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How quickly their change in circumstances caused a reversal in attitude of God’s people — from faith and thanksgiving and praise and worship to despair and complaining over a lack of resources. God in His providence brings us into bitter trials in order to test our faith and perfect our character.

John Davis: The response of the people of Israel to this situation is somewhat amazing, for in the matter of three days they had forgotten the care and the provision of God. In spite of the fact that the cloud was there to guide them and remind them of the presence of God, they murmured. This was quite a change of attitude. Just three days earlier they were exalting their God with songs and praises. Now they had quickly forgotten and despair had set in. They had murmured once before on the western shore of the Red Sea (cf. 14:11-12), and sadly enough, there would be numerous other occasions when their frustration and despair would exhibit itself in constant murmuring against God’s chosen men (cf. Num. 14:2; 16:41).

John Mackay: it is God’s normal way of working that entering into glory does not immediately follow salvation. Rather there is a time of preparation to make his people ready for the inheritance he will bestow on them. That was the method he followed in the case of the Israelites. Free they indeed were from the hand of Egyptian control, but they had still much to learn. For one thing their faith was still very weak, and it would take time for their trust in the Lord to develop so that they would be able to face every set of circumstances without hesitation. They were therefore led into times of difficulty and testing so that their spiritual faculties might be developed through use. It was one thing to sing the praises of their Deliverer, and quite another to live out that faith when confronted with the problems of ordinary living. Overcoming the latter challenge would bring them to a clearer understanding of themselves and of what it meant to have faith in the Lord.


A. (:22) Challenge of No Resources – No Water to Drink

“Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea,

and they went out into the wilderness of Shur;

and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water.”

3 days is a long time to go in the wilderness without water.

Wilderness is the place of testing and trial.

They were following the leadership of Moses; had the expectation that under God’s direction, he would be able to lead them in a productive way and provide for their needs. Now that belief was being challenged.

Douglas Stuart: Once across the Red Sea, the Israelites went to Shur. This is a vast, rugged, and sparsely populated wilderness region in the northern Sinai, stretching from what in modern times is the eastern side of the Suez Canal to the Negev of Israel. It was past the boundary fortifications the Egyptians had built to protect Egypt proper and thus represented freedom from the likelihood of any further Egyptian pursuit. One of the demands the Israelites had all along sought from the Egyptians, to go “into the wilderness,” was now a reality. Much remained, however, before the second part of their demand, to serve Yahweh, would be accomplished.

Wiersbe: Expect Trials to Come

They forgot that life is a pilgrimage during which we must learn new lessons and fight new battles. One great victory doesn’t settle everything; we need challenging new experiences that will help us mature and glorify God. Yes, life is a school, and the Lord knows just when to give us an examination.

Spurgeon: Spurgeon’s Sermons, vol.9, p.383, Sermon XXII, Marah; Or, The Bitter Waters Sweetened, “It is a notion, I have no doubt, of very young Christians who still have the shell upon their heads and are scarce hatched, that their trials are over now that they have become winged with faith; they had far better have reckoned that their trials have begun with tenfold force, now that they are numbered with the servants of the Most High.”

B. (:23) Challenge of Deceptive Resources – Water Turned out to be Bitter

“And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah,

for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah.”

Constable: we may in our journey have reached the pools that promised us satisfaction, only to find them brackish. That marriage, that friendship, that new home, that partnership, that fresh avenue of pleasure, which promised so well turns out to be absolutely disappointing. Who has not muttered “Marah” over some desert well which he strained every nerve to reach, but when reached, it disappointed him!

Adrian Rogers: Now, God led them to this place of bitterness by His providence. They were not there by mistake. They were not there by happenstance. They were not there because of bad luck. They were not there because they could not read a map. The way that they got to this place was by the providence of God, for they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They were exactly in the place that God wanted them, by His unfailing providence. . .

