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Humbled, Tested, & Blessed

The Purposes for Israel's Wilderness Wanderings

Israel in wilderness

by Dennis Pollock

The eighth chapter of Deuteronomy has always been very special to me. The children of Israel are on the border of their promised land after forty long years of trudging through the wilderness, and Moses is giving them some words of wisdom just before they enter this land of milk and honey. Moses won't be going with them; God has made it clear that his days and his mission are completed. Joshua will be their new leader and will fill Moses' shoes (or should we say, sandals) as they go to possess the homeland promised them.

In this chapter we find Moses giving Israel an understanding of what they have been through over the past forty years, and the purpose God has had in these difficult, dangerous, and fearful times. Moses tells the Israelites that God has had three primary purposes for the apparent random paths and wasted years as they trudged back and forth through the wilderness for four decades, led by that mysterious cloud that was never content to let them settle down or get too comfortable.

The first purpose we note is the humbling of the people of God. Moses tells Israel: "And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you…" (Deuteronomy 8:2). Three times in this chapter God's humbling process in the wilderness is referenced. We learn from this that God highly prizes humility, and that there is something about needy, desperate, dry, parched, helpless wilderness experiences which prove most useful for the production of humility in His children. Moses goes on to say:

So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Allowed to Hunger

A major component of humbling Israel involved allowing them to hunger. This goes against how many believe God should do things. We often assume that His promises to meet our needs should mean that we will never hunger again, that with the slightest twinge of hunger a banquet of rich foods will be immediately placed in front of us. We will go through our day totally stuffed and fighting off indigestion morning, noon, and night. We expect this to be the case with physical food and every other need or desire that we will ever have.

What we assume and what we actually experience are entirely different. When you walk with Christ you discover that although God is generous and kind, He is not altogether averse to allowing us to sometimes experience some very real hunger pains. He does not always feel the need to come immediately running to our aid the moment we call upon Him, like some cosmic waiter, fearful lest he forfeit his tip by annoying his customers with the slightest delay. We find this revealed in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus said to His disciples: "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way" (Matthew 15:32). Afterward Jesus collects a few loaves of bread and fish, and multiplies them to feed the huge crowd. But what we sometimes don't think about is that these people did not just suddenly get hungry after three days. No doubt on day one they were getting hungry. By day two many were famished. And by day three they were near the point of fainting. Jesus came through with the miracle of provision that they so desperately needed, but He did allow them to hunger for a while before He acted. Jesus, being the perfect expression of the Heavenly Father was revealing an aspect of the ways of God: allowing His children to hunger for a season, and then working dramatically to fully satisfy that hunger.

Let's look at the Deuteronomy passage once more: "So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna…" The process of allowing us to hunger, to become needy, indeed to become desperate is one of the primary ways God humbles us. Needy, desperate, helpless, famished people tend to lose much of the pride they possessed when things were going so well, and their lives and storehouses overflowed with abundance. It is hard to be boastful and proud when you live on the very edge of total collapse.

Give us this Day our Daily Manna

Gathering mannaOf course there was the miraculous provision of the manna which came to Israel every morning, six days each week. Some might suppose that this would induce them toward pride. The Creator of heaven and earth was miraculously providing for them; God was seeing to it that they were fed daily. But the nature and the means of supply served as an antidote to pride and actually worked as a further means of producing humility. First, the manna was gathered in small quantities. It was of a light texture and certainly would not have been nearly so filling as a nice, juicy steak. Secondly, it was never more than they could eat in a day. They were forced to trust God for the next day's meal, and the next and the next. We generally prefer to be able to store up a large supply, capable of feeding us for a week or two at a time, not just barely have enough to feed ourselves for a day, and then be forced to trust God for another miracle the next day. This daily supply demanded that Israel continually look to the Lord for their provision, helpless to do anything on their own to supply themselves. All they could do was trust.

And thirdly the manna was always the same. Such a monotonous diet! The Israelites soon became weary of God's gracious supply, and complained: "We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!" (Numbers 11:5,6). Rather than be thankful for God's provision which kept them alive and healthy, they murmured against it, feeling dissatisfied by this never-changing diet. In our own wilderness experiences, we too often become weary of the monotony of our lives. If only things were a little more exciting! If only God would have mercy on us and grant us some dramatic and thrilling new opportunities to relieve the boredom of doing the same old thing, seeing the same people, getting up at the same time, working at the same job, struggling with the same issues, month after month and year after year!

