I’m often struck by the Israelites’ 40-year wandering in the desert. Forty years is an incredibly long time to wander a portion of the earth that shouldn’t take more than a month to cross on foot, with a few tricky border crossings today, mind you.
We know scripturally that their wandering didn’t have much to do with a poor guide in the desert. Rather, it was because the Lord “made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone” (Numbers 32). A good portion of the Israelites were ready to settle in and make residence in Sinai—not only a bit too early than the Lord wanted but also in the wrong area.
What must this have been like for the Lord? He had intentionally prepared a land of milk and honey for them and they were ready to settle in a land of rocks and sand and heat. It’s no wonder that He was angry “because they had not wholly followed me” (Numbers 32). Their punishment? Those who were twenty years old and older were kept from seeing the Promised Land because of their impatience.
The collective faith of the Israelites at this time in their journey was quite small. It wasn’t long before this that they cried out to Moses at the edge of the Red Sea:
“Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14).
It’s here that the Israelites then saw God act through Moses, parting the Red Sea and wiping out the majority of Pharoah’s army, leading to a greater faith: “Thus Israel saw the great work which the Lord had done in Egypt; so the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and His servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). Moses’ and Miriam’s songs of praise right after, and the Lord then leads them into a series of reminders of His continued presence: bitter water being made sweet, an odd bread-like substance coming from the skies each morning, water out of a rock, and a military victory over Amalek and his people, leading Moses built an altar reminding the people that the Lord was their Banner, both militarily and spiritually (Exodus 17:14-16).
I’m inclined to think that these events would be a reminder that God was for them and in their corner, but as a friend recovering from heart surgery recently told me, “recovery is slow and difficult.” Similarly, the recovery from living as slaves for these dear people was also slow and difficult.
Slow and difficult is the name of the game in any recovery. In my own recovery from sin, I wonder about my own leanings here:
- Where am I tempted to settle and reside in my own Sinais that may feel more comfortable than waiting for what the Lord wants to lavish upon me out of His care?
- Where am I inclined to jump into things that may bring more comfort than where I know the Lord is calling me instead?
- How are those in my sphere of influence impacted by this impatience?
- How and through what is the Lord speaking to me today and calling me to pause and remember His goodness?
The Prophet Isaiah gives us a possible answer, remembering this very situation in Israel’s history. Here, the Lord provides a sneak peak into His own book on spiritual leadership and care. Our posture is to be composed of repentance, rest, quietness, and confidence (Isaiah 30). These four responses are so important that it is here where our salvation and strength lie. And, friend, this is difficult, not just for me, but for the lay and pastoral leaders with whom I meet for spiritual direction, and I’d say for most of us humans living in today’s time.
I’m so glad to know that none of us are alone in this journey. It’s part of our humanity, which links us to the Hebrews, to the early Church (Jesus’ disciples are a great example of this), and to each other today. And like a caring Father, God provides a way out—admitting we’re in the wrong, pausing, listening, and being restored.
Be of good cheer, as our Lord has overcome the world.