Do you know why God brought them to this place of bitterness? It was a place of test. It was a place where God was going to prove them. That wilderness was God’s proving ground. When the Ford people, the Pontiac people, and the Chrysler people, or whomever it is—when they build an automobile, what do they do? They put that automobile out on the proving ground, and they ride it over those rough roads and those potholes. And, they ride it through water; and they ride it through heat; and they ride it through all of these things—hundreds of miles—screeching, turning, twisting, jamming on the breaks, and spinning it around. They want to see: Can it stand the test? Is it safe for the road? They’re proving the automobile. They’re testing the automobile. Now, God, unknown to them, was testing them. You see, God is a strange teacher. He gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. And, that’s what He did to these people. He gave them a test. And, I want you to know how they did on the test? They failed it miserably. . . And, how did they fail the test? Well, they failed the test by murmuring when trouble came. And, I want to tell you something, friend: When God gets ready to prove you—when God gets ready to test you—He’s not going to test you in the good times; because that’s not a test. . . The test is how do you behave when God brings you to bitterness—when God brings you to Marah, where there’s no water. There, the Bible says, God brought them, that He might test them. Now, He didn’t test them that He might know what was in their hearts. He already knew what was in their hearts. He wanted them to know what was in their hearts. He wanted them to understand the weakness and the frailty of their human nature, if, indeed, it was there in them.

C. (:24) Complaints Against Spiritual Leadership

“So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’”

John Hannah: This response is amazing in light of their recent deliverance and triumphal songs of worship. They were so privileged; yet hardship quickly induced them to impugn Moses (cf. Ex. 14:10-12; 16:2; 17:3; Num. 14:2; 16:11, 41).

Wiersbe: To tempt God means to deliberately adopt a disobedient posture and dare Him to do anything about it. On more than one occasion in their wilderness wanderings, the Israelites invited the judgment of God by their obstinate attitude and their persistent grumbling.

Timothy Greene: The people know that to grumble against Moses is really to grumble against the Lord (cf. 14:31) It’s just that Moses is someone they can “get at.” And so instead of saying, “Let us cry out to the Lord and put our trust in Him,” the people choose to say, “Let us make demands of the Lord and put Him to the test.” How often do we do the same thing? How often do we essentially make our own demands of the Lord instead of surrendering ourselves to the Lord’s will and trusting implicitly His promises and His purposes? The people “grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” In other words: “If you are Yahweh’s servant, give us water now.”

Philip Ryken: It is not a sin to bring God our problems. He invites us to talk things over with him through prayer. What is a sin, however, is to have a complaining spirit that poisons our communion with Christ and thus robs us of the joy of serving God.

John Mackay: Grumbling arises from an attitude of dissatisfaction with one’s lot and an inability to do anything about it. Inner discontent expresses itself in hostile complaining. While this reaction shows the ingratitude of the people at all that had been done for them, and also their forgetfulness—it was only days before that they had passed through the Sea—the principal problem is their lack of awareness of the spiritual dimension of their situation. Thinking it was as mundane a matter as lack of water, they give vent to their feelings against Moses. At root their problem was not giving the Lord his due place in their lives—and in their problems. After all, it was the Lord whose instructions Moses was carrying out.


A. (:25a) Cry Out to the Lord for Provision

“Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree;

and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet.”

Deliverance comes from the Lord; we must humbly express our dependence on Him and anticipate that He will provide for our needs. Waters were not just tasteless and able to quench thirst, but sweet and desirable.

Wiersbe: Moses took the right approach, the way of faith: he cried out to the Lord and then followed God’s orders. God can solve our problems by changing things (like making the bitter waters sweet), by giving us something else (like the wells of water at Elim), or by giving us the grace we need to bear with our difficulties and not complain.