Israel's humbling was made all the more difficult to bear in that it lasted a long, long time. A brief humbling of a few weeks we can take. Perhaps we can even accept a humbling of a month or two. But Israel's state of constant need, difficult conditions, frequent dangers, and living in total dependence upon God went on for years, until they could hardly remember living any other way. Finally the tally of the years reached forty. Young people who had been teenagers when they left Egypt were now in their fifties. The older generation had all died out. Israel had been thoroughly, completely, scrupulously, and systematically humbled.

"This is a Test!"

But humbling was not the only thing that had been going on. Moses mentioned another divine process that was happening in their wilderness wanderings: they were being tested. He states: "God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not" (Deuteronomy 8:2). The idea of God testing His people is thoroughly Biblical, found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the book of Revelation Jesus tells the church at Smyrna: "The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days…" (Revelation 2:10). That which is in our heart must be revealed and manifested. And nothing does this better than long, hard, tiring, scary, pressure-filled, difficult times. Moses describes the means by which God shepherded His people in the wilderness with these words:

…who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water… (Deuteronomy 8:15)

Understanding that God tests us is of tremendous importance in following Christ. Often, when difficult times spring upon us, our only concern is to try to find relief and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. We will employ any means at hand, lawful, questionable, or clearly unlawful, to disengage ourselves from this terrible wilderness with its dreadful fiery serpents and miserable thirsty land. The quicker we can get out of our wilderness, the better off we'll be.

It might help if we could imagine a group of judges sitting around a polished oak table, observing our actions and our reactions, noting and commenting upon our prayers, our praises, and our complaints. What we fail to understand is that we are being tested! And our godly response to these tests is far more important than our cleverness and ingenuity in finishing the tests with the greatest possible speed. When I was a boy in elementary school, I had a classmate named Daryl who was always the first to finish his tests. I was always pretty methodical when taking tests and was usually one of the last students to finish. But not Daryl. He zoomed through any and every test with blazing speed. In no time at all, his pencil was down, his test never to be looked at again. I used to envy Daryl, but finally I realized that this boy never received very good grades. He didn't finish early because he was so smart or knew the material so well; he just rushed through the tests because he apparently hated to waste his time on such things. After realizing this I quit envying Daryl so much.

During our spiritual wilderness tests, God is typically wanting to reveal heart-attitudes. Israel seemed to continually fail their tests. They griped about the manna, were sometimes ready to get rid of Moses and appoint a new leader who would take them back to Egypt, and became terrified when their water supplies ran low. What they never seemed to understand was that a lack of water was never their problem. The Holy One of Israel was not about to let His children die of thirst in the wilderness. Lack of patience and lack of faith were their real problems. Over and over again they had their tests returned, covered with all sorts of red marks, and with a large "F" at the top. They had failed once again.

To Do You Good

Moses reveals to Israel one further purpose for their wilderness wanderings. It was God's means to do them good and bring them into amazing blessings and abundance. Moses tells the people of Israel that God: "fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end…" (Deuteronomy 8:16). We are not humbled because God delights to bring us low and make us squirm. We are humbled so that when God sees we are ready, He can bless us with His abundant goodness, and know that the blessing will do us no harm. We can carry our abundance with a posture of humility and not be destroyed by it. Dry, fearful, humbling wilderness seasons, complete with fiery serpents and scorpions, are God's means to hollow out reservoirs in our spirits which can contain His grace gifts in such a way that when His favor begins to fall like rain all over our lives, we can resist the temptations toward pride, and become a blessing to the world.

Of course we have a major advantage Israel did not have. Through Jesus Christ we have the very nature of God living inside us, the love that "suffers long and is kind, that does not envy or parade itself." Our task is not to try to imitate Jesus, but rather to abide in Him and trust Him to live His life through us. God will use uniquely designed wilderness seasons in our lives to bring this nature to the surface, but the result is never in any doubt. Through Jesus Christ we can pass all our tests; through Jesus we can make it through our wildernesses and on into our promised lands. He is our faithful and good Shepherd.

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