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Bitter Turned Sweet
If you’ve been following over these last weeks since the start of the New Year, you’ve seen how I’ve been led to share with you teachings and stories from the Old Testament that have direct relevance to the gospel message of Jesus Christ, and many of which are direct prophecies concerning His coming and His mission.
And this is what I am going to be speaking about in our message today from story of the Israel’s exodus from their Egyptian bondage, and not only how it applies to Jesus’s mission, but also how it closely describes the lives we live today.
It is, therefore, from this premise that I approach today’s teaching from what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10.
“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12 NKJV)
You see, found within the pages of the Old Testament are types, prophecies and shadows that reveal the realities of what is written in the New Testament, which is actually what the Apostle Paul and the other New Testament writers often referred to. In fact, Jesus Himself told us of how profoundly revelatory they are.
“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:39 NKJV)
And so, this is how I approach many of these passages in the Old Testament and find truths to not only live my life by, but also find truths about what Jesus did for us when He came to this earth, lived amongst us, died upon the cross, and was raised from the dead showing us then the way to eternal life.
And so, in our story of Israel’s first steps towards the Promised Land we see some real examples that we need to navigate through on our own journey and how God guides, provides, and corrects us.
“Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter … And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet … And there He tested them” (Exodus 15:23-25 NKJV)
I’d like to begin where this verse ends, and that is it was at the waters of Marah that God tested the Israelites. And the Apostle James talks about this time of testing as a positive and not like a negative that we often associate it with.
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4 NKJV)
Now this next statement I believe is a keeper.
God tests our faith to see what part of our hearts need shoring up so that He can give to us the encouragement to obey. God doesn’t test our faith to see how badly we can fail, but to see how He can encourage us to succeed.
And so, with this clearly stated, what can we learn to help us to better understand these tests of our faith.
One of those rules that helps our spiritual lives grow is that times of testing come before we find that time of rest. And this is so true when we look at how many tests the Jewish people had to go through and learn from until they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. And one of the first test that gives us some real insight comes immediately after God opened the Red Sea and delivered them from Egypt.
Now, what they may have been thinking is that with such a pronounced victory, that things were going to be all peaches and crème, and that they would just waltz on in and God would disperse their enemies like He did with the waters of the Red Sea.
They had experienced a wonderful deliverance and what it seems like is that they began to take God for granted, assuming that they would be swept into the Promised Land, promptly and painlessly.
But it was right after this great victory that the first test came as to whether they were going to trust God. And they really didn’t do that well. Three days in, they came to a source of water only to find the water bitter, and unfit for human consumption.
And so, in their disappointment and disillusionment they cried out and complained against Moses saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24 NKJV)
Such an experience is not unknown in the Christian life. And this brings a great truth to our understanding. Mountain Top exaltations are often followed by valleys of trials and testing. Or, to say it another way, difficulties and setbacks regularly accompany blessings, which is why we are so often caught off guard and feel disappointed and discouraged.
When I look at this, the example of Elijah comes to mind.
When confronting the prophets of Baal for the hearts of the Jewish people upon Mount Carmel, God brought down fire upon Elijah’s sacrifice showing the people that the Lord God is God, and that Baal and his prophets are false. It was one of those miracles like the Red Sea.
But even more, Elijah had prophesied years earlier that a drought would plague the land of Israel because of the people’s unfaithfulness. But now, after this great victory, he went back up to the top of the mountain and prayed for rain, and God shortly brought rain to water Israel that had for three years experienced no rain at all.
But when Jezebel found out what Elijah had done, and that the prophets of Baal were put to death, she threatened to kill him, and so Elijah, despondent and despairing of his life, ran into the wilderness, sat under a broom tree and asked God to take his life.
Let me just say that not everything comes out the way we want, and the choice of whether we become bitter or better over our circumstances is up to us.
Take for instance another story about Naomi in the book of Ruth. A great famine gripped Israel and so Naomi’s husband took her and their two sons to the land of Moab. But while there her husband died, as did both her sons, and only her two daughters-in-law were left.
She soon made her way back to Israel with Ruth, the one daughter-in-law who committed to stay with her no matter what. When the people of her hometown, Bethlehem, saw her, they asked, “Is this Naomi?”
