Lessons of the wilderness: Shur, Sin, Rephidim

We will now, beloved young Christian, in dependence on the teaching of the Holy Spirit, look at the lessons of Shur, Sin, and Rephidim. (Ex. 15-17.) We shall find each present a distinct, solemn, yet precious, lesson.

And first the Lesson of the wilderness of Shur. "So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea; and they went out into the wilderness of Shur: and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water." These are few words, but what a depth of meaning there is in them — so soon after the triumphant song of redemption, only three days' journey from the place of death and deliverance — the Red Sea. And now to find no water. Have ye counted the cost? The cross of Christ, as separating us from the world, is a very solemn matter. "But God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the World." What was so debased and contemptible in the eyes of the world as a person crucified. And this was what the world was to the apostle, and what he was to the world.

The three days' journey very aptly illustrates the exact place into which the believer is brought. Dead with Christ and risen with Him. Yes, the three days' journey, from death to resurrection, has separated you, my fellow-traveller, for ever from Egypt, that is the world. But you say, It looks very strange that the redeemed, who had just been shouting the song of triumph, should be so soon distressed and find no water? Was not this just the way the young Christians at Thessalonica had been brought to God, "Having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost?" (1 Thess. 1:6.)

Now mark, this is the first lesson after redemption; and if my reader has redemption through the blood of Christ, even the forgiveness of sins, do not be surprised if you find, the first journey you take in the wilderness, that there is no water. Nay, I believe this is a sure sign that you are redeemed. Do you find it so, or can you still drink of the world's pleasures and be satisfied? Ah, if so, do not be deceived: you are still in Egypt, still in the iron grasp of Satan, who leads you captive at his will. Do not be offended if I tell you the truth. Must I not be faithful? Oh how many are thus going down to perdition, with a lie in their right hand! But with you, my dear young Christian, it is not so. The things that once so pleased you yield no satisfaction now. I cannot express it like Scripture. You find no water. Solemn lesson of Shur. The New Testament is very strong on this subject: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (Read 1 John 2:15-17.) And again, "Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever, therefore, will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4.)

And when we think of the amazing price of our redemption, can we wonder that our separation from the world lying in the wicked one should be so entire? But at such a time, when you find no water, nothing to satisfy, then beware of murmuring.

And the next lesson of Shur is equally striking. "And when they came to Marah they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter." This was trying indeed — more trying than finding no water. How often this is the case with the young believer, aye, and the old one too. We grasp at that which we think will satisfy and only find bitter disappointment. Have you not found it so? Have you tried the pleasures, or the riches, or honours of the world, and only found bitterness? You are invited to a gay party. Once this would have been very delightful; but now how bitter to the taste of the new nature. How utterly disappointed you return home. Have you set your heart on some earthly object? You are permitted to obtain it; but how empty. Yea, what you expected to yield such satisfaction only yields bitter sorrow and emptiness. Oh, beware of murmuring. Not one thing has happened to you but what is common to the children of God. This world is a wilderness wide, where there is not a tree in it yielding satisfying fruit. But there is a tree. "The Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet." Yes, "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my Beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste." (Song 2:3.) Surely that tree is Christ. Ah, nothing can sweeten the bitter cup of this life, but sitting beneath His shadow. O what delight, what sweetness to the taste of the new-born babe!
How simple then this second lesson of the wilderness of Shur. Are you, my young fellow-christian, beginning to find the waters of this life bitter? Come then near to Jesus: sit at His feet: His fruit shall be sweet to your taste: His words shall be sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. Are the things of the world sweet or bitter? Is Christ to you like the one precious tree, laden with sweetest fruit, where all beside is barrenness and waste? Then hearken to the precept of the Lord, to His people Israel. And mark, this was before the law was given. And certainly it could have nothing to do with their redemption — that was all finished. So with you, my reader; if you are a believer, your redemption is as finished as theirs was. Your works can have nothing to do with that. Neither are you under law; but O how much present blessing depends on your hearkening diligently to the voice of the Lord. He is a rock that can never be moved and His shadow the place of perfect security. But to sit at His feet, to hear diligently His words! And as He says, If ye love me, keep my commands. Not as a servant under law; but as a son, filled with the Spirit and moved by divine love. Yes, most precious and necessary is this obedience of faith.

