“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years… to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deuteronomy 8:2, 16 NIV)
After Joshua and the Israelites had spent 40 years in the wilderness, God commanded them to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Now the generation of Israelites who came out of the wilderness were very different to their fathers, who had left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. A wayward and ungodly generation had given way to a uniquely godly one. How did this happen? In this post, we will briefly examine how a ‘wilderness experience’ impacts the character and lives of God’s people.
Although the older generation had received the laws and ordinances of God from Moses, their character had been moulded by their experience as slaves in Egypt. Their souls were not receptive to God’s word, which fell like seed on rocky ground. They were outwardly circumcised, but their hearts were full of bitterness, tied to the patterns of this world, stubbornly resistant to God’s instruction and His promises.
In the wilderness, the Israelites were often deprived of basic necessities – food, water, clothing as well as direction – and they were forced to rely on supernatural provision and God’s continual guidance. The conditions were harsh, their resources were scarce, and while God supplied all their needs in a timely manner, He did not always do it in the way that they might have liked. Unbelief marked the response of the Israelites from Egypt to nearly every situation they encountered; they responded to danger with fear, and to scarcity with anger and grumbling. They would not stop complaining even after God sent the heavenly manna, but longed for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt’, forgetting the heavy price they had paid for every crumb from Pharaoh – the backbreaking toil, the lash and abuse. Egypt had totally possessed their minds and hearts, and they were not ready to submit to a new Master, let alone follow Him, even though He had promised to lead them to a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey.
Finally, God sentenced them to a period – forty years – of wandering in the wilderness, until that entire generation had passed away. Now those Israelites were not, by any means, all bad. This was the generation that had left Egypt at God’s command to go to a strange land. Among them was Bezalel, the master craftsman, who built the tabernacle of the Lord according to the pattern He showed Moses, while the rest of the Israelites gave generously from their treasure, and laboured diligently to complete its work. At Rephidim, they bravely resisted the terrible Amalekites who had come to attack them.
God never forgets the past faithfulness of His own people, and hundreds of years later, when He was about to discipline their descendants for backsliding, He mentioned the wilderness experience of their fathers – “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2 NIV). Yet, even His love couldn’t carry them because they refused to follow Him all the way in simple trust. Having taken their first steps along new and unknown paths, they then faltered – being pulled back by their bitter Egyptian experience and crippled by unbelief – and sadly, failed to take hold of their rightful inheritance.
The unbelief, therefore, had to be eradicated from them. The wilderness experience was designed specifically for this purpose – it was God’s operating room, where He performed the divine surgery upon their hearts to heal them, and make them ready to become inheritors of His covenant and promises. What is the evidence that God had successfully effected the desired transformation in the Israelites?
- Joshua’s generation responded differently to their Egyptian experience – their faith being enhanced and not shaken by it. Whenever they recalled their past as slaves, it was no longer with fear and foreboding, or even a longing to return, but Egypt had become for them, a place where they had triumphed over great adversity. They viewed it as a place of former sorrows, and did not wish to return; but equally it was for them the land where God had come to their aid, and performed miracles on their behalf. So their sorrow was swallowed up in joy, and the victories of Egypt had become the wind in their sails to propel them through future storms. In later generations, when enemies came against them, they would pray, “Our God, did you not deliver our fathers? Do it again in our time – renew Your miracles and save us from this danger.”
- Faith had replaced unbelief. “The just shall live by faith”, and the wilderness is the place where we learn to exercise faith. The Israelites found that they could not survive, or even take a step forward, let alone come out of the wilderness except through faith. No other currency is valid here. The props we have ‘in civilisation’ are not to be found in the wilderness. Receiving daily rations of manna begins to seem normal, as also having to break camp to set forth at God’s command. The Israelites needed faith from the first to the last, and by faith they possessed the Promised Land.
- A sanctified self-image had replaced the old damaged one. They saw themselves as conquerors, not grasshoppers. Their vision was transformed, and they began to see events and people through spiritual lenses. The giants of Egypt no longer frightened them. Compare the report their fathers had brought to Moses – “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are… we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:31-33 NIV); with the report of Joshua’s spies – “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us” (Joshua 2:24 NIV).
- Obedience replaced a rebellious attitude. The Israelites that came out with Moses were a quarrelsome lot, who thought nothing of resisting the authority of Moses, or rejecting God’s specific commandments. In contrast, their children found it easy and natural to obey God’s laws, and submitted to Joshua’s leadership unquestioningly, for in the wilderness they had learnt that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). So they were spared the endless struggle and the discipline that their ancestors had to undergo. Whatever God commanded them – whether to cross the flooding waters of the Jordan on foot, or to undergo circumcision at Gilgal, or to circle Jericho for seven days – the Israelites eagerly obeyed. Obedience had become a habit, and they enjoyed its fruits in their generation.
- A willingness to serve replaced selfish ambition. Some of the older generation under the leadership of Korah, a Levite and some Reubenites coveted the position of priesthood given to the descendants of Aaron. When they aggressively challenged Moses, God vindicated him, allowing the earth to split open and swallow the rebels. Their descendants, however, understood the benefits of carrying one another’s burdens. For example, the Reubenites who received their allotted inheritance before the other tribes, could have spared themselves the dangers of crossing Jordan and conquering Canaan. Yet they fulfilled their promise to Moses, going into battle ahead of their brothers until they too had taken possession of their inheritance.
- True worship replaced idolatry. In the wilderness, their eyes were opened to the danger of serving false gods. Their bond with God was strengthened through their trials, for they learned to discern His loving hand in every circumstance, whether good or bad. They recognised the idolatrous practices of their ancestors as acts of unfaithfulness against a loving God, and a snare to their souls. When Joshua demanded that they choose their loyalties – “Choose today whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”, they unhesitatingly replied, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord… We too will serve the Lord, because He is our God” (Joshua 23:15-18 NIV).
- Defeat gave way to victory. The Bible gives no indication that Joshua’s men were better soldiers than their fathers, or more skilled in military tactics. The difference was that, like Moses before them, they had undergone the purifying experience of the wilderness. As they trudged the endless miles in that barren wasteland, they saw that ‘their sandals did not wear out and their clothes did not tear’. They discovered that in every situation, God alone is sufficient. Their renewed attitude ultimately determined their altitude. In the end, the conquest of Canaan and the great giants proved a small thing for them, for they trusted their God to go ahead of them like a ‘devouring fire’. By faith, their “weakness was turned to strength”, and they became powerful in battle, routing armies greater than theirs (Hebrews 11:34).
The wilderness experience – and most Christians will experience periods of suffering, emptiness and barrenness in our lives – is never intended by God as a form of punishment, but is designed for purifying, equipping and transforming us for life on a higher spiritual plane. The unseemly aspects of our character often come to the fore in the initial stages, but as we reach the end of the wilderness, these things are replaced by the ‘better things pertaining to eternal life.’
Father, please help us to trust You in the dry and barren periods of our lives, for we know these things are meant for our glory. In Jesus’ name.