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. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah.[b] 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log,[c] and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
There the Lord[d] made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, 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.”
27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water. (Exodus 15:22-27)
Introduction: Christ’s Journey Into Wilderness
After God’s glorious deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea and their praise of Him on the other side, Israel now sets out into the wilderness in verse 22. If you remember from 1 Corinthians 10, their passing through the Red Sea was a type of baptism. So Israel is baptized in the Red Sea and then driven out into the wilderness, which would be a great time of testing for 40 years. This pattern we see taken up by Jesus Himself. Particularly if you look at Mark’s gospel in Mark chapter 1, it is very clear. Mark gives account of Jesus’ baptism, after which, Jesus is immediately driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness where He would be tested and ministered to by angels for 40 days.
Now when Israel was tempted and tested in the wilderness how did they do? They failed the testing so many times. Even in our passage today, the very first trial in the wilderness they begin this insidious pattern of grumbling against Moses and against God. But how does Jesus do? Jesus perfectly passed the test without grumbling or bitterness of heart. He perfectly resisted temptation on every account. Jesus succeeded where Israel failed. He is the true Israel. The perfect man. The God-man who came to be what Israel and what we could not be.
Now the amazing thing about the church is that Jesus said the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Which is to say that the Church will be successful in her mission. Not perfect, not without losses, but victorious in the long run. And this is true because Jesus said that He will build His church, and Jesus dwells in the midst of His Church, and His Spirit in His people, so that we are NOT doomed to lose every fight against the enemy. But by Christ in us and the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians can resist temptation, we can choose not to grumble against the hard providences of God, and in Christ we ARE more than conquerors.
So the wilderness testings of Israel show us the necessity for the Redeemer, they show us the way God deals with His people, and they give us many great warnings and lessons for our own Christian life. Let’s consider these things.
Grumbling Hearts & Hard Providences
So as Israel goes three days journey into the wilderness, they have yet to find any water. Now they certainly would’ve had some water with them in containers and such, but with the large amount of people, animals, and children, they desperately needed a large water source for their survival. I like what Rushdoony says, “God has a sense of humor as He educates us. After a great miracle in the waters of the Red Sea, He gives Israel a shortage of water.”
So how does Israel respond to this shortage of water? They came to a place called Marah, with water they could not drink because it was bitter water, which is why the place was named Marah, for Marah means bitterness. The people respond to this in verse 24 by grumbling against Moses. Thus we see that the bitter water revealed their bitter hearts.
God brings us to Hard Providences
This is so often the way of God’s providence. He brings us to bitter streams to test us to see if bitterness will come out of our hearts, or if instead thankfulness will. So note God’s sovereignty in this, see His providence in this. He is the one who brought the people on a three day journey without finding water. He is the one who, when He finally brought them to water, brought them to bitter water. It was not just happenstance that they were brought there, and it was not just bad luck that the water they found was bitter. This was God’s doing. And God not merely brought the people to bitter water, God MADE the bitter water. He is the one who made the water bitter. This is all God’s providence. This was all God’s providence just as it was His providence to have a tree there by the water, which would make the water sweet. We like that part, but it is the way of our flesh to not like the first part. We like the good providences of God that provide for us in amazing ways. But we have a much harder time with the hard providences of God. It is not so easy for us in our flesh to recognize the hand of God when we are led to bitter waters. Yet, this is the very key for us to have peace in such difficult things! The key to facing hard things without grumbling against God or murmuring against His hand, is to simply recognize and rest in this fact – that this is the Lord’s doing, and it is good, for all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. “And since this thing is from God, though it has a bitter taste in the moment, it is yet from Him, and I am to receive all things from Him with thankfulness, gratitude, and trust in His love for me.”
So when we come to hard providences, we have to remember they are providences, which means they are good. They are not just random experiences, or bad luck, or unfortunate events, they are from our Father and His sovereign hand.
God shows us this through the life of children. For children who have a good father, they undergo many hard “providences” from their father, and we easily understand on this side of it, that it is good. The rod of discipline seems very bitter in the moment, yet it is the most loving responsibility of a parent. How often do our children have to hear the word “no?” From a good father, “no” is a very loving word when he must tell that to his children. Or how often are children made to eat their vegetables? Oh how those peas seem so bitter in that moment, but we know how good it is for them, it is out of love.
