In the Wilderness

  • Pete Johnson
desert landscape

The book of Numbers, the fourth book of Moses in what is commonly called the Pentateuch, is probably a book of the Bible that is not widely read by many. However, within its pages is a vast treasure trove of application for Christians today.  The historical period for the book of Numbers begins just two years after the Exodus and is categorized as a narrative in its genre. It describes the events that took place long ago in the Sinai desert as the Nation of Israel wandered in the wilderness due to their lack of obedience. For forty years the chosen people of God went from one area to another. One important fact to keep in mind was that this was not an arbitrary “wandering”, it was designed and controlled by God. And even though God’s people were not in an optimum situation, considering that they could have well been in the Promised Land by this time, God was still with them, providing and leading them!

Another notable piece of information by way of introduction to the book is its title, Numbers. What does that mean? The title in the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew Bible) bə·miḏbar, which means “In the Wilderness”, to me gives more of an understanding to the contents of the book.

Israel, as they journeyed through the wilderness, experienced the ever faithfulness and grace of God in everyday life; those times of joy and contentment as well as distress and danger. They also experienced the sternness of God’s divine judgments upon those who scorned God’s precepts. As they traveled in the wilderness, as they lived, died, and raised their families, they were to learn to trust entirely in God and strive after Him. All this so that they would become, a light that would point the nations around them to God.

If you stop and think about, we’re not that much different than those wandering Israelites. This world that we presently reside in could be said to be our wilderness. It’s not our home, for we seek and strive to be in our heavenly home, our Canaan land. We have distress and dangers, we live and die, we raise our families, but are we learning to trust entirely in God? Are we striving after Him in obedience while in the wilderness? Are we waiting for Him to lead us?

If you have ever been tent camping it can be fun at first, but then add a couple of years, tens of thousands of people, plus kids, animals, and oh yeah, you’re in a desert! What looked like a great way out of work, has now turned into a life harder than your previous one was! The first ten chapters of this book tell of an obedient Israel, ready to serve and follow God into the promised land. But, when the toilet paper and milk ran out we see a different people. Chapter 11 and onward shows how Israel complained and mumbled about their circumstances in the wilderness, which spread like a virus, and in turn, cost them 40 years in the wilderness.

Ironically, but beautifully, God still led and took care of them in His pre-designed way. In the ninth chapter of Numbers, verses 15–23, we read how God lead Israel in the Wilderness.

So it was always: the cloud covered it (the tabernacle) by day and the appearance of fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped (Numbers 9:16-17).

Sometimes, however, when they thought they should be moving, God wasn’t moving. There were times as well when they thought they should be staying, but God was moving.

Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the Lord they remained in camp; then according to the command of the Lord they set out. And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out. Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out (Numbers 9:20-22).

What kind of life is that? It’s a life of total dependency, not on yourself, but on God. You see every morning as those Israelites woke up, their first glance was not to the coffee pot, to the T.V or newspaper, but toward the tabernacle where the presence of God was. Their daily decision on whether to stay or pack it all up was God-centered. “What does God have for us this morning?” What a thought! What a way to start every day! You get up, open the flap to your tent, instead of being grieved in your spirit because of what you don’t have, or what is happening or not happening, your excited to see what God says today.

King David, in Psalm 63, writes about his wilderness experience.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory (Psalm 63:1-2).

The phrase David uses, “earnestly I seek you” is one word in the Hebrew, asahareka, it basically means to be intent on doing something, or determined to do something, in other words, David was determined on seeking God, nothing would get in his way, not even a bad morning.

So no matter the mornings that face us, bad ones and good ones,  let us be determined, even excited, to open up that tent flap every morning and look toward God for our guidance and strength.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).