Excerpt from a sermon delivered on April 23rd, 1871, by C. H. SPURGEON at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington
A short devotion on this passage from Exodus 15 can be found HERE.
Bitter Waters Sweetened
“And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And he cried unto the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” — Exodus 15:23-25.
THE TENDENCY OF HUMAN NATURE.
The people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Do not say “human nature,” says one; say, “the tendency of Jewish nature.” Ah, but if anything, I would prefer the people in the wilderness to any other: rest assured that they were no worse than we are. They are an example to us of what our heart is, and whatever we see in them we have but to watch a little, and we shall see it all in ourselves. It was not Jewish nature that God proved in the wilderness so much as human nature at its very best estate. Assuredly, the tendency of human nature is to murmur. They murmured, complained, found fault. A very easy thing, for the very word “murmur,” how simple it is, made up of two infantile sounds — mur mur. No sense in it, no wit in it, no thought in it: it is the cry rather of a brute than of a man — murmur — just a double groan. Easy is it for us to kick against the dispensations of God, to give utterance to our griefs, and what is worse, to the inference we drew from them that God has forgotten to be gracious. To murmur is our tendency; but, my dear brethren and sisters in Christ, do we mean to let the tendencies of the old nature rule us? Will we murmur? O that we might have grace rather to say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!” Shall a living man complain? Have we not received so much good from the hands of the Lord that we may well receive evil without rebellion? Will we not disappoint Satan, and overrule the tendency of the flesh, by saying in the might of God's Spirit, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I know we are apt to say, “Well, that is human nature,” and when we have said it is human nature, we suppose we have given a very excellent excuse for doing it. But is human nature to rule the divine nature? You, believer, profess to be a partaker of the divine nature. Let the superior force govern, let that which cometh from above be uppermost, and put the lower nature down; let us eschew murmurings and complainings, and magnify and adore the God who lays our comforts low.
While we speak of this tendency in human nature, I want you to observe how they betrayed an utter unbelief of God. They said unto Moses, “What shall we drink?” They meant by it, “By what means can God supply our want of water?” What a question! They were at the Red Sea, and God cleft the intervening gulf in twain, through the depths thereof they marched dryshod; there is Marah's water — shall it be more difflcult for God to purify than to divide? To sweeten a fountain — is that more difficult than to cleanse a sea? Is anything too hard for the Lord? A great miracle had been wrought; had they but considered it, and exercised even the lowest degree of faith, they must have seen that he who could work such a miracle as they had seen could work yet another; and they might joyously have stood at Marah's brink, and have sung, “He who cast Pharaoh and his chosen captains into the Red Sea, and delivered his people, can give his chosen drink, therefore sing we, Spring up, O well, and let thy waters be sweet and clean.” O that they had faith in God but as a grain of mustard seed, and they would have seen great things, and glorified his name. Do you blame them? Do so; blame them much, but include yourselves in the censure. How often has it been so with us? We have said, “I will never distrust my God after this memorable deliverance, this singular display of his power has slain my unbelief;” yet a new trial has occurred, and our faith, where was it? Had the Son of Man himself been on the earth with those quick eyes to discern the faith which he himself creates, could he find faith in us in the hour of tribulation? Be humbled as ye see yourselves in this mirror. Behold your instability, which is as water. How like to reeds shaken with the wind are we; or like to meteors, which flash across the brow of night, to leave the darkness denser than before. How soon is the glory of our confidence spent, and the excellence of our faith withered. Hold thou our feet in life, great God, or we shall soon be silent in darkness.
THE REMEDY OF GRACE
First, if thou wouldst have Marah's bitterness healed, take the case in prayer to God. God begins by making us begin. The people complained to Moses; Moses took the complaint to his Master. In all trials, the surest way to a remedy is prayer. In heavenly pharmacy, prayer is a catholicon; it healeth all things. Prayer, which overcomes heaven, will certainly never be overmatched on earth. Neither men nor devils can stand against prayer: it smites them hip and thigh like another Samson. The bow of prayer returns not empty; it is swifter than an eagle, it is stronger than a lion. Take thy case to God, O heir of trouble; unroll Rabshakeh's letter before the Host High, and the Lord will silence his revilings. Half the work is done when it is brought before God in supplication.
