What Really Happened in the Wilderness?
Good News Magazine
March 1982
Volume: Vol XXIX, No. 3
Issue: ISSN 0432-0816
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What Really Happened in the Wilderness?
Clayton D Steep  

Of the millions of Israelites who left Egypt, more than a generation of them never reached the Promised Land. They were overthrown in the wilderness! Why?

   HOW did it happen? And what does it all have to do with you?
   With signs and wonders and mighty miracles God delivered Israel out of Egypt. The awesome events foreshadowed how God would later deliver Christians from the bondage of this world.
   The Israelites killed the Passover lamb to show how Christians must come under the blood of Jesus Christ, accepting His sacrifice as payment for sin.
   Then the children of Israel kept the Days of Unleavened Bread to portray how Christians must go through a lifelong process of putting sin out of their lives.
   On the last day of the Days of Unleavened Bread, God led Israel through the Red Sea and out of the reach of the Egyptians. Safe at last! Now all God had to do was take the Israelites directly northeast to the Promised Land.
   But God didn't do that!
   Instead, He led them southeast into a wilderness region. Why? Why didn't God take the Israelites to their inheritance by the shortest route possible? Why did the Israelites have to experience the rigors of a prolonged journey through a desolate wilderness?
   The churches of this world have no adequate explanation. Likewise, they cannot explain why Christians must encounter rigorous testing, resist temptation, face persecution, endure trials and persevere in the wilderness of this world before inheriting eternal life.
   But there is a direct connection. One exactly parallels the other. In fact, it is in the account of Israel's wandering in the wilderness that we find revealed the reason Christians must face problems — as well as the keys for successfully overcoming problems and qualifying to enter into the promised eternal inheritance.

The pillar of cloud and fire

   From the start of their journeying, God led Israel. He accompanied them in a pillar of smoke by day and in a pillar of flame by night. Israel was to look to the pillar of fire or cloud for guidance and direction. When the cloud rested in one place, they rested also, "whether it were two days, or a month, or a year" (Num. 9:22).
   But the Israelites were not to become attached to a location, for when the cloud moved, they had to pack up and move — even in the dark of night — for "whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed " (verse 21).
   During the day the cloud sheltered the people from the heat of the desert sun. At night the fire gave warmth and illumination. Though the children of Israel sinned many times and provoked God, God did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar, showing His presence, stayed with them (Neh. 9:18-19).
   All this was to show that we as Christians ought not to become attached to anything in this physical life. We should not set our hearts on material things. We must keep our eyes on God and follow His leading.
   When He says go, we go. When He says stop, we stop.. God guides us safely even when we must travel in the dark night of deep trial and heavy testing.
   God is with His people today as the pillar was with Israel by day and night "throughout all their journeys" (Ex. 40:38).
   It was this very pillar of cloud and fire, though, which led Israel into the wilderness of trial and test! Let us understand why.

Why the trials?

   God directed the children of Israel into the wilderness. Once there, however, they would have accomplished their journeying in that desolate region and entered into the Promised Land in less than two years. But they didn't.
   You are probably familiar with the story of what happened when Israel was preparing to enter the land. Most of the spies who were sent to survey conditions in the territory Israel was about to inherit brought back an evil report. And the whole congregation of Israel murmured and wept (Num. 14:1).
   "Would God we had died in this wilderness!" they lamented (verse 7). And God granted them their wish. They had to wander for another 37 1/2 years, until all who were 20 years and older at the time of the rebellion perished in the wilderness.
   Thus Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
   The Bible uses the number 40 to signify a period of judgment or time of testing. The 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land portrays the life of a Christian from repentance to the end of this mortal existence.
   It is during this period that the "old man" of sin and rebellion must perish once and for all, because it cannot enter into the inheritance.
   But exactly why must Christians experience this period of testing after accepting Christ's sacrifice for past sins? Here is what the churches in the world that do not teach obedience to God's laws cannot — dare not — explain. Here is why God allows Christians to be tried and tested. The truth is revealed in Deuteronomy 8.
   At the end of Israel's wandering God spoke to the nation and said: "Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, [why?] to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no" (verse 2).
   That's the answer! God wants us to learn to obey His commandments — His laws of love, of giving and serving. He wants to prove us, so He knows that He can trust us to obey Him before we inherit immortality.
   In the trials and temptations we face God is testing our dependability: Will we keep His commandments and laws no matter what?
   Trials not only measure our conversion, they correct and perfect us. They strengthen our resolve to obey God in all situations. As verses 5 and 6 point out: "Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee. [To what end? Read on!] Therefore thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to fear him."
   There is no other way for Christians to inherit the promises.

