In both Old and New Testaments, the treatment of the story contained in Exodus 17:1-7 is uniformly negative. The original narrative of Moses really focuses not on God's miraculous provision for His people but on their grumbling. The same thing is true in Paul's reexamination of the story in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. He lists the blessings that the Israelites received from God only to point out that they fell away regardless. He wants us to recognize that we too can fall despite our blessings.
Nonetheless, even this negative perspective contains imagery that is both beautiful and meaningful. Perhaps the most striking of these images is found in 1 Corinthians 10:4. There, he reveals that the rock from which the Israelites drank followed them, and the rock was Christ--not the rock was like Christ, but that the rock was Christ.
If this was true for the Israelites, rebellious and accursed, how much more is it true for us! The Scriptures compare Christians to the Israelites. We too spend all of our days wandering in a desolate wilderness.
There are no hotels in the wilderness. Just as the Israelites did not encounter a Holiday Inn Express that served them a tasty complimentary breakfast, we cannot expect to find one either. However, Christ did provide them with water, and we can expect the same. We are in the wilderness, yes, but He will always provide us with what we need.
Problems arose for the Israelites when they paid more attention to the wilderness than to the water, and they will arise for us when we make the same mistake. Admittedly, the wilderness is pretty awful, both for us and for them. To this day, the Sinai Peninsula is uninhabited. Nobody goes there to sunbathe and relax in the 120-degree heat! As the hymn says, this world is a wilderness of woe. Awful things can happen even to faithful Christians, as I can testify.
Nonetheless, we must not spend our days wallowing in the awful. We must resolutely seek Christ through the awful, and He is always there. Indeed, He is never so present as when the wilderness is most hostile. A spring in Middle Tennessee is still lovely; a spring in a rocky wasteland is incomparably wonderful.
I have found this to be true in my own life. These days, I don't spend much time praying for my life or my health. Instead, when I pray for myself, I am almost entirely concerned with the life of the spirit. I want to spend the rest of my days loving, serving, and encouraging others. I know that I could never accomplish this without the help of my Lord. I would be crushed by the despair of my situation instead.
However, He has helped me powerfully. During my recent clinic visit, my goal was to make everyone I encountered, even the ones who shocked me and poked me with needles, feel valuable and loved. By the grace of God, I succeeded.
At the end of my visit, the neurologist told me, “I love your spirit!” I don't think he knew how truly he spoke. His compliment does not speak well of me. It speaks well of Christ who strengthens me.
So too for all of us in our own personal wildernesses. The desert is miserable. Many of us have decades more in which we must endure it. However, the living water that springs up from our Lord is all we need to sustain us.
Lukewarmness among the people of God is hardly a new problem. Malachi warned against apathy explicitly, and signs of apathy are evident as far back as the Exodus. Unsurprisingly, preachers today also often warn their hearers about the dangers of indifference.
I read one such warning recently, and it led me to consider my own heart. I searched for signs of lukewarmness, and I found none. I still have plenty of spiritual problems, but lack of emotional commitment to God is not on the list. I am blessed to be a member of a congregation with good preaching and good singing, but even if the preaching were amateurish and the singing cringeworthy, I would be determined to assemble faithfully for as long as I was physically capable of so doing.
My motivation is simple just as my life is simple. Thanks to ALS, I have no options remaining but to trust in Jesus. He is the branch that can keep me from going over the cliff. Without Him, I am utterly ruined and hopeless.
These are familiar sentiments. We sing many hymns about our need for Christ and our helplessness without Him. The problem is that while we give intellectual assent to these concepts, we don't really get them. I know I didn't before my diagnosis. It's the difference between the abstract acknowledgement that seatbelts save lives and the realization that your seatbelt just kept you from being launched into the path of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.
Such abstraction provides fertile soil for the growth of indifference. The less we gut-get our absolute need for Jesus, the more likely we are to be apathetic in our worship and service.
I was pretty impressed with myself for figuring this out until I realized that the apostle John had gotten there 2000 years before I did. In Revelation 3:18, he rebukes the Laodiceans, “For you say, 'I'm rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,' and you don't realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” Their lukewarmness started with their conviction of self-sufficiency.
Too often, spiritual apathy leads us to expect less of ourselves and demand more from others. On the one hand, it excuses our sporadic attendance (especially at Bible class), tolerance of sin, and halfhearted worship and service. On the other, it leads us to find fault in the contributions of others.
We would attend more, if only the preaching were more interesting. We would have an easier time worshiping if only the song leader chose our favorites. We would associate more with Christians instead of the worldly friends who are dragging us off to destruction if only the Christians made a special effort to include us. All this is to say nothing of how much better things would be if only the elders listened to us!
Thoughts like these are not an excuse for complaining or bad behavior. Instead, they are an urgent call to examine our own hearts. We do not fuss over details when we are rock-solid convinced that Christ is all that stands between us and eternal damnation. When we've had a massive heart attack and are on the way to the ER in an ambulance, we do not grumble that the paramedic has bad breath!
Instead, we start griping when we believe that we are in control and the other is dependent on us. We have no problem sending back an overcooked steak at a restaurant because we know the manager is afraid of losing our business, so he will accommodate us. He needs us more than we need him.
So too with a lukewarm, exacting attitude toward the things of God. The assembly is not a product, and Christians are not consumers. It is not the job of the elders, the worship leaders, or our brethren to cater to our every whim, to make sure that everything is just so before we deign to become emotionally involved. We are wretched supplicants before the throne of the great King, and we need to act like it.