But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty.” (Ruth 1:20-21 NKJV)
With the affliction and poverty that Naomi experienced she let her circumstance dictate her attitude and so she wanted to be called Marah, which means bitter, for she now had a sorrowful spirit, and was bitter in soul.
And Job was no different. In all that Job experienced he ended up saying, “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1 NKJV)
It would seem that under the weight of affliction, there happens within us a bitterness of soul, where like Naomi and Job, we now identify more with our bitterness and despair than in our victory in and through Jesus Christ.
And this is what the children of Israel were now experiencing. They had their mountaintop experience there at the Red Sea, but after three days without finding water, and then when they found water that they thought would satisfy their desire, they were instead bitterly disappointed in what they found.
Spurgeon said something quite profound when our lives reach this point. He said, “Such are the changes of our outward conditions and of our inward feelings, so fickle is man. We say today, ‘My mountain standeth firm, I shall never be moved;’ tomorrow, ‘Terra firma there is none, and we are tossed upon a stormy sea.’”
We often find that the deepest valleys are on the other side of tallest mountains. This is the story of Israel now at the waters of Marah. They had just seen God deliver them from their Egyptian Bondage through a series of miracles, and then to finish any thoughts of going back into captivity, the Lord parted the Red Sea and allowed them to cross over to the other side on dry ground, while completely drowning Pharaoh’s army.
Listen to part of their Song of Deliverance at the Red Sea.
“You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.” (Exodus 15:13 NKJV)
But now, after three days in the wilderness, a great trial of their faith came as they were not able to find any water to drink. They finally arrived at Marah where there seemed to be an abundance of water, but it was bitter, that is, it was unfit for consumption and would make them and their animals sick.
Now, this was no simple trial, as water is a necessity in the wilderness and with so many people, not to mention flocks, they needed something and something fast. And so, they began to murmur and complain.
But what we need to understand when such trials come our way is that God never promised us a rose garden, as much as I wish He did. Instead, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NKJV)
And while that might not sound all that encouraging, in reality it is, because while trials and tribulations are a part of this life, in Jesus we can have peace, because He overcame the world and its evil when He died upon the cross and rose from the dead on that third day.
The unfortunate reality is that these trials seem to take on various forms, mutating into something else. Or we could say it like this, that these trials assume different shapes. Notice, that for the first three days they found no water; that is one trial. But the next day, or at the end of the third day, they found water. Now they thought their trial was over. But it wasn’t, it had only changed shape. They found water, but it was too bitter to drink.
In a recent Scripture and a Prayer, I read in Psalm 46, and Psalm 107, “Be still, and know that I am God … He calms the storm, so that its waves are still.” (Psalm 46:10a; 107:29)
And the Lord prompted a prayer on my part, “There just seems to be one storm after another. One gets through and another one comes roaring down right after it. And in truth there just seems to be no peace. And yet, I remember the disciples in the boat when a storm seemed to come out of nowhere, and desperately they were trying to keep it from sinking. When they asked You, Lord Jesus, who was asleep at the time, why You didn’t care if they drowned, You told the storm to be still, and it immediately stopped. What I learn from this is of my need to get my focus off the storm and unto You Lord, and know that You are God, and to still my anxious thoughts and fears, and then I will have a peace during the storms of life.”
There are always lessons to be learned, and this is how we need to approach these disappointments and trials, and that is, God is teaching us something.
For me, it’s always perseverance, that is the reaction we should have to life’s difficulties. We see this in what Paul writes to the Church in Rome. “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4 NKJV)
But this was not, nor is it the normal reaction to the trials and tribulations of life. Our normal reaction is the same today as it was back then, Murmuring.
The people murmured against Moses – they were no worse than we are. They are an example to us of what our heart is like, because we see it in ourselves.
They complained to Moses, but they were really complaining against God and blaming Him for their thirst.
All too often people leave the church, abandon God, and look to other means of comfort as though it is God’s fault for whatever happened. I recently saw this as a mother was blaming God for the death of her husband, and how her son that had been pronounced dead on several occasions, would never progress any further intellectually or emotionally due to an automobile accident.
But then there are those that blame God, because they feel like the church had failed them in not helping them enough.
Now, we don’t openly blame God, but that is ultimately who we fault, but instead of saying it out loud, we instead murmur, against a person, the church, our government, or an event.
