Over the last two of years I’ve written a couple of articles concerning the “wilderness” times which Christians face. As I was studying yesterday, I discovered that my understanding of “wilderness” was incorrect. I had the right word in English, but the wrong meaning in the original Hebrew and Greek. This entailed me re-reading the articles and seeing if the basic premises remained intact after the arrival of new information. Fortunately the Holy Spirit was looking after the direction of the writing, so no changes were needed, but for me it was an epiphany of sorts.
In my mind’s eye, I had always envisioned and interpreted a “wilderness” as equal to a “desert,” which is equivalent to ‘a dry desolate place where nothing lives’. Yesterday, I found this was quite incorrect.
The word in the Old Testament used for “wilderness” is the Hebrew מדבּר or midbâr (mid-bawr’) and is used 271 times in the King James Bible, 255 meaning ‘wilderness,’ 13 times ‘desert,’ and 1 time each ‘of,’ ‘south,’ and ‘speech.’ While in the New Testament, the Greek equivalent ἔρημος or erēmos is used 50 times, however the usages are varied. 32 times it means ‘wilderness’, 13 times ‘desert(s)’, 4 times ‘desolate’ and 1 time ‘solitary.’
Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries says of מדבּר or midbâr : It is in the sense of driving; a pasture (that is, open field, whither cattle are driven); by implication a desert; also speech (including its organs): – desert, south, speech, wilderness. In other words, only very occasionally and specifically is wilderness to be understood as a desert – its normal use is a pasture for grazing sheep and cattle. Thus the correct English interpretation of מדבּר or midbâr is not desert, but a wilderness, a grass pastureland, a desolate and uninhabited area. But it was not a place without animals, vegetation or water, rather, it was a place where living was rather subsistence living, than bountiful living. It was a place for shepherds and cattlemen and their livestock. Remember if from First Samuel 17:34 where “David said to Saul, Your servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock.” It was in this grass pasturelands, this wilderness, David was raised and trained, as was Moses. Exodus 3:1 says, “Moses kept the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back side of the desert [מדבּר / midbâr = the wilderness]. And he came to the mountain of God, to Horeb….”
Yes, two of the greatest Old Testament characters experienced extensive times in the wilderness. And of the New Testament? The same: Matthew 3:4b says of John the Baptist “… and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Therefore it is clear that John lived in the grassland wildernesses which supported vegetation which in turn supported bees and locusts. And finally to The Lord Jesus Himself of whom we read in Mark 1:13, “and He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him.” Again we see both John the Baptist and Jesus spending time in a wilderness, a grass pastureland, a midbâr; not an arid, waterless, desolation in which no living thing existed, there were large and small animals and all that animals need to survive.
To me, this was a breakthrough in my understanding of the wilderness periods which the Lord takes us through for testing, correction, strengthening and education. It made me think again about the Israelites and their 40 years in the wilderness, as opposed to 40 years in the ‘desert,’ as my mind had previously imagined. It is a harshness mitigated by the grace of the Lord.
While the barren arid desert is a place of death, where any form of existence is indeed a God sent blessing, the wilderness, by comparison is a place of subsistence where we can survive. The whole point of the wilderness experiences which the Lord subjects His people to, is that we are not meant to be there for 40 years, but that while we are there we are free to concentrate on Him and rely on Him and learn from Him! The Israelite’s trip was meant to take them through the wilderness to the Promised Land in less than two weeks. The trouble was, they failed miserably all the tests of the Lord along the way.
As I look at the Christian Church today, I see the same signs of failure. Seekers arrived into the testing and training wilderness and get baptised, but many never move on and still live in the wildernesses of their spiritual immaturity. I can see God still provides them manna and water and looks after them, but I believe they, like the mature Israelites of Moses’ generation, will die in the wilderness and never see their promised land. They just keep failing God’s tests and settle for being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather than seeking to be filled with the POWER of the Spirit as Jesus was. Remember what happened to Jesus: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…… and Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee”(Luke 4:1, 14a).
What are the Wilderness tests? A quick review of the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt is quite educational:
The first thing the Israelites came to was the crossings of the Red (the Reed) Sea. To achieve freedom, they had to pass through the waters, just as new Christians today need to pass through the waters of baptism. Like the Israelites became free after the Red Sea passage, after baptism, Christians become new persons, freed from their old lives. God gave them and us victory so that in faith, we may venture forward, And as we test our faith, out faith will grow!! Yes, Faith needs to be tested to grow – that is God’s plan, that is the purpose of our visits and sojourns in the wildernesses.
