By Edward Dennett
FROM this point to the end of the eighteenth chapter is a distinct section of the book. To understand it aright, it must be remembered that as yet Israel was not under law, but under grace; and hence this brief period closes, in figure, with the millennium. The careful reader will find in this statement the key of many of the events recorded. For example, the murmurings recorded in chapters 15, 16 and 17 are borne by the Lord with long-suffering and tenderness, and their needs are ministered to out of the fulness of His unwearied love. But after Sinai, murmurings of the same character are the occasion of judgment, for the simple reason that the people had been, at their own request, put under law. Being therefore under the reign of righteousness, transgressions and rebellion are instantly dealt with according to the requirements of the law which formed the basis of Jehovah's righteous rule; whereas before Sinai, being under the reign of grace, they are borne with, and their sins and iniquities are covered.
The wilderness journey of Israel had now to be entered upon. The strains of their song had scarcely died away before they commenced their pilgrim journey.
"So 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. And 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. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And 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, and 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. And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters" (v.22-27).
This, then, was their first experience: "They went three days in the wilderness, and found no water." The expression - "three days," is always significant in Scripture. Numberless examples may be gleaned from a concordance; and it will be found that very frequently it is associated with death; and so here the three days will mean the distance of death. They had in figure passed through death, and now they must learn it practically. If God in His grace gives us a perfect standing before Him, if He associates us with Christ in His death and resurrection, the object of all His ways with us will be to bring us into practical conformity with our new position. The children of Israel must thus be taught that, as a consequence of deliverance from Egypt, the world had become a desert to them, and that this must be entered into by the acceptance of death. This is the fundamental necessity for every believer. There can be no progress, no real break with the past, until death is accepted, until he reckons himself dead to sin (Rom.6), dead to the law (Rom.8), and dead to the world (Gal.6). Hence the character of God's dealings with souls. He will teach them experimentally - as in the case of Israel before us - and thus enable them to apprehend the true character of the path on which they have entered. And what was the first experience of Israel ? They found no water. Like the Psalmist, they were in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is (Psalm 63). No; every spring of earth is dried up for those who have been redeemed from Egypt. There is not a single source of life - nothing that can minister in any way to the life we have received in Christ. And how blessed it is for the soul to apprehend this truth. Starting on our pilgrimage, elated with the joy of salvation, how often are we surprised to find that the sources at which we had drunk before - and drunk with delight - have now run dry. We ought to expect this; but never is the lesson learned until we have gone the three days' journey in the wilderness. It is indeed a startling experience to discover that earth's resources are exhausted; but it is an indispensable requisite if we would know the blessedness of the truth that "all our springs are in Thee."
They passed onward and came to Marah. Here there was water; but they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. This is the further application of the same principle. First, there was no water to drink; and, secondly, when it is found it is so bitter that it could not be drunk. This is the application to the soul of the power of that death by which they have been delivered. The flesh shrinks from it - and would refuse it altogether. But for those who have been delivered from Egypt, and are pilgrims journeying on to the inheritance, it is absolutely necessary. Truly it is Marah - bitterness; and accordingly it troubled the people, and they murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? What a contrast! A few days ago, as with one heart, they sang, with exultant joy, the praises of their Redeemer; and now the song is silent, and discordant murmurs take its place. So is it with the believer - now filled with praise, and immediately after the flesh complains and murmurs because of the trials of the wilderness. But Moses intercedes for them, and the Lord showed him a tree, which, when cast into the waters, made them sweet. This is a beautiful figure of the cross of Christ - which utterly changes the character of the bitter waters. "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." Or, as St Paul cries, "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" (Gal.6:14). Bring the cross into the bitterness of Marah waters, and at once they become sweet to the taste - are welcomed as the means of deliverance and blessing.
Thereon follows a most important principle - a principle ever applicable to the walk of the believer. It is one found throughout the Scriptures, and in every dispensation; viz., that blessing is dependent upon obedience; that is, the blessing of believers (for the children of Israel were now redeemed) is dependent upon their walk. They were to be guarded from the diseases of Egypt, if they would diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord their God, and would do that which was right in His sight, etc. (v.26). In the same way our blessed Lord says, "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23 ). This principle cannot be too much insisted upon. There are many believers who have known the joy of salvation, and who are yet without the conscious enjoyment of a single blessing. The reason is that they are careless of their walk They do not study the Word, or "give ear to His commandments," and are consequently walking as seems right in their own eyes. What wonder is it, therefore, that they are cold and indifferent, that they are not in the conscious enjoyment of the love of God - of fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ? No; it is to the obedient ones that God comes, and delights to come, in the sweetest manifestations of His unchanging love; it is to those who have a conscience about every precept of the Word, and are seeking, in the power of the Spirit, to be found in obedience in every particular, to those whose delight it is to be doing the will of their Lord, and whose one aim it is to be at all times acceptable to Him, that He can draw near and bless according to His own mind and heart. Nothing can compensate for the lack of an obedient walk. All our blessing - as to its apprehension and enjoyment - is made dependent upon it. It is moreover the means of growth, and the condition of communion.
It is on this account that it is immediately added, "And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters." That is, they at once found refreshment, rest, and shade - the wells and the palm trees being, as one has said, "types of those living springs, and of that shelter which had been provided, through instruments chosen of God, for the consolation of His people." How welcome the rest to the already weary pilgrims I and how tender of the Lord to provide such grateful refreshment for His people in the wilderness! As the Shepherd of Israel, He thus led them, as it were, into green pastures, and made them to lie down by the still waters, to comfort and strengthen their hearts.1
1) Doubtless the numbers twelve and seventy are significant. Twelve is administrative perfection in government in man ( Israel ). Seventy is not so clear. But it will be remembered that the Lord adopted both of these numbers, in the twelve disciples, and in the seventy (Luke 9,10); and thus it would seem to point to the fact that through these He would minister these blessings to Israel.