Pining for Egypt (Grumbling)

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 10, 2016

Exodus 15:22-16:3 Taming the Tongue: Pining for Egypt (Grumbling)

That Turned Fast
Exodus 15 follows Exodus 14.

That makes sense. Numbers usually work in that way. But what is remarkable is that the events of Exodus 15 could occur so closely on the heels of the events of Exodus 14.

Exodus 14 is the chapter that recounts the Red Sea Crossing. This is the defining moment of salvation in the Old Testament. It is the centerpiece of the Jewish faith. Millions of Israelites, leaving slavery, following the cloud of God, find themselves trapped on the shores of the Sea with Egyptian chariots bearing down on them. It appears to be a hopeless situation. But Moses raises his staff and the Divine Warrior divides the waters. The Israelites cross on dry land and when the Egyptians follow they are wiped out in a supernatural tsunami. It is the moment where God’s rescuing power is most clearly on display.

The first 21 verses of chapter 15 are a hymn of praise to God for His wonder working salvation:

Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted,
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea. (Ex. 15:21)

It is the kind of response you would expect to such an awesome miracle.

But then comes verses 22 through 24, which are our key verses today:

22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Just three days after the Red Sea Rescue, and the people are grumbling. It took just 3 days for their worship to turn to whining.

Last week we studied James 3:10 which says: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” That’s what we see here from the Israelites. Just 3 days and they are grumbling in the desert. This should not be!

A few verses down, Exodus 16:1-3, we read this:

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. [So this is one month after the Passover! A mere 30 days.] 2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.

Verse 2: “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” That could be the heading for this section of scripture. That’s a pretty good description for what happened between crossing the Red Sea and finally getting to the Promised Land 40 years later: “the whole community grumbled.” They grumbled, and grumbled and grumbled.

If you have the King James Version, it says they “murmured”. Those are two words that sound like what they are. “Grumble, grumble, grumble.” “Murmur, murmur, murmur.”

It didn’t take long after the people escaped the chains of slavery that they started pining for their old lives in Egypt. They convinced themselves that all they did in those days was sit around pots of meat and eat all they wanted. In Numbers 11 they start describing Egypt as a place abundant with cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. Pretty quickly, they do a revisionist history about what it meant to live under Pharaoh’s whip.

Now, to be fair, the Israelites were not in the greatest situation. Deserts are not exactly renowned for their abundant resources. Scholars believe there were about 2 million people who left Egypt. Three days without water under any circumstances is a problem, but imagine 2 million people—including the elderly and babies--tired, hot, footsore, and thirsty.

And then they see an oasis, a place the locals refer to as Marah. But then, when they get there, they find out the water is full of sulfur and minerals and can’t be drunk. It’s bitter, which is what Marah means.

It must have seemed like a cruel joke.

And then, later, 30 days in. The same group of 2 million people. Their water supply has improved, but they’re still in a desert. It’s not like there is a Hy-Vee across the street. No orchards of fruit or pastures filled with cattle. It looks like they’re all going to starve. You can see why they might have started to complain.

But the Bible is clear that their grumbling was sinful. 1 Corinthians 10:10 and 11 looks back on this period of Israel’s history and says bluntly that we should take warning:

10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.

What is Grumbling?
Grumbling is a sin. God doesn’t like grumbling. Our current series is called “Taming the Tongue”, and we are looking at the power of our words, different “sins of the tongue.” And the sin we are going to talk about today is grumbling.

According to an online dictionary, grumbling is complaining or protesting about something, usually in a bad-tempered but typically muted way. The online urban dictionary says grumbling is “to complain somewhat pointlessly. Grumbling usually consists of merely bemoaning an unfortunate/unfair situation instead of attempting to come up with a solution.” My friend Matt, in his book on gossip, says:

“The grumbler complains. He criticizes. When she is upset about something—and misery loves company—she will talk about others behind their backs. We often euphemistically call this “venting”. Yet there is no constructive purpose in this kind of talk, and no love in the speaker’s heart. Just grumbling.” (Matt Mitchell, Resisting Gossip, p. 50)

