Bitter Made Sweet | Exodus 15:22-27

In our present text, we find the remainder of Exodus, indeed of the Pentateuch, in miniature. Being led through the wilderness in chapters 15-18, God brings Israel to the foot of Sinai to receive His covenant and commandments and from there to enter the Promise Land (though they would, of course, spend forty years in the wilderness because of their disobedience). These verses fit that overall pattern well. In verses 22-25, we find what becomes the habitual pattern of the exodus generation the wilderness: 1) encounter a need, 2) grumble against Moses, 3) see the LORD’s miraculous provision, 4) receive a warning or judgment from the LORD, and 5) repeat steps one through four. Verses 25-26 are the condensed terms and conditions of the Mosaic Covenant that would be made with them at Sinai and repeated again in Deuteronomy before entering Canaan. Finally, Israel’s encampment at Elim is both a picture of God’s continual provision for Israel in the wilderness as well as a foretaste of their future home in Canaan.


Having been brought out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, Moses led all of Israel into singing the Bible’s first psalm of praise to the LORD their God. Indeed, they boldly sang of God’s good promise to bring them into the land of Canaan that the LORD pledged to Abraham so long ago. Although the LORD would certainly bring them to that good land, He would not do so immediately; rather, He would bring them through the wilderness first, as verse 22 shows us: Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur.

This wilderness was not at all like the fertile lands of Egypt that they had known for more than four hundred years. There was little water and sparse vegetation, meaning that it was largely uninhabited for good reason. It was not conducive to life and could not support the large multitude that was Israel. Yet God was bringing them into this place of seclusion for their good. The wilderness would be where Israel would hear God speak and would receive His covenant. In Egypt, they saw God’s strong arm of judgment, but in the wilderness, they would come to know His shepherding hand of discipline. Indeed, within these next few chapters of Exodus, God will display His shepherding love for Israel before bringing them to Sinai where He will make His commandments known to them.

Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, as Paul says, “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). The pattern of Israel’s redemption is the pattern of our salvation as well. God did not give His people the Ten Commandments while they were still slaves and say to them, “Here is my law. Keep it perfectly, and I will deliver you out of slavery.” No! God redeemed them from their bondage in Egypt and then gave them His law, which is why the preamble to the Ten Commandments emphasizes their salvation as having already been worked: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2).

Like the Israelites, we are also sojourners and strangers, traveling through the wilderness of this world. We have been delivered from the Egypt of our sin but have not yet come to the Promised Land of forever dwelling with our Lord face-to-face. Or, as Bunyan so helpfully put it, we have been rescued from the City of Destruction and are on pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Since we are in a very similar place to the Israelites, we ought all the more to consider their successes that we might imitate them and their failures that we might avoid them.


Once the Israelites entered the wilderness, they almost immediately ran into their first problem: They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water. Water is always the most basic of human necessities, and this is especially true in the desert, where water is notably scarce. Thus, this was no mild inconvenience. A three-day journey would have placed them soundly in the wilderness, meaning that it would be no easier to go back as to go forward. They were in the middle of nowhere, and the gaslight was on.

To make matters worse, the water that they soon found was undrinkable. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. We may rightly call this a bitter providence. Israel was now three days into the wilderness, just like God originally commanded of Pharaoh (5:3). Was this not the place where they were supposed to offer sacrifices to the LORD? Why then had they only found bitter water, unfit for consumption?

These questions led the Israelites into the first of their many grumblings against Moses: And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” I think that Philip Ryken is right in his analysis of this sin:

It was not wrong for the people to approach the prophet with this kind of problem. They had a genuine physical need. Since Moses served as God’s representative, it was appropriate for them to address their concerns to him. The problem was their attitude. To put it bluntly, they were whining.[1]

Indeed, the Israelites failed to understand what God was doing with this bitter water. The LORD had very much brought them three days into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to Him, only not the kind of sacrifices that the Israelites expected. As David testified, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (Psalm 51:17). The Israelites ought to have sung another kind of song to the LORD: a lament. They should have done what David so often modeled for us in the Psalms. They should have recounted all of God’s mighty works that He displayed in Egypt, and they should have then cried out for God to give them water in the desert. They ought to have seen their need and poverty and turned to God for their salvation. Indeed, Psalm 80 is a great example of how they should have prayed. Such a prayer would have revealed that the Israelites were beginning to know the LORD, which again was the supreme purpose behind the exodus. Such prayers would have been a pleasing sacrifice to God. In fact, they would have been far more pleasing than the blood of bulls and goats.  

