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When the Israelites first entered the wilderness, they were on an emotional high. After years of oppression in Egypt, months of plagues, and days of traveling that ended with the miraculous parting of the Red Sea in front of them, they passed through the waters dry-shod (Ex. 14). Behind them, they watched as the Egyptian chariots were swept away, drowning the flower of their military. Their difficulties were surely now at an end. A few more weeks of traveling and they would enter the promised land, where the Lord would quickly dispose of the Canaanites, enabling them to live happily ever after. As Israel celebrated on the eastern shore, it seemed that everything was going their way (Ex. 15:1–21). What could possibly go wrong if God was with them?

In one sense, they were absolutely right. The Lord could easily have made their journey smooth, miraculously providing everything they needed along the way and striking terror into the hearts of their adversaries. It is not as though He lacked the power to provide water from a rock and food from heaven and to dishearten their foes; He could do all those without breaking a sweat (see Ex. 15–17; Num. 11; 20; Josh. 2). Yet the Israelites were no more than three days into their journey through the wilderness before problems arose: there was nothing to drink. Worse, when they finally found water, it was undrinkable (Ex. 15:23). They called that place “Marah” (bitter) because of the water’s taste. “Why would the Lord do this to us?” they grumbled (see v. 24).

Unlike Israel, Jesus endured all these tests without grumbling, with perfect faith in His Father. This is good news for all of us, as our sinful hearts are exposed by the various wildernesses that the Lord brings us through in life.

The answer is very simple: Israel would learn lessons about themselves and the Lord from their time in the wilderness that they could not have learned without those painful experiences. If the Lord had prepared their path with everything necessary, they would never have learned how sinful their own hearts were, and they would not have learned how gracious and kind the Lord is. There would have been much less sin, but Israel wouldn’t have known themselves or their God as well as they did.

The testing in the wilderness gave Israel an abundance of opportunities to find out what grumblers they were. Grumbling is an opportunistic sin: it emerges out of our hearts in the face of disappointment. For Israel, the wilderness was full of disappointments: “There’s no water!” “There’s no food!” “There’s no good food!” “The Canaanites are too powerful!” “There’s no water—again!” Disappointments test our hearts: Will we trust God to provide for us everything necessary, praying in faith to Him? Or will we murmur against Him, denying His love for us? It is easy to trust God when the Red Sea is being parted in front of us; it is much harder when we are thirsty and don’t know where our next drink will come from. Sometimes God brings us into the wilderness to reveal the ugly truth about who we really are—even as those whom God has delivered from our bondage. We are still deeply sinful, unbelieving people who find faith a constant struggle.

The wilderness didn’t merely expose Israel’s sinful hearts, however; it also trained them to see the Lord’s provision. Each of these situations in which Israel complained turned into an opportunity for the Lord to reveal His ability to meet their needs. It is one thing to say that we are trusting God for our daily bread; it is quite another to be able to testify that for forty years He provided for all our needs in the wilderness.

Yet the Lord’s greatest provision in the wilderness came centuries later. Jesus Christ, the new Israel, went out into the wilderness, where He faced exactly the same tests as Old Testament Israel: hunger, thirst, and the temptation to seize shortcuts that offered access to what God had promised without having to endure suffering (Matt. 4:1–11). Unlike Old Testament Israel, Jesus endured all these tests without grumbling, with perfect faith in His Father. This is good news for all of us, as our sinful hearts are exposed by the various wildernesses that the Lord brings us through in life. Our hope rests not on our own efforts to trust more, believe more, obey more, and complain less but on Christ’s perfect righteousness in our place. His faithfulness assures us that when we leave this earthly wilderness, our eternal home will be with Him in heaven.

The Testing of Job

The Testing of David

Keep Reading Trials, Temptations, and the Testing of Our Faith

From the August 2023 Issue
Aug 2023 Issue