Three years ago our conference was held in Carmarthen. If you were there, you’ll remember the excursion which took us, one afternoon, down narrow country lanes barely wider than our hired minibuses. Our destination was the old farmhouse where the hymn writer William Williams lived in the eighteenth century. It’s still owned by his family; and it was quite an experience to stand in their lounge and sing a verse of his best-known hymn: “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”.
I’ve been reading Exodus recently; and I’d like to think Moses would have appreciated that hymn. You know the story of how he answered God’s call, confronted Pharaoh, and led the Israelites, out of Egypt and on towards the land God had promised them. But their journey took them through the Sinai wilderness, and if Moses thought challenging Pharaoh was hard, that must sometimes have seemed easy compared to leading Israel through the desert. He knew the terrain, having lived there for half his life; but to them this was a new experience, as was freedom from slavery; and they didn’t always get it right.
Let’s look at some of the challenges Moses faced in the weeks just after the exodus. First, from Exodus 15:
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter … So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
A couple of chapters later, there’s a similar crisis when, at another location, there was no water – admittedly, no small matter in a desert. That time Moses was told by God to strike a rock with his staff, and then water gushed out. Problem solved – again.
Between these two stories, Exodus 16 concerns food. Here, barely six weeks out from a life of slavery, the Israelites have already started to get nostalgic about a past which was very different from their rose-tinted memories:
The Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Really? Did slaves really have plenty of food freely available? But people forget … and God provided for them in the desert with quail-meat to eat, and the beginnings of a supply of manna which would continue until they reached their new homeland.
Yet their grumbling was compounded with disobedience: first, trying to keep the manna instead of trusting God for fresh supplies, and then going looking for manna on the Sabbath when God told them to rest because he’d provided them two days’ worth the day before. Moses found it frustrating!
The next problem was from outside their community. They were forced to fight the Amalekites, and Israel was only kept safe because of Moses’ faithful prayer throughout the battle. And beyond all this there was the backdrop of continually having to resolve disputes between individuals, until Moses finally received some good advice from his father-in-law and appointed other people to deal with the easy cases, reducing his workload.
Do you ever feel out of your depth? That life’s throwing at you more than you can cope with? Perhaps Moses often felt like that in those first few weeks … and maybe for years afterwards, throughout Israel’s wilderness journey. Well, take heart. Remember that first crisis, the water too bitter to drink? Listen to the resolution: “Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.”
A piece of wood – a branch, maybe a log. How long does it take to make a branch? The Lord had staked out Moses and Israel’s path long before, and was faithfully looking after them. He’s doing the same for you, too; watch for the signs.
Let’s pray using the words of William Williams’ great hymn:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty,
hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore.
Open thou the crystal fountain
whence the healing stream doth flow;
let the fiery, cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through:
be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan
bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell's Destruction,
land me safe on Canaan's side:
songs of praises
I will ever give to thee. Amen.
Until next time, take care – and trust God.