Note, next, that as soon as we have a prayer God has a remedy. The remedy is near at hand; but we do not perceive it till it is shown us. “The Lord showed him a tree.” The tree had been growing for years on purpose to be used. God has a remedy for all our troubles before they happen to us. A delightful employment it is to notice how God forestalls himself; how long before we reach the encampment, if there be the bitter well, there is also the healing tree. All is ready between here and heaven. He that has gone to prepare a place for us by his presence, has prepared the way to that place for us by his providence. But, brethren, though for every trouble in this mortal life there is a remedy, you and I do not always discern it. “The Lord showed him a tree.” I am persuaded that for every lock in Doubting Castle there is a key, but the promises are often in great confusion to our minds, so that we are perplexed. If a blacksmith should bring you his great bundle of picklocks, you would have to turn them over, and over, and over; and try half of them, perhaps two-thirds, before you would find the right one; ay, and perhaps the right one would be left to the last. It is always a blessing to remember that for every affliction there is a promise in the word of God; a promise which meets the case, and was made on purpose for it. But you may not be always able to find it — no, you may go fumbling over the Scriptures long before you get the true word; but when the Lord shows it to you, when it comes with power to the soul, when the heart can grasp it, and cry, “Ay, that is the word, my Master; indeed and of a truth that is the precious truth which can sweeten my sad discomforts,” oh, what a bliss it is! All glory be unto the Holy Ghost, who to this day is ever ready to show unto his praying servants the sweetening tree when they come to the bitter streams.
Now that remedy for the healing of Marah's water was a very strange one. Why should a tree sweeten the waters? I do not suppose there was any natural efficacy in the tree, although that would not be altogether impossible, since there are trees, so travelers tell us, which have been used in the sweetening of waters. There is in South Africa a certain river, which water cannot be drunk until branches of a certain tree are placed in it, and then the bitterness which is in the stream is deposited at the bottom, and the water becomes drinkable. The thing is not unnatural nor altogether necessarily supernatural, though I think in this case it was supernatural, for there are no trees found now in the wilderness of Shur that would have the effect of sweetening brackish waters. This was no doubt a miraculous incident, and it was also meant to teach us something. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was eaten by our first parents and embittered all; there is a tree of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. Blessed is he that eats of this tree of life; it shall take away from him the bitterness which the first forbidden fruit brought into the world. A tree is a living thing: may we not learn that there are living principles in true religion which will sweeten our adversities? Mere doctrines may not, but living principles will; these cast into our troubles will assuage our grief.
Best of all, may not this tree cut down be an emblem of the Savior? A glorious tree indeed was he, with spreading branches, and top reaching to heaven — but he must suffer the axe for our sakes; and now, to-day, contemplating his atoning sacrifice, and by faith resting in him, the troubles of life and the troubles of death are sweetened by his dear cross, which, though it be a bitter tree in itself, is the antidote for all the bitterness that comes upon us here and hereafter.
That remedy was most effective. When they cut down the tree, and put it into the water, it turned the water sweet — they could drink of it; and let me assure you, that in the case of our trouble, the cross is a most effective sweetener. Shall I put the tree into the water for a minute, and then ask you to drink Have you been suffering pain, or any other form of tribulation? I will lay the cross asoak in it for a minute, and your first reflection will be — “In all this that I am called to suffer there is not even a single particle of punishment for my sin; God has punished Christ, consequently he cannot punish me: to punish two for one offense would be unjust, therefore there is nothing penal in all that I am suffering.” I do not know of any reflection more consoling than this, that my sorrow is not laid on me by a judge, nor inflicted on me as the result of divine anger. There is not a drop of wrath in a riverful of a believer's grief. Does not that take the bitterness out of affliction and make it sweet? And then the reflection goes further. Since Christ has died for me, I am God's dear child; and now if I suffer, all my suffering comes from my Father's hand — nay, more, from my Father's heart. He loves me, and therefore makes me suffer; not because he does not love, but because he does love does he thus afflict me. In every stripe I see another token of paternal love. This it is to sweeten Marah's waters indeed.
Then will come the next reflection — that a Father's love is joined with infinite wisdom, and that, therefore, every ingredient in the bitter cup is measured out drop by drop, and grain by grain, and there is not one pang too many ever suffered by an heir of heaven. The cross is not only weighed to the pound but to the ounce ay, to the lowest conceivable grain. You shall not have one half a drop of grief more than is absolutely needful for your good and God's glory. And does not this also sweeten the cross, that it is laid on us by infinite wisdom, and by a Father's hand?
Ravishing, indeed, is the reflection in the midst of all our grief and suffering, that Jesus Christ suffers with us. In all thine affliction, O member of the body, the Head is still a sharer. Deep are the sympathies of the Redeemer, acute, certain, quick, infallible; he never forgets his saints.
