The Way of the Wilderness


The Way of the Wilderness

January 25th, 1959 @ 8:15 AM

Exodus 15

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him. The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name. Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone. Thy right hand, O LORD, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O LORD, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. And in the greatness of thine excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sentest forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble. And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? Thou stretchedst out thy right hand, the earth swallowed them. Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed: thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation. The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina. Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone; till thy people pass over, O LORD, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased. Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established. The LORD shall reign for ever and ever. For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them, And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee. And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Exodus 15:22

1-25-59    8:15 a.m.



 You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the 8:15 o’clock morning message entitled The Way of the Wilderness.  We are following the life of Moses.  Last Sunday morning we followed Moses through the Exodus.  All of that host of people, slaves, now having crossed the Red Sea [Exodus 14:21-31], standing on a new continent, a new people, a new nation with a new destiny, pilgrims now toward the Promised Land [Exodus 15:22].

The apostle Paul says that all of these things are written for our ensamples, our types, our examples, our figures [1 Corinthians 10:6], and when we follow Moses and that marching host through the wilderness, we are following our own life in our pilgrimage from this world to the promised world that is yet to come.  And the things that fell out to God’s people back there, are things that fall out to us today.   Their murmurings, their thirstings, their hungerings, their trials, their battles are all shared by us in our pilgrimage.  Their triumphs, their crying unto God and God’s ableness to help them, is God’s ableness to help us today.  So, when we follow the story, we are following an outline of our own Christian pilgrimage, all of us who have our faces toward Canaan’s Promised Land [Exodus 15:22].

Now today we begin in Exodus 15, the fifteenth chapter of Exodus and the twenty-second verse .  Last Sunday morning, we followed the children of Israel and Moses through the Red Sea [Exodus 14:21-31].  Then the song of Moses, and Miriam, the prophetess, his sister, joined in singing it [Exodus 15:1-20].

And the twenty-first verse of Exodus 15 closes that story [Exodus 15:21]:

And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea—

now we begin the story of The Way of the Wilderness—

So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days into the wilderness, and found no water.

[Exodus 15:21, 22]


To us that’s a sentence, but oh, what it meant to them!   That wilderness was the hottest, the driest, the most forbidding of all the lands that you could describe, mountain ranges after mountains, piled up inextricable confusion such as no hand could imagine, such as no eye could describe.  The peninsula of Sinai is a waste, a dry, dreary, mountainous, rocky waste, treeless, waterless, furiously hot, a burning desert.  And think of the indescribable contrast between the place that they had lived, and the place into which God is leading them.

Of all places that you could describe, the Valley of the Nile is lush.  For centuries and untold millenniums, the inundation of the Nile River has kept fertile and more fertile and still more fertile that ribbon of the Valley of the Nile.  Tropical in its vegetation, it was able to produce every kind of food that man’s heart could delight in; produce, vegetables, all kinds of flocks and herds grazing and feeding on the lush and succulent plants, a land of majestic glory and stakes and temple and pyramid.

And now, out of that beautiful emerald land of Egypt, the Valley of the Nile, into the burning wilderness whose silence and stillness is so intense, you could feel it.  Yet, the cloud led into the wilderness and Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness [Exodus 15:22; Numbers 9:15-23].  And for forty years that was God’s schoolhouse, teaching these people the law of Almighty God [Numbers 14:29-35, 26:64-65].

What a change!  What a destiny!  What a life!  But the Holy Spirit led them into the wilderness, and there they were to be taught of the Lord.  He leads us into the wilderness to be taught of the Lord.  These things that happen to you, God permits them, and if you are God’s child, He leads you through them.  That’s God’s way of teaching His people and the things that happen unto them are examples.  They are things that happen unto us.  In the fiery furnace, in the burning sands, in the wilderness of this life, God teaches His children, and He teaches you [1 Corinthians 10:11].

So they go one day, journey into the wilderness, hot, treeless, burning, and there is no water and there is no shade.  How trying and desperate!  They go the second day into the wilderness, and it is no less dry and hot and treeless and waterless.  And the third day, the situation became desperate and the people began to break in their spirit [Exodus 15:22].  Three days now, journeying into that burning, blistering, rocky peninsula and no water in sight, and the people were thirsty and weary and it was trying.  And on the third day, in the distance, there were palm trees on the far horizon [Exodus 15:27].