Elim, was a sweet, green spot in the wilderness, with its twelve wells of water and threescore and ten palm trees. "And they encamped there by the waters." This does so remind one of Jesus, in the midst of His twelve apostles and seventy disciples. Wherever we see Him, He is the one to whom the thirsty may come and drink. May we ever encamp near the wells of living waters.

But I go on now to the Wilderness of Sin. (Ex. 16.)

Every step in the journey brings out the utter worthlessness of man and the sovereign grace of God. The whole congregation murmur sadly: and they said, "Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." This was very sad — but not more so than the terrible sin of unbelief that now so easily besets the believer. One would think, with such a bright future before us, we should have no lingering looks at the world behind. Well, and what was God's answer to this murmuring? Amazing grace! "Then said the Lord to Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day," &c. And now it is worthy of special remark, that the Sabbath of Jehovah's rest was given before the law, in connexion with the eating of this bread from heaven. It was first given to Israel as privilege, not by command, or on the principle of law. And here the people rested on the seventh day: and I am not aware of another single instance where the people rested on the Sabbath day. There is something very striking in this. From Adam to Moses, yea, to this very chapter, that is, for more than 2500 years, the Spirit never uses the word sabbath, either in its root, or in any of its forms. And here, in the wilderness of Sin, it is God's gift to His redeemed people, in perfect grace. And on the principle of grace, before the law is given, they rest on the seventh day. Immediately they are under law, the Spirit never once repeats the words, "They rested on the Sabbath day." I would not have you forget that God expressly gave Israel the Sabbath on the ground of redemption on that very account; as is declared, "And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day." (Deut. 5:15.) Thus they had the sabbath because they were redeemed; but they only rested on it, or enjoyed it, by gathering the heavenly Manna: and this on the principle of pure grace. Bread from heaven! Oh may the Spirit of God open the understanding of my reader to see Christ, the bread of life, in all this.
Let it be well understood, that the only ground on which God gives rest to the guilty sinner is through the redemption blood of Christ. Yes; He looks on that precious Lamb "who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 5.) "We have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins." This gives peace. This peace is God's gift in pure grace. As the sabbath was God's gift in grace to every Israelite, so this peace, this rest of God, is God's gift to every believer who has redemption through the blood of Christ. But then you say, "If so, why do not I enter into this rest and enjoy peace with God?" To that question this lesson of the wilderness is a solemn reply. Manna was a type of Christ as the bread of life. The redeemed from Egypt fed upon it. But they gathered a certain rate every day. Is this the case with you, my reader? Are you gathering the sweet manna, Christ, every day, in His precious word? If you had no time to eat your daily food, would you wonder if you were soon out of health? If you have no time to gather up the crumbs of life in the precious word, is there any wonder that your spiritual life declines? Oh read the sweet words of Jesus on this subject! He says, "I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger, and he that believes on me shall never thirst." Do you thus come to Him for your daily portion? Each Hebrew had an omer — about five pints of manna; every man according to his eating. The greatest eater had no lack, and he that gathered most had none to spare. Just as with the lamb, every man according to his eating, so with the manna, every man according to his eating. Our deepest need as sinners was met by the blood of the Lamb; and the deepest, daily need of our souls is met, if feeding on Christ. No doubt it is very blessed, on the first day of the week, to meet together to break bread — to remember Jesus — to show forth His broken body — to take that cup which shows forth His shed blood — by that one loaf to express the one body of Christ. Indeed, I would press this. But there is the daily portion — the constant need of the soul for spiritually feeding on Christ. In so short a paper I can only ask you to read John 6:30-71 in connexion with this subject.

How very simple then this divine picture. God gave the bread from heaven. The redeemed Israelite gathered it. "A small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground and they gathered it every morning." "It was white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey." O that precious, spotless Christ, so small and despised in the eyes of the world! But when the child of God gathers the manna in the morning, how refreshing the dew of the early dawn, as the Spirit reveals Jesus to the soul in the blessed word. And God gave them enough for the sabbath, and so they rested. God has given you rest, my fellow-believer. Do you not enjoy it? Do you not rest? Then you have not gathered enough manna. Read the word more. Think more on Christ. If the Israelite exclaimed, What is it? well may you say, What is it? — Christ my portion.