Synonyms for grumbling are belly-aching, whining, nit-picking, fault-finding, griping and grousing. There are a lot of words for it, and we all do it. Paul Tripp says:

“We live with grumbling all the time. Isn’t it amazing that we human beings can stand in front of a closet full of clothes and say we don’t have a thing to wear? Or stand in front of a refrigerator full of food and say there’s nothing to eat?... Isn’t it remarkable that we have wonderful activity-filled lives full of meaning and purpose, and we grumble that we’re way too busy? Or that we can look at everything that exists and find some reason to complain? Grumbling may seem like a little thing—a little sin—but I would like to propose to you that grumbling is a pollutant in the waters of your heart. It will kill life.” (Grumbling–A Look At A ‘Little’ Sin, Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 18, Number 2, Winter 2000).

Grumbling. I was with a group of pastors this week and mentioned that I was preaching on grumbling, and they joked: “But if we don’t grumble, what would we have to talk about?” And sometimes it feels that way. Isn’t most conversation just different forms of complaining?

And yet, the Bible says grumbling is a sin.

What I’d like to do today is look at 5 reasons grumbling is sinful. 5 things that are wrong with grumbling. And as we go along, I’ll suggest 5 things we should do instead.

A Failure to Remember
So, first, Grumbling is Ingratitude. Grumbling is sinful because it focuses on the negative, and forgets the positive.

That was the problem with the Israelites: they had forgotten everything God had just done for them. Three days out, and they totally forgot about the plagues that bought their exit from slavery and the pillar of fire that guided them through the night and the tidal wave that wiped out their Egyptian pursuers. They lost sight of all their blessings, and could only focus on their trials.

Psalm 106 recounts Israel’s history, and when it looks back on this episode it says:

When our ancestors were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.

How soon we forget. How easy it is to focus on our problems, and totally overlook our many blessings. How easy it is to give no thought to the miracles in our life, to not remember God’s many kindnesses, and instead rebel against God with ingratitude.

The funny thing about grumbling is how often we tend to do it about incredibly insignificant things. At least that’s true in my life.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is now a Starbucks inside Hy-Vee. Now, it’s not too often that I get fancy coffee drinks. They are tasty, but I’m too Dutch to justify paying that much for coffee. But for Christmas, somebody gave me a gift card. So on Tuesday, I went over there and got a Salted Caramel DeCaff Mocha with whipped cream. And it was delicious. And I still had money left on the card. So on Wednesday, I went over there again. But as I was paying for my drink, I found out that their gift card reader was broken. So I had to pay cash.

And you know what I did? I grumbled. I grumbled that I had to spend money I didn’t plan to spend. Instead of being grateful for the gift card in the first place, and the generous people who gave it to me, and for the wonderful country I live in where we have these magical places that can do such wonderful things with coffee and cream and chocolate, I grumbled. I came back to church, and I looked for someone I could tell my story of inconvenience to. (What I should have done was be grateful that I still have enough money on the card to go back again!)

In the article I quoted from earlier, Paul Tripp talks about a trip he took to India. While there he saw some of the worst slums on earth. He writes:

I stood there in that slum, and I felt every complaint I had ever spoken as if they were a weight on my shoulders. When I came home, I spoke with one of the church leaders from India who had come to Philadelphia to study. I said, “John, I want to ask you what you think of Americans. You’ve been here for awhile.” Indians are very polite people. He said, “Do you want me to be honest?” I said, “I sure do.” He said something I’ll never forget. “You have no idea how much you have, and yet you always complain.” (Ibid)

I’ve visited with people fighting cancer and I’m struck by how little they complain. Their bodies are wrecked by the treatment and often their prognosis is not very good, and yet the general theme I hear for them is how grateful they are for every blessing they have in life.

Then I go out and spend time with perfectly healthy people, and all I hear are complaints. Grumbling about cell phone service. Whining about the weather. Moaning about their favorite basketball team. And then I catch myself doing the exact same thing.

Grumbling is sinful because it is ingratitude. It forgets God’s mercies. So what should we do instead? It’s simple: Be Thankful. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Instead of grumbling, thanksgiving. Instead of focusing on the negative, remember the positive.