What has your heavenly Father brought you to, that has seemed oh so bitter to you? Did you recognize it was from His hand and trust Him? Was it the loss of a job? The loss of a loved one? Tearful woes with children? Or a withholding of children? Or is it much sickness? I know we’ve all been through that. How tempting has it been for us these past couple years to grumble or murmur against the providence of God in bringing us all to lots of sickness? Though these waters of sickness are bitter to keep drinking over and over again, our response should be to bless the name of the LORD. It should not be to complain and grumble and murmur against God’s sovereign hand and loving providence that we are sick yet again. If we are sick, we can yet thank God that we are alive, that we have a warm bed to lay on, that we have medicine and loving help from others, and that if we die, we will go to be with Him, for our sins are forgiven. We have God’s Spirit within us and this means that when we are brought to bitter waters, we don’t have to do what’s easy to our flesh and grumble against the providence of God, instead we can give Him thanks and trust He cares for us. It is His doing and how can we say that He has not done all things well?
To Test Us
But why is it that God brought the people to bitter waters, and why does He yet do so to His people today? Is there a point to it? Is it all meaningless? Certainly not. All such bitter waters are meant in so many different ways for our growth in sanctification, that God might conform us more and more into the image of His Son, and that we might share in the sufferings of Christ so that we will be partakers in His glory. And part of that multifaceted process of sanctification are times of testing. We are told specifically that God was testing Israel for the 40 years He led them in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 8:2 says this, “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” He was testing them to know what was in their hearts. The bitter waters revealed the bitterness of their hearts. And then of course verse 25 of Exodus 15 says that there God tested them.
So often God will use bitter providences for similar purposes in our lives. Bitter providences will reveal what is in our hearts. Do we grumble and complain, or do we strive to trust God in such times? When our children poke and prod us, what will spill out of us? Uncontrolled anger or a self-controlled response? When our plans get ruined, big or small, what comes out of our hearts? Even in times when we fail this test, and grumbling comes out, or other sin, even this is a blessing for the child of God, because we can assess it after the fact, and recognize that we failed, be driven to Christ for mercy, and endeavor to grow in that area. We can know that we have weaknesses to work on by God’s grace and the power of His Spirit.
Instead He wishes that we be driven to prayer
So God brings us to bitter waters in order to test us and expose what is in our hearts, and so sanctify us; but He also brings us to bitter waters and hard times, that we might be driven to Himself in prayer. We know that Israel failed this particular test and grumbled against Moses instead of going to God in prayer. But Moses shows us the right answer on this occasion. Instead of returning grumbling to the grumblers, and instead of complaining about their complaining, and instead of murmuring against the murmurers, as we also are so apt to do, Moses cries out to God. He takes these cares, anxieties, and concerns, he knows he can’t handle them, and He sends them up to God in prayer. God sometimes sends us to bitter waters, that we may be driven to prayer. Maybe God laid you out on your sickbed for a week, because He wanted you to spend more time crying out to Him in prayer! One of the reasons God gives us hard providences is so that we really learn how to pray. In the Bible, the prayers of the saints are symbolized as incense rising to the throne of God. God loves to hear our prayers. Compare that with grumbling. When you are pierced with difficulty do you want incense to rise to God as it were, or the sound of murmuring?
So that He may Answer
But why does God want us to pray? Why does He want us to learn to cry out to Him? There are of course many different reasons throughout the Bible that are good and right to remember. But one such reason we see in this narrative that God wanted the people or Moses to cry out to Him was so that He could answer them. God wanted to hear their prayers so that they could hear His answer. God wanted to take their problems so He could give them His blessings. God wanted them to ask so that they could then receive. No sooner does Moses cry out to God than God shows him a tree. Sidenote, the ESV says a “log” but it really should be a tree, and if we understand that a log is a tree then it makes sense. So Moses cries out and God says, “here, look, take this.” This is so often true of our own lives. God wants us to pray, because He wants to answer our prayers. We should pray, knowing that fact, that not only does God command us to pray, and not only does He want to hear us pray, but He wants to answer our prayers! Of course we don’t understand that in a name-it claim-it sort of way. God’s answers aren’t always what we ask for, or what we think we want or need, but they are always best. Nevertheless, God wants us to ask, so that we might receive. You have not because you ask not, James says.
