1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. 5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour and 6 my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon - from Mount Mizar. 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. 8 By day the Lord directs His love, at night His song is with me - a prayer to the God of my life. 9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” 10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 11 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour and my God.
22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
25 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there He tested them. 26 He said, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His eyes, if you pay attention to His commands and keep all His decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.
I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more dramatic book in the Old Testament than Exodus.
It begins hundreds of years after the Israelites were first taken into Egypt by Joseph and his brothers, and for the whole nation, things had changed radically.
Now they were slaves, and the story we read in Exodus takes us on a rollercoaster ride from the call of Moses, to the judgment of the plagues, the trauma and the victory (depending on whose side you were on) of the Passover, the escape from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the wandering in the desert where we see the amazing provision of God, the establishment of the Covenant and the beginnings of orderly worship.
It’s a breathtaking story, all set against the backdrop of the disobedience of human beings and the mercy and grace of God.
In fact, the contents of Exodus were so dramatic they are mentioned more than 140 times in the rest of the Old Testament.
If we go to the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly claimed that the writings of Moses were full of references to Him.
In the Book of Acts, more than a third of Stephen’s speech, which contributed directly to his martyrdom, was devoted to events in Exodus.
The Book of Hebrews speaks consistently about the signs and symbols of Exodus which point towards Jesus Christ.
In the early days of the Christian Church there are over 450 references to the Book of Exodus in the writings of the early Church Fathers in the first two centuries following the original apostles.
All of history has been mesmerised by the dramatic nature of this book - the birth of Moses, the bondage of the Hebrews, the plagues, the slaying of the Passover lamb, the deliverance from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the building of the Tabernacle.
And in many of the Exodus events and miracles, we can see Jesus Christ.
The commentator William Macdonald wrote: “To those who see theology as essentially the recital of the saving acts of God, Exodus gives the supreme example, around which the rest of the biblical narrative can be assembled.”
The word Exodus itself means “the way out” and the book tells the story of redemption by blood and by power.
Chapter 15 opens with a psalm of praise to God for what He did by setting the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. They sing “The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise Him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is His name. Your right hand, O Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you - majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The Lord will reign for ever and ever. Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted.”
In the first part of Exodus 15, the people were rejoicing over their miraculous crossing through the Red Sea, but the celebratory mood soon changed.
It’s a story we know well, but just picture the scene for a moment, and try to imagine what it must have been like:
The cries of toddlers as they begged their parents to carry their weary, sunburned little bodies. The father who is now staggering under the load of a few possessions, the 50-degree sun pounding down on his head and the dry desert winds parching his lips. The mother trying to ignore her own discomfort to attend to the needs of the crying children. And what about Moses? How do you think he must have felt?
Just a matter of days before he spoke boldly to Pharaoh and to the people about a God who is going to deliver them. And now everything seems to be going wrong. Maybe this whole sorry saga is going to fall woefully short. Maybe they will die in this awful place after all.
Verse 22 says, “For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water.”
Chapter 15 begins in such triumph, but now they are trapped again, this time in a waterless desert. Why would God deliver them through parted waters only to allow them to suffer lack of water in the desert?
There’s a sense of irony here. The Egyptian army died because of too much water, and now the Israelites were about to die because they didn’t have enough.
Exodus 12 tells us there were 600 000 men, excluding women and children that escaped Egypt, so if we do the simple maths there was anything between 4 and 6 million people in total.
Can you imagine these millions of people wandering in the desert for three days with absolutely no water?
But it was even worse than that. Verse 23 is gives a rather dull description of what happened next: “When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter.”
These people had not had a drink in three days, so imagine how they felt when they finally saw water - they come over a rise and there it is – water!
Just when they thought all was lost, an excited frenzy grips these people and they rush, stampede towards the lake, tongues hanging out, cups ready, children eager to lap up the cool life-sustaining liquid.
Then imagine their disappointment when the first ones there spewed the water out, faces filled with disgust. The water was brackish, salty, and undrinkable. The disappointment must have been staggering.
It’s bad enough when there is no water, but it is worse when the only water you find is bitter and undrinkable.
Why did God do that? Why would He allow such terrible disappointment? The answer is hidden away in a little phrase in the last part of verse 25. “There He tested them.”
This is a silly question I know, but have you ever been in a “NOW what am I going to do?” moment in your life?
The Bible says that God sometimes tests us.
He puts us in difficult or perplexing situations that we simply cannot understand and which we often think are totally unreasonable.
