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"Making the Bitter Times Sweet"
(Delivered Sunday, April 21, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
This morning, I'd like us to look together from a passage in Exodus. It's not a well-known passage of Scripture. But I have grown to love it for the lessons of faith it has taught me; and I hope you will grow to love it too.
This passage describes an event that occurred to the people of Israel shortly after they had been delivered from their bondage in Egypt and had begun their trek to the Promised Land. We read,
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This passage came home to me in a practical way a few months ago. I had been thinking through this passage one evening because of a Bible study I was preparing to lead. It had grown very late, and I needed to go to bed. But before I went to bed on this particular night, I noticed that one of our bathroom sinks was dripping. The washer (I assumed) was going out; and I didn't have a washer to replace it. So I tried pressing down on the knob to stop the drip. I'm not sure why I thought that might stop the drip; but I was, of course, mistaken. The dripping continued.
I didn't want the water to be dripping all night long; so I got a screwdriver and tried to loosen the screw that held the knob in place so I could take a look at the washer. But all I did was to hopelessly strip the screw - which not only failed to stop the drip, but turned the drip into what was now a steady trickle.
It was now very, very late; I was very, very tired; and I was developing a very, very bad attitude problem over this faucet. I got angry and pressed the palm of my hand down hard on the knob; thinking that if I pushed hard enough, I could turn it tightly and at least turn the trickle back into a drip. That's when I heard something in the knob snap. Now, not only did the drip continue, but the water would not shut off no matter which way I turned the knob. It became an endlessly revolving faucet knob. That's when, in my frustration, I said: "Oh, great!! What's going to happen next? Is the stupid sink going to explode or something?"
I reached under the sink and shut the water off (as it's my usual habit to do the intelligent thing last), stomped off angrily to bed, and meditated on this passage. That, by the way, is how God brought its significance home to me.
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Have you ever gotten so frustrated that you've muttered something like what I muttered? One thing after another, it seems, is going wrong; and no matter what you do, things are getting worse and worse. Finally, one thing too many goes wrong; and you lose your perspective and say something out of anger like, "Oh, great!! What's going to go wrong next?!!" That's basically, in spirit, what the people of Israel were exclaiming in this morning's passage.
Only a few days prior, the people of Israel had seen God perform a great miracle with a whole lot of water. The Egyptian army was closing in on the people of Israel after they had been delivered from their bondage. But God came to their rescue. He parted the Red Sea, so that the people could cross safely on dry land; and then, He allowed the sea to close up again over the Egyptian army. The Bible says, "So the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Thus Israel saw the great work which the LORD had done in Egypt; so the people believed the LORD and His servant Moses" (14:30-31). Chapter 15 contains the songs of victory that the people of Israel sang, in celebration of God's mighty act of deliverance.
But it was only three days later that the people faced another trial involving water. After they crossed the sea, they went eastward into the wilderness of Shur. Perhaps on the way, Moses reminded some of the people of the story of Hagar. She was the Egyptian maidservant of Abraham's wife, Sarah. Hagar had given birth to Abraham's son Ishmael; but Sarah was resentful toward her and sent her away. The Angel of the Lord met Hagar by "the spring on the way to Shur" (Gen. 16:7); and perhaps the reminder of this "spring on the way to Shur" held out some hope of refreshment for the weary people of Israel.
But they traveled three days distance into the wilderness of Shur and found no such spring of water. The terrain was hot and dusty; and the people were exhausted - and perhaps emotionally drained as well. With each new turn of the trail, and with each descent down the hills, the hope for a refreshing drink of water was disappointed.
Finally, they came to a particular region, and found a spring of water. Can you imagine how relieved the tired people were to see that? Perhaps someone staggered up to the pool of water, dropped to his knees, and took a gulp - only to spew it out in disgust! "Blechh!! This water is bitter!! We can't drink this!! It's nasty stuff!!"
By the way; that's how this region got its name. The Hebrew word Marah means "bitter". Do you remember the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi? Naomi had suffered the loss of her husband, and then the loss of her two sons. One of her daughters-in-law returned to her own people. Poor old Naomi (whose name means "pleasant") returned to her home-town with nothing but her widowed young daughter-in-law Ruth. There was no family awaiting them, no means of support to sustain them, and no apparent hope for the future. Her life had turned out to be a grievous tragedy; and so when her towns-people saw her and said, "Is this Naomi?" - (that is, "Is this the one called 'Pleasant'?") - she replied, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me" (Ruth 1:20).
