Bitter Waters Made Sweet
In the first twenty-one verses of Exodus 15 we find what is known as the Song of Moses. It is a poetic celebration of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian enslavement, and in a broader sense, it praises God’s great power to do what no other god anywhere, at any time, could do.
The events that led to this triumphal song began when God heard the cries of His people enslaved in Egypt. Through Moses, God sent the message to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 9:1). Pharaoh was stubborn and tried to retain control, but God sent plagues on Egypt, culminating in the death of the firstborn throughout the land. Broken by this, Pharaoh let the Jewish people go, but soon regretted his decision and pursued after them to the Red Sea. With Pharaoh’s army behind them and the Red Sea before them, the Children of Israel did not know what to do. Then, they cried out to the Lord and He parted the waters so that they walked through on dry ground! Pharaoh’s men pursued, but God caused their chariot wheels to fall off. Then the waters returned, drowning the Egyptian army.
What a miraculous deliverance! All of Israel rejoiced, singing with Moses, “Who is like unto thee, O <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps>, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11-12). The words of the song seem to indicate that the Israelites had complete confidence in God to lead them forward. However, within days they would encounter a new challenge and their confidence would be gone.
Following the Red Sea crossing, God led His people into the wilderness of Shur, and for three days they found no water. In the desert, this is not a small thing; it is a matter of life and death. When they finally came to a place where there was water, it was bitter. The people reacted by murmuring against Moses, and they named the place Marah, which is the Hebrew word for “bitter.” Yet, Moses knew what to do and turned to God for help. He “cried unto the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps>,” and God was faithful to answer. “The <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps> shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet” (Exodus 15:25).
After their great deliverance, the Israelites may have expected that the rest of the journey would be without incident. That is not how life works, though; there are ups and downs. Life sent the children of Israel bitter waters, and sometimes life sends us bitter waters. After a spiritual victory, we can go on to experience sickness, loss, isolation, persecution, economic difficulties, and the list could go on. Yet, as with the Israelites in the wilderness, God offers a remedy for life’s bitter waters.
God showed Moses a tree, and He also shows us a tree. Our tree is Calvary, the Cross upon which Jesus died. It was the most bitter symbol of death known in the Roman world, but it has been transformed into a symbol of sweet hope and redemption by the Blood of Jesus Christ! To those who are overwhelmed with the bitterness of sin, the Cross symbolizes the sweetness of salvation. It is forgiveness for sin through faith, repentance, and a surrender to God’s will. For the redeemed, the Cross—that tree that Jesus hung upon—is available for us to place into the bitter waters of life that come our way. It is the remedy for any trouble we may encounter.
The remedy for a bitter attitude
One of the dangers that exists when we face bitter waters in life is that they can cause feelings of bitterness in our souls, and that is a serious problem. In Hebrews 12:15, we are told to be diligent in our faith, “lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.” If we start to harbor resentment over our circumstances, we will become troubled not only spiritually, but physically and emotionally as well. In addition, as this verse notes, our attitude will affect those around us.
Sometimes bitter feelings stem from our interactions with others. Maybe we feel we have been slighted or offended by another individual. The Word of God gives very practical advice for how to respond. We read in Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.” We must make a conscious decision to lay aside negative thoughts and forgive quickly before resentment has opportunity to take root.
Some have been hurt so deeply they feel they cannot forgive. However, this is not something we have to do in our own strength—God will help. Continuing in Ephesians, the next verse says, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.” Christ suffered and died to forgive all our sins, and His love will help us extend forgiveness and grace to others. When bitter feelings threaten to rise in our hearts, we can overcome them by remembering the Cross and all Christ has done for us.
The remedy for life’s “bitter waters”
In the Book of Ruth, we learn about a woman who experienced some bitter waters. Naomi was an Israelite who married and had two sons. When a famine came to the land of Israel, she and her husband moved their family to the neighboring country of Moab. While there, her husband died, and she became a widow. Her sons married and thrived for a time, but then they died also.
These were tough times for Naomi. She decided to return to her homeland, and her daughter-in-law Ruth insisted on joining her. When Naomi arrived in her hometown of Bethlehem and was recognized, she told the people, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full and the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps> hath brought me home again empty” (Ruth 1:20-21). Naomi had no money or possessions, and as a widowed woman in that culture, she had no status. Without a male heir to inherit her husband’s land and continue the family name, she could not keep the property, so she had to put it up for sale (Ruth 4:3).
However, Naomi never turned her back on God, and in time He made provision for her. One of her husband’s kinsmen was a wealthy man named Boaz. Ruth went to glean in his fields, and because she found favor with him, he instructed his reapers to leave behind barley for her. When Ruth showed her mother-in-law how much she had gleaned, Naomi said, “Blessed be he of the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps>, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead.” Then she said, “The man is near of kin unto us, one of our next kinsmen” (Ruth 2:20). Naomi saw God at work in this. Under Mosaic Law, a widow’s land could be redeemed by a near kinsman if he were willing to marry her and produce an heir to inherit her previous husband’s property, as well as carry on his family name. In fact, the word translated here as “kinsmen” comes from the Hebrew go‘el, which means “kinsman-redeemer.” In this case, Boaz married Ruth, redeeming her husband’s inheritance and thereby Naomi’s.
Boaz and Ruth eventually had a son named Obed who became the grandfather of King David and an ancestor of Christ. When Obed was born, the women of the town said, “Blessed be the <smallcaps>Lord<smallcaps>, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman [a redeemer] that his name may be famous in Israel” (Ruth 4:14).
When life seemed unfair to Naomi, God had not forsaken her. She remained faithful and God provided a kinsman-redeemer to buy back what she could not. We have a Kinsman-Redeemer also. His name is Jesus! His name is famous in Israel and throughout the world. There is no redeemer like Him—He gave His life on a tree to purchase us from the bondage of sin. He also promised to supply our every need and to be with us always, even unto the end of the world. There is no type of “bitter water” in life that He cannot overcome.
We have Jesus!
There is a sister in our Seattle, Washington, congregation who is in her nineties. A few years ago, she shared her testimony on Mother’s Day. She said that when she was a child, her grandmother took her to Sunday school. Then at age eleven, after her father received salvation, she declared, “I want that.” She prayed and God saved her.
Later, she grew up, married, and had five children. When she was in her late twenties, her family moved to Seattle from the southern part of the United States. They lived here in the 1960s, which was not necessarily an easy time for an African-American woman to raise a family in a West Coast city, but there she was. After fifty years of marriage, her husband died. One of her sons passed away as well.
The last time I visited her, she had eighteen grandchildren, and several were at her house. As I talked with her, I asked her to share some of the hard times in life that she had experienced. She just chuckled and said, “But Pastor, we have Jesus.” She had not one complaint, because when she was eleven years old, God showed her a tree—the Cross of Jesus. She had been putting that tree into the bitter waters every time they came up, and the waters kept coming back sweet! God will do the same for us if we will continually look to the Cross.
We wish every day could be a Passover deliverance and a Red Sea parting, but life is not like that. Difficult times will come to every one of us, but we can be encouraged for God has shown us a tree. Calvary’s tree stands strong today and is available to cast into the bitter waters that come our way.
If past events have left you feeling hurt or discouraged, cast your cares on Jesus and let His sacrificial love bring healing. If you are going through a difficult situation now, remember that God has not forsaken you; He is your Redeemer and He has a plan to provide for you. Whatever awaits us in the future, we can face with the attitude, “But we have Jesus!” God has shown us a tree, and our bitterness can be made sweet today.