Morning Sermon: Exodus 15:22-27, Bitter Water Made Sweet

New Testament Reading: Revelation 21:1–8

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’” (Revelation 21:1–8, ESV)

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 15:22-27

“Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.’ Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.” (Exodus 15:22–27, ESV)


Please excuse any typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church but without the benefit of proofreading.


In this sermon series, I have tried to convince you that the Exodus event along with the wilderness wandering that followed it and the eventual conquest of Cannan by the Hebrews is to be viewed in a multidimensional way. 

One, we must view this story as historical. The book of Exodus is a historical book. It tells us about what God did for the Hebrews in the days of Moses to deliver them. It tells us about how the LORD went with his people to provide for them and to guide them in the wilderness. These things happened, that is my point. We must approach the book of Exodus as history. 

Two, we must see that the person of Christ and the work of Christ were revealed ahead of time in the Exodus event. In other words, the redemption that the LORD accomplished for the Hebrews was a type or a foretaste of the greater act of redemption that the Messiah would accomplish. The Hebrews were delivered from Egypt through the blood of the Passover lamb. They passed through the waters of divine judgment and emerged safely on the other side of the sea. The LORD was present with them, and he would continue to be. In fact, he would dwell in the midst of his people as he led them towards the promised land. And I am saying that person of Christ and the work of Christ was pictured or prefigured in an earthly way in these historical events. Remember that Jesus the Christ was introduced as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He was hidden in Egypt for a time and was brought out as an infant. Just as the LORD demonstrated his power over nature and the so-called gods of Egypt, so too the Christ demonstrated his power over the same through the working of mighty deeds. Christ also passed through the waters of divine judgment – not the waters of the sea, but the waters of death – and he was brought safely through to the other side in his resurrection (Christian baptism is a  picture of this, among other things). After rising from the dead and after ascending Christ gave the Spirit to indwell his people as they sojourn towards the promised land. Here I am simply reminding you of what I have said before. The Exodus was not just another common event in a long succession of events in the history of the world. No, it was special, for in it something of the person and work of Christ was revealed. This truth may be observed in the Exodus story itself, but it is made especially clear by the teaching of the New Testament. 

Three, we must see that there is a correlation between the experience of Israel in the Exodus event and the experience of all who have faith in Christ. When I say that there is a correlation I mean that in some ways Old Covenant Israel’s experience matches the experience of all who have faith in the Messiah even to this present day. Of course, in many ways, the experience of the Hebrews who lived in the days of Moses was utterly unique. Only they were brought out of Egypt. Only they were led into the wilderness toward Sinai, etc. But at the same time, their experiences established a kind of pattern – a pattern familiar to all of God’s faithful. Think of it. In Christ, we too have been redeemed from bondage. In Christ, we too are sojourners (we live in this world, but this is not our home). In Christ, we too will enter the promised land – not Canaan, but the new heavens and earth, the heavenly and eternal city of Jerusalem. I’m saying that Israel’s experience in the Exodus mirrors ours. Theirs was earthly, ours is spiritual. So there is much for us to learn. I’ll remind you of what Paul the Apostle wrote regarding this correlation between Israel’s experience and ours. Speaking of Exodus events he wrote, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11, ESV). Stated simply, things that happened to Old Covenant Israel are meant to instruct even those of us who live now under the New Covenant. 

So let us consider our passage for today with these things in mind. 


Those Who Are Redeemed Must Sojourn

We have come now to the portion of the book of Exodus that is about Israel’s sojourning in the wilderness. To sojourn is to dwell temporarily in a place that is not your home. We may refer to the Hebrew’s stay in Egypt as a time of sojourning. In fact, the scriptures do this. In Deuteronomy 10:19 we find this law given to Israel: “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” So yes, Israel sojourned in Egypt. They lived there for a long time, but they were strangers there. And after the LORD delivered Israel from bondage, he led them, not immediately into  Canaan, which was the land that was promised to them, but into the wilderness to sojourn there for a time.

In Exodus 15:22 we read, “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur…” (Exodus 15:22, ESV). The wilderness of Shur is to the East of Egypt in the northern part of the Sinai in what is today northern Saudi Arabia. This wilderness is vast, rugged, and in the days of Moses, it was very sparsely populated. From there Israel would go south. Canaan was to the north! But the LORD led Israel to the south to wander in the wilderness for a time. 