For the weary people of Israel to call this watery place "Marah", it must have expressed the depth of frustration and bitterness they felt. They had travelled for three long days through the wilderness, searching for water to quench their thirst. They encountered frustration after frustration at every turn. And when they finally found a spring of water, it was putrid and undrinkable. The Bible tells us that the people complained against Moses ("murmured" against him, as it is in the King James Version), and said, "What shall we drink?" It was as if they were saying, "Nice going, Moses! Way to lead! You bring us out here to this fabulous "Promised Land" you told us about, with all the wonderful springs of water along the way. And then, when we finally DO find some water, it turns out to be nothing but a swamp! Oh, great!! What's going to go wrong next?!!"
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That's what I laid in bed and thought about after getting so frustrated over the broken bathroom faucet. My first thought to myself was, "You know, this whole stupid evening is turning out to be about nothing but water! Just watch; a stupid water line will probably break in the night, and I'll probably wake up in the morning to find this whole stupid house flooded with water! Why didn't the Israelites just wander over to our house? Thanks to me, they could have had all the stupid water they wanted!"
But as I laid in bed and began to seriously meditate on this passage, God used it to rebuke the grouchiness in my heart. I was saying the same sort of bitter things that the unfaithful people of Israel were saying. I, like they, was undergoing a trial; but I was not paying attention to what it was that God was seeking to teach me through it.
How about you? Are you undergoing a frustrating time in your life right now? Perhaps it's a minor trial - like my trial with the bathroom faucet. Or perhaps it's something far more serious than that. Maybe, you're finding that this frustrating circumstance you're going through - whatever it is - is causing bitterness to arise in your heart. Maybe you're saying, in your own way, "Oh, great! What's going to go wrong next?"
I invite you to stop right now and think about what it is that's frustrating you. I would encourage you to not set that thing aside this morning as we study this passage together; but rather, to bring that frustrating circumstance in mind with you as we examine God's word. God is seeking to teach you something about that circumstance through this passage. He is letting you know what you need to do in order to turn that bitter time into something sweet and productive in your life.
This story of the people of Israel, and their encounter with the bitter waters of Marah, teaches us that there are three things we must do when we encounter "bitter times". The first thing that this passage teaches us is that we must ...
1. LEARN TO SEE THE 'BITTER TIMES' AS A TEST FROM GOD.
Verse 25 says that God had made a statute and an ordinance with the people of Israel at the waters of Marah; "and there He tested them".
God had far more in mind than to have simply delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt. He wanted these people, whom He had saved, to enter into a covenant relationship with Him. He was very shortly going to gather them before Mount Sinai, and say to them, "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:4-6).
When God saves a people, He saves them so that they would live for Him. And so, in order to equip the people of Israel, and train them to live for Him in the land He promised to them, God allowed them to be tested and tried by circumstances that help make them into the people He wants them to be. In Deuteronomy 8, near the end of Moses' life - some forty years after this incident - Moses told the generation that followed this one;
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; God has not saved us from our sins simply to rescue us and then be done with us. He has saved us to conform us into the image of His own Son Jesus Christ. God said that the people of Israel were set apart to be "a kingdom of priests and an holy nation". And the apostle Peter says this about those who have trusted in Christ: "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).
And God's way of conforming us to the image of His Son and of equipping us to live fruitful lives for Him is by the training and character development that comes through trials. James writes, "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its perfect work that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4).
Let me suggest three principles this passage reinforces to us concerning the times of testing that come into our lives - including the one you're perhaps going through right now. First, we need to see that God is sovereign over those tests. They are never outside of His complete control. The encounter that the Israelites had with the bitter waters of Marah was not an accident, but was something that was completely under God's sovereign control. God later proved to them that this was an intentional time of testing by the very simple fact that an oasis waited for them just seven to ten miles away.
The time of testing that you're undergoing right now is also under God's sovereign control. You need to remember that, as Paul wrote, "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28). It's very easy to forget this during the time of trial. All that you might be able to see is the trial itself; and you might forget that God's sovereign hand is behind it all. But the fact is that He will never permit a trial to come into your life unless it remains under His sovereign control, and that is custom-made to accomplish everything that He intends for it to accomplish. All trials that come to you must pass the approval one One who loves you eternally, who is all-powerful to protect you, and who has infinite wisdom with respect to your needs. You need never fear trials when they come to you on those terms.