Why does He do that? Well, we don’t have the definitive answer to that question for the simple reason that He is God and we are not.
But what we do know is that one of His purposes is to see if we’ve learned anything from past experiences.
God wants to develop and mature us, to see what we’re made of spiritually and to develop and grow our faith.
1 Chronicles 29:17 says “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.”
And in Ezekiel 21:13 we read “Testing will surely come.”
Simply put, it’s all about character building. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18 “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory.”
Bitter waters teach us more about ourselves than anything else in life.
It is when we are under pressure that the deepest parts of the self come to the surface, and this can be a painful learning process.
But it is when the pressure is on us when we see how weak and undependable and unstable and fearful we really can be at times.
It is one of God’s dreams for us, if you like, to conform us more and more into the image of Jesus. And every now and then He will put us into a situation which might not be particularly comfortable in order to measure our spiritual maturity.
At the time the experience might taste bitter, and just like the Israelites all those years ago, we often fail the test.
Instead of trusting God, we grumble against Him.
Moses though, was a remarkable man. He walked alongside these hurting, thirsting Israelites and He cried out to God for them and on behalf of them. We can learn so much from his example. It is one of the joys of being part of the family of God that we have opportunities each day to walk alongside those who are thirsty, and tasting the bitterness of life.
Verse 25 says “Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.”
Why a piece of wood? Why a tree?
Amy Carmichael was an Irish missionary in India for nearly 60 years. She said in answer to this question, “We all know what the Tree means. Nothing less than the powers of Calvary can turn our bitter waters into sweet waters.”
This is no coincidence because all of our problems began at a tree in a beautiful Garden.
At the first tree sin entered the story, but thank God that is not the only tree in the Bible.
We find the second tree in our text today in the wilderness as a prophecy of things to come and how the sin problem will be taken care of on a tree.
We find this tree on a hill called Calvary.
The tree at Calvary doesn’t just deal with our physical thirst, but a far deeper need. It brings healing to our souls.
The world keeps drinking its own water, thinking it is quenching its thirst, but the truth is the world can only offer brackish, bitter water.
You can drink 10 litres of water today, but tomorrow you will be thirsty.
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:13, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
That’s the promise we have from Jesus.
Make no mistake – this life can be bitter, and there is bitterness to come, but in Christ we have hope.
We have to cast the Tree into the bitter waters of our lives, and trust that Jesus will make those waters sweet.
The Cross of Christ turns our bitterest moments into blessings.
It is the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, just like that branch from a tree thrown into a toxic pool by Moses, that transforms the waters of our lives into sweet, optimistic blessings.
Times of struggle and sadness are a reality in everybody’s life.
Whether they love God or hate God, there is no difference - those times will come to all people.
But in Christ there is a fundamental difference.
The world has tried to fill the voids of bitterness with just about everything money can buy, but it has failed every single time.
It is only Jesus who is willing and able to turn our moments of bitterness into sweetness.
The last verse of our Exodus reading today says “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.”
Just as there are the Marahs of life, there are also the Elims of life. Elim will always follow a Marah, because we have the hope which only Jesus can bring.
The opening 3 verses of Isaiah 61 are a clear prophecy of Jesus and the ministry He brings into the lives of His people, and in fact He quotes these words in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendour.”
Perhaps today you need the Cross of Christ in your life. You need the power of the death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus to transform your bitter waters.
Are you thirsty? Then come to the Table today.
Don’t stop at Marah. Keep moving, there is an Elim in front of you.
Verse 4 of Psalm 42 says, “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.” When life is bitter, and you feel that your joy has been taken away, look to Christ as your source of hope and joy.
Remember that it is the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ that transforms, that redeems, that turns us from a bitter life to a sweet one.
Habakkuk 3:17-18 says “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Exodus 15:1-18
The Lord had just done something amazing in the lives of the Israelites.
Through Moses He promised to deliver His people from hundreds of years of oppression and suffering. The psalm we have just read is a psalm of worship to the God who promises and delivers.
But then things take a turn for the worse.
Read Exodus 15:22-27
Why do you think God allows or brings “Marah moments” into our lives?
Describe a Marah moment that you have been through.
What were the circumstances, and what made the experience particularly bitter?
In which ways could you see God working to change your Marah moment into an Elim moment?
Share with your group how you have seen Jesus change the bitter into the sweet.
Close by praying for each other, in particular for anyone in your group or whom you may know who might be struggling through a Marah moment right now.