And this is the first thing that I wish to draw your attention to this morning regarding our text. The LORD did not immediately lead his people into the promised land of Canaan, but into the wilderness. Israel would sojourn in that thirsty land. In fact, we know they would remain there for 40 years because of their disbelief. But even before that, it was the will of the LORD to lead them, not directly to Canaan, but into the wilderness to sojourn there. We are to see that Israel went into the wilderness, not because they were lost, but because the LORD led them there in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. 

So here a pattern is established for us: those who are redeemed must sojourn. Stated negatively, the pattern is not from redemption to glory, but from redemption to sojourning to glory. 

Here is how Old Covenant Israel experienced this pattern: they were redeemed from Egypt, they sojourned in the wilderness for a time, and then they entered Canaan, which was the land that was promised to them. 

And here is how New Covenant Israel experiences this pattern: we have been redeemed by the shed blood of the Messiah from the domain of darkness, bondage to sin, and the fear of death. The new heavens and earth is our home. Our inheritance is the heavenly city of Jerusalem. But we are not there yet, are we? We are sojourners. We live here in this world, but we confess that this is not our home. We long for the world to come. We must view ourselves as sojourners, brothers and sisters. The pattern is this: from redemption to sojourning to glory. We are sojourners now.

This is what Peter calls us. He writes to Christians saying, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11–12, ESV).

The writer to the Hebrews speaks of our sojourning when he says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14, ESV).

So just as Israel was to be ever mindful of the fact that they were not at home while in the wilderness, but were sojourners, so too we must be ever mindful of the fact that we are not at home, but are sojourners in this world. We are just passing through. 

Does it sound strange for me to talk this way? After all, this is our hometown, isn’t it? After corporate worship, we will all go home. It must have been obvious to Israel in the wilderness that they were sojourners. There was nothing permanent about their situation. But you and I live relatively settled lives. In fact, we enjoy a great deal of stability and comfort. But there is a danger in these blessings. We may forget that we are sojourners. The homes we live in are not our homes. This city is not a lasting city. This world is not the world that will be for all eternity, for when Christ returns he will make all things new. This world will be renewed, filled with the glory of God, and established in glory forever and ever. If you are in Christ united to him by faith, that is your home. Presently, you are a sojourner. 

Tell me brothers and sisters, do you have the mindset of a sojourner? Sojourners must still be concerned with the details of their day-to-day life. They must eat and drink, raise their children, and seek to serve the Lord in the land that they find themselves in. But the sojourner will also live with a degree of detachment from the land of their sojourning. As the sojourner goes about their business they will be ever mindful of the fact that this is not home. This will affect their priorities and investments. Though they may love and appreciate the land of their sojourning, their longing will be for home. This is why Jesus speaks to sojourners saying, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21, ESV)

Those who are redeemed must sojourn, and we are sojourners now. 


One Purpose Of Our Sojourning Is Sanctification

The second thing that I wish to draw your attention to is that one of the purposes of our sojourning is sanctification. 

Perhaps the question has already come to your mind: why didn’t the LORD lead Israel straight to Cannan? Why the wilderness wanderings? That’s a good question, isn’t it? Why did the LORD permit Israel to experience so much trouble in that desolate and dry land? And perhaps you have wondered the same thing concerning the Christian life. Why this life? Why the sufferings of this life? Why not immediate glory for the one who has faith in Christ? Many things can be said about this, but the truth that I wish to emphasize this morning is that one purpose for sojourning is sanctification. 

By sanctification, I mean growth in faith and in godliness. Sanctification is that process wherein God renews us “in the whole man after the image of God, and… [enables us] more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Baptist Catechism 38). And I am saying that one of the primary purposes for sojourning, both for Old Covenant Israel and for us, is sanctification.

God sanctifies his people as they sojourn. And how does he do this?  It is often through testing. You know this to be true. Growth comes when we are tested. This is true of our muscles. This is true of our minds. And it is also true of our faith, hope, and love. Spiritual growth comes through testing. 

In verse 22 we learn that Israel “went three days in the wilderness and found no water.” This was no minor inconvenience, but a serious problem. The Israelites had certainly carried water with them, but now they were about out. This great multitude would soon perish without a substantial source. The people must have felt great anxiety about this. It would be terrifying to be caught in the wilderness with no water.  