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Another principle this passage reveals to us about the times of testing that come into our lives is that those tests are built on lessons that God has already taught us. All good teachers know that a learner must hang "new" information on "hooks" that have already been established in the learner's mind. And our God is a master-teacher when it comes to the trials in our lives. His sovereignty controlled, custom-designed trials are meant to call us back, in new and fresh ways, to truths about Himself that He has already established within us.
You can see this in the experience of the people of Israel. It wasn't a mere coincidence that the first test the people encountered, after having just been rescued through water, was one that itself involved water. They had seen that God was mighty enough to cause the great waters of the Red Sea to part for them. They should have been able to deduce that the same sovereign God was able to provide all the fresh water they needed - even in the wilderness of Shur.
When I think of this, I remember the lessons that Jesus sought to teach His disciples through the feeding of the multitudes. Do you remember how Jesus feed five thousand men with just five loaves and a few fish? And do you remember that they gathered up twelve baskets of fragments afterwards? (Mark 6:30-44). A short time later, the same disciples were faced with another hungry multitude - four thousand people. Once again, Jesus tested them to see if they would know what to do. But they forgot the lesson that they should have learned from the first feeding. "How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?", they asked (8:4). And Jesus responded by feeding the four-thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. And once again, the disciples gathered up seven large baskets of fragments with their own hands when it was all over (v. 9).
They had seen Jesus feed the five thousand; and by the time they were face with the four thousand, they should have known what Jesus could do. But they failed to remember the lessons they had been taught about Him. Later on, Jesus was in a boat with them and warned them to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod" (v. 15); and they still didn't get it. They discussed the meaning of Jesus' warning among themselves and said, "It is because we have no bread." And Jesus said,
The disciples had sufficient experience with Jesus' power to multiply bread and fish, so that when faced with a similar situation, they should have known what He could do. Likewise, the children of Israel had sufficient experience with God's power over water to know that He was able to provide water from the rock if necessary.
Now, think about the trial you're going through. If you think about it carefully, you'll realize that God is not introducing something entirely knew to you. Think back, and you'll find that He has already taught you what you need to know to pass the test He is allowing you to undergo. You can be confident that this test - and any test that He allows you to experience in the future - is built on truths that our sovereign God has already taught you about Himself. Go back and recall those truths He has taught you; and you'll be equipped to gain the most out of the trial you're now undergoing.
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A third principle we learn about tests from this passage is that the tests God permits us to undergo are purposeful in their intention. They're designed by God to prepare us for some new aspect of His grace toward us. The test that the people encountered at the waters of Marah was intended to prepare them to enter into the covenant relationship with the One who saved them. The Bible says that God "made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there He tested them" (v. 25). The test was related to the "statute and ordinance" that He was making for them.
What statute and ordinance was that? In verse 26, God tells them, "If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you." Review the terms of the agreement. Would they diligently heed the voice of the Lord their God? Would they do what was right in His sight? Would they give ear to His commandments? Would they keep all His statutes? If so, then He pledges Himself to them and promises not to put any of the diseases on them which they saw Him bring on the Egyptians. And the test they were undergoing was designed to prepare them for that agreement. He calls Himself "the LORD who heals you"; and then, He proved that He truly was the God who heals them by allowing them to taste the bitter waters, and then healing the waters before their very eyes.
No one likes tests. If we truly enjoyed them, they'd have to be called something other than "tests". But I have a theory about our tests. I believe that, if our heavenly Father were to permit us to make a temporary trip to His heavenly throne and see - just for a second - the glorious eternal riches that our trials are intended to prepare us for, and then bring us back to the earth to live out the rest of our days in anticipation, we would never again complain about our trials. In fact, I think we would welcome our tests and trials as that which prepares us for that glorious inheritance.
Do you agree with that theory? Well; isn't that what Paul meant when he said, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18)? I believe that's what he was thinking about when he said, "For our light affliction, which is for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Dear brothers and sisters, our God does everything He does with a sense of purpose. He has a wise and wonderful purpose in the test He has permitted to come your way. He is seeking to teach you and train you for something yet to come - something far more infinitely wonderful and glorious then you could ever imagine. This is another principle concerning tests that this passage reinforces to us.
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So then, the first thing this passage teaches us to do in order to turn our "bitter times" into something "sweet" is to remember that those "bitter times" are tests from God - tests that are under His constant control, tests that are based on truths about Himself that we've already been taught, and test that train us for better things yet to come.
