Oh that wilderness, desert place. A place of such history and ambivalence. The wilderness is “vast and dreadful… a thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions”(Deut 8:15). It is a “barren and howling waste” (Deut 32:10), an uninhabitable place, a dangerous place, a place of death. The Israelites said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?”
The Israelites were expecting to die in the wilderness, but it was into the wilderness that God delivered them from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. The Israelites met their God in the wilderness, and God showed his power and compassion by providing food, water, clothing and healing. The Israelites received God’s greatest gifts–his statutes, commandments and holy sabbaths. God promised to be with them in the wilderness and to bring them into “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In the wilderness, God wooed the Israelites into a loving covenant relationship, and later through the prophet Jeremiah, God recalls this time in the wilderness by saying, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer 2:2).
However, it was in the wilderness that the Israelites lost their vision and grumbled, protested and rebelled against God. Due to the Israelite’s unfaithfulness, the wilderness became a place of wandering, testing, judgement and punishment. This wilderness experience was not terminal because God remained faithful and did not allow his divine anger to erase his love for his people.
God allowed the Israelites to continue into the land, but the wilderness wandering became a prophetic reminder throughout history of the potential judgement of God upon the Israelites if they were disobedient and unrepentant. God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah says,
Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives (Jer 17:5-6).
Through the prophet Hosea, God explains that Israel must repent, lest he “turn her into a wilderness, and make her like a dry land” (Hos 2:3).
But God juxtaposes these wilderness statements with eschatological pronouncements that with the future outpouring of the Spirit, the wilderness will become a fruitful field (Is 32:15) and Zion’s wilderness will be made like Eden (Isa 51:3).
The Psalmist sums up God’s sovereignty and actions regarding the wilderness,
He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there. He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs; there he brought the hungry to live, and they founded a city where they could settle (Ps 107:33-36).
The wilderness is an important place used by God for his purposes, but the people of God must heed the words of Psalm 95:8,9
Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
But there is more wilderness juxtaposition that should be considered.
Throughout biblical history, the wilderness was viewed as a place marked by uncleanness, defilement and evil. People were relegated to “outside the camp” if they were determined ceremonial unclean (Lev 13:46; Num 5:1-4) or if they had blasphemed (Lev 24:14). The wilderness was the “cut off” place where the scapegoat was sent after the sins of the people were transferred to it on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:10, 21-22). Moreover, it was believed that Satan and evil spirits were in the wilderness. Jesus is confronted and tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1-13). In Luke 8:29, the Gerasene demoniac was driven into the desert by a demon. In Matthew 12:43-45 and its parallel in Luke 11:24-26, the unclean spirit who had been cast out “passes through arid places.”
In contrast, the wilderness was also viewed as a place of refuge, a place to get away to meet with God and a place where kingdom work took place. David escaped to a stronghold in the wilderness during his flight from Saul (1 Sam 23:14; 26:2-3). Jeremiah wished he had a wilderness hut to get a respite from the sinful people (Jer 9:2). Jesus often withdrew into the wilderness in order to pray (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness (Mt 14:21; 15:32-39). The wilderness was a place of revelation and proclamation of the good news. As prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 40:3), John the Baptist lived in the wilderness (Luke 1:80) where the word of God came to him (Luke 3:2), and he preached and baptized (Mark 1:3-5). Philip’s missionary outreach to the Ethiopian takes place in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza (Acts 8).
Today, we also may experience the wilderness in these ways by seeking God in solitude, silence and prayer. We can choose to get away with God, and we can experience his rest and refuge. God may lead us into the wilderness for his kingdom ministry. We may find ourselves in the wilderness not by our own choice but because God has led us there. Take Elijah for example, God led him to the wilderness for a season where he was fed by ravens before he continued on in ministry (1 Kgs 17). The Apostle Paul spent a season in the desert being taught by the Holy Spirit before starting his ministry (Gal 1:16-17). Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness before his ministry.
These examples teach us about depending on God and not giving up while in the difficult places. God cares for us and is watching over us. As we cry out, “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1), God is preparing us for future things that are greater than we could imagine. He is leading us to things that we could not fathom doing if it were not for being formed in the wilderness.
As we have seen, there is a lot to this wilderness place, but no matter why we are in the wilderness, God loves us and is faithful to us. He has a perfect, sovereign plan that he is accomplishing, and we can trust him and look to him.