23 Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah.
24 And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
25 So he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet. There He made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there He tested them,
26 and said, “If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you.”
When bitter times come upon us, what shall we drink? How shall we survive the time of testing? James tells us that such testing of our faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3) And Peter tells us that being “grieved by various trials” produces a refining fire that proves the purity of our faith. (1 Peter 1:6-8a) But Paul is the one who laid it all out for us in his letter to the Romans:
1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance;
4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
We have access to God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ, and so when we face various trials, we can persevere, show the true character of our faith and our heart, and stand firm in the hope that anchors us to heaven: the blessing of resurrection through Jesus Christ our Lord. And so, when we reach bitter times, when it seems our enemies surround us or have even defeated us in battle, when we cannot easily see an end to our suffering in sight, we can bolster our faith and rely on the hope that God will preserve us in His way.
As the Israelites fled from the Egyptians, they felt like they had no hope. At every apparent setback, they complained to Moses and the Lord that they would have been better off either dead or still enslaved. How often have WE complained like that? We see no ready water, no safe way, and then we look back at our sinful past with nostalgia, remembering the brief happy times and forgetting the darkness of our souls. We say to ourselves, “I was better off then,” and we lose sight of hope. But hope is not something that looks back, it looks FORWARD. Look at what the writer of Hebrews said about hope:
Hebrews 12:1-3 (my emphasis)
1 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who FOR THE JOY THAT WAS SET BEFORE HIM endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
The joy of eternal life lay before Jesus. Beyond the dusty roads of Judea and Samaria, beyond the reproach and doubt of his family and many disciples, beyond the plots and bitterness, beyond human temptation and persecution, beyond the arrest, the mock trial, the scourging and the pain, beyond the crucifixion, and beyond the grave itself lay the sweet prize and joy of eternal life.
At the waters of Marah–literally “bitter”–the Israelites faced the first of many tests of their faith. The waters they encountered there were bitter and undrinkable. They saw no way that they might survive. These same people who had witnessed ten plagues against Egypt and who had just walked through a dry chasm in the midst of the Red Sea, people who had witnessed the power of the Lord and His willingness to use His might in their favor–these people wondered where they might find pure water to satisfy their thirst.
When we lose sight of the might and majesty of God, and then encounter a place where there seems no hope of sustenance or provision, it is tempting to see only bitter things. And in such a place, we may look about for some earthly way to satisfy ourselves. But the Lord has a better way.
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”
By the bitter waters of Marah, Moses was shown a tree. What tree was this? Was this just any tree that Moses saw, which Moses then cast into the bitter waters of Marah?
27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible.
28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them.
29 By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, whereas the Egyptians, attempting to do so, were drowned.
What faith could Moses have that would lead him to a tree?
Ephesians 2:14-16 (my emphasis)
14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation,
15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,
16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body THROUGH THE CROSS, thereby putting to death the enmity.
This tree that Moses saw and which he put in the bitter waters, was it not a figure of the cross of Christ? Does not the cross of our Lord remove the bitterness of the war between flesh and spirit, between law and grace?
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Moses knew that the “the ages to come” were still far off. Moses saw the Prophet that was yet to rise up among the people of Israel , the One who would lead them out of more than physical bondage. (Deuteronomy 18:15-16) By faith, Moses took God at His word and led the Israelites out of Egypt. By faith, Moses listened to the complaints of the people and brought them before the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By faith, Moses saw the tree that would sweeten the waters along the difficult path to the Promised Land. By faith, we, too, can see that “tree,” that Cross of Jesus Christ that brings us the sweet water of life.
In trials and difficult circumstances, we must look to the Cross itself, setting that tree before us, knowing the bitterness that our Lord tasted there on our behalf. We must lift up His death before our eyes like the brazen serpent Moses once raised to avert a plague on Israel. (Numbers 21:9) We must see beyond that Cross to the tomb and to the glory and to the life eternal promised by the one immortal, invisible, immutable, and living Lord God of our fathers. In the midst of our bitter tears and weeping, we must allow the blood of Christ to wash us of all sin and darkness, so that we can drink of the pure, sweet waters of Life.
55 I called on Your name, O LORD,
From the lowest pit.
56 You have heard my voice:
“Do not hide Your ear
From my sighing, from my cry for help.”
57 You drew near on the day I called on You,
And said, “Do not fear!”
Here at our own Marah, our own place in the desert where there seems to be no water to drink, let us not fear but let us look to the Cross to sweeten those waters and bring us life. Let us not wallow and complain but seek the glory and the promise that lies beyond this bitter oasis. Out there beyond the sand and scorpions, out there beyond the reproach and persecution, out there beyond the loss and sorrow, there is hope, there is peace, there is joy, there is life. In the bitter times of our lives, what shall we drink? We shall drink of the water of life that was made so sweet by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Holy Father God, You know the bitter times I face even now. You know my heart is turned to You, that I cry out to You day and night for relief. You know, too, O Lord, how I do love and fear You, how I rely upon Your grace. I feel Your eye is upon me, and yet still I must ask that You comfort my heart, dear Lord, and help me to stay focused and faithful. Let Your Holy Spirit guide my heart and mind aright, that I may seek the path that leads to life, that I may allow the Cross of Christ to sweeten the bitterness of my life. In my weakness, Father, let me say, “I am strong in the strength of the Lord.” Amen.