“I am sick and tired of it all.”
“I wish I had never even come here. Look at how they have treated me. This stinks. I hate this God-forsaken place and just want to go back to where I came from.”
I looked at the visiting pastor and asked, “Would you like some coffee?”
Yes, I have had my share of counseling curmudgeonly clergy and murmuring ministers. Yet, they often were reflecting the grumbling groaning of their discontented flock. The murmuring seemed to be a virulent virus that fed on each other until, at length, the entire congregation was infected, effectively killing ministry and mission.
I admit that I, too, have been bitten by this bad bug. Just this week my wife had to remind me that I was getting a little less than positive. I used to cringe at asking an older person about how they were doing, expecting the inevitable rounds of aches and pains in this joint and that muscle. Now, though I don’t consider myself “of ancient days” I do hurt a great deal at times and recently allowed those pains to dampen my spirit. Thankfully, my wife helped me to see that if I could “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, leave no room for Mr. In-Between,” it might just bring a bit of cheerfulness into our home again.
Maybe you, too, have experienced the problem of murmuring or grumbling. Now, to be sure, there is a difference between decrying that which is evil and just plain complaining over God’s sovereign rule. That is the situation, which we see in Exodus 16.
The Israelites had been led to yet another point in their journey. God had already demonstrated His glory and His provision in parting the Red Sea, turning bitter water into sweet, but now they find themselves hungry. They rebel against Moses. Moses says, “Look, you are not murmuring against me, friends, you are grumbling against God!” And he was right. And this lead us to the eternal truth that applies to every one of us here today.
Murmuring is an ordinary malady of extraordinary magnitude that has got to be stopped or it will devour all of the good that God has given you.
Now, how is this so, as we look at Exodus 16:1-8? Well, we answer that by looking at (1) what it really is, (2) what is really does, and (3) how God responds to our murmuring. All of this being designed, not to destroy us, but to lead us along the journey towards the place where God wants us to be. God was never going to give up on the Hebrews any more than God is going to give up on you. If you are His, from the moment that you became His son or daughter, you entered a beautiful compact in which He promises to bring you through this world, even through death, and into a New Heaven and a New Earth.
But, let’s back up and look at this phenomenon of murmuring and its consequences.
First, let us look at what murmuring really is.
Look at the text. The Israelites complained that they were hungry, not starving to death, but knowing, apparently, the first pangs of hunger, that tested their faith and found them wanting. Other texts, also, strengthen the indictment against Israel:
“Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us” (Numbers 16:13)
And the New Testament writers often teach from the sad example of Israel’s murmuring:
“For who were the ones who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt” (Hebrews 3:16)?
“These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts” (Jude 1:16).
The essence of murmuring is a lack of faith in God. Israel had seen God’s demonstration of salvation in leading them out of Egypt, the blood on the posts and the angel of death passing over, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, the waters of Marah becoming sweet to drink. Yet, their faith was momentary. It was a passing euphoric faith, not a transformative faith. Thus, their god is themselves. And we must say, then, that this is idolatry. Let us not think that Israel erecting a golden calf in the desert is so shocking, for they here erect an idol in their hearts against God and against His anointed, Moses. They have become a god unto themselves and demand that Providence comply with their sovereign decrees.
But, of course, we know nothing of this. Or do we? I recall being in a situation, myself, when I was laboring in planting our first church plant. My wife and I were giving our all, but the few people gathering with us at that time did not have the enthusiasm that I demanded in my own mind. I expected that when they took the carney’s great hammer and tried to slam it down on the scales, the puck would soar upwards and ring the bell every time! 110% enthusiasm for this work! It took a colleague asking me if this was about God or about me. My old professor, Dr. Robert L. Reymond, now with the Lord, simply said it like this, “to think that you can control your life is an act of unbelief and shameless idolatry.”