All the while the Lord lays his chastening hand upon his servants they may be cheered by this reflection, that in this he is making them conformable unto Christ. What should they know of Gethsemane if they had no sweat of pain? What should they know of the passion if they never had to cry, “I thirst,” or “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” They were poor scholars in the school of Christ's sufferings if they endured no sufferings themselves; and it is a blessed thing, a sweet thing to drink of his cup, and to be baptised with his baptism.
Moreover, when the child of God is in his right state, it is always enough for him that his condition is the result of his Father's will. Is it God's will? Is it Christ's will? Then it is my will. How could I dare to wish anything to be otherwise than divine love appoints?
I do not know but what it will become sometimes to the Christ a subject of joy that Marah is bitter. For suppose Marah had been sweet, then, Moses had not prayed to God, and then the tree had not been cut down, and they had never known the power of God to sweeten bitter waters. It must be an awful thing to live an unafflicted life on earth. You say it must be a very delightful thing. I have no doubt it may be from some aspects; but a person who has had no sickness, how can he have a sympathetic heart? What service can he render in cheering the people of God? If you never had any trials, I should suppose, unless something very extraordinary happened, that you would become harsh, and untender; I am afraid some would grow brutal, coarse, hard of heart. Who wishes, where others have to suffer, to claim an immunity from a blessing which brings rich consolations with it, and works eternal benefits? Beloved, this is ever one thing that sweetens Marah that it afterwards bringeth forth the comfortable fruits of righteousness. Our trials are not sent to us alone and by themselves; there is a sufficient grace sent with them, by which they are made available as means to sanctify us, and make us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.
I will not keep you much longer upon this point, but I must notice, that while I have shown you that the remedy is very efficacious, it is something more than efficacious: it is transcendant. The water was bitter, but it became absolutely sweet. The same water that was bitter became sweet, and the grace of God, by leading us into contemplations that spring out of the cross of Christ, can make our trials themselves to become pleasant to us. It is a triumph of grace in the heart when we not only acquiesce in trouble, but even rejoice in it. “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” It is a grand thing when we can truly say that as to the rod of the covenant we would not escape it if we might. It becomes in the judgment of wisdom so good a thing to be tried, that though we would not seek it yet we accept it with something more than readiness, and the bitter thing becomes sweet to us.
Let me say, and have done with this part of the subject, that the remedy which is suggested to us by a spiritualizing of text, is efficacious for all trials, and will be found especially so for the bitter waters of death at the last. With all that can be said about death it is not a pleasant subject for contemplation, and needs to be viewed in connection with covenant consolations. Certain brethren buoy themselves up with the hope of escaping death by the second Advent. I am not certain that they are wiser than David who did not hope to omit the valley of the shadow of death, but trusted that he should fear no evil therein, because the rod and staff would be his stay. The death of Christ robs death of its terrors. The prospect of the resurrection and the certainty of immortality make us say, “Surely the bitterness of death is past!”
Be it remembered, that if the cross avails to sweeten all the bitterness of our mortal life, and even the last bitterness of death, it is assuredly available this morning to sweeten the bitterness of our present sorrow. Did you drink the quassia-cup this morning before you came here? Do you feel desponding at this moment, my brother, my sister? Go to your Savior at once, view him suffering on your behalf, behold the completion of your reconciliation to God, mark the security of your soul through the finished work of your glorious Surety, take down your harps from the willows, put away your ashes, ask the Lord to anoint you with the oil of joy instead of mourning, and even at the waters of Marah lift up your song again, and let the timbrel still be heard. “Sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: Marah's bitterness hath he turned to sweetness, he hath cut down the mighty tree which he gave for us, and which yielded itself to the axe for us, and into the bitter stream the tree is cast, and now henceforth, O Marah, thou art sweet indeed.” Did you come here this morning as Naomi when she returned to her city and said, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” Ah, when she dandled on her knee and held in her fond bosom the child of Ruth and Boaz, the joy of her old age, she was glad to think the neighbors had not changed her name, and she was willing enough to be called Naomi still. Call not yourself Marah, but remember the new name which the Lord hath named upon you. The bitter pool itself call it not Marah; be not so ready to affix names of sad memorials, your griefs are apt enough to gall your memory; do not aid them to sting you. Call the well by another name; forget Marah, and remember Jehovah Rophi, the Lord that healeth both thee and the waters. Record the mercy rather than the sorrow, and give thanks unto the Most High.