I like what C. H. Spurgeon says on this passage, “…as soon as we have a prayer God has a remedy. The remedy is near at hand; but we do not perceive it until it is shown to us. ‘The LORD showed him a tree.’ The tree had been growing for years on purpose to be used. God has a remedy for all our troubles before they happen to us.”
So Spurgeon is saying that God doesn’t just come up with answers as we ask Him questions, God has been preparing the answer, the remedy, long before we ever had the problem, long before we ever asked, and He waits for us to ask, that He might then reveal it to us. Imagine how long this tree would’ve been growing, up to this point. Probably for many, many years. Many decades. Maybe longer. And however many years previous, God had planted the seed of this tree, for this very purpose, to answer the prayer of Moses and provide for His people. God loves us so much that He has long been planting trees by our every bitter water. God has healing trees at our every Marah that are far older than even we are. Shall we murmur to God, or shall we ask for help?
God has the Power to Make Our Bitter Providences Sweet
Not only does God take us to bitter streams and hard providences that we may pray and draw near to Him. But God has the power to make our bitter providences sweet. God not only sends us bitter water. He not only sends us sweet water. But He has the power to make the bitter water sweet. The LORD showed Moses a tree which was to be thrown into the water, to heal the waters for the people to drink. I have heard accounts of those who say there are trees that have certain purifying properties to make things like water drinkable, indeed this may have been such a tree if that is true. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that this is to be seen as the miraculous power of God to provide for His people, for the amount of water and people that needed to drink would’ve required God’s divine hand behind the instrument of a single tree.
But the point is this: God shows His power and His mercy to Israel in that He not only has the power to make water bitter, as He did when He bloodied the Nile, but He also has the power to make bitter water sweet. He is not only a powerful God, but also a good God, a kind God, a God full of mercy. He does not only bring destruction in judgment, but He also brings healing, restoration, and life. He not only levels a nation, but He builds them. He not only takes, but He gives.
So in our lives God has the power to make our bitter providences sweet. God is the God of resurrection. He is the God of life. He can take dead things and make them alive. He can make life out of nothing. Certainly He can make sweet out of bitter. Maybe your spouse was a source of bitter strife for many years of hard marriage, but God can turn your spouse of bitterness into such sweetness to you in later years. Your mortal enemy can be made into your dearest love. Or maybe the bitter times of loneliness after the death of a loved one, is turned, years later, into sweet memories of close communion and dependance on God. Or maybe, what a sweet thing it was that you got in that car accident that nearly took your life, because you arose out of that a changed man, a resurrected man, in Jesus Christ. God has the power to make your bitter waters sweet.
The Tree in the Water
Notice how God makes the bitter water sweet. He makes it sweet by the tree in the water. Or through the tree we could say. Now if we know our bibles we should read this and recognize that trees are a very big theme throughout the Bible. In the beginning, the Bible starts with two very important trees. There are so many little stories with trees throughout the Old Testament like this one here. The Bible even compares trees to people, or people to trees. Think of Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruits in season, and its leaf does not wither.” We know that the blessed man of Psalm 1 is ultimately Jesus. The New Testament says cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree, and says that Jesus was crucified on a tree. There are trees with leaves for healing in the book of Revelation. And so many different references to trees everywhere in between.
So one consistent theme is that good trees bear good fruit and give life. That’s what this tree does here, it gives life. We know that Jesus is the ultimate giver of life. In Him is light and life. He is the vine, we are the branches. Jesus is the tree that makes bitter water sweet. When God makes our bitter Marah’s sweet in life, He does so through His Son, through the tree of life, Jesus. All of those bitternesses that become sweetnesses are because we have Christ. Maybe we came to know Him through those bitter things, or certainly we came to know Him better. Christ was with us, near to us, comforting us, and He purchased us in order to make all our bitter Marah’s sweet. If it weren’t for Him, they would remain bitternesses unto death and eternal torment. Christ is the tree that makes our every bitter water sweet.