If we find Christianity tiresome, we have no one to blame but ourselves. The issue is not that some Christians need God more than others; it is that some acknowledge that need more than others. The cure for the disease is not everybody else getting their act together; it is time spent in meditation and prayer about our desperate need for Christ and how much He has done for us. When we recognize the magnitude of our debt to Him, the imperfection of others can neither stifle our devotion nor prevent us from expressing it.
Proverbs 10:7 reads, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot.” It neatly sums up what is left of my earthly aspirations. My life is so reduced that the usual distractions don't matter much to me anymore, but my reputation has become even more important.
This is particularly true with respect to my children. Without the direct intervention of God, I will not live long enough to shepherd them to adulthood. I will only be able to help them through their memories and the memories of others. I want them to remember a father who loved God, loved others, and died with faith and courage. For decades to come, I want them to encounter people who will speak well of me.
However, every earthly desire brings with it earthly vulnerability, and this is no exception. I can control what my children see of me, but I can't control what they think of me. It may be that in adulthood, they decide that I was misguided or even actively harmful in the things I proclaimed.
My influence over those outside of my household is even less. Faithful commitment to God does not protect me from distortion and slander. I have been vilified because I adhere to the Bible’s teaching about the role of women in the church and the practice of homosexuality. Some have not hesitated to accuse me of being bigoted and hateful, even though I detect no animosity toward anyone in myself.
Additionally, God holds me responsible for speaking hard truths not only to outsiders but also to His own. The prophets primarily called Israel and Judah to repentance, not the nations. If I only say the things that I know will be popular and well received by other Christians, I join the ranks of the false prophets.
This does not require outright false teaching (though it often leads to such), merely a diplomatic silence about sin inside the camp. Indeed, as long as I confine my condemnations to the people who won't be reading them, I will gain a reputation for “telling it like it is”. The Pharisees had such a reputation, I believe.
Conversely, if I follow those who are scorned and vilified even by God's people, I will find myself in good company. Of course, this begins with the Lord Himself. He was perfect. He literally never did a single thing wrong. However, rather than winning a good reputation for Himself in the Jewish nation, He was rejected and murdered.
Much the same thing happened to the apostle Paul. Even though he served God as faithfully as he knew how, he aroused such hatred among his countrymen that they followed him around, sometimes for hundreds of miles, to slander him further. When the Romans finally killed him, I would imagine that the majority reaction ranged from relief to joy.
Loyalty to God does not ensure a blessed memory on earth. Sometimes it ensures the opposite. However, even if everyone on earth scorns my name, that loyalty guarantees that He will not. If God remembers, it doesn't matter if everyone else forgets.
The Lord of Hosts will be your own,
Your husband and Redeemer too;
As to a wife cast off and scorned,
The Lord your God has called to you:
“I left you lonely for a time
And in My anger hid My face,
But I will gather you to Me
With everlasting love and grace.”
“For as in Noah's days I swore
To never flood the earth again,
So I have sworn to cease My wrath,
And I will not rebuke your sin.”
“Although the mountains may depart,
Although the ancient hills may quake,
My love will not depart from you;
My pledge of peace will never shake.”
We don't often think of it this way, but one of the most significant moments in the Pentateuch occurs in Exodus 16:2. By this point in time, the Israelites have seen one of the most impressive displays of God's power in the entire Bible. He has rescued them from Egypt, brought them safely through the Red Sea, and destroyed Pharaoh's army when he attempted to follow them. Now, God is leading them to the bountiful land He promised to their fathers.
Nonetheless, they complain. Even though they have watched God destroy countless thousands on their behalf, they express regret that God did not destroy them too because their situation is so, so bad. We have seen similar behavior from them before, but this time, they prove themselves unchanged by an experience that Paul compares to baptism in one Corinthians 10:2.
In fact, they won't ever change. On its own, this incident seems insignificant. God even reacts to their complaining by giving them the food they ask for. It sounds like everything is fine, right?
Everything is not fine. Through their complaining, the Israelites have started down the slippery slope to disaster. The same spirit that leads them to grumble also will lead them to rebel when God tells them to go up and claim the land. They will grumble about God's choice of Moses to be their leader, His decree that priests must come from the tribe of Levi, and, in the height of irony, the delicious manna that He gave them in response to their grumbling about lack of food!
In time, this exhausts even the patience of God. He decrees that none of the complainers will enter the land. Every time they grumble thereafter, He kills off another few thousand. By the end, of the more than 600,000 men who began the journey, only two survive to complete it. In the Bible, the people of God are frequently a wretched lot, but rarely do they behave so shamefully as this.
It's easy for us to sneer at their bad behavior. However, it should call us to examine ourselves instead. In the style of Romans 2, we must ask whether, as we condemn the grumbling and complaining of others, we ourselves grumble and complain.
Do we, for instance, complain about the elders whom God has given charge over us? How about the preachers who faithfully present the word to us? What about the spouses that God has given us? What about the jobs that we can use to provide for ourselves and our families?
This is far from a complete list. Satan tries to get us to complain about a nearly infinite list of things. Many of these things are gifts from God, but somehow, we don't think they're good enough for us.
Because complaining is so common, we often treat it as a minor spiritual problem. However, the example of the Israelites shows that it is anything but. I'm not the judge of anybody, but I suspect that when Christ returns, more than one Christian will learn to their dismay that their practice of the sin of grumbling has led them to lose their souls. We cannot be faithful Christians and habitual complainers at the same time.
Instead, let us be people who are thankful, humble, and patient. If we suffer from the failings of others, how much more do we ourselves fail! If earthly life is imperfect, how much more should we look to the joys of the life to come with eager anticipation! As with the Israelites, God has given us all we need. In all things, let us seek and glorify Him.