And the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone. Numbers 32:13
The dictionary defines a wilderness as uncultivated, uninhabited or undisturbed by human activity. A wilderness is also pathless. Metaphorically it is a bewildering situation.
No doubt many of us have had our own wilderness experiences- or have that to look forward to. As it turns out, Scripture has a lot to say about the wilderness and what happens there. We are most familiar with wandering, and we’ll look at that shortly.
But the wilderness is also a place of transition, restoration, instruction, temptation and communion. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a closer look at what happens when we go into the wilderness.
We know the story of Israel’s rebellion in the desert. God brought to the very edge of the Promised Land but they refused to cross over and take it. Because of that fateful decision, God turned them back to the desert of Sinai for forty years until the entire generation died off.
It is easy to focus on the tragedy of Israel’s disobedience and loss. Yes, it was a time of judgment. Yes, God’s anger was roused against His people. But God was doing so much more.
He sustained them – Nehemiah explains, “Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness, They lacked nothing; Their clothes did not wear out And their feet did not swell.” Nehemiah 9:21 The judgment did not fall without a provision for how God was going to take care of His people through it. This was an important reminder for the generation returning from Babylonian captivity, a seventy-year judgment. God sustained His people in the wilderness and He sustained them in Babylon.
We can also take heart. When our rebellion and sin pushes us out of God’s will, He does not abandon us. No, even then He sustains us.
He did miracles – In Deuteronomy 8, Moses recounts how God provided water from a rock and manna. Their crowd of former slaves defeated sizable armies. When the fiery serpents came in another judgment, God granted miraculous relief. There was the cloud and the fire. The Jordan River parted, and on and on. God never ceased working on behalf of His people.
Even when we feel distant from God, He continues to work in mercy and grace all around us.
He proved them – “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). This is not to say that God didn’t already know, but after their time in the wilderness, Israel knew that the big promises they made back in Exodus 19:8 (“All that the LORD has spoken we will do.”) couldn’t be half-hearted lip service. We see this in the New Testament as followers of Jesus walked away when the reality of discipleship became clear.
During our days in the wilderness we learn if we are following God or our version of Him, and what our motivation is.
He restored them – The promises of a land flowing with milk and honey were not forfeited because of Israel’s failures. The realization of those promises was delayed. Israel remained God’s chosen people and He restored them to Himself once His anger had been satisfied.
No matter what, a wilderness experience is never permanent. God is always ready and willing to restore us.
Several of the psalms celebrate God’s care for Israel while they were in the wilderness. It is a testimony to His patience and His grace toward His people. However, we must never presume upon that grace and choose to transgress against Him. Paul breaks down that argument in Romans 6.
Not every wilderness experience is a result of our rebellion. Next week we’ll see how time away is sometimes necessary for a transition to the next thing God has for us.