But you just wanted your employees to get the job done the way you wanted it done. The young up and comer wasn’t so up and coming, after all, was he? Or, was he just young, and needing a mentor? You moved here from another city to get the job, and the job went away in the economic downturn. Then, you ended up with a lesser job, in a career trajectory that you didn’t plan. But, I ask you: did you do anything wrong? Weren’t you following the Lord and acting out of the light He gave you at the time? And haven’t you been placed in one of the greatest states in the Union? No, it is not the career you chose, but it is where you are. What will you make of it? How will you make it yours?
My Beloved, you and I are not gods. We are mortals. We serve a living God who is in control of all things. All things are not good. But God takes all things and fashions into good, over time, in His time, at the proper time, so that, as Peter tells us, He will exalt us in due time. We hunger in order for us to receive the blessing with thankfulness.
What Murmuring Really Does
The murmuring of the Israelites did not advance their journey. But it did have extraordinary consequences that we need to pay attention to. First, the grumbling, dissatisfied, toxic talk broke unity. Broken unity compromised mission. It then created lawlessness that bred mutiny. And mutiny created rebellion against the Almighty. We read in verse eight, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”
We each and all be very concerned about this. This is why we are warned by Scripture to be careful about every word. Our Lord Jesus told us, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
The actor Jimmy Stewart was known for his dawdling, hesitating Midwestern way of talking. He made a career out of it, whether he was playing a cowboy or a detective. The truth is that man who became George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and starred in so many Alfred Hitchcock movies and westerns was a boy scout from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and later a squadron commander of B-24 Liberators who flew more than his maximum share of missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
He was the squadron leader in the famous Black Thursday bombing of Schweinfurt, Germany ball-bearing plant on 14 October 1943. It was Black Thursday because that critical mission costs the Allies 60 planes and crew out of 291. But, the mission was successful. Jimmy Stewart, the son of a hardware store owner, a Princeton University grad in architecture, was a slow-speaker, because, in large part, the vast universal events of World War Two placed him in a dangerous place, at a very young age, where every word counted. He was naturally cautious, studied, and diffident.
The Bible tells us to be slow to speak and quick to listen. We are also told, “Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).
Murmuring is a fool’s game. Yet, it is as common as a cold. But, this leads to our final question of the text and for our lives?
What is God’s Response to Murmuring?
In the passage we see that God immediately throws a javelin of lightening down on Israel and kills them all. Right? Of course not. Amazingly, the Lord just carries through on His program of providing for the needs of the people so that they could continue their journey. He gives them manna and quail—Johnny Cakes from heaven in the morning, and a quail supper in the evening, twice as much on the sixth day, so they will have a good Sabbath meal. He will feed them. But He will do it His way. All they must do is wait on the Lord, then, receive His gift without condition, but according to His plan, not theirs.
This is still the response of the Almighty to grumbling, discontented people today. Receive the gift of God. What is it? The life of His only begotten Son. You must receive Him God’s way, not yours. But He comes with no other conditions than to repent and believe. Then, taste and see that the Lord is good. You will be filled. You will live. And you will see that you were led to this point so that you could know the goodness of God even in the desperate days of your life at this time.
Do you really think that God has designed it so that He will bring you to a place and then leave you? Or bring you to a place to hurt you? No. God loves you. He loves you because He made you. And for those who turn to His Son He adopts you into His family as a son or daughter. His love is a covenant love that will never let you go. Trust your Father. Let Him feed you. Wait upon Him. He will send the Holy Spirit to you where you are, in your predicament, in your trial, in your place of hardship, and He will minister to you in a way that will surprise you. You might even say, “I was led here so that I could hunger and be filled.” For after all, is that not what our Lord said?
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). And, “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (Psalm 107:9).
Michael Milton is James H. Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism, Erskine Theological Seminary; President, D. James Kennedy Institute for Reformed Leadership and Training; Chaplain (Colonel) U.S. Army Reserve; and President, Faith for Living, Inc.