Summary: The newly-liberated people of Israel met problems in their journey to Canaan and we learn of the Reason, their Reaction, God’s Remedy and the Result.
MARAH - TESTING IN THE SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE
If you’ve ever motored around the west of Wales you can’t have helped noticing the many chapels - sadly, many of them now closed. They have some lovely Old Testament names, recalling great events in the lives of the patriarchs and prophets - Bethel, Shiloh, Bethlehem, Ebenezer, Elim and many others. And they’re in Guernsey, Channel Islands where I live, as well! But I haven’t come across one called Marah! No, because Marah was a place of barrenness and disappointment.
The newly liberated nation of Israel was on its way from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan but it was proving to be a difficult journey. The trouble was that the people, although chosen by Jehovah to be his people, were far from perfection. Redeemed, yes, but righteous, no! If we’re honest with ourselves, we might very well come to the conclusion that we share many of their characteristics. It could be profitable to look carefully at this little incident at Marah (Exodus 15:22-27) to see if it can help us on our spiritual pilgrimage to our Promised Land.
The young nation of Israel began their journey in great spirits. Their archenemy, Pharaoh, was dead, drowned in the Red Sea. They sang a song of triumph to the Lord praising him for his great act of deliverance: "Your right hand, O lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy" (6). The song continued: "In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy nation" (13). What they sang was true - God did love them; he would guide them, but the spiritual condition of the people wasn’t right for a quick transition from slavery to sonship. I believe this little episode is recorded in Scripture to tell us, first of all:
THE REASON WHY WE FACE PROBLEMS
The Exodus storyteller moves dramatically from the sweet celebration of triumph to the bitterness of disappointment. "Then" we read "Moses led Israel from the Red Sea ... they travelled in the desert without finding water." No one could survive long without water in that hot climate, especially in a desert. What was God doing to them, they thought? Had he suddenly abandoned them, so soon after releasing them from slavery? Why, O why? This was part of Jehovah’s permissive plan to put his chosen people to the test. It’s one of God’s rules for the spiritual life that testing comes before resting! God has never promised that his people will pass into victory via a rose-strewn path. C S Lewis says that is God puts us through the wringer - it’s his business, but doubtless for a good reason. God’s mysteries, he says, are like envelopes addressed to someone else - and you shouldn’t open envelopes that are not addressed to you!
Only three days journey from the point where they had crossed the Red Sea, the people encountered their first difficulty. We can imagine their relief when in the distance they spotted an oasis or a well - their hopes rose high as they hurried to this potential life-giving water. They plunged their faces in the water to quench their thirst, but to their great disappointment, it wasn’t to their liking. They experienced the minor inconvenience of finding that the water supply had a bitter, but not poisonous, taste. This wasn’t at all uncommon in the desert.
"What shall we drink", they cried. Their agonizing cry tells us of their disappointment and disillusionment. Such an experience is not unknown in the Christian life. Life is made up of "highs" and "lows" - rather like a weather chart showing areas of pressure constantly moving, with cold and warm fronts bringing different types of weather. Difficulties and setbacks come with amazing regularity after blessing. We’re caught off our guard and a moment of gladness changes to gloom. We feel disappointed and discouraged when life’s broad highway suddenly peters out into a stony pathway. These experiences bring us back to the basics of life - what are our real foundations? When the time of testing comes, what do we cling to for support? The external factors of life’s circumstances are changeable and there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to our liking. But they are not the essentials to real happiness and fulfillment.
Well, we ask ourselves, what’s the reason for this about- turn of circumstances? In a word, it’s "discipline" - God’s discipline; it’s part of our soul’s education and equipment. It’s part of God’s training programme for our continued spiritual development. It’s a sign that God loves us. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews contrasts the discipline of human parents which, although given with the best of motives, may be imperfect, with God’s discipline which is "for our good, that we may share in his holiness" (12:10). This has been the story of God’s people down the ages - we cannot be exempted. We’ve seen the Reason that leads on to: