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Desert Lessons: 7 Things We Can Learn from the Israelites' Wandering Years

  • Debbie McDaniel
Desert Lessons: 7 Things We Can Learn from the Israelites' Wandering Years

Not a day goes by that we're not in need of God's huge grace and peace. Every morning we need his Spirit to fill us again, to strengthen us for what's ahead. Every day we need a fresh word that he speaks to our hearts, to keep our focus on what's most important. Trying to run this race of life without him will do nothing but drain us dry.

In the book of Exodus, we read the story of how God’s people had endured years of bondage under the Egyptians. They were oppressed, abused, mistreated people. They needed rescue, they needed a way of escape. God saw their need, he didn’t miss a thing, and in his perfect timing, he acted on their behalf. 

“God met them where they were.”

Miracle after miracle God performed, leading them straight out of slavery, away from the cruel hand of the Egyptians. He set them free. Free from oppression. Free from captivity. Free from bondage. And the adventure was just getting started.

The people of Israel spent 40 years in the desert. 40 years of wandering. 40 years of journeying towards the promised land that God had given them. That’s a very long time. The days must have been intense, hot, dry, I'm sure they got weary. But God met them where they were, he made sure they had what they needed. They learned through every hard and grueling step, how much they had to rely on Him.

We see it over and over in his word. Stories that prove how God never leaves us fending for ourselves when problems arise or seem too big. Miracles that remind us when we leave the battles in his hands, he can do what would be impossible for us to ever accomplish on our own.

Here are 7 Things We Can Learn from the Israelites’ Wandering Years in the Desert:

1. The way to our promised land is not always easy, in fact, it rarely is. But it’s worth it.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God didn’t lead them on the road that made the most sense. The Bible tells us in Exodus 13, that though the path was shorter right through the Philistine country, God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” Exodus 13:17

So He led them around the desert road over towards the Red Sea. Hot, dry, barren wasteland, the sea looming off in the distance. We can almost hear the grumblings starting then. Feel the fear rising. And that was just the beginning of their journey.

God had promised his people a land that would be full of blessing, it was worth fighting for, it was worth going the distance. But the way there would stretch their faith and lead them through journeys where they’d have to depend on God like nothing before.

We too often face these journeys as God leads us into our own “promised land.” Maybe you feel like the blessing is too long in coming, maybe you feel like giving up. Be assured again today that God is faithful and he will use all things to strengthen our faith and bring goodness to his people. Stay strong, keep pressing through.

2. God will make a way where there doesn’t seem to be a way.

“So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea…” Exodus 13:18

As the Israelites got closer that sea must have looked bigger and deeper. An obstacle that seemed too difficult to overcome. Their eyes focused on the problem. They forgot about the bigness of their God. But God didn’t forget about them. He split the sea in two so that his people walked through on dry ground. The enemy in hot pursuit had no idea what they were up against. They lost the battle that day and were swallowed up in the waves.

God had rescued his people and led them straight through the biggest obstacle they’d ever encountered, and that was just the beginning of his miracles.

Even if the way He’s leading doesn’t seem to make much sense and His timing seems off, or the wait feels long, and wandering in desert places is the last thing we want to do, we can trust Him. Always. He knows our way. He sees the big picture. He has good in store.  And though it may not have been what we would have chosen, or how we would accomplished things, we can thank Him for His Sovereignty, His care over us, and His powerful leadership.  

3. God will lead us day and night.

“By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to given them light…” Exodus 13:21

God never left his people alone in their journey. His presence was always there, a reminder to them that they hadn’t been left on their own in the wilderness. As a pillar of cloud in the day and fire by night, He guided them, giving them shade from the fierceness of the desert sun, and a light in the darkest of nights.

God will not leave us to fend for ourselves, struggling to find our way. He will lead us. He promises to be faithful.  We may not see him in a pillar of cloud or fire these days, but we have his Word, and the Holy Spirit to give guidance to our days. He is with us, he gives wisdom, he provides direction, so we never have to fear being left on our own to figure things out. He goes ahead of us, he walks with us, and he guards our way from behind. His Word gives truth and life, it shows us the way to walk in this world.

