Plain Papers for Young Believers: The Wilderness

 •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 10
We have seen that entrance into the heavenly country is the privilege of every believer, but that possession, and still more dwelling in it, only belongs to those who make it their own and live in the enjoyment of it.
In the same way it is true with regard to our wilderness life here below, that although all true believers are brought safely through the Red Sea, saved from the judgment of God, delivered from Pharaoh’s power and Egypt’s slavery, yet it is only as we are really following Christ that we practically find that this world is the “wilderness wide,” of which our hymn speaks, or that we are pilgrims and strangers in it.
Am I in it at All?
These things, beloved reader, are realities, and it will help us but little to know all the resources God provides for our wilderness journey if we are not in it in heart at all. Let us then seriously ask ourselves two questions. First, Am I in any sense a stranger in this world for Christ? and second, Am I passing through it as a pilgrim, or living in it as a citizen? Simple, heart-searching questions like these, honestly asked and faithfully answered before God, often speak to our consciences more powerfully than the most stirring address; and if we are conscientious and yet still clinging to this world, we shall find them very awkward and unpleasant questions to face. Do not shirk them, however, but if they do touch a sore point, let them have their full effect and show us just where we are really before God.
We noticed in the last paper that we must have a home and enjoyment for our spirits somewhere, and that the only way not to seek this now on earth is by truly having it as a present reality for our souls with Christ in heaven; or, in other words, the only way to be a stranger in the wilderness is to be even now at home in Canaan, in spirit, though as to our bodies we are still pressing on to our rest.
Communion with Christ in heaven alone gives the desire to follow Him on earth, while resurrection life in Him supplies the only power; hence, the Apostle prays both that he “may know Him,” and the power of His resurrection, before he asks to know “the fellowship of His sufferings.”
All My Resources are in God
The first thing that characterizes the wilderness is that all my resources are in God; my food comes from heaven, my water is given by God, my guide is the cloudy pillar; in short, every detail of my life is ordered by God. All around is nothing but the thirsty desert sand, capable, indeed, of receiving all I have to give, but utterly incapable of helping me an inch on my journey. In fact, from the moment I first passed beneath the sheltering blood of the Lamb, God has been and is my sole resource and stay until, in His good time, I actually reach the long-looked-for “rest of God.” These then are the two great lessons to be engraved on our souls as strangers here:
1. There is nothing of this world that can help my spiritual life.
2. All my resources are in God.
Seven Wilderness Lessons
1. The Song
We will now very briefly glance at seven things connected with the wilderness journey—not in the thought that in any way they embrace the details of it, or even its leading features, but simply because each one may give us food for a few practical thoughts which may be of service to any who with honest hearts are desirous of treading more closely in Christ’s footmarks.
The first thing we notice is that at the start all is smooth, pleasant, and joyful. What can be more delightful to the weary, worn-out Egyptian slave than to stand on the wilderness shore of the Red Sea, and after seeing the destruction of all the power that held him captive, to raise his joyful heart to God in a song of praise, the first song in Scripture, the song of a delivered soul brought to God, a song full of beauty and meaning, a song that no angel can sing, a song which shall echo through the countless ages of eternity; and then to turn around with his back to Egypt, his face to that glorious heavenly country which already by faith he counts his home, and start off with God for his Guide in all the happy freshness of a newborn soul. Surely we all know what it is thus to begin our pilgrimage.
2. Marah—The Power of the Cross
The second thing that we observe is that Marah is reached, a place of bitter water, water which can only be sweetened by a certain tree. What meaning has this, beloved reader? Did we not think we should find all smooth and pleasant when we first set out to follow Christ, and did we not very soon come across something very bitter and unpleasant, and discover that practically to be crucified to this world, to be dead to it, is not a very pleasant thing? Do we not remember too that it was only when we cast in the wood of Christ’s cross, and of His sorrows for us, that the waters became sweet; and, according to 1 Peter 4, we rejoiced, inasmuch as so early in our journey we had been made in any measure partakers of Christ’s sufferings? Oh! the power of the cross of Christ! No Christian can live three days in this world without meeting Marah in some way or other, but it is the Marahs which draw us near to Christ’s heart. It is the want of water here which makes us go for all our refreshment to, the Rock which is Christ.
To the soul, therefore, who knows what it is thus to have fellowship with Christ in rejection, these Marahs are sweet, each one marking a never-to-be-forgotten interview between the suffering servant and the loving Master.
“We know Him as we could not know,
Through heaven’s golden years;
We there shall see His glorious face,
But Mary saw His tears.”
3. Spiritual Refreshment
The third thing in the 15th chapter of Exodus is the spiritual refreshment Christ provides for true souls who have known what Marah means in the wilderness. In Elim we find the good shepherd leading his flock in the green pastures, and by the still waters. Here is an oasis in a desert. And what oasis does Christ provide for His pilgrims in this world? Truly that of Christian fellowship; these are our Elims. What a happy, blessed time we have when a few of us who are really seeking to follow Christ can get together beneath the sheltering palm trees, and draw fresh strength from the wells of the water of life. Many a one has called these happy Elims, “foretastes of heaven,” as they have enjoyed the “Sweet bonds that unite all the children of grace.”
