“And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. […] And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.” (Numbers 33:9, 14)
The Israelites covered a lot of ground during their wilderness-wandering years. When God brought them out of Egypt, He led them in a roundabout way to Canaan, including a lengthy stay at the foot of Mount Sinai. After the people rebelled in Canaan and refused to take over the land, they were sentenced to forty more years of wandering. In that time, God’s presence continued to lead them, bringing them to many different places. Whenever He moved, they moved. Whenever He stopped, they stopped, for however long He chose to remain.
And so the years passed. The majority of those forty years was spent simply going wherever God led them next. It’s interesting to see how He chose to lead. Sometimes, He brought them to places of plenty. Elim, for example, was an oasis full of water and lush in growth. But He also brought them to places like Rephidim, where they had to completely rely on Him to provide their needs.
Now, let’s stop here for a minute. Why would God lead them to two such vastly different places? If He was capable of bringing them to oases, why didn’t He do that every time? Or even more to the point, why would He purposely bring them to a desolation? What was the point in all this?
The answer lies in God’s reason for the wilderness wandering. The generation who rebelled against Him did so out of unbelief. Though they had seen God provide before, such as at the Red Sea, the lesson meant nothing to them. They listened to their fear instead of to God, insisting that the giants in Canaan were too big even for Him. So because of their unbelief, they were sentenced to death. During the forty years, all but two of that generation died. It was their children who would obey and take over the land. It was their children who would grow in their relationships with God while in the wilderness.
This is why God deliberately led them to desolate places. When they were in a place of plenty, it was easy to thank God; but how much about Him did they learn? Anyone can provide when provisions are abundant, but what about when there’s literally nothing there? Yet even in a barren land, God was able to provide for His people. And through that experience, their knowledge of Him grew. They witnessed His power again and again, and when it was finally their turn to enter Canaan, they were ready.
In our own lives, God often leads us right into horrible situations. Our natural instinct is to complain about this. Things were so nice even a few weeks ago; why did we have to leave and come to this dreadful place? But God did it on purpose. Every time He brings us to what seems like a horrible place, He intends to use it to teach us more about Himself. In the middle of the craziness and the desolation all around us, He can still provide. And what’s more, when the time is right He will bring us out again, leading us to another place of abundance. He knows what He’s doing, and He’s amazing at taking bad situations and turning them into good. So no matter what your current desolation looks like, you can have hope. God has brought you there for a reason, and He’s eager to teach you more about Himself. And in due time, He will bring you out again, and you will be closer to Him than ever before. What an incredible God He is!