The lesson of the manna

   Deuteronomy 8 not only reveals what is expected of us, it also contains an all-important key as to how to accomplish it. That key is found in the lesson of the manna.
   In verse 3 God reminded the children of Israel that He "humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know.!'
   Now why did God feed Israel with manna, a food never before heard of by human beings? He could have sent quail every day as He did in Exodus 16. Or He could have miraculously furnished vegetables or fruit or cereal.
   But no, for 40 years God fed the Israelites with a strange substance. The Israelites name it "What's it?", which gives us the Hebrew word manna.
   Similar to a small seed, manna was found lying on the ground early in the morning. Manna had to be gathered before the sun became hot or else it would melt. It could be prepared for eating in many ways, and there was a certain variation in its taste (Ex. 16:14, 31, Num. 11:7-8). In Psalm 78:24-25 manna is called "the corn of heaven" and "angels' food."
   God nourished Israel with a supernaturally produced food that the Israelites could only obtain by strictly adhering to certain rules: gathering a specific quantity early in the morning, not letting any remain until the next day — except on the sixth day of the week, when twice as much was gathered in preparation for the Sabbath (Ex. 16).
   Manna could not be obtained from any other source anywhere in the world. It was not of this world. And that was just the point.
   The manna symbolized Jesus Christ. When the Jews of Jesus' day asked Him about manna, Jesus told them plainly: "I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.... I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever" (John 6:48- 51).
   But why did God feed Israel with this unusual food? Let's continue in Deuteronomy 8:3: It was that God "might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live." That was the reason!
   In the world people live mostly on the physical, material level. They spend their time and efforts laboring for material possessions, seeking physical goods and sensual pleasures. For most people life is little more than the physical. The Bible calls that living by bread alone.
   That's not the way God wants His chosen people to live. Notice that God did not say, "Man shall not live by bread at all." He said, "by bread alone"! We have to have bread to exist. But procuring it should not be the most important goal in our lives.
   We need material things. We even need relaxation and pleasure to be balanced personalities. But procuring these physically oriented elements should not be our first concern in life.
   Obedience to God — serving God, living by His every word — must come first. When we do this, God will see that the physical is taken care of. That is what Jesus taught in Matthew 6. On our jobs, in our professions, in whatever we do, we ought to seek first, not to make money, not to obtain material things, but God's Kingdom, His will arid righteousness (verse 33). Then God will provide food, raiment and other blessings (verses 25-32).
   To demonstrate all this, God freed the children of Israel from the necessity of being preoccupied about physical sustenance.
   God provided food to the full (Ps. 78:25). He was ever ready to supply water. He even saw to it that their clothing and footwear did not wear out (Deut. 29:5). As far as physical needs, "they lacked nothing" (Neh. 9:21).
   The Israelites did not labor to cultivate Or produce their bread. It was not by their efforts that water was had. Or that their clothing lasted. All Israel had to do was to obey God's instructions — to live by every word that proceeded out of His mouth - as to how and when to gather the manna or obtain water. God provided the sustenance.