Can you imagine with what shouts of joy and gladness they lifted up their eyes and looked, there was water, water, water, palm trees, an oasis, water.  And when they came to the place they could not drink of the water, for the waters were nauseous, bitter, poisonous, therefore, the name of it was called Marah, “bitter.”

And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?—three days now without water.

And Moses cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there God proved them…  For, said the Lord, I am the Lord that healeth My people.

[Exodus 15:24-26]


Those are the waters of Marah, the waters of bitterness [Exodus 15:23], the waters of disappointment, and all of God’s people by and by visit the wells of Marah.  By and by, all of God’s children come to Marah and they mingle their bitter tears with the bitter waters. 

Haven’t you had that experience?  What hopes you had, what dreams you had!  There on the horizon palm trees, an oasis, water to drink, water to drink.  Then when they came to them and drew from the wells and the springs, what had been high hopes, anticipation, turned into bitterness and disappointment.  We, all of us, have visited the wells of Marah, great expectations, high hopes, and they turned to tears, and vanity, and futility, and bitterness and disappointment.  What things we expected, what things we dreamed of and now, how finally, it came to pass!

I went to our Baptist hospital one time to visit a young mother.  And while I talked with her, there was another young mother on the other side of the room.  And while I talked to this girl that belonged to our congregation, this girl over here just sobbed and cried.  So I asked this girl, who belonged to our congregation, why she was crying.  She said she didn’t know.

So when I had a prayer and went into the hallway, I asked the nurse.  I said, “The girl on the other side cries so heartbrokenly, why does she cry?”

And the nurse said, “It is because since she has had her baby, her young husband has not even taken the time to come up and see their new baby.”

And I said, “Is this her first child?”

The nurse said, “Yes.  This is her first child.”

I walked back into the hospital room, and I sat down by her side, and I told her I was the pastor of the First Baptist Church and that in visiting with our member here, I noticed that she cried.  And I said, “I asked the nurse why you cry, and the nurse told me that it was because your young husband has not even taken the time or the trouble to come to see the new baby.”

And as I sat there, I listened once again, to a story that I have listened to the Lord only knows how many, many times.  Here is a girl and she falls in love, and everything about her sparkles and shines.  There is not anything so bright as the eyes of a girl in love.  Everything is glory, and happiness, and gladness, and anticipation.  Why, there is not any dream in the world so full of the rainbow colors of God, as a girl who is in love and her home and her marriage and a baby.  And then, the wells of Marah [Exodus 15:23], cry, cry, cry, bitter, bitter tears!  That’s everywhere, in one way or in another way.

There was a father who had two boys.  The older boy was like some of you fellows here this morning, I see you come to church, tall and strong and athletic.  And he was a four-letter man in the university; just the glorious picture of strength and health, and the father and mother so proud of him.  And that boy away in college had a little brother.  And the little brother was just like his big brother.  He was just so strong and fine looking and gave every promise of being just like his big brother in college.

And upon a day, you don’t know how these things happen, the boy and his bicycle got all tangled up with a heavy truck.  And in the hospital, the doctor turned to the father and said, “To save the boy’s life we must amputate his right arm and his left leg.” 

And the father said, “When I looked down into the face of my boy, for the first time I realized what it meant when it says in the Book, ‘As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that trust Him’” [Psalm 103:13].

The wells of Marah, such anticipation, such high hopes, such rainbow dreams.  Then when you get there, it comes to pass the waters are bitter, that’s Marah [Exodus 15:23].  Did I not say that Paul said these things are examples? [1 Corinthians 10:6]. They are types; they are figures of our pilgrimage.  And the people cried just like you have cried.

“And the people cried unto Moses, What shall we drink?”  [Exodus 15:24].  What shall we do?  And Moses cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree [Exodus 15:25].  Of all things I wonder why these things are just like this?  Because God was writing His gospel hundreds and hundreds of years before it actually came.  And the Lord showed Moses a tree, cut it down and cast it into the waters.  And when Moses cut it down and cast the tree into the waters, the waters were made sweet [Exodus 15:25].

There is never a Marah but that by its side there grows a tree which when cast into the waters, make the waters sweet.  “Thy salvation is nigh thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart!” [Deuteronomy 30:14, Romans 10:8].  I know sometimes it is hard to believe in the all-sufficient grace [2 Corinthians 12:9].  I know sometimes we are so filled with disappointment and tears and murmuring, that we can hardly seek it to find it, but it is always there, that tree, that cross.  “For I, the Lord, am the healer of My people!” [Exodus 15:26].