Alas, that strife and discord should so often mar what our Lord has provided for our rest and refreshment.
4. Wilderness Food
The fourth thing we notice is in the next chapter, and that is the food for the wilderness. Our bread is the manna that is sent down from heaven. In the deliverance from Egypt Christ is fed upon as the lamb roast with fire, our Substitute and Saviour; in Canaan we get Him as the old corn of the land, our glorified and exalted Lord; and it is worthy of observance that we never find the Israelites of old loathing either of these two foods. It is the manna, Christ in His humiliation and rejection, that is considered “light food.” It is this “bread from heaven” that is the test for each of our hearts today, as to whether we have been so truly won by His love as to esteem a path of rejection with Him better than all the “leeks and cucumbers” of Egypt.
Surely too we may learn an important wilderness lesson from the fact that this precious bread was gathered freshly every morning before the sun was up; so those find now who spend “an hour with Jesus” before the bustle of daily life has begun, that the sweetest and most strengthening food is then gathered and stored. As has been so well said by another: “If I sincerely desire to grow in the divine life— if my one grand object is to be assimilated and devoted to Christ—I shall without doubt seek continually that character of nourishment which is designed by God to promote my spiritual growth. It is plain that a man’s acts are always the truest index of his desires and purposes. Hence, if I find a professing Christian neglecting the Bible, yet finding abundance of time—yea, some of his choicest hours—for the light and other secular reading, I can be at no loss to decide as to the true condition of his soul. I am sure he cannot be spiritual—cannot be feeding upon, living for, or witnessing to, Christ.”
5. Streams in the Desert
The fifth point that we may observe is the refreshing stream that pours out of the riven rock in accordance with the well-known passage in John 7:3737In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. (John 7:37). Surely if in the manna we have a picture of the humbled Christ as our food, here we have the indwelling Spirit that is with us throughout our wilderness journey, one of the blessed results and fruits of the death and glorification of Christ (John 7:3939(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:39)). The rock is Christ (1 Cor. 10:44And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:4)). The waters, doubtless, here as elsewhere, are typical of the Holy Spirit, who is the refreshment and source of power and blessing, not only for ourselves, but others down here. “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” (Eph. 4:3030And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)). He is here to testify of Christ but He can only testify to ready and listening ears. He is here to guide us into all truth, but only those who have willing feet and subject hearts. This water too, unlike that in Exodus 16, is not for our own refreshment alone, but is to run out from us, so that we ourselves, as filled with the Spirit, are to be as streams in the desert. Thus far we have traced the believer—a song of joy in his mouth—the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings known to his heart—enjoyment of Christian fellowship—feeding on a humbled Christ—and refreshed by an indwelling Spirit.
6. Wilderness Conflict
Sixth, we come to Amalek, a picture of the flesh energized by Satan, who is ever hanging about our rear ready to snap up any that are weak and ready to halt. We feel that it is quite impossible in the limits of a short paper to do more than just touch on this most important theme. It will be noticed that the victory in this case (Ex. 17) was obtained by two means—the one the intercession of Christ on high, and the other, the resistance in the power of the Spirit (Joshua) down here. Now both of these are necessary if we are to overcome our adversary. In Peter’s case the intercession of Christ that his faith might not fail was fully answered, but on account of the want of his active resistance against the enemy, he failed. The resistance down here would be valueless were it not for the uplifted hands on high; at the same time we are to resist the devil, and the Spirit in us lusts (or fights) against the flesh, that we may not do the things that we would. Christ will not fail in His part, blessed be His name, but how often do we fail in practically resisting the assaults of the enemy.
7. Water for Defiled Feet
The last, or seventh, thing we have to notice is the provision made in case of defilement in the wilderness journey. We refer to Numbers 19, which answers in type to 1 John 1:99If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9). This cleansing is by water, not by blood, but it is water which contains and brings home to our hearts the memorials of the death of Christ (the ashes of the heifer), teaching us that restoration to communion after getting astray, is not by a fresh application of the blood of Christ (which is quite an unscriptural thought), but a bringing home to our hearts by the Word of God (the water; see John 13), the power of the death of Christ which we in our self-will had forgotten. It is thus that Christ Himself, in His perfect love, washes our feet when defiled with the wilderness journey.
Just think the whole subject over, beloved reader, and you will find that Christ is with us in every step. We meet Him first in Egypt, in the blood of the lamb; next in the delivering power of the Red Sea; next in the power of His cross; then in His gracious provision for our refreshment; next as the Manna, then as the Rock; then as our great Intercessor up on high; and last, in His wondrous love in following us when we go astray, and restoring our souls by the washing of water by the Word; the end of all being to meet His own glorious Self on the cloud, when all the journey will be over forever, and we shall praise for evermore the grace that has carried us on eagles’ wings, and at last brought us to Himself.