Bitter and Sweet

Exodus 15:22-27

The Israelites have seen the results of Pharaoh’s hard heart; would they do better?

With the Song of Moses, Yahweh’s deliverance has been praised and hope in the future proclaimed. But the horizon keeps disappearing in the sandstorms. Therefore, trust in God often turns to defiance and resentment. Faith erodes with the sand dunes.

Yet, God is responsive to the needs of His people and He provides what the desert cannot. The protests are answered; the cries are heard, quite undeservedly. Deliverance comes, but not in being removed from the arid wilderness. A table is spread in the very presence of the enemy. There are gifts of water and food that turn back death!

Amazingly, the movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of Israel’s forsaking God. Death is turned into life and true life must always be shaped by the wilderness experiences.

Yahweh’s victory at the Red Sea freed Israel from bondage and pursuit of Pharaoh and Egypt. It would be wonderful to linger at the seaside and praise the LORD, but the believer is a pilgrim and must follow God’s leading.

Redemption is the beginning, not the end of the journey. And although life after redemption is usually challenging and exciting at first, all too quickly it can become tedious and boring—especially if we forget and forsake our first love. When that takes place, grumbling and complaining against the LORD and His leaders is not far behind.

Unfortunately the Israelites, who had so recently experienced the greatest act of redemption to take place in their long history as nation until Christ died on the Cross and rose from the Tomb, were about to embark on a life of defeat by forgetting the LORD and dwelling on their problems.

And, as drama of redemption gave way to the drudgery of a wasteland journey, the people’s song of praise changed to a string of complaints. Although the people are often ungrateful and disloyal, the divine blessing and graciousness pervade their experiences.

Israel’s time in the wilderness is finally shaped by God’s incredible patience and mercy and the divine will to stay with Israel in this time of their ADOLESCENCE as children of God. Coping with TEENAGERS is no easy task, even if the parent is God. No divine flick of the wrist is capable of straightening them out without compromising their freedom.

If God wants a mature child, the possibility of defiance must be risked. Parent and child even do certain amounts of TESTING of each other. God will not compromise in holding Israel to high standards. And so God works through their feelings of abandonment and helplessness, their words of complaint and acts of rebellion, and their need for reassurance, protection, a new self-identity, and non-oppressive life structures. God sticks by them through it all. God has made promises to this people, and God is a promise-keeper.

With the Song of Moses, Israel has declared themselves to be God’s redeemed people who are being led by His unfailing love. As we come to Exodus 15:22-24, the sincerity of their faith is TESTED by God—

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

The wilderness wanderings, or at least their length and breadth, were a surprise to Israel. Instead of a land of milk and honey, they get a desert of stone, sand, with little vegetation, and very sparse water. The singers and dancers are stopped dead in their tracks. Salvation from one kind of death leads into the teeth of another. The desert is a place betwixt and between.

The FIERY CLOUD kept them from suffering relentlessly from heat and thirst by day and bitter cold by night. With each step, unbelief and discontent are secretly working in the heart. It only took three days for praises to turn to grumbling—sweetness to bitterness.

The believer is a pilgrim and must follow God’s leading. How strange that God should lead them to a place without water. However, God has a purpose for everything He allows or brings into our life. In Deuteronomy 8:2, Moses reveals the reasons for Israel’s desert journey—

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years; to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

Moses received the complaints, but God led Israel all the way in the hot, dry, barren desert and Moses said He did it for three purposes:


After witnessing God’s saving act at the Red Sea, how would they respond to the dilemma of the bitter water? Would they look to God? NO! They complain, or break faith with God. This is the first of many instances where this happens.

If they would have examined their hearts and got themselves right with God, the journey would have been one year instead of forty years. Forty years is along time to live in a sandbox. The wilderness becomes the home and the grave for this grumbling generation. Unbelief and grumbling stretches from Marah until it climaxes with the LORD making the decree of Numbers 14:29—

In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.

