Christ Sweetens Bitter Water

-By Lee Jones

We often pass over sections of the Old Testament, calling them unclear or even (perish the thought!) unhelpful. Yet to “unhitch” ourselves from the glorious Old Testament would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. 

Take for example the story of the bitter water at Marah, which means (wait for it...) bitter! Here’s the scene: the people of Israel have just left captivity in Egypt by way of the miraculous passage through the Red Sea. Now Moses is pushing them toward the Promised Land, and within three days they have no water. The arrive at a place where there is water and it’s too bitter to safely or comfortably drink.

In a dry place where there is no water to satisfy the soul’s thirst, Christ provides that for his children. He gives us living water (John 4). 

The first thing they do is complain to Moses, “what shall we drink?” Perhaps the condition of their heart is another good reason the place is named Bitter. After seeing the plagues on Egypt and the parting of the sea only a few days earlier, they are already complaining about their freedom. 

Moses does what every good leader (and believer, for that matter) should do: he seeks God, who gives him a strange instruction we should focus on. In Verse 25, He shows Moses a log/tree and tells him to throw it in the water. The water was made sweet and able to be consumed. 

Now we know God could have made the water sweet any way He liked. He could have made Moses strike the surface with his staff (which was turned into a snake in Exodus 4) or made him toss a rock into it. God could have struck it with lightning or spoken it into sweetness like he spoke the entire world into existence. Instead, a tree was to be thrown in to make the bitter water sweet. 

God has used everyday means to intervene in other similar situations, such as flour in 2 Kings 17:16 and mud in John 9:6. But there is something unique in this story: the tree. 

It’s hard to read this passage and not be reminded of another occasion where God used a tree to bring sweetness out of bitterness and certain death: the cross of Jesus Christ, our Lord. By taking on the curse of my sin, Christ gave sweetness to me (both the forgiveness of sins and giving his righteousness) and all others who believe in His name. In a dry place where there is no water to satisfy the soul’s thirst, Christ provides that for his children. He gives us living water (John 4). 

Because of the righteousness that Christ grants to believers, we can walk in God’s statutes as described in Verse 26. He will not destroy us like the wicked people of Egypt. 

Despite their grumbling, God provides the Israelites drinkable water where there was none and led them, through Moses, to an incredible oasis at Elim. And in Christ, he has given us living water and we can come to him and drink. God is gracious to his children, and always has been. 

Glory to God alone. 

Lee Jones