Just as God gave them twice as much as they could eat, so they rested on the seventh day. Even so by the gift of His beloved Son He has more than met our utmost need. Thus they rested by gift; not by command. And thus in Christ we rest by grace, and not by works. Some did not believe, and went out to seek manna, but found none. So is it with us when ever we wander from God's eternal gift.

There was a great difference between having the sabbath and resting. There is as great a difference between having peace with God and enjoying that peace. Would you enjoy that sweet rest in God? Then gather the manna — feed on Christ. As the dewdrop contained the manna, so will the Spirit take of the things of Christ and show them to you. Oh would you rest? Then grieve not that Holy Spirit by whom you are sealed. The taste of the manna was like wafers made with honey. And what so sweet to the taste of a child of God as the fellowship of the Spirit, in communion with Christ? Oh do, my young Christian, seek this holy, sweet enjoyment of Christ! Does the prospect of being for ever with the Lord gladden your heart? Then earnestly seek for much communion with Him in spirit whilst here below.

We will now look at the third stage of Israel's journey — Rephidim. And again there was no water. Ah! it is hard for the flesh to bear this — to find at every step no water. Yet such is the journey of this wilderness. Think of the path of our precious Lord; and think what awaited His servant Paul in every city. (Acts 20.) And such is our path, my fellow-traveller, in proportion as we are true to Him.

And again (for the people were not yet under law) the Lord met their grievous murmurings in the fullest grace. The Rock in Horeb was smitten, and out came water that all the people might drink. Moses called the name of that place, Temptation and strife. Oh! my young traveller, when your heart is ready to murmur — when Satan whispers, You had better give up the journey, and return to the world — when every cistern fails — when you are ready to sink in temptation and strife — when your thoughts are all in confusion — ah! when Satan seems let loose against you — yea, when everything seems against you; oh! at such a time remember the Rock that was smitten for you. Yes, at such a time look off to Jesus. Was ever sorrow like His sorrow? and was ever love like His? You will be amazed to find wicked, unbelieving thoughts arise in your mind.

And "then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim." Now, as this is the first and only battle of Israel whilst they remained under grace, before the law was given, it should be studied with the deepest interest by us, who are not under law, but under grace. I do not think this battle of Rephidim typifies our conflict with wicked spirits so much: that we shall get when we see Israel in the land of Canaan. But I rather look at this Rephidim as showing us a picture of the sudden attack of temptation through the lusts of the flesh. It was just as they said, "Is the Lord among us or not?" — at the very moment of their doubting, "then came Amalek and fought with them." Nothing gives the enemy more power than to doubt whether we are the children of God or not; or to doubt whether he is with us and for us or not.

And now, my young Christian, this battle of Rephidim is a very solemn question. You will find that, though you have redemption through the blood of Christ — a child of God — have fed with delight on Christ the heavenly manna; yet, to your surprise, the lusts of your old nature are as bad as ever. That which is born of the Spirit has not altered the flesh in the least. If Israel had stayed in Egypt, they would never have fought Amalek. And if you had not the new nature, you would never have known this fierce conflict with the old nature. "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot (or may not) do the things that ye would." (Gal. 5:17.) These are the plain words of God: and every child of God finds it so in his experience. What would he not do, were it not for the Holy Spirit, who dwells in him, preventing him from fulfilling the lusts of the flesh.

I must guard my young traveller against several mistakes when passing through Rephidim. And especially beware of a broad path that turns out of the way, called "sinless perfection." This path leads to infidelity. Some would tell you that your old nature is changed, and that there is no sin left in your flesh, or carnal mind. This is a very flattering delusion, and for a time may lull you to false security. But when Amalek comes to fight; (though I sometimes think Satan knows better than to fight these deluded ones;) but when Satan presents strong temptation, and you find to your horror and grief that there is still an evil nature in you, so soon excited by his temptations; yea, at such a time you seem overwhelmed with the power of unexpected temptation. And especially if there has been failure, then beware of the hard thrust of the deadly enemy, in trying to persuade you that you are not a child of God. Let this dark unbelief only take possession of your soul, and then where is your strength to fight?