Notice as well the way that the tree makes the bitter water sweet. The tree is thrown into the water. The tree is thrown into the bitterness. The tree takes the bitter for the people. The tree absorbs the bitter, as it were, for the people. That is how the water is made sweet – something or someone else takes the bitter out. So it is with Christ our tree. He was first thrown into the bitterness of God’s wrath toward our sin. He endured suffering and temptation and judgment under God, because He took our sin for us. He took our sin onto Himself, as the log takes the bitterness into itself. If we were still in our sins, if we did not have the forgiveness of our sins, all would be bitter. But our sins, our bitterness has been taken by another. No Christian will ever experience the bitterness of God’s wrath toward our sin. We will experience Fatherly discipline. We will experience bitter providences. But we will not experience the bitterness of God’s wrath toward our sin. That was already taken by Christ on the tree. He suffered it and took it in our place, that we might only drink of the sweetness of the forgiveness of our sins. That we might only drink the sweetness of God’s grace. Christ took the bitter cup of God’s wrath, the bitter cup of death, that we might drink the sweet up of divine mercy, and the sweetness of eternal life.
Since Jesus died for us, to remove God’s wrath from us, now everything from God is for our good. Everything from God is made sweet. Everything from God is for our good.
Will You Obey?
In closing let me briefly summarize verse 26-27. In verse 26 God speaks to the people there and lays out the test for them. If they obey His voice and follow His commands then God promises not to afflict them with the diseases that He put upon the Egyptians, for He is their Healer. He makes bitter water sweat, and He can heal all their diseases. Obviously this is a conditional promise for Israel of old, they have to diligently listen to His voice and do what is right in His eyes and give ear to His commands and keep all His statues. This is not how they earn salvation or grace from God or merit before Him. It is how they can receive temporal blessings of healing from the diseases of God’s judgment, as He showed them in Egypt. God was very patient with them. He was slow to anger with them. They were afflicted at various times in various ways, and healed in other times. But this is the deal laid out, “you obey, you will not be diseased like Egypt.”
While this is specific to this people and time, there is a general principle that we see here as well as other places in the Bible. And that is that there are general blessings that come with obedience to God. What I am speaking about is the type of stuff that we see all throughout the Proverbs. Or general blessings like, if you live a certain type of lifestyle you will not get certain types of diseases. So the Christian life is a life that contains both God’s hand leading us to bitter providences, and enjoying the blessings of obedience.
12 Springs & 70 Palms
But then verse 27 tells us they come to a place called Elim where there are 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. So the text mentions this place, and then in the very next verse it just moves on. So what’s going on here, if anything? Well, the fact that there are 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees should definitely tell us that something is going on here. I think the Bible is showing us a picture of what Israel was supposed to be to the nations and what Christ ends up fulfilling and doing through His Church. Let me explain.
Where have we seen the numbers 12 and 70 before in the Bible? The 12 springs should be pretty apparent. There is a spring for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The 12 tribes thematically turn into the 12 apostles later in the Bible. But what about the number 70? This isn’t the first time in the Bible we see 70. It first becomes significant from the table of nations in Genesis 10. Through Noah’s sons, come the clans of the 70 nations that spread throughout the earth.
So here we have 12 tribes of Israel and 70 nations. The 12 tribes are springs of water and the 70 nations are trees by the water. So what is the picture here? The picture is of Israel watering the nations. Israel being life to the nations. That was what they were supposed to be. The nations were supposed to look at Israel and her laws and say “Wow, this God must be good and wise, let’s follow Him.” But Israel doesn’t obey God all the way. But did God forsake this vision? No. From Israel, Christ came. And He is the water of life for the nations. And all the nations belong to Him. And in this way, Israel watered the nations, through Israel Christ came, the Living Water of Life. Christ came from Israel and established His Church, builds His Church, and dwells in her midst. So it is Christ through His people that nations are brought life, as the gospel is preached, the nations are healed from their disease and sin, and come to Christ. Revelation 22:1-2 says, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Just as God provided a tree at Marah to make bitter water sweet, so He provides the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations, which is Christ clothed in the gospel, faithfully preached through His Church.
Do you have sin? Do you have bitterness? Do you have pain and suffering? Come to the Tree of Life. Christ is the Healer, and His healing leaves are held out to you today. Bring your sin to Him, bring all your sorrow to Him, bring yourself to Him, and find that He makes everything bitter to be sweet. Find that He will take your bitter cup from you, for a sweet cup of everlasting life. Amen.