By Rosie Moore.
“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” 7 The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. 8 The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. 9 When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down. 10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. (Numbers 11:4-10).
No one needs an online course on how to complain, as grumbling is second nature to us! The Israelites were no exception in their wilderness journey to the land God promised them—a land flowing with milk and honey.
It’s amazing how quickly God’s people forgot 400 years of misery, only recalling the free food in Egypt. Talk about selective memory! During their forty years in the desert, they grumbled against God, Moses, and even the blanket of manna that God miraculously provided each morning, except the Sabbath (Numbers 21:4-5). Their desire turned to craving for ‘other’ food–food that God hadn’t provided. Even Moses blamed God for giving him the heavy burden of leadership (Num 11:11).
You’d expect the Israelites to remember God’s surprising acts of kindness, like the clear water gushing from the rock and springs (Ex 15:27; 17:6); the pillars of His presence that led them by day and night (Ex 13:21) and God’s tender mercy in preserving their clothes and shoes for four decades, even shielding their feet from swelling and blistering (Deut 8:4; Deut 29:5). Or the Lord’s powerful protection over them during the plagues and crossing the Red Sea. All they had to do in the face of their enemies was to be silent and trust in Him (Ex 14:21; 17:15-16; Ex 14:14).
But instead of depending on God’s provision, protection, power and plan, the Israelites grumbled and forgot His daily gifts. They pleased themselves with idols instead of waiting, and grew impatient with God’s hard route through the desert (Ex 32:1; 1 Cor 10:7-10; Heb 3:9-10). Even on Canaan’s border, they listened to the 10 spies instead of Joshua and Caleb’s encouragement, “We can certainly do it…the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them” (Numbers 13:30; 14:27-28).
The desert displays our idols
The truth is that testing always reveals what we really value and who we worship. It was so for the Israelites, and it’s the same for us.
Paul says that the Israelites’ 40-year pilgrimage was recorded as both a warning and an example for the Christian life (1 Cor 10:6; 9-11), as we too have been set free from sin’s “slavery”. We are travelling through the wilderness of this world to the new heavens and new earth that God has promised us (Rev 21-22). Our wilderness is the testing ground to build our relationship with our Father and prepare us for our future home. The Israelites should rouse us to exercise our faith to the very end (Heb 3:14).
But when I look at my own Christian life, I see that my record of obedience and trust is at best fluctuating, and my faith often gives way to fear. Everything I read about the Israelites has been true of me, and still is.
If we don’t see Jesus in our wilderness, we will end our journey in a ditch of despair.
‘Manna’ from heaven
When Jesus turned to the books of Moses, He saw every story pointing to himself and trained his disciples to do likewise (John 3:9-15; Luke 24:27). Matthew took great care to point out that Christ was everything Israel was meant to be…and everything we can never be: Jesus did for us what we cannot do ourselves, and blazed a trail for us to follow too.
In Christ’s 40-days of testing in the wilderness, He also experienced severe hunger and thirst. Yet, Jesus remained dependent on His Father for his provision (Matt 4:2-3). Each time He responded to Satan, He showed that God’s word is the best ‘food’ and protection in times of temptation (Matt 4:4). Even in His dying hours, it was Scripture that came out of Jesus’ mouth, not cursing (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46). Jesus leaned on God’s word right to the end. He was both the perfect Adam and the perfect Israelite.
Like the Israelites, Jesus was tempted to misuse God’s power and protection, even in the desolate wilderness of the cross (Matt 4:5-7; Matt 27:39, 42). Yet, Jesus waited until God’s appointed time and trusted God’s purposes (Matt 26:39), even when God’s plan led Him up Calvary.
Jesus too was tempted to take a different route to become King (Matt 4:9-10). Yet, the Son of God left the milk and honey of heaven to journey through our wilderness. His life was poured out in the desert, so that we could drink His pure, living water of salvation (Heb 4:15; John 7:38; Isa 12:3).
The cross was surely the most wretched wilderness that any man could endure, but Jesus pressed on, so that you and I would not die in the desert apart from God’s blessing. The joy of leading us into the Promised land was what kept him going (Heb 12:2):
“‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water’ (Rev 7:16-17).”
Jesus Himself is the Bread of heaven, better than any manna that God provided in the desert. He is the ‘bread’ that was broken for us and God’s gracious ‘manna’ for our own journey through the wilderness (Luke 22:19-20; John 6:51-58).
Is the Lord’s arm too short? (Num 11:23)
“The Lord answered Moses, “Is the Lord’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you” (Num 11:23).”
God showed grace to the complaining Israelites and gave them meat to eat (quails). He also showed his righteous anger for their grumblings, because discontent is a serious rejection of the Lord Himself. Their craving ended up consuming them (Numbers 11:20; 31-35).
It’s easy to wonder why the Israelites refused to trust in God’s providence when He’d proved Himself so merciful and faithful. But don’t we also crave ‘other food’ in our lives? Other provision, protection, plans, power and promises that are not from the Lord? In our dissatisfaction, isn’t it easy to overlook God’s daily gifts and to think that the Lord’s arm is too short… and ours is longer than it really is? Isn’t it easy to overlook the simple privilege of having the Bible, prioritising what we put in our mouths over ‘every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’? (Matt 4:4)
We don’t know exactly how God will provide and protect His people from the financial impact of COVID-19, but we do know that we must ask our loving Father for our daily needs and give without fanfare to those in need (Matt 6:6; 8; 11; Matt 6:2-4). We can be sure that knowing and being known by Christ is the key to contentment, as He will never leave us to fend for ourselves (Phil 4:11; 19; Rom 8:32-37). We also know that we mustn’t worry about tomorrow, as each day has enough worries of its own (Matt 6:34). Perhaps that’s all we need to know.
Father, thank you for pursuing me when I wanted nothing to do with you and for your kindness that led me to repentance. Thank you for your new mercies every morning. Thank you that you fight on our behalf and provide everything we need in Jesus. Thank you that our wilderness is not aimless wanderings, but that your providence always leads us from ahead and behind. Thank you that you walk with us by your Spirit, even through the worst of the wilderness. Lord, make us quick to say thank you and slow to crave what you haven’t given us. We trust that you will lead us safely to our promised home. Amen.