But the battle of Rephidim. Read carefully these verses — Ex. 17:8-16. Golden lesson for the young soldier of Christ. Some teachers would tell you, In the hour of temptation, your only safety is to try your utmost to keep the law. I once knew a young Christian, when fighting in Rephidim, as a last resource, write down all the denunciations and commands of God respecting the sin that so harassed him. But this helped him not at all. Nothing could be more striking than God's teaching and man's on this important point. Says man, You are under the law as the rule of life, and sin will surely have the dominion if you do not strive to keep it. Says God, "It was the ministration of death, and is now abolished;" (2 Cor. 3:7-14;) and "Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14.) Thus you see, my young traveller, if you are led of man, you will be under law and bondage; "But if led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law." (Gal. 5:18.) The contrast between God's teaching and man's is very striking, is it not?
But, then, the question is, when passing through Rephidim, that is, through fierce temptation — tempted to commit fearful sins — If the law does not help me at such a time, but only excites lust still more — as is said in Rom. 7:7, 18; I say, if the law does not help, what does? And what is the principle of victory over the lusts of the flesh? I look at the battle of Rephidim, I say, as a golden answer to this perplexing difficulty in the hour of need. To human reason, perhaps, nothing could be more foolish. There was no digging of trenches, forming parallels, or display of military skill; but Moses says, "I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand." "And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed." What a picture of the divine principle of prevailing faith! And especially valuable, as I have said before, when we bear in mind this is the only battle Israel fought, whilst on the principle of grace, and not as yet under the law. And, now, if my reader has travelled some length of the wilderness journey, let me ask him to turn over the pages of memory, and then tell me, as we say, is not this picture true to the very life? Just as your hands have been lifted up to God — just as faith has trusted Him, you have prevailed; and just as your hands have been let fall down — just as you have trusted in anything else but God, sin has prevailed. Thus the mighty principle of faith is set before us as the only means of victory in temptation. We never make resolutions but we fail and break them; and we never look alone to God but we are delivered. Do, my young Christian, remember the battle of Rephidim in the hour of temptation. Lift up your heart, and let the cry of faith go up to God. Perhaps you say, My heart is so heavy. And so were the hands of Moses. "But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon: and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side: and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun."

Now there are some very precious and important points of soul-sustaining truth set before the believer, in conflict, in this verse. It is of the greatest moment at such a time that you remember that great stone — nay, the Rock of Ages supports you. Oh to know that however the storm of temptation may assail, your feet are on the Rock that cannot be moved! Beware of those shifting sands, those unbelieving thoughts that you may be on the Rock to-day and off and lost tomorrow. Nothing can more tend to weaken the child of God, in the hour of sore temptation, than these false doctrines. No, my reader, if you have redemption, it is eternal redemption; if you have life, it is eternal life; If you are on the Rock, none can pluck you off for ever. The stone, however, was not put under Moses that he might hang down his hands, but that they might be steadily held up. Neither would I put this blessed truth before you, or rather show you the Rock that sustains you, that you may become careless and cease to steadily trust in God for victory over lust and sin. No! but for the very purpose of encouraging your faith in the darkest hour.

But further, for the support of the heavy hands of Moses, Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side. And does not He whose name is Jesus, by whose death and resurrection we are justified, "also make intercession for us." "Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what to pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God." What divine strength this gives in the hour of strong temptation. There is the exalted Son of God, on the one side, that is, in the very presence of God, holding up the hands of faith, making intercession. And there is on the other side, that is, down here, in the believer, the Holy Ghost making intercession. How doubly held up!

