The wilderness! A word calculated to inspire fearsome awe without further qualifiers. Yet Moses qualifies it with the terms “great” and “terrible” (Deuteronomy 1:19). The word occurs over three hundred times in Scripture. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, let us explore something of the meaning of the “wilderness.”
First, it is unfriendly. It is selective, working to favor some things, yet militating against others. The Lord’s man finds that in a desert some things die, while other personal qualities are accentuated.
The wilderness is unfriendly to the carnal, the worldly, but conducive to the development of those eternal qualities that the Lord is seeking. The desert is the place of specially adapted life. The Lord desires to cultivate what man disdains or neglects to cultivate: the spiritual life.
This calls for a “hearing ear.” It means to delve so deeply into the wilderness that no other voice is heard, but the voice of the Lord. This was so with Moses, who finally turned aside at the burning bush.
We notice next that the wilderness is dry. There is no evident blessing or revival. In Numbers, chapter twenty, the children of Israel demonstrated against Moses and Aaron. Verses 3 thru 5 tell us they reproached Moses and accused him of bringing the Lord’s congregation into the wilderness to die of thirst. They describe their environment as evil, saying in verse 5, “It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, neither is there any water to drink.”
We learn also that the wilderness is uninhabited. God deals with His people both corporately and individually in a wilderness experience. The Bible abounds with examples of a single person being brought face to face with God. Consider His dealings with Enoch (Genesis. 5:22). “Enoch walked (alone) with God.” Abraham’s separated walk involved numerous encounters with his God.
Consider Joseph’s specifically tailored trials; Elijah’s crying out, “I, even I only, am left” (I Kings 19:10); Jeremiah’s agonizing, “I sat alone because of Your hand” (Jeremiah 15:17). “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis. 32:24). And finally, Matthew 14:23 declares of Jesus, “He was there, alone.”
The wilderness is a place where very special things happen. The people of God tumbled helter-skelter out of Egypt, but the wilderness brought them into divine order. They became an organized army that marched in ranks into Canaan. Psalm 103:7 tells us that God made “His ways” known to Moses. His ways are ordered ways.
The wilderness is also the place where the power of simple instruments is revealed. In Exodus 4:2 the Lord asks Moses, “What is that in your hand?” And Moses replies, “A rod.” The unique power of Moses would forever after be associated with a common shepherd’s staff. When Samson was assaulted by the Philistines, the Word says “they shouted against him.” But Samson found a jawbone of an ass, and with it, he slew a thousand men. This instrument, found often enough in the wilderness, was at the same time both common and powerful.
What a contrast between God’s ways, and man’s way. Man’s method of salvation is by costly and complicated machinery - salvation by mechanics. God’s means of salvation is by vital energy - salvation by dynamics. Here the simplest of instruments suffice.
Finally, the wilderness is the place of drastic reduction. To be reduced is to be converted to a simpler form. For example, Acts 7:22 describes Moses, before he was forty years of age, as being “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and mighty in words and in deeds.” Forty years later, we find him at eighty years of age, confessing, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent... but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10). It is to this man, Moses, so reduced that he asked sincerely, “Who am I?” (Exodus 3:11), that the mighty “I Am” reveals Himself. Moses’ excess baggage - cultural, intellectual, social - had been dropped during his forty-year journey through the wilderness.
How far will God reduce us? We could conjecture that when Moses approached the burning bush that day, he had his garment, his rod, and his shoes. Not much. Yet one third of that had to be set aside before he could draw near to God – “Put off your shoes.” Amos 3:12 graphically depicts God’s people reduced to bare necessities. Nothing is left but two legs and a piece of an ear, just enough to hear a word and walk it out!
This was Samson’s status the day the young lion roared against him at the vineyards of Timnath. The Bible says of Samson, “he had nothing in his hand” (Judges 14:6). We are reminded of a poetic fragment from a reformed hymn, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”
If our guided tour through the wilderness has had its proper effect, a transformation of consciousness should have taken place. Although at first we had instinctively recoiled from it, as though it were ominously threatening to our sense of self-preservation, we will now readily embrace the wilderness as a great friend and servant. We will have the inner sense that only when the Lord Jesus gets what He wants from our lives will life finally stabilize.
Thus we know that those who emerge from God’s wilderness are indeed the thoroughly processed members of which the unblemished Body is composed.
Their coming into view provoked the astonished exclamation, “Who is this that comes up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved” (Song of Solomon 8:5).