4. God fights on behalf of his people

“Then the angel of God…withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them…” Exodus 14:19

Even when the Israelites faced cruel attacks from the enemies surrounding them, God was faithful to deliver them. He works in miraculous ways and the toughest of battles are never too hard for God to work through. He gives us victory and power even when it doesn’t make sense. After a battle against the fierce Amalekites, when God gave his people a great victory, the Bible says, “Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. He said, ‘For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord…” Exodus 17:15-16

Still today, God will send his angels to fight for us and guard us. He Himself will fight for us and guard us. That’s how much He loves us and desires to set His protection over us. He will hem us in from all sides and keep us under His care. It doesn’t mean we won’t ever face the battle, but we can know that He is surely with us right in the midst of it all. He reminds us from the very start of this desert journey, “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14

We’re never left to wrestle through on our own in hard places. He doesn’t send us out to fight the enemy in our own strength. He just tells us to be still, to stand strong, and to know he’s fighting on our behalf.

5. God provides in miraculous ways

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you…” Exodus 16:4

“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” Exodus 17:6

They were hungry. God sent manna. They were thirsty. God sent water gushing from a rock. Every day a miracle was right before their eyes. They just had to pick up the manna, drink the water, accept the blessing. Another time he made the bitter waters sweet again, so they could drink. Over and over, God provided for their needs.

And just like the people of Israel had to look to God to meet their needs, to be refreshed by what he offered, and gather the manna every morning in the wilderness, so it is with us. They couldn't store it up, they had to look for it daily. And God always provided, each morning it was there, waiting for them. Every day he made sure it met their needs, they were satisfied, they were nourished, they were cared for. And they never lacked, for God's resources never run dry.

Sometimes we miss the miracles of his provision, out of busyness or stress. We try to get things going too fast all on our own, spinning around, trying to get it all done. Or other times we might start to forget what matters most.

But even for those days, there's His grace. He waits for us. His provision and blessing, they never run dry. Every day, his miracles lie right before our eyes. We just have to choose to look for them and stay close in his presence.

6. Sin will always take us farther than we want to go.

“I have seen these people, ‘the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people…” Exodus 32:9

Grumbling, complaining, sin, hearts far away from God – these things were far too common for the Israelites in these desert wandering years. And often like us, they lost sight of how far sin could carry them down the road we never wished to go. God had great mercy over them for all those years, they tested him even after he graciously provided for all their needs and offered them protection and strength. In Exodus 32 we read the story of how the people turned away from God when Moses seemed too long in coming back down from the mountain. The very people that just had watched God perform miracle after miracle on their behalf, and guide them through desert days, were now bowing down to a golden calf they’d set up in the place of God himself.

How easily we often forget. What starts as complaining, grumbling, hearts going astray, leads us deeper into pathways we wished we’d never entered. Sin gets ahold of our minds and hearts. It’s like a disease we can’t shake off on our own strength. But God, in his mercy, forgives and sets free. He redeems us from the pit that far too many of us have wandered into and been stuck in. He lifts us out and places our feet on solid ground. He gives us fresh purpose and hope. 

7. We may feel forgotten and left on our own, but God is always with us.

Even after all these things the Israelites had done, and how they’d wandered away from God, he said these words just a few verses later, “The Lord replied, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Exodus 33:14

God’s presence is powerful and strong. It is never dependent on how good we are, he is faithful even in our hardest struggles. Only in him can true rest and peace be found. The years of desert wanderings must have been difficult to endure. 40 years is a very long time. But God doesn’t always work on our timetable. And he saw them through to the end. He never abandoned his people. They kept pressing through and God continued to be with them, and he is with us as well. 

“The hardest struggles we face have the greatest potential to teach us patience and endurance.”

We often face battles and problems that press hard. We feel forgotten, all alone. And yet the hardest struggles we face have the greatest potential to teach us patience and endurance, like nothing else can. The years of our own “desert wanderings” may prove to be our most power-packed, strengthening, faith-building time of life, but we may not fully recognize it until after we’ve passed through.

And sometimes when we find ourselves there, we just need that reminder from the whispers of God down deep in our soul, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest…”

In whatever you’re facing, be assured, God is with you, he’s providing for your needs, he has a plan, and nothing is too difficult for him.

The God of miracles fights for you today, and he will never let you go.