But perhaps my reader may be sadly cast down — you may have been surprised by Amalek; perhaps you thought lust and temptation was all gone — you had pictured a path of sunshine: and so it is, if the eye is kept on Jesus. You may, however, have resolved to walk with God, and for a time all was smooth; but the sudden attack of the enemy took you by surprise, your hands were let down, Amalek, that is your sins, prevailed. Has Satan got an advantage over you? Has there been failure? I think I hear you whisper, Little did I expect it, but I have sinned since my conversion, and now I am so unhappy. The brightness of noon seems to be turned into midnight darkness. Satan says, "I am not on the Rock now. The great High Priest passed into the heavens will not intercede for me now. The Holy Ghost does not make intercession for me now." Stop, poor doubting one, do not listen after this rate to the enemy. Was not the Rock of Ages cleft for you? Is it not His very blood that has met all your sins, yea, washed them all away? And does not the Spirit say, by John, when writing on this very subject, "My little children, these things write I to you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins," &c. (1 John 2:1, 3.) Are you His child? Have you sinned? Then think what is taking place in your Father's presence. What an Advocate! Look at Him, and listen to His pleadings for you: He pleads His own blood. Do not these words meet your case — "If any man sin?" Surely this is not that you may sin: but that you may not sin. But if you have sinned, the knowledge of your Advocate on high lifts up again the arms of faith, and, though Amalek has prevailed, you now prevail again.
But perhaps you say, "If I have sinned, have I not grieved the Holy Spirit; and, consequently, has He not departed from me?" No; this is impossible now. The Holy Ghost dwells in you as the seal to the value of the blood of Jesus. (Heb. 10; Eph. 1.) So that the blood of Jesus must lose its value before the Holy Spirit can cease to dwell now in the child of God. You may, yea, alas! how often we do grieve the Holy Spirit, by whom we are sealed to the day of redemption. But one great distinguishing feature of the present dispensation, is that the Holy Ghost abides with us to the end. I have found this solemn fact one of the most sustaining truths in God's word. The apostle uses it for this purpose when writing to the Corinthians. (See 1 Cor. 3:16-17.) Do think of this when pressed hard by temptation, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" And see how solemnly this is pressed in 1 Cor. 6:15-20. So really is the believer's body the temple of the Holy Ghost, that if he goes on in sin, and thus defiles the temple, God cannot allow this; and if he refuses to judge and humble himself, and still further refuses to hear the Church, the temple must be destroyed; that is, this body must be dissolved. "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep." (1 Cor. 11:30.)

My reader may not have been aware of all this, but search the Scriptures and see if these things are not so. We have a watchful, powerful foe, surrounded by every manner of ensnaring temptation, and especially so to the young Christian; and still we have to wage war with deadly, hateful lusts. If left to ourselves, utterly without strength, to resist the least of them, how important then to know the Rock on which we stand: and to know that, on one side, we have the risen Lord; and on the other, the blessed Spirit, never ceasing to make intercession for us.

And as there was to be no compromise between Israel and Amalek, so let there be no compromise, my dear young reader, between you and fleshly lusts that war against the soul. From this day forward, even though Amalek may have prevailed; yes, though you may have failed and sinned, yet now may the Spirit of God show you the Advocate with the Father, pleading for you; and now may past failure and sin be confessed to your Father. You will find He is faithful and just to forgive you all sins and cleanse from all unrighteousness. He is faithful and just to the claims of your Advocate, and therefore you are forgiven and cleansed. This is as sure as you have, by His Spirit, made confession to Him. Do not omit this — if sin has prevailed confess it to your Father. And now, henceforth, may He give the reader and the writer the victory of faith. "For whatsoever is born of God overcomes the world: and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith." (1 John 5:4.)

Thus the battle of Rephidim sets before us the blessed principle of victory over sin and the world. If my reader fights on the principle of law, you will be overcome; if on the principle of faith, you will overcome. And just as your hands hang down to one, or are lifted up to the other, will you fail or prevail. And you who have trod the greater part of the journey, I appeal to your hearts and consciences. — Is it not so, just as we have looked to God we have overcome; and just as we have resolved to do our best we have failed. What years of sorrow a life of simple faith would save the child of God. Would you, my dear young Christian, then, spend your little while in holy, happy, devoted service to God, then have no confidence in the flesh — never trust self. Pray without ceasing — at all times and in all places. Remember, you are the temple of the Holy Ghost: He intercedes for you; the risen High Priest is your Advocate; God is for you. Though He chasten, it is because He loves you. Oh! do not forget you are never safe from temptation a moment, except that moment is spent in trusting Him. How soon after the manna and rest, came temptation and Amalek. In seasons of richest blessing, when filled with Christ, the heavenly manna, and the heart at rest in God, yet even then how near to danger. How sudden the change to fierce and unexpected temptation. Oh! watch; pray; trust. "Now to him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever, Amen."