Only forty five days had passed since the Israelites had left the land of Egypt. Those forty five days had been a whirlwind of activity, beginning with the last of the ten plagues delivered by God on the Egyptians- the death of every first-born child of every Egyptian family. The column of fleeing Israelites was massive—as many as one million people– moving slowly into the desert. Within days of their departure, they spotted Pharaoh’s army closing in. Pharaoh, filled with rage over the deadly plague which claimed even his own first born, now sought revenge on the fleeing Israelites. He had cornered them in a death trap. The path ahead was blocked by the Red Sea. From behind Pharaoh’s vicious army closed in. They would drown if they fled into the sea. If they did not, they would die by the sword.
But God had another plan by which he would rescue the Israelites and destroy the Egyptian army. Before the wondering eyes of all, God divided the sea, providing a dry path for the Israelites to pass to the other side. When the last Jewish foot had safely made it across, God caused the waters to collapse together again, swallowing the pursuing army. And everyone, Israelites and Egyptians, knew that God is real. God is all powerful. God saves the helpless and destroys those who deny him.
That’s why this story is so amazing. With all of those unbelievable miraculous events of the last forty five days, the Israelites began to grumble. Not just grumbling against Moses, but against God. This story is a powerful expose on the power of the sinful nature in all of us.
Having just witnessed what God is capable of doing, the Israelites feared they would not have enough food. “…the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron… ‘if only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’”
That is astonishing! The Israelites doubted that the God who had just delivered them by mighty works and wonders somehow was not able or willing to keep them from starvation! Look closely at this grumbling. First, it was “the whole community.” It may well have started with just a few complainers and whiners, but it spread like a cancer through the whole group. Our grumbling can have the same effect. You may think you’re just letting off a little steam, but it can infect all of those who witness your grumbling.
Second, grumbling about present difficulties is often coupled with a glorified memory of the past—“the good old days.” The Israelites reminisced, “We should have stayed in Egypt where we sat around pots of meat and had all the food we wanted.” That is a delusional description of their life in Egypt. The reality was that they were slaves, forced into hard labor. They did not sit around pots of meat. They did not have all the food they wanted. They were slaves— used and abused by their Egyptian masters. But no mention of that. The memory of the grumbler is delusional.
We do the same thing. People grumble about the present time, the present difficulties, and then they remember fondly “the good old days.” “Remember when we were growing up in the fifties or sixties or seventies? Those were the good old days” What about the war in Vietnam, or the economy of the late 70’s with interest rates at 21%, or the Arab Oil Embargo resulting in mile-long gas lines at every gas station? “The good old days” are often a myth of our glorified, sanitized memories.
Third, the grumbling was directed at the easy target—the visible leaders Moses and Aaron. But the real target was God. Moses pointed out repeatedly that the grumbling against him was a grumbling against God. Moses was just God’s spokesman, chosen by God, sent by God, doing what God told him to do. Grumbling against godly leaders is grumbling against God. Sin blinds people so that they do not perceive that truth. (Please notice I said “godly leaders.” When leaders make decisions contrary to God’s will, you have a right and responsibility to do more than grumble!”)
Fourth, sinful grumblers believe they can read minds and look into the hearts of people. The Israelite grumblers were convinced they knew Moses’ secret motivation. They were avid conspiracy theorists. Though God sent Moses to rescue the people from sure death, their grumbling conspiracy theory was that Moses had led them into the desert to kill them. Sinful grumbling always throws suspicion on the inner motivations of people. “I know what he really meant! I know what he really was trying to do!”
This grumbling against Moses and God is an ugly part of the story of Israel. How could they so quickly doubt and turn against the God who had so wondrously delivered them? It is the result of the ugly sinful nature still within each one of us. Without the intervening mercy and grace of God, we would all turn against Him and blame him for every difficulty in life.
God would have been justified in raining down hell fire and brimstone, destroying those Israelites like he once destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. But God didn’t do that. Instead, God heard the grumbling and answered with mercy, grace, forgiveness, and patience. For the hungry Israelites he sent meat from the skies and bread from the heavens. He gave them another chance. By his gracious act God invited them to remember that he uses his power to help them. God invited them to trust in him for every thing they needed.
And God has treated us in the same way. He hears our sinful grumbling, and he would be justified in punishing us. But he is patient and forgiving, merciful and kind. He forgives our sins and gives us what we need, not only for physical life, but for eternal life. The Israelites did not ask for quail dinners or for daily bread from heaven. God gave them what they had not asked for or imagined. They had longed to return to Egypt and the pots of meat they remembered there. God gave them something far better- quail and manna yes, but also freedom, independence, and the promise of their very own Promised Land.
It is easy today to grumble about all that is wrong with our world, and in that grumbling lose sight of the blessings God daily pours out upon us. We complain that God does not immediately act to solve every problem. We boldly proclaim what God ought to do about this problem or that. But God gives us even better gifts than we could have imagined. He gives us our daily bread, even in the midst of all our doubts and fears and grumbling. He gives us forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ. When we look back on our lives, we will be ashamed of our fear, doubt, and grumbling. We will see the hand of God working in and through every difficulty. Every problem eventually passes away, but God’s mercy and grace always remain. Before you are called out of this life to heaven, perhaps there will be a brief moment when you recall all your grumbling, with the realization that it was really grumbling against God. But God never grumbled about you. Christ never grumbled on the way to the cross, though he would have been perfectly justified in doing so. Instead of grumbling he responded to all his suffering with humility, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Grumbling cannot coexist with those things— in Christ, or in you.
-Pastor K.J. Anderson