Me, Me, Me
Second, Grumbling is Self-Centered. Grumbling is a sin because it is jealous of what others have and implies that we think we deserve more.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a story about the owner of a vineyard. The man goes out and hires workers for his vineyard at 8 in the morning, promising to pay a day’s wage. Later, he goes out and hires more workers at noon, at three and at five. In each case, he promises to pay what is right. At the end of the day, he lines the workers up and pays for their work. He starts with those hired last, and pays them for a whole day’s work. When those who were hired first see this, they are excited, because they assume that since they worked 10 times as long, they’ll be paid 10 times as much. But when the owner pays them, he gives them just a day’s wages, exactly what he promised when they were first hired. Matthew 20:11 says:

11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.

What they received was fair, and if they were the only ones who had worked and they received that much, they would have been satisfied. But when they saw the landowner being generous towards others, they could not tolerate it, and the grumbling began.

Often we grumble because we are jealous of what others have. We are self-centered, and believe that life should always be easy for us. Paul Tripp puts it like this:

Why do we complain? [Because] we want a life without obstacles. Can you relate to that? We want kids that are self-parenting. We believe that God actually made a mistake in marriage, that sanctification was supposed to be completed before marriage, not after. We want fully glorified people to be in our lives. I want a wife who thinks I’m summarily wonderful, who agrees with me that I’m always right, who respects my every word. I want a life that’s free of suffering and of obstacles. I want no financial problems. Can you relate to that? Very few of us wake up in the morning and say, “Lord, You have said in Your Word that suffering is one of Your main tools to complete us. Let me pray for a little more of that today in my life. You are such a good God. One of Your greatest gifts is that You have called me to identify with the sufferings of Christ. Bring it on!” It doesn’t take much to spoil our day. For some of us, a flat tire will do it. We want an obstacle-free life. (Ibid)

He goes on to say that most of us expect life to be a resort. We grumble because we selfishly think our lives should always be free of pain, difficulty, inconvenience and disruption. We know those things happen, we just don’t think they should happen to us.

Grumbling is sinful because it is self-centered. So what should we do instead? Let me suggest that we need to learn to be content. “Contentment is counting your blessings and knowing that if you have Jesus Christ, you have everything.” (Mitchell, p. 51) In Philippians 4:12-13 Paul writes:

12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

That final line is often quoted by athletes who score touchdowns or recording artists who win awards. But Paul is talking about something much more profound than that, he’s talking about being content in situations that other people would grumble about.

With Christ, it’s possible.

Get the Log Out
Third, Grumbling is Judging. Grumbling is sinful because it makes uncharitable judgments about others.

When the people complained in the desert, one of the things they did was pass judgment on Moses and Aaron. In Exodus 16:3 they say ”You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” As though that were Moses’ evil plan all along: get them away from the brick-making pits of Egypt so they could all perish in the wilderness.

James 5:9 is one of the verses I included in our New Year’s resolutions last week. It says:

9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Don’t grumble or you will be judged. The implication is that when we grumble we are judging others. James is echoing the language of Jesus, who said in Matthew 7:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Most grumbling is about someone else. It is usually focused on perceived faults and mistakes in that person. It is never charitable.

In his Resisting Gossip book, my friend Matt shares this story, which someone emailed to him:

A young couple moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they were eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging the wash outside.

‘That laundry is not very clean,’ she said. ‘She doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.’

Her husband looked on, but remained silent. Every time her neighbor would hang her wash to dry, the young woman would make the same comments.

About one month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, ‘Look, she has learned how to wash correctly, I wonder who taught her this.’

The husband said, ‘I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.’

The email ends: “And so it is with life. What we see when watching others depends on the window through which we look.” (Ibid, 73)

Grumbling is sinful because it is judging. So what should we do instead? Be charitable. Believe the best about people. Judge others the way you would want to be judged. Follow Jesus’ golden rule:

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

In Their Tents
Fourth, Grumbling is Gossip. Grumbling is sinful because it usually means talking behind someone’s back.

