It should seem, it was with some difficulty that Moses prevailed with Israel to leave that triumphant shore on which they sang the foregoing song. They were so taken up with the sight, or with the song, or with the spoiling of the dead bodies, that they cared not to go forward, but Moses with much ado brought them from the Red Sea into a wilderness. The pleasures of our way to Canaan must not retard our progress, but quicken it, though we have a wilderness before us. Now here we are told,
I. That in the wilderness of Shur they had no water, Exod. 15:22. This was a sore trial to the young travellers, and a diminution to their joy; thus God would train them up to difficulties. David, in a dry and thirsty land where no water is, reaches forth towards God, Ps. 63:1.
II. That at Marah they had water, but it was bitter, so that though they had been three days without water they could not drink it, because it was extremely unpleasant to the taste or was likely to be prejudicial to their health, or was so brackish that it rather increased their thirst than quenched it, Exod. 15:23. Note, God can embitter that to us from which we promise ourselves most satisfaction, and often does so in the wilderness of this world, that our wants and disappointments in the creature may drive us to the Creator, in whose favour alone true comfort is to be had. Now in this distress, 1. The people fretted and quarrelled with Moses, as if he had done ill by them. What shall we drink? is all their clamour, Exod. 15:24. Note, The greatest joys and hopes are soon turned into the greatest griefs and fears with those that live by sense only, and not by faith. 2. Moses prayed: He cried unto the Lord, Exod. 15:25. The complaints which they brought to him he brought to God, on whom, notwithstanding his elevation, Moses owned a constant dependence. Note, It is the greatest relief of the cares of magistrates and ministers, when those under their charge make them uneasy, that they may have recourse to God by prayer: he is the guide of the church’s guides and to him, as the Chief Shepherd, the under-shepherds must upon all occasions apply. 3. God provided graciously for them. He directed Moses to a tree, which he cast into the waters, in consequence of which, all of a sudden, they were made sweet. Some think this wood had a peculiar virtue in it for this purpose, because it is said, God showed him the tree. God is to be acknowledged, not only in the creating of things useful for man, but in discovering their usefulness. Or perhaps this was only a sign, and not at all a means, of the cure, any more than the brazen serpent, or Elisha’s casting one cruse full of salt into the waters of Jericho. Some make this tree typical of the cross of Christ, which sweetens the bitter waters of affliction to all the faithful, and enables them to rejoice in tribulation. The Jews’ tradition is that the wood of this tree was itself bitter, yet it sweetened the waters of Marah; the bitterness of Christ’s sufferings and death alters the property of ours. 4. Upon this occasion, God came upon terms with them, and plainly told them, now that they had got clear of the Egyptians, and had entered into the wilderness, that they were upon their good behaviour, and that according as they carried themselves so it would be well or ill with them: There he made a statute and an ordinance, and settled matters with them. There he proved them, that is, there he put them upon the trial, admitted them as probationers for his favour. In short, he tells them, Exod. 15:26; (1.) What he expected from them, and that was, in one word, obedience. They must diligently hearken to his voice, and give ear to his commandments, that they might know their duty, and not transgress through ignorance; and they must take care in every thing to do that which was right in God’s sight, and to keep all his statutes. They must not think, now that they were delivered from their bondage in Egypt, that they had no lord over them, but were their own masters; no, therefore they must look upon themselves as God’s servants, because he had loosed their bonds, Ps. 116:16; Luke 1:74, 75. (2.) What they might then expect from him: I will put none of these diseases upon thee, that is, “I will not bring upon thee any of the plagues of Egypt.” This intimates that, if they were rebellious and disobedient, the very plagues which they had seen inflicted upon their enemies should be brought upon them; so it is threatened, Deut. 28:60. God’s judgments upon Egypt, as they were mercies to Israel, opening the way to their deliverance, so they were wa d11 rnings to Israel, and designed to awe them into obedience. Let not the Israelites 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 the got to Canaan. “But, if thou wilt be obedient, thou shalt be safe and happy;” the threatening is implied only, but the promise is expressed: “I am the Lord that healeth thee, and will take care of thy comfort wherever thou goest.” Note, God is the great physician. If we be kept well, it is he that keeps us; if we be made well, it is he that restores us; he is our life, and the length of our days.
III. That at Elim they had good water, and enough of it, Exod. 15:27. Though God may, for a time, order his people to encamp by the waters of Marah, yet that shall not always be their lot. See how changeable our condition is in this world, from better to worse, from worse to better. Let us therefore learn both how to be abased and how to abound, to rejoice as though we rejoiced not when we are full, and to weep as though we wept not when we are emptied. Here were twelve wells for their supply, one for every tribe, that they might not strive for water, as their fathers had sometimes done; and, for their pleasure, there were seventy palm-trees, under the shadow of which their great men might repose themselves. Note, God can find places of refreshment for his people even in the wilderness of this world, wells in the valley of Baca, lest they should faint in their mind with perpetual fatigue: yet, whatever our delights may be in the land of our pilgrimage, we must remember that we do but encamp by them for a time, that here we have no continuing city.