The bread from heaven

   The Israelites lived — that is to say, they received physical life — from the supernaturally provided physical manna. Christians are to live — to receive spiritual life as well as guidance in material matters — from the supernaturally provided spiritual manna, the bread from heaven.
   Jesus, as we have seen, is that bread. He is the Word of God by which we must live.
   We must gather and eat Jesus Christ, the true manna, as He explained in the synagogue at Capernaum (John 6:51-58). He wasn't talking about cannibalism, as the Jews may have thought.
   Rather, He referred to eating His flesh and drinking His blood once a year at the Passover (verse 54), and to devouring His words, His precepts, His teachings all year through (verse 63).
   We should be assimilating Christ's teachings, making them a part of us as physical food becomes a part of us. "He that eateth me, even he shall live by me," Jesus declared (verse 57). This means Bible study, prayer and meditating — a quantity of spiritual food to be eaten each and every day, just as a measure of manna had to be gathered to be eaten each day.
   We should ask ourselves, especially at this season of self-examination, if we are eating the manna that has been so abundantly sent from heaven for us. Are we gathering it, devouring it, living by it as though our lives depended upon it (which they do)?
   Or is it collecting dust on the bookshelf? Or perhaps "breeding worms and stinking" in the lives of some who are not consuming the appropriate, full, daily measure of this wonderful, God-sent spiritual food (Ex. 16:20)?
   Don't just nibble. Eat! Lots! "He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever," Jesus promised (John 6:58).
   And drink freely of the water, too! It was not without reason that God led the Israelites into a parched desert area. He could have taken them somewhere to a region with ample water. But He wanted them to feel the need for the water only He could supply.
   While there was ample food every day in the form of manna, water Was not regularly and automatically available. Time and again the people thirsted for it (Ex. 17:1, Num. 20:2, 21:5, Neh. 9:20). It was a test for them.
   Instead of complaining, they should have asked, in faith, for water, just as we must continually thirst after and ask God for His Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), because His Spirit is not supplied automatically. Whenever we ask in faith, though, the same Rock — Jesus Christ — who furnished water in the wilderness (I Cor. 10:4) will supply that Spirit to us (Phil. 1:19).

What not to do

   In I Corinthians 10 the apostle Paul listed, as a warning to Christians at the Passover season, five specific sins Israel committed in the wilderness. Not that Israel didn't commit other sins, too, but five are mentioned in this chapter. They could all have been avoided had Israel really understood the daily lesson of the manna that man should live by every word of God.
   God's Spirit was working in the presence of the Israelites, as the miracles showed (Neh. 9:20). But the people were unconverted. They did not grasp what they were experiencing (Deut. 29:2-4). Why, then, did Israel go through the experiences in the wilderness? Why did they encounter the temptations?
   I Corinthians. 10:11 gives the answer. All these things are examples for us — we Christians — to learn from! The five sins Paul lists in I Corinthians 10 — sins that caused many to be "overthrown in the wilderness" (verse 5) — are five examples for us of what not to do (verse 6).
   Briefly, the sins were:
   1) Lust (verse 6). Only a year or so after the Exodus Israel had already become tired of manna (Num. 11:6), just as some Christians at times become tired of Bible study, prayer and meditation. The Israelites asked for "meat for their lust" (Ps. 78:18, 30). They wanted the food of the world — the meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic (Num. 11:4- 5) — the things that titillate and excite the senses.
   "Enough of this manna!" said they. "Enough of having to live by every word of God!" Instead, they wanted "their own desire" (Ps. 78:29).
   Coming from heavenly sources, manna was a perfect food nutritionally. But tastewise it may have been a bit bland to the Israelites, varying from the taste of oil to that of honey (Ex. 16:31, Num. 11:8). At last the Israelites came to despise it (Num. 21:5). As a steady diet, manna just did not appeal to the senses like normal, earthly food does.
   In the same way, television, movies, entertainment, material pursuits — anything offered by the world — may seem more attractive and interesting to the senses than does spiritual food. And if we are not careful, we may be guilty of seeking to satisfy our physical lusts at the expense of our spiritual well-being.
   2) Idolatry (I Cor. 10:1). The apostle Paul here specifically refers to the time Israel worshiped a golden calf in the midst of riotous merrymaking (Ex. 32).
   Christians rarely have a problem when it comes to bowing before literal idol gods or leering images. But notice which part of the story in Exodus Paul emphasizes to Christians as idolatry: "The people sat down to eat arid drink, and rose up to play."
   Activities such as these can definitely become idolatry, even for a Christian! It is, once again, a question of pursuing the wrong kind or wrong amount of physical pleasures and entertainment to the neglect of seeking to know God better. That is idolatry — putting something before God.
   3) Fornication (I Cor. 10:8). For a Christian this could involve physical or mental wrongdoing (Matt. 5:27- 29). The case Paul mentioned, found in Numbers 25, Occurred after nearly 40 long years of being led by God in the wilderness. Had Israel comprehended what their diet of manna symbolized all those years, they could have avoided this sin.
   4) Tempting God (I Cor. 10:9). A primary meaning of the word tempt is to "try sorely." Israel tempted God by sorely trying His patience over a period of 40 years (Heb. 3:9). Christians likewise may tempt God by trying His patience.
   But the word tempt can also be used in the sense of luring or enticing to commit some act. This was Satan's approach in Matthew 4:6-7.
   It was Israel's approach in Exodus 17, where the Israelites said, in effect, "If God doesn't give us water when and how we want it, He is not with us" (verses 2, 7). It was putting God on the spot, backing Him into a corner, trying to dictate when and how He must act.
   To tempt God is to try to limit Him (Psalm 78:41) to a certain course of action that He " must" (according to us) take.
   We need to be careful not to tempt God by deciding when and how He "must" act — when and how He "must" heal us if we are sick, for example. Nor should we try to force God's hand by eating the wrong kind of food or breaking other health laws with the attitude that "If t get sick God will just have to heal me."
   When we are oil the streets we should not assume God has to protect Us if we break the traffic laws. Another way some tempt God is by withholding tithes and offerings, with the reasoning: "God must bless me first. Then I will tithe and give offerings."
   God does not work that way. He is in charge and He will do things His way. We must learn to submit and rejoice in His decisions.
   5) Murmuring (I Cor. 10:10). One of the ways Israel continually tested God's longsuffering was by constant murmuring; grumbling, complaining and griping (Ex. 17:3, Num. 14:2, 27, 16:41). Those who persist in such an attitude are doomed to destruction (Num. 21:4-6).