But it's not enough to simply know this. A second thing this passage teaches us is that we should ...
2. CALL OUT TO GOD IN THOSE 'BITTER TIMES'.
The people took one gulp of the waters of Marah, and they began immediately to murmur against Moses. That's our usual pattern, isn't it? We murmur and complain against the thing that we think is causing our bitterness. During my night-time battle with the sink, I was talking to a whole lot of things that couldn't talk back! "Come on, you stupid faucet!" "Oh please, little screw; don't strip on me now!!" "Knock it off, you lousy drip!" That's not unusual; since I have also talked to many car parts too.
But consider Moses. I'm sure that the people were the cause of his frustration. But he didn't talk back to the people. Instead, he cried out in the only direction that would do any good. And things got better as soon as he did. We read that the people complained to Moses; "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" (v. 25).
This "tree" has generated a lot of interesting speculations. There are stories about Arab chiefs in that part of the world that claim they can make bitter waters drinkable by putting certain kinds of thorn bushes into the water. Others have suggested that certain kinds of aromatic plants could be used to "mask" the bad taste of bitter water so as to make its bitterness unnoticeable. But how could Moses have known to throw a tree into the bitter waters? How could one little tree make enough bitter waters sweet for so many people? In the end, the only way to explain what happened was that it was a miracle. The Bible tells us of a similar miracle in the story of the prophet Elisha. The people of Jerico came to him and said, "Please notice, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the ground barren."
Why God chose to use a tree to heal the waters of Marah will perhaps always remain a mystery to us; but from a practical standpoint, it's not an important mystery. More important, however, is what happened when Moses cried out to God. We find that, as soon as he cried out to God in the midst of his trial, (1) God showed Moses what to do - even if it was something that didn't seem to make sense, like casting a specific tree into the water; (2) God performed a miracle in the course of Moses doing what he was told; and (3) God proved His faithfulness to those the one who cried out to Him. It was, in the end, all God's doing; and it all came about when Moses cried out to Him.
Have you done this in the trial that you're facing? Perhaps you've cried out in frustration over the "bitter time" you're facing; but have you cried out to God in prayer for help, guidance and strength? This is one of the great lessons this story from Moses is intended to teach us. You may not know what else to do, but you at least know to do that much. And that one thing is more than enough. God says, in Psalm 50:15, "Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me." The very first thing we should "do" to help make "bitter times sweeter" is to call out to God in confident trust.
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This leads us, finally, to one more thing this passage has to teach us. This, to me, is an especially precious truth from this passage. We make "bitter times sweeter" when we ...
3. TRUST THAT GOD PREPARES A TIME OF REFRESHING WHEN THE "BITTER TIMES" ARE OVER.
I find great encouragement in reading about what God had in store for His people immediately after their time of testing at the waters of Marah; "Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the waters" (v. 27). Now remember, this oasis wasn't needed in order to quench their desperate thirst. They had already been refreshed at Marah; because the bitter waters had been made "sweet" there, and everyone was able to drink all that they needed. This oasis God had prepared for them - just a short distance away - was something extra! It was an unknown and unexpected blessing - just around the corner.
The God who is in control of the trials that come our way is a very compassionate teacher. When the lesson is over, He often provides an unexpected time of refreshing for us. We hopefully retain the lesson God sought to teach us; but the time of refreshing that follows is often so wonderful that we forget the bitterness. Sometimes, that time of refreshing is relatively brief - just enough to give us a time of rest in preparation for the next lessons to be learned. And sometimes - let's be honest - it may be true that the time of refreshing doesn't really come until heaven. But the thing to have confidence in is that it does eventually come.
Think again about that trial you're undergoing right now. It's "bitter"; but somewhere on the other side of it - perhaps not all that far away - is a time of rest and refreshment that God is preparing for you. Trusting God for that time of refreshing will also do much to help make the "bitter times" sweet.
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Sadly, the people of Israel didn't learn the lesson God was seeking to teach them from this experience. It wasn't too long after this that the people again searched in vain for water, and gathered in complaint against Moses (Numbers 20:2ff). They didn't learn the lesson, but may we not fail to learn!
Are you going through a bitter time? Then remember these three things: (1) learn to see it as a test from God; (2) call out to God in the midst of that test; and (3) trust that God will provide times of refreshing when it's over. Do these things, and the bitter times will indeed be sweeter.
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