Summary: Like the Israelites of old, we are quick to complain and grumble and quarrel, and our fight really is with God, doubting his provision, forgetting what he has done for us in the past. But God is present and at work if we will only trust him.
Doubting God’s Provision
Do you wake up grumpy in the morning? No, just let him sleep! (That’s an old joke.) I went to the dentist this week, and I heard a patient in the cubicle next to me grumbling about the fee. She said, “Two hundred bucks for one tooth extraction! And it’s only a minute’s work?” My dentist patiently replied, “I can pull it out slowly if you want.”
That story is made up, but did you catch this true story in Reader’s Digest? Arthur Bundrage approached a bank teller in Syracuse, New York five years ago and demanded $20,000. When he got home, he discovered he’d been shortchanged. Outraged, he stormed back to the bank to tell them what he thought of their service. And that’s when he was arrested. (Andy Simmons, “The Funny Art of Complaining,” in Reader’s Digest)
All of us from time to time find ourselves complaining, grumbling, murmuring. We’ve long since moved past the simple suggestion, the constructive criticism. Truth be told, we’re fed up, and we’re going to let everyone know it. If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re in good company. The Israelites left behind 400 years of slavery in Egypt, but because of their grumbling and their distrusting in God, he allowed them to wander in the desert for 40 more years before they would enter the Promised Land. Today’s story doesn’t occur in the 39th year of wandering, as you might expect. No, it’s just a few months into their new life as a nation that they complain. And as we look at their complaints, along with God’s response, we can learn some things about ourselves and about our God. First, we learn,
1. When we complain, we forget God’s past provision. We forget all the many times God has come through for us in the past. That was certainly the case for the Israelites. In less than six months, they had witnessed God bring the ten plagues against Egypt and then part the Red Sea to deliver them from bondage, closing it back to destroy the Egyptian Army. God led them by a cloud at day and a pillar of fire at night. Just in the chapter before, the Bible records God supernaturally purifying a water source for them (Exodus 15:25). Shortly after, as their food supplies ran out, he provided meat (16:13) and bread (16:15) from heaven.
But like us, when they complained, they focused on what they didn’t have instead of remembering what they did have. Alphonse Karr notes, “Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.” Is the glass half empty or half full? Consider the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Constant complaint is the poorest sort of pay for all the comforts we enjoy.” We, among all people on earth, are most richly blessed. We have plenty of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and freedom. Americans are among the world’s richest in resources, but also suffer the most depression, see the most doctors, take the most psychiatric meds. Our present complaints minimize past blessings. But if we took the time to count our many blessings, we might see that God has taken care of us before and he no doubt will again.
When we complain, we forget God’s past provision, but also...
2. When we complain, we put God to the test. In the story, the people quarreled with Moses their leader, but he wisely discerned the true target of their wrath, in verse 2: God himself. The wilderness time was a test from God to see if the Israelites would learn to depend on him. God talked about this in the previous chapter, Exodus 16:4, where he said to Moses concerning the manna, “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.” God was putting them to the test. But in their complaining, they decided to put God to the test. I wonder: How many of our complaints are not really directed at our neighbor, at the management, at our family members or friends? How many ultimately are directed at God? After all, the buck stops there. Perhaps we too are putting God to the test.
The wording here is actually legal in nature, carrying the idea of making a charge or bringing a lawsuit. These people are taking Moses and God to court for not properly caring for their needs. Moses even fears the death penalty as he talks about a possible stoning. And God shows up to face his accusers, with the elders serving as witnesses. Sadly, it’s not the first time the people have complained against God, and it won’t be the last time.