That cross is not only a sign of our redemption, but it is a sign of our healing.  “By His stripes we are healed” [Isaiah 53:5].  And they cast the cross, the tree into the bitter waters, and they were made sweet [Exodus 15:25].  And out of the valleys and the bitterness and the disappointment and the trials of our lives, come those virtues of longsuffering, and patience, and kindness, and sympathy, and understanding, and love that otherwise we would never have known.

This is the school of the wilderness, and we go through it; all of us go through it.  It is a part of our pilgrimage in the earth.  But it is not all Marah.  No!  Look now at the verse, the twenty-seventh verse: “And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped by those waters” [Exodus 15:27].

We don’t encamp by Marah; that’s a bitterness, that’s a shadow, that’s a night, that’s a crying, that’s a weeping, that’s a disappointment, that’s a heartache.  We all go there.  We all pass by it, but we always come to an Elim [Exodus 15:27].  There are more Elim’s in life than there are Marah’s.  We just journey by the Marah’s of life until we come to the Elim’s of life, and there we encamp.   We stay by the Elim’s, all the refreshment of those twelve wells of sweet water and those seventy palm trees, and that’s the Lord’s.  “And the Lamb shall lead them unto living fountains of water: and God, God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” [Revelation 7:17].  And we camp at Elim in the goodness of God under the shadow of His mighty wings [Psalm 17:8], drinking at the fountains of living waters, living in the presence of the Lord, camping at Elim [Exodus 15:27].

Now the next chapter has to do with manna [Exodus 16], and I have a specially prepared sermon on that.  So we come to the seventeeth chapter to Rephidim [Exodus 17:1].   And the few minutes that remain I have so much to encompass in this seventeenth chapter at Rephidim.   After Marah, then after their encampment at Elim, they come now to Rephidim: “And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness of Sin” [Exodus 17:1].

You have it in the King James Version, “after their journeys” [Exodus 17:1].  The Hebrew is “by stages, by stages.”  What Moses means by saying that is, that they came to this place and camped, then made a journey to this place and camped, and so they went through the wilderness by stages, just like you do.

We come and this is our home, then we are in college, and then we are in our first pastorate or our first position or job and then this.  Well, that’s the way the congregation of Israel went through the wilderness, by stages, here and then there and then there.  According to the commandment of the Lord, as the cloud directed them;  When the cloud moved they moved, and when the cloud stayed they stayed [Exodus 13:21-22, 40:36-38].

So they went through the wilderness by stages according to the commandment of the Lord and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink [Exodus 17:1], which is certainly understandable in that vast, dry, rocky wilderness of flint. 


And the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink.  And Moses said unto them, Why chide you with me? wherefore do you tempt the Lord?

And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? 

And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do?  What shall I do?  The people be ready to stone me. 

And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. 

Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.  And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

[Exodus 17:2-6]


And they called the name of that place Tempting and Chiding [Exodus 17:7].  Now that is an unusual thing.  Where would you think you would find water?  Where?  Well, I would never look for it in the solid rock, would you?  It would never occur to me, and yet that’s God.   How God does with His people is always an unusual thing.  Who would have ever of thought the prime minister of Egypt was set there just on purpose to feed Israel and his family? [Genesis 50:20-21].   Who would of ever have thought for that?  That’s God!

Who would ever have planned it that the ravens, the ravens should feed God’s prophet? [1 Kings 17:2-6]. That’s God, though!  Who would ever have thought that in the muddy, dirty waters of the River Jordan there would be healing for Naaman, the leper? [2 Kings 5:1, 9-14].  But that’s the Lord!   “Cast in a branch,” said Elisha, “and the iron will swim” [2 Kings 6:4-7].  Who would have ever of thought of that?  Who would have ever thought that Cyrus of all people, would bring Israel back to the land of Palestine to build their temple and their city of Zion? [2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-3].  Who would ever have thought that out of the closed, steel sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea [Matthew 27:57-60] would come life, resurrection [Matthew 28:5-7], and least of all, who would ever have thought that out of the crucifixion, out of the death [Matthew 27:32-50], the cross of Jesus of Nazareth would come those fountains of everlasting mercy and shall save us and keep us forever?  Who would ever have thought of that?  You turn to 1 Corinthians 10:4: “And they did all drink the same spiritual drink, for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ,” 1 Corinthians 10:4: “And that Rock was Christ…”

“Stand there—said God to Moses—with the rod in thine hand, take the elders of the children of Israel that they may behold it, and strike the rock…” [from Exodus 17:5, 6].  “He shall grow up before Him as a root out of a dry ground: He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him….”  [Isaiah 53:2].  “His face and His form were marred more than the form and visage of man”  [Isaiah 52:14].

