Exodus 15:22-27 – Bittersweet
We’re returning today to the book of Exodus, to the story of God’s great rescue of his people. We started this journey around this time last year, so since it’s been a while, let’s remind ourselves of how it began.
God’s people had been living in Egypt for around 400 years. They had grown from the household of Jacob into a vast people, the beginning of God fulfilling his promise to Abraham to make his descendants into a great nation. But then a new King of Egypt arose, a new Pharaoh who felt threatened, not just be the Israelites but by God. And so, this Pharaoh set out to exterminate God’s people, to wipe them off the face of the earth. As the people cried out, God heard their groaning and remembered his promises to them.
God raised up Moses, who after a bit of time in the wilderness to cool his jets, was sent to Pharaoh with a simple message from God, “Let my people go.”
But as much as Pharaoh wanted to do away with the Israelites, he didn’t want to let them go. And so, he repeatedly said, “No!” He refused to listen to Moses, and he ignored God’s words to him. God sent nine warnings, nine plagues, to convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians that it would be a good idea to listen to him. But neither the rivers of blood, nor the flees, nor the boils, nor the locusts or darkness was enough to convince Pharaoh. And so God sent the tenth and final plague and on that night all the firstborn in Egypt were struck down. All except those who had listened to the Word of God, who had sacrificed a lamb in the place of their sons. Finally, Pharaoh said, “Fine, go off and worship your God.”
But no sooner had they left than he changed his mind and set off, not to capture them but to have his revenge and to grind them into the dust. The Israelites appeared trapped between a rock and hard place, with Pharaoh bearing down on them on one side and the Red Sea on the other. And so they cried out again and God parted the Red Sea. The Israelites walked through on dry land, but Pharaoh and his army were swept away.
There by the banks of the Red Sea, the people burst into song, led by Moses and Miriam, they praise the God who has saved them. They sing:
‘Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendour, doing wonders?’ Exodus 15:11
But the song not only looks backward as it celebrates what God has done, it also looks forward to the promise of what lies ahead:
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. Exodus 15:13
You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, to your sanctuary O Lord. Exodus 15:17
This is what the remainder of the book of Exodus is about, the Israelites coming into the presence of God. He is present with them in the wilderness graciously providing for them despite their grumbling. They come into his presence to receive the covenant and law and finally they are instructed on the construction of the tabernacle, the place where God will continue to dwell with them.
But the Israelites still have a way to go. The set out from the Red Sea, following the lead of Moses and travel into the wilderness of Shur. After a few days, the wheels start to fall off. They had fled Egypt in a hurry, carrying what possessions and supplies they could. But after three days in the wilderness they fail to find any water. This isn’t just a matter of discomfort, it’s serious. They run the risk of dehydrating and dying in the desert.
Have you ever been truly thirsty? Not just a little parched, but really dehydrated. It’s not just that your mouth goes all dry. You lose the ability to sweat, your saliva goes all sticky before it dries up completely, as much as you might want to cry in desperation there are no tears. Your head gets woozy, you become delirious. All you can think about is getting a drink, you long for the relief that even a single drop would bring.
Finally, the come to the place called Marah and here at last is water! But their elation quickly turns to despair, because the water is so bitter, they cannot drink it. In a way, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. We’re told the same way that Echuca means meeting of the waters, Marah means bitterness.
For a while my dad lived on a farm which was supplied by a pretty decent, and deep, bore. The only problem was the mineral count was so high you could barely use it to brush your teeth and it was better to go thirsty than to try and drink it. That’s what the water at Marah was like!
The only thing more bitter than the waters at Marah were the people! They don’t waste any time at bailing Moses up and saying to him, ‘What shall we drink?’
At one level, it’s a pretty reasonable question, and Moses is the one who’s meant to be in charge, so it’s reasonable that they ask him. But when we look at v24, there’s a bit more going on here than them just asking where they can fill up their water bottles.
For the people don’t just ask, they complain. This isn’t just a bit of grumbling or murmuring, its more serious and sinister than that. Notice too, it’s not just a case that they complain to Moses, but against him! This has the feel of out-right rebellion. Now in one respect, Moses was the one who led them here. He was the one who ordered them to set out from the Red Sea, he’s the one responsible. Except, Moses has only been listening to, and obeying, the word of God. Moses has been faithfully following God’s direction. So really, the people’s beef isn’t with Moses, but with God. He’s the one they’re dissatisfied with. It’s really God’s motives and abilities they’re questioning.
Sadly, this is a pattern we see repeated over and over again in the book of Exodus. In fact, we’ve already seen it, back in chapters 5 and 14. And all the way through the wilderness, the people continue to bicker and moan, to complain and to challenge God.
Like a good leader, Moses isn’t threatened by their complaints. He doesn’t retaliate or lash out at them. But in his response, he models what they should have done. Moses cries out to God. There’s no hint of bitterness or blame. He simply calls out to God in prayer, trusting in him to provide.
God points Moses towards a piece of wood, or a branch of a tree and directs him to throw it into the water, which Moses obediently does. Then, whether through some chemical reaction or a miraculous work, God purifies what was polluted and makes the bitter water sweet.
It would be enough if the story ended there. God has provided for his people, he turns disaster into relief, a source of panic into a fount of pleasure, he has once again saved the day! But there’s a little more to come and it points to what takes place all through the rest of Exodus.
For remember, God is the one who led them to this place. He didn’t take them there to make them thirsty, but to test them, to see what kind of people they would be. For God saved them from slavery so that they might serve him, he freed them so that they would follow him in faith. God wants them, and us, to be people who listen to his word and who trust him. Sadly, the Israelites failed at the waters of Masah, but God doesn’t give up on them, but nor is he going to force them to follow. He’s about to take them from the bitter waters of Masah to the cool springs at Elim, and after that to a place even better, but before that he offers them a choice:
‘If you will listen carefully
to the voice of the Lord your God,
and do what is right in his sight,
and give heed to his commandments
and keep all his statutes,
I will not bring upon you any of the diseases
that I brought upon the Egyptians;
for I am the Lord who heals you.’
Long before they reach Mount Sinai, God makes the terms of the covenant clear with them. For their part the people must listen, do, pay attention to and keep God’s Word, his commandments and statues. As we heard in Psalm 19, these are trustworthy and true, perfect and pure, right and able to make us righteous.
For his part, God promises that if the people follow him in faith in this way, he will not bring upon them any of the diseases that he brought upon the Egyptians. While it’s put in the positive form, the negative is also implied, that if they do not listen then they risk facing the same fate as the Egyptians.
That might seem like a stand over tactic, that God is engaging in some scaremongering to coerce them into the covenant. But we have to remember that even with the Egyptians, God was patient. He gave them chance after chance after chance to listen and live. Just as with our kids, we reach the point where there are no warnings left, so to it is with God. We can’t expect to be able to ignore him forever without facing up to what that entails.
But the reverse is also true, that if we listen to God’s word and do what is right in his sight, we will experience the blessings that come from being his people. For he is not just the Lord, not just our God, he is the Lord who heals us. He does not just want to give us water to drink, and sweet things to enjoy, he wants us to live life the way that we should.
Many years later, Jesus stood by another well and promised to give not just sweet water but living water. He said;
‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ John 4:13
Let us be like those who listen to God’s voice and trust in him. Let us trust in the one who is present with us and who is able to provide for us. Let us in faith bring our needs and concerns to the one who is able to make bitter sweet, turn bad into good and transform death into life.