the land of Canaan; but before they could go into the land of Canaan, they had to go through the wilderness for the reasons suggested in the different passages of Scripture which we have read. They went out into the wilderness singing–three million of them–because God had been so graciously good.

Difficulties In the Wilderness

The first day was difficult, but not as bad. The song was still ringing in their hearts. The second day began to get a little more difficult because the water in the waterskins was fast ebbing away. As the third day began to draw to a close, their water was all gone. Try to picture what it would mean to travel thirty-three miles in three days across hot desert sand, with the only drinking water you had tepid and finally gone! “Oh,” you say, “that would be bad, and I suppose it was bad for them; but after all, they could find water.” I am sure they felt that, too; I am sure they felt that by and by surely they would come to some water. But notice in the last part of verse 22 the solemn words, “They found no water.”

After three days, no water to drink! How would you feel about it? What would you do? Well, they didn't know exactly what they were going to do. Discontent arose in their hearts, and they began to wonder if God really was leading them. After all, why deliver them from the land of Egypt and lead them into the wilderness to die? But hope arose anew in their breasts, as hope always does in the midst of any trial, because people have learned a motto that is all right for a while, but it does not make for victory: “This too, shall pass.” In verse 23, we read that they came to Marah. Picture them without water for three days. They came to a little oasis in the desert, and the cry went back to that crowd of three million, “Here is water! At last everything is going to be all right!” They let down their containers, filled them with water, brought the water to their lips; and they could not drink it. The water was too bitter to drink. That is why they called this first stop Marah; Marah means “bitterness.”

Disappointment Following Victory

Here they were–delivered, singing victoriously–and the first experience after three days was a bitter one. How well do you know the Lord? How deep is your experience with Him? Can you think back to the time when you actually found the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior? Do you remember how joyful you were? You thought surely everything was going to be just fine from there on out; and it was–for about three days, figuratively speaking. Oh, it may have been three weeks; it may have been three months, or maybe three years. We won't argue about the time, but for a while it looked as if everything was going to be all right.

Then there came a little disappointment in your life, no water–a real disappointment–and nothing to satisfy certain needs in your life. “This is unbearable; this is more than we can stand; something ought to be done about it.” And it looked as if something was going to be done, and you got really happy by saying, “Oh, I know this is going to work out all right; such and such a thing has happened.” You took that particular experience to your heart, ready to enjoy it, and you found that the water was just as bitter as Marah. What did you do? I daresay that most of us, when we have experiences such as this, do exactly what these people did. Look at verse 24:

Exodus 15

24And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?

In the first part of this chapter they were singing; in the last part they were complaining. Someone says, “What kind of people were they?” Human, normal, ordinary people. Oh, it would be wonderful if we could sing all the time, but we cannot. We get into the wilderness, and unless we have the secret of victory, there will be times of murmuring.

Murmuring Against God

The Scriptures say that these people murmured against Moses, and that is natural; he was their leader. But do you know what made this thing so serious? They were murmuring against God! When we looked at chapter 8 of the book of Deuteronomy, and when we looked at chapter 13 of the book of Exodus, there was not a word about Moses' leading them through the wilderness. The emphasis was put upon the fact that God led them through the wilderness, and Moses was only the human agency in the case. What it boils down to is that when they murmured against Moses, they were murmuring against God.

You remember how they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a luminous cloud at night. They had followed that cloud to the water at Marah, and when they were murmuring against Moses, they were murmuring against God. I want to emphasize that because if you are God's child, if you have had an experience of grace in your life, God is leading you. The songwriter put it well when he wrote, “God leads his dear children along.” The children of God are never without leadership. He leads us.

He may not always lead us in the pleasant places; many times He leads us in the wilderness. If, when we get into these wilderness experiences, we fail to remember that God is the One who has led us, quite often we murmur against the person who is nearest to us. Sometimes we murmur against father, against mother; sometimes we murmur against children; sometimes we murmur against employers; sometimes we murmur against neighbors. We murmur against the persons who happen to be handiest to murmur against. We blame them for some difficult experience in our lives; but if we could keep in mind that it is God who leads His dear children along, we should never find it in our hearts to murmur.

Poor Moses! They murmured against Moses. They said, “What did you bring us out here for? We would have been better off to die in Egypt. Here we are, going to die of thirst.” On and on they went. What would you have done had you been in Moses' place?

Moses' Response to the Murmuring

Let's make that a little more personal, because we are interested in making personal applications. What have you done? I am afraid that more often than not I have murmured back. I am afraid that more often than not, when I have been murmured against, I have murmured back; and there has been no testimony for the Lord, no real growth in grace. I wish that I had always had the stamina to do what Moses did. Will you look at verse 24:

Exodus 15

24And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
25And he cried unto the LORD.