We need to make the most of the crises in our life. Crises are opportunities. In such times, we are to humble ourselves before God and depend upon Him. Such times are testings of the heart and we need to discern what is in our heart. Certainly, God is!

THEN MOSES LED ISRAEL FROM THE RED SEA AND THEY WENT INTO THE DESERT OF SHUR, which is in the northwestern part of Sinai Peninsula. SHUR is the Hebrew word for ETHAM its Egyptian equivalent.

Although recent Israeli geological surveys have demonstrated that there may be huge underground reservoirs of fresh water in the Sinai Peninsula, oases on the surface of the ground have always been few and widely scattered.

After three days of thirst, imagine the delight of spotting AN OASIS from the distance. Undoubtedly, those at the front of the column ran as fast as their legs would carry them to the spring at MARAH, which is probably modern Ain Hawarah, inland from the Gulf of Suez and 50 miles south of its northern end. The waters here are notoriously salty, brackish and bitter. The Arabs consider it the worst water in the Sinai.

WHEN THEY CAME TO MARAH, THEY COULD NOT DRINK ITS WATER BECAUSE IT WAS BITTER. How wicked the human heart is! We praise God one day for His glorious salvation and then complain to Him the first time we find bitter waters.

SO THE PEOPLE GRUMBLED AGAINST MOSES, SAYING, “WHAT ARE WE TO DRINK?” In so doing, they set in motion a pattern that would be repeated whenever they faced a crisis. At a more profound level, all their grumbling was “AGAINST THE LORD” according to Exodus 16:8 and Paul warns us not to follow their example of grumbling against the LORD in 1 Corinthians 10:10.

BITTER WATER—BITTER PEOPLE! If the heart is not right with God, bitter experiences will bring bitter words out of the mouth. This observation is made in James 3:10-12—

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

James is seeking to have us look at what is within us that causes such cursing, grumbling and the like to come from our mouth. Certainly, the Israelites are a prime example of PRAISE AND CURSING coming from the same mouth. Such inconsistency points to a deep-rooted problem. What you bring forth is what you are!

It is impossible for a spring to bring forth sweet water and bitter, likewise, for a fig tree to bear olives or a vine to bear figs or a spring to yield both salt water and fresh water.

James has reiterated Jesus’ teaching of Matthew 7:16-20, which concludes, “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Therefore, it can be said the tongue is an excellent yardstick for a person to measure his or her own character and heart.

No matter how hard you try, you cannot change your heart. But, the Good News is that God can make a BITTER HEART SWEET! He is able to take a heart that brings forth salt water and make it fresh. Exodus 15:25—

Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood [a tree]. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

This first desert experience mirrors many more experiences that follow: A problem arises; people complain; Moses intercedes; and God responds with deliverance.

Moses is the intercessor between God and the people. Moses foreshadows Christ who makes intercession for us at the throne of God. The easy lesson here is that IT IS BETTER TO PRAY THAN COMPLAIN!

God responds to Moses’ prayer by SHOWING him a piece of wood or a TREE. The word translated SHOWED comes from the root TO TEACH or TO INSTRUCT. TORA or LAW comes from this same root and Jewish interpreters see THE TREE symbolizing THE LAW since the next verse calls for paying attention to God’s commands and keeping all His decrees.

Moses might have touched the water with his staff, but there are other lessons to be learned here. These lesson required THE TREE.

Notice that God is immediately engaged in the situation. Moses knows what to do with the tree. He throws it into the water! Does the wood have certain properties that enable it to sweeten water? The bark and leaves of some trees have such capacities. Is this a miracle? YES! Is God working in and through human knowledge and the “healing” properties of certain elements of the natural order? YES!

The implication is that the Creator has made the natural order in such a way that it has capacities such as this. Moreover, the test suggests that human beings need to be alert to the potential resources within creation itself for resolving many such problems. God is at work in the world in such a way that people are led to such discovers. Most people today would ascribe them solely to scientific achievement.