In verse 23 we read, “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah”, which means bitterness. When they found this pool of water they must have felt great relief. But as they tested the water they found that it was undrinkable. Their hope quickly turned to great despair. 

We must see this as a test of faith, brothers and sisters. In fact, verse 25 says that it was. “There he tested them”, the passage says. What would the people do? How would they respond? Would they trust in God? Would they remember what the LORD has done for them not long before? Remember, the LORD had demonstrated his power over nature in the outpouring of the ten plagues. He turned the water of the Nile to blood. And after the plagues, he parted the water of the Red Sea. Now the LORD tested them at Marah. Would the people remember the promises of God? Would they remember his past faithfulness? Would they trust in his sovereign power? Or would they lose it when faced with the threat of thirst in the wilderness? Verse 24 tells us: “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’”

Notice that the word “grumbled” appears three times in a short span in the Exodus narrative. It appears here in 15:24. It will appear again in 16:2. There the people are hungry and “the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…”  And the word appears again 17:3 where we read, “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’” 

You are probably noticing a theme. This story that we are considering today along with the next two are about testing. After Israel was redeemed from Egypt they began to sojourn in the wilderness. And as they sojourned the LORD tested them three times concerning the provision of water, bread, and water again. By the way, can you think of someone else who was tested in the wilderness three times over? Christ was! He overcame the temptation, didn’t he? But what did Israel do when they were tested? They doubted and they grumbled against the LORD. I take this to mean that most grumbled, but I trust that the faithful ones among them were sanctified as the LORD proved himself over and over and over again. Soon we will see that the LORD provided water from a rock and manna from heaven. Here in the text that is before us today, we learn that the LORD made the bitter waters of Marah sweet.  

Verse 25: “And [Moses] cried to the LORD [notice, he cried, he did not grumble] and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” You can search for a scientific explanation for this if you’d like. I don’t think you’ll find one. Nor do I believe one is necessary. This entire Exodus story is punctuated by the miraculous works of God. And it is has been common in this story for the LORD to instruct Moses to use a physical item through which he works his miracles – a staff, dust thrown into the air, now a log. 

Here is what we know. The LORD demonstrated his power over the waters of Marah through Moses. He proved himself to be faithful once more. He provided for the thirst of his people. He turned that which was bitter, sweet. This he did for Old Covenant Israel through Moses, and this has done in an even greater way for all of his elect through Christ.  

Christ satisfies the thirst of all who trust in him. Everyone who drank the sweetened water of Marah was thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that Christ gives will never be thirsty again. The water that Christ gives becomes in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life  (see John 4:13–14).

And in Christ, all of the bitterness of life is turned sweet. For “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Even the bitterness of death is turned sweet for the believer, for Christ has removed the sting of death. For the believer, death is the gateway to glory.  

Brothers and sisters, it is imperative for Christian sojourners to remember these things as we are tested by the trials of life. 

Sometimes it feels as if we are sojourning in a dry and desolate place. The circumstances of life may lead us to think, there is no hope! There is no way out! But we must remember that the LORD is faithful. He has been faithful to us in the past, and he will be faithful to us in the future, for he has promised. He will preserve those who are his in Christ Jesus. He will bring his elect safely home. Between now and then, we must be full of faith. 

And at times it may seem as if the LORD has led us to bitter waters. That which we thought would bring satisfaction and refreshment in this life brings disappointment. Will we trust the LORD in our disappointments and despair? Will we believe that the LORD is able to make the bitter waters of this life sweet in Christ Jesus as he brings good from that which is evil and leads us through the waters into life eternal? Brothers and sisters, we must. 

Verses 25 and 26 are important. Starting in the second half of verse 25 we read, “There [at Marah] the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer” (Exodus 15:25–26, ESV).

Notice a few things about this portion of the passage. 

One, here we learn that the LORD sanctified his people not only through the trial of the lack of fresh water in the wilderness but also through his word. Yes, he tested them through a difficult life experience but he also spoke to them. And this is how the LORD sanctifies us. Through experiences and by his word. 

Two, the lesson that he taught them was really quite simple. If Israel would diligently listen to the voice of the LORD their God, and do that which is right in his eyes, they would be blessed. None of the diseases that the LORD put on the Egyptians would be put on them. This implies that if Israel failed to listen to God’s word and to keep his commandments, they, like the Egyptians, would be cursed. Note this principle well. We will return to it in just a moment.  

