As we consider Israel’s first days in the wilderness, perhaps we should remind ourselves of where the Hebrew nation is in Exodus 15. They began their journey in the land of Goshen. If you have a map of that area handy, you might want to glance over it as you pinpoint their location. The Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) is north of the Gulf of Suez. They crossed that sea, then began a south-southeasterly journey toward Mount Sinai. But before they arrived at the mount of God, they reached the wilderness of Shur in the northernmost section of the Sinai Peninsula. That’s where the cloud and fire led Israel into the wilderness, with the shepherd Moses out in front of the flock. It was a vast expanse of desolation stretching south to the wilderness of Etham.
A little later in Exodus 15 we’ll read that the Hebrews came down to the wilderness of Sin (better pronounced “Zen”). Clearly, they’re in the wilderness—Shur, Etham, Sin. And in the midst of their journey, they will come upon a nice oasis named Elim. We’ll pick up on that later.
So that’s where the Hebrews were. But why were they there? If God took the people through the Red Sea, couldn’t He take them immediately to the land of Canaan? Of course! If He was able to part the waters, and enable them to walk on dry land, and deliver them from the Egyptians, wasn’t He also able to move them swiftly to the borders of milk-and-honeyland? Absolutely! God can do anything. If He can take you and me through our conversion, He can hasten our journey across this earthly desert and swiftly deposit us into heaven. No problem.
And by the way, wouldn’t that be magnificent? Imagine: You come to know Christ, you know nothing of the difficulty of growing into spiritual maturity, no battles, no conflicts, no suffering . . . and zing, suddenly your feet touch down on golden pavement with the songs of angels in your ears. Just as soon as you accept Christ and say “amen,” swoosh! You’re in His presence.
You say, “Well, I’m not so sure about that. I’d like at least to get a taste of the Christian life on earth.” That taste really can be wonderful, unless you happen to find yourself in the midst of severe trial. When you’re being tested—really tested—you long for heaven. You ache for heaven. Many people who have written so compellingly of heaven through the years have been those most bruised by the hurts and heartaches of this earth.
Why does God put us through wilderness experiences before Canaan? For one thing, He wants to test us. That’s why God led Israel into the wilderness, according to Deuteronomy 8:2: “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Read that again . . . only this time, slowly.)
God puts us in the wilderness to test us, to stretch our spiritual muscles. Our earthly wilderness experiences are designed to develop us into men and women of faith. Let’s face it, our spiritual roots grow deep only when the winds around us are strong. Take away the tests, and we become spiritual wimps. But bring on the wilderness winds, and it’s remarkable how we grow, as our roots dig firmly into faith.
Charles R. Swindoll, Great Lives: Moses (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999).