“What are we doing here? I thought we were going to the promised land.” That’s probably how the people of Israel felt as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. In Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Moses makes several important points about Israel’s suffering in the wilderness.
“And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (ESV).
First of all, Moses highlights Israel’s wilderness guide. Israel wasn’t lost, Israel was being led by God. God didn’t leave his people to find their own way, instead he went before them with the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. God was taking Israel through the wilderness for a reason and therefore the wilderness journey wasn’t a mistake.
Second, Moses identifies the purpose of these seemingly wasted years with a simple phrase, “that he might humble you.” God orchestrated the circumstances to keep Israel close to the ground and he kept Israel in that situation for four decades. Humility is that important to God.
Third, Moses continues, “testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” The external expression of a humble spirit is obedience. God was conducting Israel’s obedience classes in the wilderness.
Finally, God was humbling Israel by making them rely on strange food called manna. Instead of going out and gathering whatever they wanted, Israel had to gather and eat what God had provided. The objective of the manna lesson was dependence: “that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” God wanted his word to be Israel’s life and sustenance.
But Israel’s journey in the wilderness wasn’t unique. While the wilderness setting varied, the Bible is filled with stories of people who went through a “wilderness” period. Here’s a partial list:
- Abraham had to wait for his promised son for twenty-five years.
- Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and later falsely accused and imprisoned.
- Moses led sheep in the wilderness for forty years.
- Job lost his children, wealth, and health.
- Ruth and Naomi lost their husbands and became destitute.
- David repeatedly ran and hid from King Saul who was seeking to kill him.
- Elijah fled into the wilderness to hide from Jezebel then prayed for God to take his life.
- Jeremiah was thrown into a muddy cistern.
- Daniel was sent into exile in Babylon and later placed into a lion’s den.
- Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days.
- Jesus was crucified and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
- Peter was beaten and imprisoned.
- Paul was flogged, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and stoned.
Looking at the big picture leads to this conclusion: the wilderness is God’s plan for our lives. That may not sound encouraging, but remember that God is leading and teaching his most important lessons—humility, obedience, and dependence—in the wilderness.