 Who would ever have thought that out of that dreary, dull, dry, formalism that you know of by the name of Judaism, would ever have come the salvation of God’s people in the earth?  “Strike the rock, smite the rock, and water shall pour out of it, and that Rock was Christ” [Exodus 17:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4].  The smitten Rock, our crucified Lord [Matthew 27:32-50], opened the floodgates of blessings and mercy, wherein we find the forgiveness of our sins [Ephesians 1:7] and God’s open door into glory [John 17:22, Romans 8:30].

Now may I say just a word about the rest of the chapter?  I haven’t time to read it.  At Rephidim they were attacked and God’s children, all of them, will find themselves someday landed in Rephidim.  Don’t you think you will escape.  Hard, furious, in a way that maybe you haven’t thought for or expected, they came to Rephidim [Exodus 17:1] and there Amalek attacked them [Exodus 17:8-16].  Who was Amalek?  The best I can find out Amalek seems to be a descendant of Esau.  They were a fierce, furious, warlike desert tribe.  And they came to destroy God’s people.  Haman was an Amalekite and under the days of those kings Haman sought to emcompass the entire annihilation of God’s people [Esther 3:8-15].  That’s why God said to Saul, “Saul, I have commissioned thee to destroy Amalek” [1 Samuel 15:1-3].

The Lord said, “The Lord hath sworn I will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” [Exodus 17:16].  You will never resolve the conflict in this world, not until Satan is overcome [Revelation 20:10], and not until there is a final triumph over the prince of the power of darkness and disease and war and hate and destruction and death.  God hath sworn to have war with Satan forever and forever.  There is never going to be a compromise on God’s part with evil and with death, with darkness, and we’re in that raging battle ourselves, and in the pilgrimage of this life we all come to Rephidim, and we all are attacked by Amalek [Exodus 17:8].

Now I must hasten to this close.  I want you to look how Moses has changed.  It came to pass when Amalek came to fight that “Moses said to Joshua, Joshua, choose out men, go out and fight with Amalek, and I will stand on the hill with the rod of God in mine hand” [Exodus 17:9].  And while you fight, Joshua, I will be praying.

Now just this sentence about the change in Moses; when he was a young man before his schooling in the desert, when he was a young man, it would never have occurred to Moses to fight a battle by prayer.  Why, when he was a young man, he bared his arm and he doubled his fist and he struck with all of his might.  By the fierceness of the strike he slew the Egyptian [Exodus 2:11-12], that even dared to harshly belabor one of his brethren.   And when Moses was on the throne, the crown prince, heir apparent, he planned the deliverance of his people by might and by strength.

Now look at him; after he’s been in the wilderness for forty years and after he’s been taught of God, Moses is on top of the hill with the rod of God in his hand praying while Joshua, his young lieutenant, is down there in the valley with the warriors [Exodus 17:9].  That’s a great lesson to learn, that you can also win by prayer.  And it’s a great lesson for the church to learn, that we go forward the farthest and the fastest on our knees.  Our weapons are spiritual: intercession, crying to the Lord, prayer, looking unto God, asking heaven’s help.  These are the things that Moses learned in the wilderness, and these are things that we are learning, we who also are in that pilgrimage.

Now while we sing our song somebody this day to give his heart to the Lord [Romans 10:8-13], somebody to put his life in the church [Hebrews 10:24-25], a family or just one somebody you, while we make the appeal, would you come and stand by me.  In the balcony around, coming down the stairwells, or on the lower floor, into the aisle and up to the front, “Today, I give my heart in trust to Jesus, or today we’re putting our lives in the church,” while we sing this song, would you come?  While we stand and sing.


Exodus 15:22



I.              Wilderness

1.    Sinai peninsula

2.    Desolate, dry, barren

II.            Marah

1.    First source of water but it is bitter

2.    God made waters sweet

3.    Did not encamp at Marah

III.           Elim

1.    Good water and palm trees

2.    Encamped at Elim

IV.          Rephidim

1.    Encampment with no water

2.    Amalekites came to destroy Israel

3.    Rod of God held high – Israel defeated Amalek