However, the Israelites did not cry out to God; instead, they grumbled against Moses. Notice that they did not necessarily grumble to Moses; rather, they grumbled against him. They were not looking for God’s deliverance. They likely did not expect Moses to be able to fix their water problem either. They were simply complaining. They were turned inward in self-pity and anger rather than looking outward in hopeful expectation of God’s provision. This was the exact opposite of the sacrifice that God was preparing for them. Just as a cry to God for water would have revealed that they were coming to know God as their provider, their grumbling revealed their ignorance of God’s character.

Indeed, that is always the great problem with grumbling. Since grumbling was certainly one of Israel’s most prominent and enduring sins within the wilderness, it can be easy for us to think that Psalm 95:10-11 is a bit of an exaggeration whenever God declares:

For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.’ Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’

Yet their grumbling revealed their ignorance of God. “Though they had seen my work,” said God in Psalm 95:9, they still did not know God’s ways.

We would all do well to consider this point, for we are all grumblers to some degree or another. We especially tend to grumble whenever our expectations go unmet. The Israelites were very likely prepared to make sacrifices to God in the wilderness, but they did not expect those sacrifices to look like this. They expected the LORD to be happy with their outward acts of worship; they did not expect Him to go after their hearts. We, likewise, tend to grumble under bitter trials because we fail to see the larger work that God is doing in our lives. Indeed, it is the bitter waters of life that very often reveal the depths of our heart. The Israelites grumbled under each trial because they were grumblers at heart.

Moses, however, did not make the same sinful error that the Israelites did. And he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. Moses cried out to God. He acknowledged that he was just as dependent upon God for provision in the wilderness as he was for power before the throne of Pharaoh, which was the exact lesson for which God was testing Israel. Whatever multitude of purposes the LORD may have behind each of our trials in this life, we will never know on this side of the River. However, we can say with certainty that God brings afflictions upon us or even simply near us that we may cry out to Him for salvation. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus gave this warning after recounting both a natural disaster (a fallen tower that left eighteen dead) and an act of human wickedness (Pilates slaughter of some Galileans): “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). Most fundamentally all suffering should cause us to cry out to God, which is a most pleasing sacrifice to Him.

Regarding the log, Stuart notes:

Speculation about how a tree [NIV: piece of wood] could eliminate mineral salts from a large body of water is just as fruitless as speculation about how the Nile could turn to blood or how a staff could turn into a snake and back again: it was a supernatural, not a natural event; a miracle, not a prescientific application of a natural remedy. Nothing in the text suggests that the tree symbolized anything in particular (such as the tree of life or the like). Rather, Moses’ faith in being willing to do what God commanded him, without understanding why or how it would work, is what is implicitly commended here.[2]

While I agree that we should not read more into the log than the text suggests and that it certainly was Moses’ obedience that is being highlighted here, I also think that Ryken is right to note that God has a pattern of using pieces of wood to work wonders and particularly to bring healing. We see that with Moses’ staff, which will be used in chapter 17 to bring water from a rock, but we see it most clearly with Jesus’ cross, which surely must be the most bitter judgment that God ever dealt. Yet it is through the obedience of Christ upon that piece of wood that our most bitter trials are made sweet, for by Jesus’ atoning death we now receive the tremendous promises that conclude Romans 8:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

            “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
                        we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:28–39


After making the bitter water of Marah sweet, God gave to the people of Israel a prelude to the Mosaic Covenant as a whole:

There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give your ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.