Three, the LORD reveals himself to Israel here as their “healer”. The word healer can also be translated, “to make fresh”. It refers to the process of being restored to health or being made fertile. When the LORD said, “for I am the LORD, your healer”, he was saying, I am the one who has the power to make you healthy, fruitful, and prosperous. 

So then, here is the lesson that the LORD taught to Israel at Marah as he spoke to them after satisfying their thirst. I am here to bless you, to make you fruitful and prosperous as a people. But here is the condition: you must listen to my voice and keep my commandments. 

As you probably know, this little simple lesson would end up being central to Israel’s existence under the Old Mosaic Covenant. This principle – obey God and be blessed in the land, disobey and be cursed – would be the core element of the covenant that God made with that nation through Moses. If Israel was to be blessed and prosperous they needed to obey the law of God. This work’s principle was stated at Marah and it would prove to be foundational to the Old Mosaic Covenant. 

Christians living under the New Covenant who’ve had it ingrained in them that we are saved from our sins, not by works or through the keeping of God’s law, but by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone, might be troubled by the works principle found here. Listen again to the conditional nature of this arrangement: ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer” (Exodus 15:25–26, ESV). The arrangement is certainly conditional. It is an if/then arrangement. But pay very careful attention to what is going on here. The offer is not forgiveness of sins, nor is it life eternal in the new heavens and earth, but blessings and fruitfulness on earth. 

What I have just said is key to understanding the works principle that is clearly present in the Mosaic Covenant. Was the Mosaic Covenant a covenant of works? In other words, did the blessings offered by God to Israel in that Covenant depend upon the obedience of the people of Israel? Yes, certainly! But the blessings offered were earthly blessings. If Israel obeyed the LORD, they would be blessed by the LORD in the land. If they disobeyed, they would be cursed and even vomited out of the land. How then could an Israelite be saved from their sins for all eternity? How could an Israelite inherit blessed eternal life in the new heavens and earth? In the way that you and I receive it! Not by good works. Not by law-keeping (for we have all violated God’s law in thought word and deed). But only by trusting in the promises made to Adam and later to Abraham concerning the Messiah. Do not forget that those same promises were entrusted to Israel in the days of Moses too. Those promises were not annulled or taken away when God entered into that Covenant of works with them through Moses. No, the promises of God remained. And salvation was obtained by the grace of God and through faith in the promised Messiah. But as it pertained to blessings on earth, the nation of Israel would enjoy them only if they were obedient. This is what Paul the Apostle says so clearly in the books of Romans and Galatians (see especially Galatians 3:17ff.)

Though you and I do not live under this works principle that was imposed upon Israel at Marah and later expanded under the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai, we may still learn from it and apply it. Think of it. What was Israel called to do as they sojourned in the wilderness? They were to trust the LORD and they were to obey him.   

Trust and obey… It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Christian sojourners are to trust and obey, trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey! It is simple, but it can also be very difficult for us given our frailty. We are so prone to forget God’s faithfulness, to doubt, to panic, and to even grumble against God as Israel did at Marah. And sometimes we struggle to obey his voice. But truly, this is where abundant life is found. We are blessed in Christ when we trust him and obey his word. As Christ said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9–11, ESV)

Those who are redeemed must sojourn. One purpose for sojourning is sanctification. The LORD sanctifies us by his word and by testing us through the trials of life. And in this way, the people of God will learn to trust him and obey him with ever-increasing sincerity. 


Those Who Sojourn Must Know The LORD Will Bring Them Safely Home

The final observation that I wish to make from our passage today is that those who sojourn must know for certain that the LORD will bring them safely home.

I draw this principle from verse 27 which says, “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water” (Exodus 15:27, ESV). If Marah signifies the trials and the testings of this life, Elim seems to be paradise by contrast. There was an abundance of water there – one spring for each tribe of Israel. And there was an abundance of trees too so that Israel might rest in their shade. After Israel was tried and tested in a dry and thirsty land, they were comforted and refreshed. And so it will be for all who are in Christ Jesus. 

After the sojourning of God’s people is complete Christ will return to make all things new. And all who are in Christ will be refreshed by “ the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, [they will eat of] the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree [will be] for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:1–5, ESV).

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