When the Israelites grumbled at Marah, the Bible says they “grumbled against Moses” (Exodus 15:23) The implication is that they were talking amongst themselves, they were grousing about the situation, but no one took their complaint directly to Moses. Psalm 106, when it looks back on this, puts it this way:

25 They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the Lord.

Think about places where grumbling occurs the most, like at work. How much of that grumbling takes place behind someone’s back? You don’t like your supervisor, so you sit around the break room and complain about her. There’s a co-worker that gets on everyone’s nerves, so when he’s not around everyone talks about him.

Or at school. How much grumbling about teachers takes place in the hallway or in the cafeteria?

Or at church. I’ve heard that sometimes people grumble about church. Not here, of course, but other churches. How often does a parent have a concern about the youth pastor, so they grumble about it with other parents? Or someone doesn’t like changes that the board has made, so they grumble about it over coffee? Or—again, I’ve heard this happens in other churches, I’m sure it doesn’t happen here—how often do people go home to Sunday lunch and grumble about the poor quality of the preaching?

We grumble in our tents. We grumble against people. We belly-ache and complain and find others to share in our disgust. But you know what we so rarely do? We rarely take our concern to the person we are concerned about.

Grumbling is a sin because it is a form of gossip. So, what should we do instead? Be direct. If we see or experience something that we truly believe should be changed or fixed, then we should go directly to the person who can do something about it. Jesus puts it like this, in Matthew 18:

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk or be rude about it. Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to gripe and moan about someone behind their back, but when you talk to them personally it gets much harder to say what you are feeling? That’s probably a good thing. You should seek to be as gracious and gentle as possible, but let that person know your concern, and why it bothers you, and see if together you can work out a way to fix it.

If somebody is doing something that makes us want to grumble, the way I see it we have two choices. We can keep quiet and live with it, or we can take our concern directly to that person. Anything else will be pointless.

Sweet Water
Then, fifth and finally, Grumbling is Doubting. Grumbling is sinful because it reveals a lack of faith in God.

This takes us back to the bitter springs of Marah and what lay at the heart of the Israelites’ whining. Even though they had just been the subjects of God’s miraculous salvation, even though they were still wearing the sandals that had walked across the sea floor, even though the cloud was still guiding them by day and the pillar of fire by night, they weren’t sure they could trust God to take care of them. They were doubting God’s faithfulness.

Now, again, the circumstances they faced were difficult: 2 million people in a desert without food or water. But at the same time, they had ample evidence that God could and would take care of them

What about us? Have you ever considered how a complaining spirit ultimately reveals a lack of trust in God? When everything is bad, when everything needs to be grumbled about and murmured over, when we constantly feel the need to have a “woe is me” attitude; what we are saying is that we really don’t believe God has things under control.

Grumbling is a sin because it reveals our lack of faith. So what should we do instead? Be Confident. Trust that the God who has been so gracious in the past will continue to be gracious in the future.

In spite of Israel’s doubts, God continued to be incredibly gracious to them. Here’s how the episode at Marah concludes:

25 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. 26 He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”

You know, wood doesn’t normally make water sweet. Nobody has been able to figure out what kind of tree could have changed this bitter, poisonous water into something pure and safe for 2 million people. It’s clearly a miracle of God. Philip Ryken writes:

The wood made the water sweet because it came from God’s tree. This reminds us of some of the other trees in Scripture: the life-giving tree in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9), the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, with leaves for healing the nations (Rev. 22:2), and especially the tree on which Christ was crucified—the tree that heals our bitter, bitter sin. God seems to specialize in trees of healing. (Exodus, 419)

And, of course, later, when they grumbled about being hungry, God graciously provided manna.

If you are a Christian, then God has already given you the greatest gift of all: His own Son, the Bread of Life, who gave His life on a tree for your salvation. If He’s already given us so much, how can we ever doubt that He’s got the things we murmur about under control? (i.e. Rom. 8:32)

Ryken again:

This is a lesson that most Christians need to learn over and over, until we finally get to the point where we no longer question if God is going to provide but only wonder how he will take care of us this time, waiting in faith until he does. (419)

And if you are not a Christian, then maybe today is the day you need to put your faith in Him. Accept His gift of salvation and then trust that He’s got everything else under control as well. Surrender your complaining Spirit to the one who makes bitter waters sweet.