The biblical testimony, however, is that God is never absent from such endeavors. But God does not do such work independent from human questing, knowledge, imagination, and ingenuity. He wrought this miracle with human participation using the resources He created. So it is with medicine!

God makes use of what is available in the world to accomplish what is right and good. Sensitivity to God’s leading may lead to even more profound discoveries. God is always working for good in everything for those who love Him.

Like the FIRST PLAGUE on Egypt when the waters were turned to blood, they could not drink. With the first plague, Moses struck the Nile with his staff and the water unfit to drink. Now Moses throws a piece of wood into the water and it becomes drinkable.

THEOLOGICALLY, this miracle typifies our salvation in Christ. UE (`ets) the Hebrew word that is translated a PIECE OF WOOD is also translated some 160 times as TREE in the Bible. The TREE that takes bitterness and makes it sweet is identified for us in 1 Peter 2:24—

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Do you understand what God was saying at Marah, “I AM THE LORD WHO HEALS”?—Do you see it? He painted a prophetic picture of how He would exchange our sin for Christ’s righteousness by making the bitter water sweet with a TREE! To miss the types in Exodus is to miss the Gospel Story!

In Christ, we also become a NEW CREATION just as the bitter waters became sweet, and we discover this world is a dry and barren desert also.

The world’s resources no longer satisfy one’s thirst—they have a bitter taste! The pleasures of sin, the attractions of the world, no longer satisfy one who has drank from sweet water of life. The thing which formerly charmed, now repels us. The companionships we used to find so pleasing have become distasteful. The things, which delight the ungodly only, cause us to groan. The Christian who is in communion with the LORD finds absolutely nothing around which will or can refresh his thirsty soul. The believer’s cry becomes like David’s (in Psalm 63:1) when he was in the Desert of Judah—

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

God is the believer’s resource—He alone can satisfy the longings of the heart. He alone is the Water of Life. That’s why Jesus said in John 7:37—

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.

And of course, the Bible closes with the invitation of Revelation 22:17—

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

How often are we like the Israelites—grasping for that which disappoints us. Only to find the water bitter! It is Marah! And what was the cause of the grumbling? There can be only one answer—their eye was no longer upon God! From this point forward in the history of man’s redemption, every person will need to look to YAHWEH WHO HEALS—the One who takes bitterness and makes it sweet with THE TREE.

Without doubt, Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane reflects his taking the bitterness of our sin and iniquities—

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

ALL TESTINGS are occasions where the Heavenly Father gives fresh displays of His patience and goodness. The wilderness manifests the weakness of His saints and their failures, but this also magnifies the power and mercy of Him who brought them into the place of testing.

Another way of testing faith is through obedience to God’s Word. Exodus 15:25-26—

There the LORD made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. 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.”

Long before the formal giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, God’s people were expected to keep certain commands, decrees, and regulations given to them at various times as well as to conduct themselves in ways that were “right and just.” For instance, God said of Abraham in Genesis 18:19—

For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

We should not be surprised that Yahweh demanded obedience to a “decree and law” that He made for them at Marah. We are not told the nature of this decree and law. But certainly it was a test because God tests His people with His commands and decrees. Obedience is the way of exhibiting trust in the God who speaks the Word. This is a perspective similar to that formulated in 1 John 2:3-4—

We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

GRACE carries with it the obligation of OBEDIENCE. Grace is a gift that cannot be obtained by merit or work. But once a person experiences God’s grace, they have experienced His love. And we love God because He first loved us. And how do we manifest our love for Him? By obeying His commands! Jesus said in John 14:15—

If you love me, you will obey what I command.

The apostle echoes Jesus in 1 John 5:3—

This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.

