The Well of Bitterness
Exodus 15:22-26
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…

For I am Jehovah that healeth thee (Exodus 15:26). A new chapter of history now opens, that of the wandering; it comprises the following passages.

1. Two months to Sinai.

2. Eleven months at Sinai.

3. Thirty-eight years of virtual settling down in the wilderness of Paran.

4. March upon Canaan in the last year. Introductory to this sermon give description of the journey from the sea to Marah, keeping prominent these points, the first camp probably at "The Wells of Moses," the road thence varying from ten to twenty miles wide, the sea on the right, the wall-looking line of mountain on the left for nearly all the way - this the wilderness of "Shur," i.e., of "the wall." There may indeed have been a city called "Shur," but the wall of mountain may have given name both to city and desert. (On the line of the Roman wall in Northumberland is a village "Wall.") The route here quite unmistakable. More than forty miles. No water. The modern caravan road marked by bleached camel bones. Numbers 33:8, gives the impression of a forced march. At length Marah, to-day a solitary spring of bitter water with stunted palm-tree beside it. Here too is the place to point out, that Israel's wanderings are not so much allegorical, but tautegorical. The phenomena of spiritual life and those of Israel's desert history are net so much two sets of things - one pictorial the other real, but one and the same. This truth lies at the base of all successful practical homiletic treatment.

I. MAN MAY NOT LIVE IN THE PAST. "And Moses brought [forced away] Israel from the Red Sea." Note: -

1. Henceforth Moses is supreme leader. Aaron and Miriam sink to subordinate places. Besides these, the entourage of Moses consists of Hut, Miriam's husband; Jethro for guide; and Joshua, a sort of body servant. All over the desert are names witnessing to this hour to the sole supremacy of Moses.

2. Divine Guidance did not impair his individuality. Inspiration and the "Cloud and Fire" did not so lead as to leave no room for the exercise of judgment or the spontaneity of consecrated genius. Lesson: - God does not crush individuality, but develops it into fulness and power.

3. Moses brought Israel quickly from proximity to Egypt, and even from the scene of victory. [See Hebrews verb, to cause the camp to remove.] The last cadences of the song, the last sound of dancing had hardly died away; Miriam's timbrel was scarcely out of her hand, before "Forward!" Out of this, two lessons. Leave behind: -

1. The memory of Egypt; of old sins, of old sorrows.

2. The memory of victory. As in common life, so in spiritual, e.g., the schoolboy. (John Singleton Copley, a painter's son, had for motto "Ultra pergere," and became Lord Lyndhurst.) Graduate at University. Young tradesman. So with things spiritual, each victory the point of a new departure, even with the aged. "Christian progress by oblivion of the past." Philippians 3:13, 14.


1. The experience of Israel. They had left behind many sights, they, even though slaves, would greatly miss; the Nile and its green line of fertility; cities in all their splendour; life in all its rich variety. Now, the hardship and silence of the desert, only trumpet-broken at morn and eve. And this first stage was terrible. (For accurate idea of this road, see "Forty days in the desert," pp. 30, 31.) Nothing so bad as this further on - further on oases, wells, filmy streams, tamarisk, palm, mountain shadows, and even cultivated regions. Excitement perhaps of the first day, the experience novel, the sea in view; but on the second and third, plodding, fainting, and disgust.

2. The present reality. So is it with all new chapters in life; the first steps are tedious, e.g., child going to school; boy to college; first steps in business; so with every serious break-up and change in life's pilgrimage. The first steps are arduous. And so too is spiritual life - to break with sin, to stand ridicule, to keep advancing in spite of comparative ignorance, etc.

3. The temptation. Many fail to stand it. Young men yield and go back to the fleshpots of Egypt - loneliness with duty and God does not suit them. If we can march from the sea to Marah, all may be well.

4. The encouragement. To say nothing of truths like these, that the way was right, the guidance sufficient, the land of Promise was before them; there was a nearer benediction. "The far horizon in front was bounded, not by a line of level sand, but by sharp mountain summits, tossing their peaks into the sky in wild disorder, and suggesting irresistibly the thought of torrents and glens, the shadow of great rocks, and groves of palms." The view was of the range of Sinai, and there Israel was to have nearly a year of high communion with God.

III. DISAPPOINTMENT WAITS US ON OUR WAY. The high-wrought expectation of the people: and lo! the spring is bitter. So with life. So much is this the case, that men of genius have described life as one long illusion. Things are never what they seemed. Neither school nor college, courtship nor marriage, home nor church, business nor pleasure. So much the worse for those who have ideality large.

IV. INTO DISAPPOINTMENT COMES HEALING. All through nature, it is probable, that every poison has its antidote, every evil its corrective, every disappointment its compensation. "Dr. Johnston, in his 'Chemistry of Common Things,' explains at length how the bark of a certain tree has power to precipitate the mineral particles, which embitter the waters, and to make them sweet and clear." Did God "show" this secret thing to Moses? Let every man examine his own life, and he will find by the side of every disappointment a compensating mercy; and more, that out of every such has come a lesson to sweeten life. It is as when (to take the most striking illustration of all) the Saviour came down into human nature, turned to bitterness by sin, and made the bitter sweet.

V. LIFE IS ONE LONG PROBATION. This is a truth illustrated by the journey to, and by the incidents at Marah. There God laid down a Fixed Principle [חֹק], and one that was absolutely Righteous. [מִשְׁפָט].

1. Israel was to hear (i.e. believe) and do.

2. And then Jehovah would be to Israel, what the "wood" had been to the water, their Healer. -R.

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.

The Well of Bitterness
Top of Page
Top of Page