Douglas Stuart: Yet another miraculous sign is described here, and in just half a verse. This supernatural demonstration of God’s presence and provision is not notably different in kind from the demonstrations earlier used by Moses to convince the elders of Israel and then the people in general that he had been sent from God. Moses needed something to assure the people that all was well; God told him what to do, and when he did it, God’s care was demonstrated. Speculation about how a tree [NIV: piece of wood] could eliminate mineral salts from a large body of water is just as fruitless as speculation about how the Nile could turn to blood or how a staff could turn into a snake and back again: it was a supernatural, not a natural event; a miracle, not a prescientific application of a natural remedy. Nothing in the text suggests that the tree symbolized anything in particular (such as the tree of life or the like). Rather, Moses’ faith in being willing to do what God commanded him, without understanding why or how it would work, is what is implicitly commended here.

B. (:25b) Change Your Attitude to Embrace God’s Testing

“There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them.”

Cannot continue on in the tone of grumbling and complaining.

Need an attitude adjustment.

Verse 26 gives the content of the statute and regulation referred to here.

Douglas Stuart: The NIV wording “a decree and a law” does not refer to two things but to one; this is a classic case of hendiadys, the expression of a single concept by two or more words used in grammatical parallel.

Timothy Greene: When we put God to the test, our motives are never good. When we put God to the test, we’re being selfish, and proud, and rebellious. But whenever God “tests” us, His purposes are always loving. God’s “testings” are a powerful way—and sometimes the “only” way—of teaching us, and convicting us, and maturing us, and growing us. God’s “testings” open our eyes to our sinfulness, and they also help us to see our need to depend upon Him trust in Him. So when God let the Israelites go three days without water in the desert and then brought them after all that to a supply of water that was undrinkable, He was testing them. What would this reveal about their hearts – about their willingness to trust Him and obey Him? Well, when the people responded by grumbling against Moses, this revealed plenty about their hearts. In similar situations later on, this might have been the end. But on this occasion, God still isn’t finished. God still has plans to use this test, even including the failure of Israel, as an opportunity to teach and grow His people.

C. (:26) Commit to Obedience and the Lord will Deliver

1. Priority of Obedience

“And He said,

‘If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the LORD your God,

and do what is right in His sight,

and give ear to His commandments,

and keep all His statutes,”

2. Prevention of Harm

“I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians;”

3. Provision of the Lord

“for I, the LORD, am your healer.’”

Timothy Greene: If “disease” is a theological word, shorthand for the wrath of God—the curse of God’s law— poured out on sinners, then what does it mean that God is our “healer”? It means that He is the one who forgives us.

Philip Ryken: Now God revealed himself as Yahweh-rophe, the God who heals. In the Old Testament rophe refers to wellness and soundness, both physically and spiritually. It means “to restore, to heal, to cure … not only in the physical sense but in the moral and spiritual sense also.” At Marah God demonstrated his healing power by curing the bitter waters. But this was intended to teach the Israelites to trust him for every kind of healing. Part of God’s identity is wrapped up in his ability to heal. He is the God who forgives all our sins and heals all our diseases (Ps. 103:3).

The power to heal is another confirmation that Jesus is the Savior. Jesus was famous for his healing miracles. He went around “preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23). Everyone Jesus healed received a physical blessing. But this pointed to a deeper reality—namely, that Jesus is the remedy for everything that ails our sin-sick souls. He is the doctor of our salvation. Whatever healing we need—physical healing for disease and disability, spiritual healing for sin, or emotional healing for the wounds we receive from others—we are to look to Jesus. Some of our diseases will not be healed until the resurrection, but they will all be healed, because Jesus has promised to heal them.

D. (:27) Continue to Follow the Lord’s Leading and He Will Abundantly Provide

“Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.”

Happy ending to this stage of their journey.

John Mackay: The name ‘Elim’ means ‘large trees’, referring to the trees which took advantage of the abundant supplies of underground water. This was a very pleasant site indeed, and no doubt all the more welcome after their disappointment with Marah.

Gispen: The numbers may have a symbolic meaning in this context. . . It is perhaps best to think rather of the numbers as symbolizing the fullness of the blessings God bestowed on His people.