That is a tremendous statement. If we would just remember, when the murmuring gets almost unbearable, that instead of murmuring back, we can cry unto the Lord! My, the things that would happen! You know one big thing that would happen? We would have a different outlook on things. That is what is wrong with most of us; we don't have the right outlook. Someone says, “Not the right outlook, the right uplook.” Well, we are not seeing things right, and that was Moses' trouble; because in verse 25, “He cried unto the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree.”

Bitter Waters Made Sweet

God did not create that tree at that moment; He did not send an angel down out of Heaven to plant it right then; it was already there, but Moses did not see it. He was not blind; he had been able to lead these people, three million strong, through the wilderness. It was his spiritual eyes that were dimmed to God's provision. So often that is true. Our eyes may be dimmed, for any number of reasons, to the provisions which God makes. Such was the case that day, because God showed Moses this tree; and in the last part of verse 25, when he had cast the tree into the waters, the waters were made sweet.

He did not dig any new wells, will you remember that? He did not drain the pools of water at Marah and fill them up with fresh water; he cast a tree into the waters. As soon as that tree was cast into the waters, the waters became sweet. Earlier in our discussion, we read that these things happened for types, for illustrations. You will find that when a tree is used symbolically, as this is, it has the significance which is emphasized in the first epistle of Peter:

I Peter 2

21For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
22Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
23Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again: when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
24[Notice] Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
25For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

Notice particularly verse 24:

I Peter 2

24Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.

Moses cast a tree into the waters of Marah and they became sweet. Following the example through, let us say that Moses cast a cross into the waters, and the bitter waters were made sweet. Let's make it even more pointed. God said, “Moses, you are overlooking something; you are overlooking the cross.” When you interpret the bitter experiences you are facing right now in the light of the Cross, the most bitter experience will become sweet.

Crucified With Christ

Turn with me, please, to the book of Galatians, chapter 2, for an amplification of this truth:

Galatians 2

20I am crucified with Christ [said Paul] : nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

Now turn to chapter 6, keeping in mind that Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, and am not living an ordinary life any more; I am living a new kind of life since the Cross has become an integral part of my life.” Then in chapter 6, verse 14:

Galatians 6

14But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

For the Christian the Cross is the symbol of death itself–a new life in Christ. For the Christian the Cross is the symbol of self-denial. You will never find the secret of victory in trying experiences until you realize that you as a child of God are called upon to suffer for His name. You will be bothered by bitter experiences until you reach the place where self is submerged in Christ.

A Personal Illustration

This is the Word of God, and we must face it. What does it mean for bitter waters to be turned sweet, if the Cross becomes the secret of our lives? I want to give you a very practical illustration. I hesitate, because I am personally somewhat involved; but as I have been meditating upon this passage of Scripture, asking the Lord to bring to my mind what should be said, this has recurred continually, and I am going to use it. You may know that our mother was hit by a truck and was in the hospital with broken bones and skin abrasions and bruises, and is very uncomfortable. The man who hit her is very much disturbed about it; he is grieved about it. He asked me whether he could talk to her; he just wanted to tell her how sorry he was that this happened. We suggested that if he did not stay too long, it would be all right for him to see her, and he went into the room where she was.

He told her how sorry he was that it happened. “I'd give anything it if hadn't.” Do you know, she did not say one thing about her injuries; she did not rail out at him, “Why didn't you watch what you were doing? Why didn't you look where you were going?” She said, “Sir, I am trusting the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior, and when one trusts the Lord Jesus as Savior, there are no accidents in his life.”

She had fallen between the front and back wheels of the truck, and the back wheels were miraculously kept from passing over her body. She said, “You see, if those back wheels had passed over my body, I would have gone to be with the Lord, and nothing could be more wonderful than that.” Then she said, “I would have hated that for my children, but when you are trusting Jesus, everything is all right.”

She looked up into his face and said, “Tell me, are you trusting Jesus? Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior?” I thought, here is an illustration of submerging one's self in the Cross; here is an illustration of casting the tree into bitter waters and making a sweet experience out of it.

I am quite willing to confess that were I in her place, there might have been a lot of murmuring; there might have been an awful lot of murmuring, but with her are only sweet waters that have been made so by the Cross. The Lord spoke to my own heart about that experience, and I found myself saying, “Lord, help me in these difficult experiences to cast the tree into the water and make the bitter waters sweet, because that is the experience of the Cross.”

