In Exodus 15, the Israelites camped by the springs of Elim for several weeks, lingering under the palm trees and taking long drinks of cool water. Then it was time to move on. They were on a spiritual journey—a pilgrimage that reveals the pattern of the Christian life.
The spiritual geography of Israel’s exodus from Egypt can be mapped onto the experience of our own souls. Although there are times of refreshing, usually they do not last for long. Soon it is time to head back into the desert, which is a place of testing and spiritual growth.
The Israelites headed deeper into the wilderness. Soon they were tired and hungry, and once again they started to complain. Whining was Israel’s besetting sin. It started when Moses first went to Pharaoh and people complained that he was making their job harder instead of easier (Ex. 5:21). They grumbled at the Red Sea, where they accused Moses of bringing them out into the desert to die. The grumbling continued more or less for 40 years, as they became a nation of malcontents.
Discontent With God
Our own complaints are not caused by our outward circumstances; rather, they reveal the inward condition of our hearts. Really, the Israelites had nothing to complain about. They were not running out of food, but were confusing what they wanted with what they needed. This is often the source of our discontent: thinking that our “greeds” are really our needs.
The Israelites also exaggerated the advantages of their former situation. “Remember the good old days?” They said. Looking back with longing on their time in Egypt, they imagined themselves bellying up to Pharaoh’s buffet. Yet it is doubtful that, as slaves, they were ever treated so lavishly.
Israel’s attitude is a warning against the great sin of complaining. Although they complained to Moses, they were really grumbling against God. By saying that it would have been better for God to let them die back in Egypt, they were really saying that they wished they had never been saved.
We need to be honest about the fact that all of our dissatisfaction is discontent with God. Usually we take out our frustrations on someone else. But God knows that when we grumble, we are finding fault with him. A complaining spirit indicates a problem in our relationship with God.
The irony, of course, is that God always gives us exactly what we need. For the Israelites, this meant manna in the wilderness. For us it means the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.
Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College. Formerly, he served as senior minister of Philadelphia’s historic Tenth Presbyterian Church. He has written or edited more than 40 books, including the popular title Loving the Way Jesus Loves, and has lectured and preached at universities and seminaries worldwide.