Trials of the Christian pilgrimage
“When they came to Marah they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter” (Exodus 15:23). This happened to God’s people, after their redemption from Egypt, when he was leading them.
We may rightly regard the incident as a picture not only of the trials of life, but more particularly of the trials of our Christian pilgrimage. The question of fundamental importance, therefore, was—and still is—what was the attitude of God’s people to such a trial? Or what is our attitude? It is natural to regard such trials with surprise. So our Lord warned his disciples to make no mistake in their thinking; “in the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33). Similarly, the apostle Peter wrote, “Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you” (1 Peter 4:12). For the experience of trial is clearly God’s appointed road for his children. He has a purpose in it.
If God’s people are not sure of his purposeful providence, there is very real danger lest such trials become an offence. This happened to the Israelites. They murmured or complained; they resented and disbelieved; they even said Egypt would be better, and talked of going back—that is, the beginnings of apostasy. No wonder the Holy Ghost still says, “Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-13). On the other hand, Moses “tried unto the Lord”. His action indicates that such trial presented an opportunity for believing prayer, for expecting God to work. Nor was such confidence misplaced. If God had redeemed them from Egypt, if God intended to bring them into the promised land, surely he could be trusted to see them through the intervening wilderness? So, in similar circumstances, we, too, can sing: “He cannot have, taught us to trust in His Name, and thus far have brought us to put us to shame.” The tried soul should trust and pray, not doubt and murmur.
The answer of God. Moses’ faith was rewarded and his prayer answered. There were three steps which led to the solution of the trial.
(a) Divine provision. The Lord showed Moses a tree; and said, in effect, that is the answer. I have long ago put it there for this very purpose, to meet this very need.
(b) Divine revelation. The Lord showed him the tree. Moses was quite unaware that the answer was already provided and available, just waiting to be used, until God opened his eyes.
(c) Human appropriation. Moses cast the tree into the waters. By an act of responsive faith and practical obedience Moses applied the remedy and enjoyed the benefit; the waters were made sweet.
The deeper significance of the experience was now perceived and commented on. Obviously God made it plain to them, and it is written for our learning.
(a) “There he proved them.” God’s declared purpose in the trial was to test their heart response, to see whether they would murmur, or whether they would offer the prayer of faith and make the response of obedience (compare Deuteronomy 8:2). So God still allows his people to encounter trials in order to discover whether we have a trustful and obedient heart or a resentful and unbelieving spirit.
(b) “There He made for them a statute and an ordinance.” The experience disclosed and confirmed God’s appointed method of dealing with his people. It gave them opportunity to prove him and his faithfulness. They were, in consequence, meant more permanently to learn that God answers the trials which beset his people in a threefold way.
1. By an anticipating providence.
God who foresees every trouble long before it actually occurs commonly provides against it beforehand. This is true naturally, as is strikingly evidenced by the discovery of medicinal remedies for physical diseases.
It is true most of all spiritually. Men’s greatest ill, the malady of sin, God provided against long before, by the Lamb slain so to speak, before the foundation of the world.
2. By answering prayer, and making his provision known to the seeking soul.
Men’s full discovery of such divine provision depends upon divine revelation. When men pray they realise that before they have called God has answered. So the revealing Spirit shows the sinner the already finished work of Christ as their healing.
3. By healing those who act in obedience.
This is the way of healing, to trust and to obey. Those who diligently hearken to his voice and keep all his statutes may know God for themselves in their own experience as the Lord who heals.
The practical challenge
This incident makes plain that in men’s lives the need and God’s remedy can exist alongside each other, and yet never as yet have been brought together. For some have never seen what is God’s remedy; and others, who have been shown, have so far failed to act. Discovery and enjoyment of God’s remedy await first the prayer, and then the obedience, of faith. Before we pray God provides; he has provided. When we pray the Lord directs and discloses; we see his answer. As we obey the Lord heals or works to bless.
This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 28 April 1960. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.