That is exactly what happened in Exodus, chapter 15. Moses cried unto the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.

May I suggest, because I do want to be intensely practical, that the next time there are some bitter waters in your life, instead of murmuring, cry out unto the Lord and ask Him to make those waters sweet. The most nearly unbearable experience you will have to go through can become a sweet experience if you will submerge yourself in Christ. Weeks that are so trying that you feel certain you could not stand another week like that can be turned into sweet waters when you cast the tree into the bitter waters.

Lesson of the Bitter Waters

I am talking about something that many of you may not have experienced, but thank God, we can all know the sweetening of the waters. We might need to remember it when we come upon the bitter waters. The Israelites drank of sweet waters, and the Lord used that occasion to teach them a lesson, if you will look at the middle of verse 25:

Exodus 15

25…there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them.

He gave them an experience, and He taught them a lesson on the basis of the experience. What was the lesson? In verse 26 he said:

Exodus 15

26…if thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.

What did God do to those bitter waters? He healed them, did He not? He healed those bitter waters, and He said, “I want to use this as an opportunity to teach a real lesson. Just as I healed those bitter waters, I am able to heal you. Just as I healed those bitter waters, I am able to keep you in perfect spiritual prosperity.” What is spiritual prosperity? Full fellowship. Upon what does fellowship depend? Obedience. Notice what He said in verse 26:

Exodus 15

26…if you wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight…

Are you listening to His voice? Are you doing that which is right in His sight? Don't be alarmed by the word “commandments.” Give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes. To most people the word “commandments” refers only to the Ten Commandments, but if you will examine your Bibles, you will find that the words “commandments” and “statutes” are used interchangeably. They are not limited to the Ten Commandments, so we could well say, “If I will give ear to His Word, if I will obey His Word, because His Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105), the promise is: “If thou wilt walk in the light, then I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians.”

Disobedience Punished

Don't jump to conclusions. This does not mean that if you walk in the light and obey His Word, you will never become ill. We have already contradicted ourselves, if that is what this passage of Scripture means. These diseases that came upon the Egyptians came in punishment for disobedience; and that is why He is saying, “If you will obey the Word of God, there will never be a need for me to punish you.” “Well,” you say, “does God punish a child of God?” His child is the only one He does punish. He does not punish the unsaved man; He makes it hard for him. The Bible says the way of the transgressor is hard, and anyone who goes to Hell will have a hard time on his way there. But He punishes His children because they are His children. Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth (Hebrews 12:6). You just can't get away with having your own way if you belong to God; you can expect God to deal with you when you are disobedient to Him.

That is what He is talking about here–not that you will never become ill. You may become ill for any number of reasons, but He will never lay His chastening hand upon you in punishment if you walk in the light of His Word. If you don't, you can expect the punishment of God to rest upon you.

Are you thinking? Did God say anything to the Israelites about statutes and commandments before they crossed the Red Sea? Check your Bibles; He did not. He did not say a thing about obedience until after they got through the Red Sea. Do you know why? He never asks a sinner to obey Him; He asks a sinner to believe in Him. You can get an unsaved man to keep every rule that God has ever made or that man has ever made, and he will still be unsaved. It is not keeping rules and regulations that saves people. It is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that makes the difference. It is a personal relationship, a personal commitment to Him, that makes the difference.

The very moment you make that personal commitment, that very moment God begins to talk to you about the way you are to walk, the things you are going to do, and the things He expects you to do.

Obedience Rewarded

Their experiences were sweetened by the Cross, and they went on again:

Exodus 15

27And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.

Do you know how far it was from Marah to Elim? Six miles, that is all. God provided refreshment immediately because they were walking in obedience to Him. “Elim” means “trees,” and in this clump of trees there were twelve wells of water–twelve springs of water, actually, is what they were–and seventy palm trees.

Word of God a Necessity

What significance do the numbers twelve and seventy have? They are related to the ministry of the Word of God. There were twelve disciples, for example, who ministered the Word of God, and seventy witnesses who went out to minister the Word of God. In the book of Revelation, in the end of the age, when l44,000 Jews are to become evangelists for Jesus Christ, the number “twelve” is involved. What are we to learn from this? I think we are to learn, as far as the typical significance is concerned, that if these individuals were to stay in the fellowship to which I have referred, the ministry of the Word of God is an absolute necessity. As soon as one is restored to fellowship, he must seek out God's Word if he is to stay in that fellowship. Elim, for the sincere heart, is never far from Marah. Bitter waters turned into sweet waters can become continuous springs of water if you depend upon the Word of God.


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