Satisfaction in His Presence
Exodus begins with everything against the Israelites. They were trapped in Egypt, enslaved to people who hated their race and went out of their way to kill their children.
But then, suddenly, God heard their cry and recognized their pain.
“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25, English Standard Version)
Against all odds, things seemed to be looking up for the Israelites. After ten supernatural plagues, He freed His people from Pharaoh’s rule. Their prayers were answered with exactly the salvation they had asked for.
But just as they were leaving Egypt, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the Israelites, threatening them with additional conflict. Because death felt imminent, the Israelites forgot what they had asked for.
“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 14:10-12, ESV)
But again, God defies their human expectations with a miracle: the parting of the Red Sea with the defeat of Pharaoh’s army. Upon witnessing this victory on their behalf, the Israelites are once again happy with God’s plan. Moses leads them in song:
“The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.”
(Exodus 15:2, ESV)
But immediately after, just as they set out from the Red Sea and enter the wilderness, they begin to grumble. They’re thirsty. They’re hungry. They feel lost when Moses leaves them to receive God’s law. The Israelites are quick to forget the reality of their past and, instead, romanticize their lives in Egypt.
“The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” (Exodus 16:2-3, ESV)
The Israelites rationalized their resentment toward God—after all, He brought them out of the only home they had ever known, forced them into the wilderness and left them feeling alone and vulnerable. As they began their journey, having just enough to eat seemed like a fantasy, making their lives in Egypt seem “good enough.”
From an eternal perspective, God didn’t plan to give His people a life that was merely good enough. He brought them out of Egypt for both their own good and for the good of all God’s people. It was the survival of the Israelites and their culture, after all, that eventually led to the continuation of their culture and, eventually, the birth of Jesus Christ.
Exodus shows us that God’s version of goodness isn’t just immediate satisfaction, it is satisfaction in His presence. While the Israelites experienced hunger, thirst and wilderness, they also received freedom, salvation and the presence of God Himself. God did meet their earthly needs, but showed an even deeper love to the Israelites by staying near them, even when they struggled against Him.
We cannot dismiss the Israelites’ doubt. They experienced terrible pain, fear and isolation, often facing the possibility of their own deaths. We only have the privilege of hindsight, and because we have their whole story we can also look back and recognize how God was working even through their darkest moments; how God provided water, food, and guidance in response to their complaints. How He was there for them even when they denied Him.
The human experience is not easy. Following God is even harder. But reflecting on where we have been may help us see God—or at least trust Him more—in our present and future circumstances.
Just as God heard His people’s cries in Egypt and in the wilderness, He recognizes our pain too. He grieves with us and takes steps to free us. And as He does so, He comforts us with His presence. In the midst of all our pain, we can remember that God is with us throughout all our journeys. And perhaps, as we grieve, that remembering can be enough.
“For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.” (Exodus 40:38, ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.