Marah and Ellim
Exodus 15:22-27
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…

So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, anti they went out into the wilderness of Shur, etc. The main topics here are -

I. THE SWEET FOLLOWED BY THE BITTER. Singing these songs of triumph, and praising God with timbrel and dance, on the further shores of the Red Sea, the Israelites may have felt as if nothing remained to them but to sing and dance the rest of their way to Canaan. They would regard their trials as practically at an end. It would be with regret that they broke up their pleasant encampment at the Red Sea at all. Their thought would be, "It is good for us to be here, let us make here tabernacles" (cf. Matthew 17:4). But this was not to be permitted. The old call comes - "Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward" (Exodus 14:15), and the halcyon days of their first great exuberant joy are over. Their celebration of triumph is soon to be followed by sharp experience of privation.

1. The Israelites were conducted by the wilderness of Shur. There they went three days without water. God might, as afterwards at Rephidim (Exodus 17:6), have given them water; but it was his will that they should taste the painfulness of the way. This is not an uncommon experience. Every life has its arid, waterless stretches, which may be compared to this "wilderness of Shur" "There are moments when the poet, the orator, the thinker, possessed, inspired with lofty and burning thoughts, needs nothing added to the riches of his existence; finds life glorious and sublime. But these are but moments, even in the life of genius; and after them, and around them, stretches the weary waste of uninspired, inglorious, untimeful days and years" (Dr. J. Service). It is the same in the life of religion. Seasons of spiritual enjoyment are frequently followed by sharp experience of trial. We are led by the wilderness of Shur. Spiritual comforts fail us, and our soul, like Israel's at a later period, is "much discouraged because of the way" (Numbers 21:4). We are brought into "a dry and thirsty land, where no water is" (Psalm 63:1). A certain sovereignty is to be recognised in the dispensation of Divine comforts. God leaves us to taste the sharpness of privation, that we may be led to cry after him (Psalm 119:81, 82).

2. They came to Marah, where the waters were bitter. This was a keen and poignant disappointment to them - "sorrow upon sorrow." As usual, it drove the people to murmuring, and Moses to prayer. Bear gently with their infirmity. Do them the justice of remembering that there is no record of their murmuring during the three past days of their great privation in the wilderness. It was this disappointment at the well of Marah which fairly broke them down. Would many of us have borne the trial better? It is easy to sing when the heart is full of a great fresh joy. But let trial succeed trial, and disappointment follow on disappointment, and how soon do the accents of praise die away, to be replaced by moaning and complaint! The "Song of Moses," which was so natural on the banks of the Red Sea, would have had a strange sound coming from these dust-parched throats, and fainting, discouraged hearts. The note of triumph is not easily sustained when the body is sinking with fatigue, and when the wells to which we had looked for refreshment are discovered to be bitter. Take Marah as an emblem

(1) of life's disappointments. Our life-journey is studded with disappointments. Hard to bear in any case, these are doubly bitter to us, when they come on the back of other trials, and cheat us of an expected solace. When friends, e.g., turn their backs on us in time of need, or come with cold comfort when we expected ready help, or give chiding instead of sympathy; when trusted projects fail, or fond anticipations are not realised; most of all, when God himself seems to desert us, and grants no answer to our prayers; the waters given us to drink are bitter indeed.

(2) Of life's bitter experiences generally. "Call me not Naomi," said the mother-in-law of Ruth, "call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me" (Ruth 1:20). The only wells that never become bitter are the "wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3) - the waters of Divine consolations (cf. John 4:14). The waters of our creature-comforts admit of being very easily embittered. Relationships, friendships, possessions, business, social position - sweet to-day, any or all of these may be made bitter to us to-morrow. The life of Israel was made "bitter" by bondage (Exodus 1:14). God dealt "bitterly" with Naomi in taking husband and sons from her, and reducing her to poverty (Ruth 1:21). Hannah was "in bitterness of soul" because she had no child, and "her adversary provoked her sore, for to make her fret" (1 Samuel 1:6-10). Job was embittered by his afflictions (Job 7:11; Job 9:18; Job 10:1). The tears of the Psalmist were his meat day and night, while they continually said unto him, where is thy God? (Psalm 42:3). Mordecai cried, when the decree went forth against his nation, "with a loud and bitter cry" (Esther 4:1). Bitter waters there are, too, in our own hearts, and in society, engendered by sin - by the presence of envy, jealousy, strife, hatred, malignity, and revengefulness. No scarcity, then, of Marah experiences, no want of wells that stand in need of the healing tree being cast in to sweeten them.

3. God's ends in permitting Israel to suffer these severe privations. We do not ask why God led the Israelites by this particular way, since probably there was no other way open by which they could have been led. But we may very well ask why, leading them by this way, God, who had it in his power to supply their wants, permitted them to suffer these extreme hardships?

(1) We may glean one hint in reply from Paul's experience in 2 Corinthians 12., "Lest," he says, "I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelation, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (ver. 7).

(2) A second hint is to be drawn from ver. 25 - "There he proved them" Cf. Deuteronomy 8:2 - "To humble thee, and prove thee to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no." We do not know what unbelief, what rebellion, what impatience there is in our hearts, till trial comes to draw it out.

II. THE BITTER CHANGED INTO THE SWEET. Moses, we read, "cried unto the Lord, and he showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet" (ver. 25). Observe,

1. The agency employed. The tree had probably some peculiar properties which tended in the direction of the result which was produced, though, of itself, it was incompetent to produce it. The supernatural does not, as a rule, contravene the natural, but works along the existing lines, utilising the natural so far as it goes.