Strangers and pilgrims

   "Now all these things," summarized the apostle Paul, " happened unto them [the children of Israel] for ensamples [to us]: and they are written for our admonition" (I Cor. 10:11).
   We ought to think often of the Israelites in the Wilderness and how their experiences parallel our experiences in our Christian lives. Of course, since we have the Holy Spirit, we should not give in to sin as they did. Our attitude should be right. Our reactions to trials and problems should be positive.
   God is bringing us to a good land (Deut. 8:7). The experiences we are going through are preparing us for a marvelous inheritance. Any other goal we could ever have is secondary. Compared to our great destiny, material possessions and wealth are unimportant.
   True, we may sometimes feel dissatisfied with our lot in life. Our home may not really be the one we'd like to have. Perhaps we'd like to be in a nicer neighborhood, enjoy finer clothing, better means of transportation, more elegant things, a more beautiful body. Certainly it is good to improve our status and circumstances as we have opportunity. And we should be thankful for what we have.
   But how much do these things really matter? How long are they going to last? Life — this journey through the wilderness — is temporary. We are "strangers and pilgrims" on earth (I Pet. 2:11).
   Our dwellings are temporary. Our houses and apartments — yes, our bodies, likewise — all are temporary dwellings, as were the tents Israel abode in. So what if you must sojourn in a tent that is a little plain or faded or patched or sagging in the center, and you can't do anything about it? It will get you to where you are headed.
   One day, before you know it, this journey in the wilderness, with all of its trials and tests, will be over. You will take down and fold up your tent for the last time (see II Peter 1:13- 14, Moffatt version). And if you have been faithful, you will enter into the promised inheritance.
   As a radiant, immortal spirit being, looking back at this temporary, often problem-filled physical existence, you will then be able to praise the merciful and loving God "who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, [Why? For what reason?] to do you good in the end" (Deut. 8:15-16, Revised Standard Version)!

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Good News MagazineMarch 1982Vol XXIX, No. 3ISSN 0432-0816