Here we are explicitly told that God brought this waterless trial upon them in order to test them. Just as God gave Moses an instruction for how to make the bitter water sweet, from Sinai the LORD would give to Israel His commandments, which if kept diligently would make Israel’s bitter life under the fall into sweet communion with God their Redeemer. On the other hand, if they failed to keep God’s commandments, the LORD would bring upon them many of the very diseases that He places upon the Egyptians when delivering them out of slavery. Matthew Henry rightly comments that:

God’s judgments upon Egypt, as they were mercies to Israel, opening the way to their deliverance, so they were warnings to Israel, and designed to awe them into obedience. Let not Israel think, because God had thus highly honoured them in the great things he had done for them, and had proclaimed them to all the world his favourites, that therefore he would connive at their sins and let them do as they would. No, God is no respecter of persons; a rebellious Israelite shall fare no better than a rebellious Egyptian; and so they found, to their cost, before they got to Canaan.[3]

Unfortunately, the exodus generation would not heed this warning. Their “small” sin of grumbling became, in the end, a very large sin of grumbling. Indeed, to borrow Lewis’ idea, they gradually stopped grumbling and became one large grumble. Thus, we later read that God did indeed bring His judgment upon them. Consider, for example, that after saving Israel from Pharaoh as the offspring of the serpent God later punished their grumbling by bringing serpents upon them:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Numbers 21:4–9

Even so, this plague of fiery serpents testifies to God’s final point in verse 26: the LORD would be Israel’s healer. Even when He afflicted them with plagues, He would provide a means of healing and repentance. Or, as our present text shows, even when God brought them to bitter water, He would be faithful to make it sweet in the end.

Indeed, that would be the case with God’s law as well. While God promised life to all who kept His law diligently, our great problem is that we cannot do so. As Romans 7:10 laments, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” Like the Israelites, no one is able to keep God’s commandments diligently and perfectly, so God’s good law becomes like bitter water to our souls, exposing how far we fall short of God’s glory. Praise be to God that Christ’s cross is able to make the bitterness of God’s law sweet to us!

You see, Christ does not hold out forgiveness to us like a carrot to entice us into complying with God’s law. Rather, He has purchased our forgiveness precisely because we cannot keep the commandments of God. Even so, Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. We treasure God’s commands as revelations of God’s will for us and, though it is still a bitter drink, even for exposing the depths of our sin that we may come to Christ in repentance. But we are only able now to treasure God’s law because we are no longer under the law but under grace. We do not strive to obey the law in order to earn God’s favor. In Christ, we already have God’s favor, for He met the conditions of the law and took the penalty of our disobedience in our place. We now come to the law in loving obedience.


Our text concludes with this account:

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.

I believe that we can see here a picture of God’s faithfulness to provide for His people, even (or perhaps especially) in the wilderness. Ryken writes:

The Israelites learned more from the bitterness of Marah than they did from the sweetness of Elim; however, there is something to learn from these palm springs. Elim was a place of abundance… The numbers twelve and seventy are symbolic of fullness and blessing. There were a dozen wells, one for each tribe of Israel, and seventy trees, one for each of Israel’s elders, so there was plenty for everyone. This shows that God’s provision is abundant. It would be enough for God to give us what we need to survive, but ordinarily he gives enough to thrive. He satisfied Israel’s thirst in the wilderness. Now from the everlasting fountain of his grace he showers his people with care, so that we flourish in every way.[4]

Let us take comfort from this point as we come to our King’s Table. Christ Himself is an even greater Elim, for He is our fountain of blessing within the wilderness. He is the great Shepherd of our souls, and though He leads us beside bitter waters, He will be faithful to make each of them sweet in the end. Indeed, He took the great bitterness of our sins in order to give us sweet communion with the Father. His body was broken so that we can now eat with joy this bread of fellowship. He drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath so that we now drink the cup of His never-failing covenant.

[1] Philip Ryken, Exodus, 382.

[2] Douglas Stuart, Exodus, 366-367.

[3] Matthew Henry, Commentaries Vol. I: Genesis-Deuteronomy, 339.

[4] Ryken, Exodus, 378-388.


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