Testing and proving one’s faith and love is important for God, the Israelite and the Christian. An untested faith and love is an unproven faith and love! If Israel wants God’s protection and blessing through this trek, obedience is imperative. The miracle of Marah foreshadows the Millennial Kingdom when Yahweh will heal all creation. Isaiah 35:6-7 predicts—

Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

Not only is the divine will for creation made clear, but also for God’s people in Psalm 103:2-3—

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.

Continuing on their journey, the Israelites traveled seven miles south of Marah. Exodus 15:27—

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

Elim is the well-watered valley today called Wadi Gharandel. ELIM means LARGE TREES in the Hebrew.

Why Elim? Does this contradict what we already discovered? NO! Elim is the complement to Marah and this is evident if we observe their order.

First, the bitters waters of Marah sweetened by the tree, and then the springs of pure water and the palm trees for shade and refreshment. When we have come to Christ and we have drunk of His salvation and walk in obedience with Him by obeying His commands, we will experience streams of living water.

Let us go back to Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel. John 7:37 is MARAH—

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.

And John 7:38-39 is ELIM—

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

Why TREES? Psalm 1:1-3 supplies the answer—

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

ELIM is a place of BLESSEDNESS. God is YAHWEH WHO HEALS. If Israel would obey His commands, they would not experience the physical diseases of Egypt. Life would be pleasant like at the OASIS ELIM.

Thus, MARAH and ELIM illustrate the change that Israel had experienced between the BITTER life in Egypt and the newly found freedom that they now enjoyed at ELIM.

At the time of Christ, Israel was far from God. Jesus encountered disease everywhere in Palestine. Instead of sweetness, life was bitter because of unbelief. Israel exchanged God’s commands for man-made rules and laws. The dramatic healings by Christ were intended to show Israel that they had encountered YAHWEH WHO HEALS.

Interestingly, TWELVE SPRINGS and SEVENTY PALM TREES are the very numbers selected by Christ in sending forth of His disciples. Twelve Tribes comprise the nation Israel and Seventy Elders made up the Sanhedrin (the governing body of Israel) that opposed Christ and sentenced Him to death.

But ELIM was not CANAAN. Its springs and palm trees were but foretastes of that pleasant land which lay beyond the bounds of the desert on which the redeemed had just entered. ELIM furnished refreshment, but it was wilderness refreshment. It was but for a passing moment, designed, in grace, to encourage and strengthen them for their onward march to Canaan.

The LORD is Israel’s Shepherd and they were to learn how He would make them lie down in green pastures and lead them beside still waters, even in the barren desert of life. Likewise, Jesus is our Shepherd and we need to learn these same lessons.

The EXODUS EXPERIENCE was intended to teach the people of Israel some valuable lessons about LIFE, THEMSELVES and the LORD. We also can learn from these three valuable lessons from MARAH and ELIM.

The first valuable lesson is ABOUT LIFE. Life is a combination of the bitter and the sweet, triumphs and trials. Mountaintop experiences are followed by valley and desert. If we are following God, however, we never need fear what comes our way. And after the trial there is often a spiritual “ELIM” where God refreshes us. We must accept the bitter waters with the sweet, knowing that God knows what is best for us.

The second valuable lesson is ABOUT OURSELVES. Life is a great laboratory, and each experience x-rays our hearts to reveal what we really are. The waters of Marah revealed that the Israelites were worldly, thinking only of bodily satisfaction; they were walking by sight, expecting to be satisfied by the world; they were ungrateful, complaining to God when trials came their way. Bitter people complain, rather than praying!

The third valuable lesson is ABOUT THE LORD. God knows the need because He plans the way. God is to be acknowledged, not only in the creating of things useful for man, but also in discovering their usefulness. He used the tree to make the bitter waters sweet. He is YAHWEH-RAPHA—THE LORD WHO HEALS—with the TREE—The Cross of Christ!

The Cross sweetens our bitter experience in the world through which we journey as pilgrims. Come to Jesus and drink of the Water of Life and streams of living water will flow in you and your life will be turned from BITTER TO SWEET!

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