2. The spiritual meaning. That God intended the healing of these bitter waters to be a "sign" to Israel - a proof of his ability and willingness to heal them of all their natural and spiritual diseases, is abundantly plain from vers. 25, 26. The lesson God would have them learn from the incident was - "I am Jehovah that healeth thee." His Jehovah character guaranteed that what he had shown himself to be in this one instance, he would be always, viz., a Healer. As Jehovah, God is the Being of exhaustless resource. As Jehovah, he is the Being eternally identical with himself - self-consistent in all his ways of acting; so that from any one of his actions, if the principle of it can but be clearly apprehended, we are safe in inferring what he always will do. God sweetens, or heals, the bitter waters of life -

(1) By altering the outward conditions - e.g., by removing sickness, sending aid in poverty, taking away the cause of bitterness, whatever that may be. He healed Naomi's bitterness by the happy marriage of Ruth (Ruth 4:14, 15); Hannah's by giving her a son (1 Samuel 1:20); Job's by restoring his health and prosperity (Job 47:10), etc. The tree here is whatever agency God employs to accomplish his purpose.

(2) And this is the diviner art, by infusing sweetness into the trial itself. He makes that which is bitter sweet to us, by adding himself to it. This Divine change in our experiences is accomplished by means of a very simple but potent secret - as simple as the casting of the tree into the waters, as potent in its efficacy. Would we know it? It is simply this - denying our own natural will, and taking God's instead. "Not my will but thine be done" (Luke 22:42). This it is which will make even the bitterest of trials sweet. Call it, if you will, the taking up of the cross; it is, at all events, the spirit of the cross which is the sweetening, heavenly element in all affliction - the tree that heals. It is invaluable to bear this in mind, that be our trial, our grief, what it may, half its pain has departed the moment we can bring ourselves to embrace God's will in it. Heavenly consolations will sweeten what remains. Mediaeval mystics, like Tauler, dwelt much on this thought, and it is the true and all-important element in their teaching. With God at hand to bless, "Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;" or as another "sweet singer" expresses it -

"Just to let thy rather do
What he will.
Just to know that he is true,
And be still.

Just to let him take the care,
Sorely pressing,
Finding all we let him bear
Changed to blessing.

This is all! and yet the way,
Marked by him who loves thee best!
Secret of a happy day,
Secret of his promised rest."


(3) By removing the cause of all evil and bitterness - sin itself. It is as the God of Redemption that Jehovah reveals himself pre-eminently as the Healer. His Gospel goes to the root of the matter, and strikes at the malum originale of the bitterness in us, and around us. From this point of view, it is not fanciful to trace an analogy - we need not allege a direct typical relation - between this tree cast in to sweeten the bitter waters, and the Cross of the Redeemer. God through Christ; Christ through what he has accomplished by this Cross; the Cross, by being made the object of faith, and again, by being set up in men's hearts, effects this sweetening of the waters. We have but to compare ancient with modern civilization, to see how much the Cross of Christ, cast into the bitter waters of society, has already done to sweeten them. Trusted in for salvation, it renews the heart in its inmost springs, and so heals the bitter waters there; while, as the power of God unto salvation, it will ultimately heal the world of all its woes, abolishing even death, from which already it extracts the sting and bitterness.


1. As a motive to obedience. If God has healed us that is a new reason for loving, trusting, and obeying him (Psalm 116.). Accordingly, consequent on this healing of the bitter waters, God made "a statute and an ordinance" for Israel, taking them bound to serve him, and promising them new blessings, if they should prove obedient, This "statute and ordinance" is the comprehensive germ of the subsequent covenant (Exodus 24:3-9).

2. As a pledge. The sweetening of the waters, as already seen, was a revelation of Jehovah in his character as Healer. It pledged to Israel that he would, if only they obeyed his statutes, exempt them from such plagues as he had brought upon the Egyptians, and, by implication, that he would heal them of whatever diseases were already upon them. He would be a God of health to them. The healthy condition of body is one which not only throws off existing disease, but which fortifies the body against attacks of disease from without. Natural healing, as we see in the New Testament, and especially in the miracles of Christ, is a symbol of spiritual healing, and also a pledge of it. In the gospels, "to be saved," and "to be made whole," are represented by the same Greek word. We may state the relation thus: -

(1) Natural healing is the symbol of spiritual healing.

(2) Spiritual healing, in turn, is a pledge of the ultimate removal of all natural evils (Revelation 21:4).

(3) Each separate experience of healing is a pledge of the whole. It is a fresh testimony to the truth that God is a healer (cf. Psalm 103:1-4). Every recovery from sickness is thus, in a way, the preaching of a gospel. It pledges a complete and perfect healing - entire deliverance from natural and spiritual evils - if only we will believe, obey, and use God's method.

IV. ELIM (ver. 27).

1. An illustration of the chequered experiences of life. The alternation of gladness and sorrow; of smiles and tears; followed again by new comforts and seasons of joy.

2. There are Elim spots - places of cool shade, of abundant waters, of rest and refreshment provided for us all along our way through life. In the times of hottest persecution, there were intervals of respite. The Covenanters used to speak of these as "the blinks."

3. These Elim-spots should not lead us to forget that we are still in the wilderness. The prevailing aspect of life, especially to one in earnest, is figured by the wilderness, rather than by Elim. Our state here is one of trial, of discipline, of probation - no passing snatches of enjoyment should cause us to forget this. - J.O.

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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.

WEB: Moses led Israel onward 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.

Marah and Elim
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