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Wilderness Wanderings

Israel's journey to the promised land should have been happy and triumphant. The people had at last escaped from the lash of the taskmaster's whip and the long oppression of an alien despot; with all their needs divinely supplied they were on their way to a land flowing with milk and honey. But such is the perversity of the human heart that most of the story of those years became one of unbelief and rebellion, summed up in the divine comment, "Forty years long was I grieved with that generation" (Psa. 95:10).

The voice of the grumblers was heard even before the Red Sea had been crossed and later there was trouble at the wilderness of Sin when

_there appeared to be no food to eat, but the Lord "rained bread from heaven" and quails covered the camp (Exod. 14:10-14; 16:1-18). Soon they came to Rephidim where there was no water and they threatened their leader with death, but at the command of the Lord Moses struck the rock in Horeb and water gushed out. After receiving the Law at Sinai, no sooner had they resumed their journey than grumbling broke out once more and some were judged by fire from heaven. Again they hankered after flesh to eat and the Lord satisfied their desire, but a plague broke out among them because of their sin. Then even Aaron and Miriam began to find fault with Moses, but that sin was summarily dealt with also (Num. 11 and 12).

These sorry events happened during the first two years of the journey, when God was leading His people by planned stages, first to Mount Sinai to receive the Law, then to the wilderness of Paran to establish a base from which entry to the promised land should have been made in a few short weeks. There could have been a triumphant march with all opposition melting away, but instead open mutiny broke out when reports came back from some of the spies that there were giants in the land and cities "fenced up to heaven". The people refused to listen to the sound advice of Joshua and Caleb to put their trust in the Lord, so to all the men of war God said, "Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be wanderers... forty years" (Num. 14:32-33). Only Joshua and Caleb escaped this judgement. In later years when Moses was reminding the succeeding generation of their responsibilities, he recalled: "The LORD'S anger was kindled against Israel, and He made them wander to and fro in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed" (Num. 32:13).

It would appear from a comparison of Numbers 13:26 with 20:1 and the events which followed that the recorded journeys of the children of Israel fall into two periods: the first takes the record up to the mutiny at Kadeshbarnea described above, and the second deals with the journey from the same place to Canaan thirty-eight years later. Apart from the sin of Korah, Scripture draws a veil over the long interval between, when without obvious divine guidance, they lived aimless lives until all the men of war who came out of Egypt were dead. It is to those sterile years that the term "wandering" in this month's title properly applies. It was not until the evil influence of the rebels had been removed by death that the Lord could again take up His people and lead them into their inheritance.

The peninsula of Sinai, where they wandered, is inhospitable in the extreme and is notorious for its bare rocks, hot sands and rugged mountains, with but little vegetation. However, in spite of such adverse conditions the people were able to survive because the Lord had miraculously sustained them as He had promised. During all this time the Lord was gracious to His erring people, "They lacked nothing" said Nehemiah, "their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not". The divine purpose in all this was that Israel might be taught to fear God and walk in His ways, a purpose in measure achieved in the second generation, which had not rebelled in the same high-handed manner as the ungrateful nation which was rescued out of Egypt.

The Lord's care for His people in the wilderness is described poetically in Psalm 105:

"He spread a cloud for a covering;

And fire to give light in the night.

They asked, and He brought quails,

And satisfied them with the bread of heaven.

He opened the rock, and waters gushed out". But Psalm 106 records the ungrateful response:

"They soon forgat His works;

They waited not for His counsel:

But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, And tempted God in the desert".

There is much in similar vein recorded by Moses in his writings. The burden Moses had to bear throughout those trying years was a heavy one indeed. The desired haven of the promised land was near geographically, but its realization was deferred by frustrations and worries which followed one another in apparently never-ending succession, until at times Moses was almost in despair. Until Jordan was crossed there could be no relaxation or quiet enjoyment of the fruits of labour; the man of God must continue to endure patiently the foolishness and unbelief of his charges. The apostle Paul had a similar experience as he nurtured the New Testament people of God. "Beside those things that are without", he said, "there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:28). These great examples from Scripture teach that for those who try to serve the Lord, the delights of rest and relaxation are not to be sought in this life but must await the soon-coming day of reward.

As the forty years' journey began to draw to its close it seemed as though Moses' endurance would at last be rewarded, but with patience nearly exhausted and with another mutiny brewing at Meribah where there was no water, he momentarily failed and spoke angrily to the people. "He spake unadvisedly with his lips" (Psa. 106:33) 50 that God was not sanctified in the eyes of the children of Israel (Num. 20:12). In his anxiety to quell the rebellion Moses committed a misdemeanour which might seem of little account in human eyes, but to God it was of the utmost importance that His servant should reflect those gracious divine attributes which He consistently displayed towards Israel. Moses should have addressed the people firmly but gently and with calm assurance, in full knowledge that the Lord was in control of the situation. How difficult! But God's righteousness must be publicly vindicated, and poor Moses, more sinned against than sinning, must bear the seemingly harsh punishment of exclusion from the land of promise. "It went ill with Moses for their sakes". After forty years of arduous and selfless service is he to receive nothing? There cannot be injustice with God; Moses' reward awaits a better, a happier day, when each man will receive his praise from God. Heavenly rewards are so much more to be prized than earthly ones.

The serious view taken in Scripture of the behaviour of the Israelites in the wilderness can be seen in the fact that the forty years is called "the provocation", for men provoked God time and time again and hardened their hearts against Him, therefore He said "I sware in My wrath, they shall not enter into My rest". It is sad to review such distasteful behaviour and its inevitable consequence of great blessings forfeited, but we can profit from past errors by observing carefully the lesson the writer of the letter to the Hebrews draws for us (chapters 3 and 4). Our hearts can easily become like the Israelites, hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and full of unbelief. If we refuse to listen to the voice of the Lord speaking to us we may follow in the way of those whose carcases fell in the wilderness. Unbelief is probably the sin the same writer had in mind when, after recounting the triumphs of faithful men and women, he says "Let us also... lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us" (12:1). Looking to ourselves, we must diligently avoid the errors of the wilderness murmurers so that we may experience the happiness of rest and fulfilment promised for the people of God under the New Covenant. This is not bodily rest, but a deep and satisfying rest of soul which accompanies steadfast service in God's house.