You see, murmur is nothing more than a whispered complaint. It’s when we find fault and blame everyone and everything. And it an easy thing to do. Consider the word itself, it’s so simple and made up of the exact same sound repeated twice, ‘mur – mur.’
Instead, we should by grace say with Job …
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:15 NKJV)
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 NKJV)
And so, while they murmured against Moses, they were actually blaming God for their present situation. If only they had a mustard seed faith in God, they would have seen in advance the great thing that God was about to do, in turning the bitter into sweet.
So, what’s The Remedy to murmuring? It’s exactly what Moses did.
If we want the bitterness in our lives healed, then we need to take it to the Lord. The people complained against Moses and Moses took it to the Lord. The surest remedy to a problem begins with prayer to God.
Moses did what the people neglected to do, pray. The Bible says
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.” (Psalm 55:22 NKJV)
We need to take our cares and burden to the Lord, and He will then sustain, comfort, and supply us with what we need. Look at what the Lord told Moses.
“So he (Moses) cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” (Exodus 15:25 NKJV)
The Lord directed Moses to a tree that he threw into the waters of Marah. Instantly, the Lord changed the bitterness to sweetness. And here is the really neat part, He will do the same for us.
The remedy for the healing of Marah’s water was a very strange one. Why should a tree sweeten the waters?
There are trees that actually purify water to make it clean and drinkable. The Moringa Tree grows in the area of Egypt, as well as other places around the world. It grows in dry, sandy soil and even tolerates poor soil. Not sure if this was the tree, but what was stated in our passage is not fictional.
And so, as soon as the prayer went up to God, God had a remedy. The remedy was near at hand; “The Lord showed him a tree.” Note, that the tree had been growing there for years for this very purpose.
God has a remedy for all our troubles before they even happen. It is also near at hand, but we do not perceive it till it is shown us. It is always a blessing to remember that for every affliction there is a promise in the word of God; a promise which meets the need and was given for just this purpose.
This was no doubt a miraculous incident, but it was also meant to teach us something. And I believe that this tree is an emblem of the coming Messiah, our Savior? Contemplating His atoning sacrifice, and by faith resting in Him, the troubles of life and the troubles of death are sweetened by the cross. The cross of Christ is the antidote for all the bitterness.
When they put the tree into the water, it turned the water sweet so they could drink. And so, while the tree was effective sweetener, so then is the cross and effective sweetener to the curse and bitterness of sin.
The Cross is what sweetens the bitter waters of sin and of this life.
The Apostle Peter said, “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness, by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 NKJV)
The remedy is that in every circumstance, in every instance of bitterness we must learn to cast the Cross of Christ into those experiences and allow the sacrifice of the precious blood of Jesus to cleanse, deliver, and strengthen us.
Did you know that if just change one letter, that is a “D” into an “H,” disappointment becomes His appointment?
Did you come here this morning as Naomi when she returned to her city and said, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” But from the marriage of Ruth to Boaz, it wasn’t long before the joy of the Lord filled her heart as she held her grandchild in her arms, which would be a part of the line of David and the Messiah.
Take it to the Lord, and let the Lord’s promise of the coming Messiah, and the promise of Jesus be yours.
“The Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1 NKJV)
And this is His promise to us. “To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3 NKJV)
The conclusion of our story is that Marah is not the end.
“Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the waters.” (Exodus 15:27 NKJV)
“Then they came to Elim.” It wasn’t the Promised Land, but it was a place of rest and refreshment. There were springs of water for the people to quench their thirst; there were palm trees to provide nourishment and shade.
When they were murmuring and complaining about the bitter waters of Marah, little did they know that God had an oasis of rest and refreshment just seven miles away.
If only we would realize that God’s fulfillment is not far away.
It was Jesus who faced the ultimate “Marah” of life, for it was at the Cross that the curse of sin and death was laid upon Him.
And so, I’d like to end this story of Marah and making the bitter waters sweet as an illustration of what Jesus did for us when He came to this earth to die in our stead. To take the bitterness of death and make it sweet.
God the Father allowed his Son to go to the tree of the Cross and there hurled into the bitter water of sin. The pureness of his life, His shed blood as a sacrifice, was and is the means by which cleansing is made possible for you and me.
In John 4:13-14 Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14 NKJV)
And to the people who had gathered to hear His words, Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-38 NKJV)
Wednesday Evening Bible Study