God...in the Wilderness

This past summer, I did something I had never done before: on two separate occasions, I set off on a 3-day, 2-night solo backpacking trip into the wilderness of a regional state park. More than once, friends asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this? You’ll be all alone, right? What if something happens to you? How will you get help?” I must admit that in the midst of these trips, I had moments when I thought to myself, “Wow! I really am out here all alone!” and I felt a sense of distress. But thankfully, all went well for me and I returned safely to civilization each time—with many memories and no small amount of bug bites!

Most of us can relate to the experience of being in the wilderness, figuratively if not literally. Being in the wilderness often means feeling alone and separated from home, being without resources, and at risk to the elements. Being in the wilderness can represent for us a situation when we feel unsettled (at best) or fearful for our very lives (at worst). Sometimes, our wilderness experience is short-lived, while other times, it’s more drawn out. The Bible knows of both types of wilderness encounters and, in both situations, is sure to remind us that God is not absent in the wilderness; he is present with us and at work in unique ways there, working both for his glory and for our good.

The Wilderness: A Trial and a Gift
Occurrences of wilderness experiences are found all throughout the Bible; it’s unavoidable. In the Old Testament, we read of individuals such as Hagar (Gen. 16:7), Moses (Exod. 4:27), and David (1 Sam. 23:14) and note the ways their lives brought them into the wilderness. However, let’s  focus our thoughts now on the Old Testament people of Israel. They, too, had their own wilderness experience, as described for us primarily in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Israel’s wilderness experience began with their release from slavery in Egypt (Exod. 12-14). In Exodus 16:1 (ESV) we read, “They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin” (which was the location’s proper name). Here begins a 40-year in the wilderness experience for the people of Israel.

Although they weren’t made aware of it at the outset, for Israel, the wilderness experience would come with episodes of testing, trial, and purification. It would be a communal experience they would go through not just once, but twice (see 2 Kgs. 17:6-8). For them, it was a difficult, frustrating, and refining period of time in which they suffered loss and were humbled. Yet, this is only seeing things from a glass-half-empty perspective, for the wilderness period also taught them valuable lessons of God’s provision and faithfulness. These were lessons the people of Israel were not likely to learn apart from their wilderness experience.

The Tabernacle: God Enters In
In each of the Old Testament’s wilderness episodes, we see a constant element: every time someone enters the wilderness—for whatever reason—God meets them there (e.g., Gen. 16:7; Exod. 3:2; 1 Sam. 18:12-14; 25:26). In the case of the people of Israel, God meets them most tangibly through the provision of the tabernacle. The Old Testament tabernacle was a structure designed by God and constructed under Moses’ leadership (Exod. 25-40). The tabernacle was to be situated at the center of the camp and was the place where this God would meet with his community of worshipers. We read in Exodus 29:45-46 (ESV) that the tabernacle (sometimes called the tent of meeting) was where “[the LORD] will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.”

Following the Passover in Egypt, Israel was thrust into the wilderness. It may have felt like a God-forsaken place to them, but in reality, God was already there; he provided Israel with the tabernacle as a tangible, accessible location to demonstrate his presence with them. Beyond this, the tabernacle was also the place where the people could receive the blessings that God wanted to give them, namely forgiveness of sin and reconciliation between them and their holy God.

Even though we may tend to think of the Old Testament tabernacle as the place where the people of Israel did something for God (e.g., worship, offer sacrifices, etc.), the more fundamental purpose of the tabernacle was to be a place where God would do something for Israel. And herein lies the primary “direction” of our encounters with God: it’s from God to us. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:8 (ESV), “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The tabernacle is where God came to his people and met with them for the purpose of delivering to them the gospel benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation. They had no right to demand these gifts from God; they didn’t even know they needed them, but God knows what we need. He knows we are helpless to acquire what we need on our own, so he makes a way for him to come to us.

The Incarnation: God Continues to Dwell with Us
The Old Testament account of the people of Israel in the wilderness still speaks to us today. We are not unlike the people of Israel in the wilderness—wandering, struggling with sin, and facing trials and persecution of various sorts. The apostle Peter, in fact, calls us “exiles’” in his first epistle (1 Pet. 1:1). The NASB translates this word as “strangers”; the NLT renders it as “foreigners.” We are indeed not at home in this world. We are not yet unburdened from our sinful flesh. We daily face the attacks of the devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8, ESV).

Yet it is here, in this wilderness, that God again enters into our lives through the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. John, the Gospel-writer, proclaims it so eloquently: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). In other words, Jesus has become incarnate and tabernacled among us—guiding us through this wilderness, rescuing us, providing for our every need, and reconciling us daily to our heavenly Father through the forgiveness of sins offered through Jesus Christ to those who believe. What’s more, he gives us his Holy Spirit who comes to us as the Comforter and who “dwells with [us] and will be in [us]” (John 14:17).

The wilderness, while still a place of testing, trial, and purification, is a reality for all of us. But, as with Israel, we ought not see this experience as a punishment, but as a gift. Yes, the wilderness can be difficult, whether it is short-lived or long-term, yet, the wilderness can be viewed as a gift because it is a place where we can learn to rely more fully on the faithfulness of God. It’s a place where God shows us his power, provision, and love.

Are you in the wilderness right now? Take heart! God is not absent in the wilderness. He is present with you and at work in unique ways, working both for his glory and for your good in Jesus Christ.
Dr. Brad Pribbenow is Dean and Professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Brethren Seminary.

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