Marah’s Bitter Waters:
The next test God gave was a shortage of water. Exodus 15:23“And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, because it was bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah.” Unfortunately, the result of the water shortage test was predictable as the next verse says “And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?” Rather than trusting in the Lords that He will provide them all water to drink – the Israelites complained, murmured, and began to rebel against the Lord God. Such murmurings of discontent have many dangers today for the Church, as they did for the Israelites:
- Murmurings stop us seeking or looking to the future and blind us to where we are now. Murmurings stop growth and development as we look at ourselves in self pity.
- Murmurings cause doubt. Instead of looking to God for either the present of the future, we look back at the past and wish… if only this…. if only that.
- Murmurings put us under a self curse. Remember, whatever you pray for, God may well give, and that includes things which are not good for us and which He does not want for us. Numbers 14:27-30 explains this as God says:
“How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmurs against Me? I have heard the murmurings of the sons of Israel which they murmur against Me. Say to them, As I live, says Jehovah, as you have spoken in My ears, so I will do to you. Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against Me, you shall certainly not come into the land which I swore to make you live in, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.”
God, of course had a solution to heal and sweeten the bitter water of Marah and gave it to Moses, so they could drink of the waters and in the process, became Yahweh Rophe, the Lord who Heals.
Elim’s Abundant Blessings:
God can and does test by goodness’s and this is one example. After the Red Sea crossings and the thirst of Marah, they came to an blessed place, as Exodus 15:27 says “Then the people travelled to Elim. At Elim there were twelve springs of water and 70 palm trees. So the people made their camp there near that water.” All was good, but nobody thought to thank the Lord for His kindnesses to them. Again the Israelites failed and did not thank or praise the Lord for His abundant blessings upon them. Instead, they took the Lord for granted. How ought we to respond?
Deuteronomy 28:47 answers that saying “The LORD your God gave you many blessings. But you did not serve him with joy and a glad heart.” What were the results of this failure? v48 continues “So you will serve the enemies the LORD will send against you. You will be hungry, thirsty, naked, and poor. He will put a load on you that cannot be removed. You will carry that load until he destroys you.” Be warned, the Lord does not change!
After leaving Elim, and “on the 15th day of the second month after leaving Egypt, then the whole community of Israelites began complaining again. They complained to Moses and Aaron in the desert, [in the midbâr, the wilderness.]” Again, murmurings, this time for food, condemning themselves saying “It would have been better if the LORD had just killed us in the land of Egypt. At least there we had plenty to eat. We had all the food we needed. But now you have brought us out here into this desert to make us all die from hunger.” So God provided manna and quail, and “the people ate the manna for 40 years, until they came to the land of rest, that is, until they came to the edge of the land of Canaan” (Exodus 16:35). There is no sign or evidence of the Israelites thanking the Lord for the manna or the quail, but a complaint from God in v28 asking “How long will you people refuse to obey my commands and teachings?“
Rephidim’s Waterless Sin:
As we read in Exodus 17:1-2“… they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they turned against Moses and started arguing with him. They said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why have you turned against me? Why are you testing the LORD?””
Again rebellion and a lack of appreciation who the Lord God was. Grumble, grumble, grumble was all they did. There is no evidence of faith, that the Lord who had sustained them and provided for them so far, would continue to do so. Even after God provided water miraculously from a rock, there was no thanks or appreciation in the ranks of the Israelites.
Rephidims’ Amalekite Assault:
Just as the Israelites were watering themselves the Amalekites attacked them (Exodus 17:8), but the Israelites were the victors and the Lord answered the prayers of His people. Thus the lord god became known as Jehovah Nissi – “the lord, our Banner.”
Satan continues to do the same today, a surprise attack when you’re weak or vulnerable, busy with something else and not focussed.
Brothers and Sisters, it is very important for each of us to understand the reason and purpose for our wilderness time. We need to know what God wants to accomplish in us during that time, so that we can work with Him and get ourselves out of there as soon as possible.
The Israelites failed God’s tests in spectacular fashion, and we need to be certain we do not repeat their mistakes. Remember what God has done for us in the past and give thanks and praise for it, knowing that he can do the same, or more, again for us. We have a choice to follow our own fleshy ways, or submit our will to the Father. We have a choice to move forward, or stay where we are in rebellion and self pity. But be sure, the choices we make in our wilderness periods determine our future! As it was true for the Israelites, it is true for the Christians. Amen.