Bitter Waters


In Exodus 15 we learn that the Israelites had wandered in the desert for three days without water. That’s about as long as anyone can go without. God led them to Marah, but the waters there were too bitter to drink. With unrelenting thirst pressing in on the crowd, things quickly unraveled into an acute grumbling session. Moses cried out to the LORD for help and soon a miraculous healing of the waters saved the day…and probably Moses’ life.

The miracle resulted when Moses was instructed by God to throw a piece of wood, or “tree” in some translations, into the bitter waters. Imagine the complaining crowd’s surprise when it was just this non-sensical act that proved to be their salvation.

That tree changed everything for them that day. The tree thrown into the water meant life for them. The tree quenched their thirst by miraculously transforming bitter waters into sweet. There was power in the tree to heal.

It's a powerful picture for us. It is the cross that heals our spiritual thirst. It is the power of the cross applied to the bitterness of sin that provides the healing water of life.

But the gospel picture the scene at Marah paints for us goes further, feathering to its edges the shades of grace we need every day, where we live, where we struggle.

The people grumbled at Marah because something they expected to be good turned out to be bad. Something that should have been good and life-giving was actually the exact opposite. But the bitter water wasn’t going to poison them unless they drank it. The bitterness of the situation wasn’t going to harm them unless they partook of it…unless they took it in, drank the Kool-aide so to speak.

God had good water for them and it was close by. The oasis of 12 springs and 70 palms was just seven miles away. However, they were stuck at Marah, paralyzed, because something they expected to be good was not. Disappointment can paralyze us. And we have all been there.

For some of us, it’s a parent. Others, a spouse, a sibling or a friend. They were supposed to be good for us, to love us, to support us, to care for us. They were supposed to be safe, but they were not. This kind of disappointment is not only paralyzing, in many ways it’s soul-crushing. And the reality of a broken world full of hurt arrives on the doorstep of your heart gift-wrapped in a box of bitterness.

For some it’s less relational; it’s a job or an education or dream or some sort of life decision that was supposed to be good but turned out to be bad…and as the disappointment weighs heavy, the poison of bitterness pools before us.

What the scene at the bitter waters of Marah teaches us is this:

Bitterness will kill you. But it doesn’t have to.

When something we expect to be good, something that should be good for us, turns out to be the opposite, it doesn’t have to poison us. Oh it certainly will if we partake, and when we do it will be like a slow and painful dehydration, sucking the life right out of us.

But Marah gives us another way.

Throw the tree in the water, asking God to heal the bitterness completely through the power of the cross. He can and He will. And then look beyond and move on, trusting God in faith to provide what you need somewhere else. There’s an oasis of fresh water just beyond, but you’ll never see it while you linger at a pool of bitterness.

Bitterness will kill you. But it doesn’t have to.

Yahweh Rophe healed the bitter waters at Marah and saved His people from a death of desert dehydration and then He moved them on to the oasis. This same Healer longs to heal all the bitterness we battle where we live… in the every day of life, where we cry and we hurt and we struggle. He longs to move us on to the refreshing springs of living water just beyond. And He will. As both our Healer and our healing, He can and He will.

That’s the power of the tree.

Esther Movement

Ezra Journey

Timothy Mandate

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