Immediately after the Lord miraculously delivered Israel and defeated Egypt in the Red Sea, the people respond with great praise. Moses sings a song, and this is followed by Miriam leading the women in praise with tambourines and dancing (Exodus 15). The people saw the Lord’s goodness, and responded with great praise, as they should.
However, this heart of praise and thankfulness did not last long. The people journey away from the Red Sea into the wilderness, and within three days their hearts of praise were turned to grumbling, because they could not find water, and when they finally did find some, it was bitter (“Marah”). When they grumbled against Moses, he cried out to the Lord for help, and the Lord told him to find a log, throw it in the water, and then they would be able to drink it. Once again, the Lord miraculously delivers and provides for his people (Exodus 15:22–25). He promises them that if they listen to his commandments and obey them, he will care for them, keep them healthy, and provide for them because he is the Lord, their Healer. They presumably agree, and he leads them to a place with springs of water and palm trees to camp (vv. 25–27).
As they set out from there, the people again grumble and complain, this time because they are hungry. They go beyond complaining, though—they even tell Moses they wish he had left them enslaved in Egypt, because at least there they could count on having consistent food intake (Exodus 16:1–3). It’s hard for us to believe how they so quickly wish to return to the life they had cried out for salvation from, but if we took a deep look at our own lives, we probably do this all too frequently as well.
In response to their grumbling, the Lord promises to provide for them, but he also gives them specific instructions to test their faith and obedience. He would rain bread from the sky to the ground each morning, and they were to only gather what they could eat in their household that day. Anything left over until morning would spoil, except on the seventh day. Since the seventh day was the Sabbath, or day of holy rest, they were not able to gather bread that day, so they should gather twice as much on the sixth day, and it would keep through the Sabbath (highlighting again God’s miraculous provision for them). Inevitably, as we read how God provides this for them, some did not listen to the instructions, and either find some spoiled in the morning because they took too much, and some go to collect on the Sabbath and don’t find any bread present. Eventually, they take the hint and learn to obey. As you have likely heard, this bread is called Manna, and the Lord fed his people with it the entire forty years they were wandering in the desert. He even commands them to save a jar full of it throughout all generations so they always remember how he provided faithfully and powerfully for them (vv. 4–36).
As they continue moving through the desert, they become thirsty again and cry out against Moses, fighting with him this time, demanding water from him and even accusing them of bringing them out of Egypt just to kill them in the wilderness (Ex 17:1–3). The Lord tells Moses to strike a rock, and again miraculously provides water for them to drink. This place is named Massa (“testing”) and Meribah (“quarelling”).
This is a neat story of God’s provision, but the story of Meribah becomes significant later on in Scripture too. Psalm 95 picks up on this story of Israel’s unbelief and complaining against God, and the psalmist uses this as an example for later generations of Israel to learn from. While their ancestors resisted God even in the face of countless examples of his faithfulness and miraculous provision, the readers and hearers of the psalm should resist this temptation, but rather bow down and worship God in faith, not hardening their hearts. By using this phrase, the psalmist tells us that this generation in the wilderness was no better off than Egypt, and Pharaoh, who hardened his heart in spite of the ten plagues. Hebrews then takes this psalm and applies it to the Church, again exhorting them not to be unbelieving, or hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3–4). That generation of Israel did not enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief and hard harts; if we follow their example, we will not enter the “Rest” that is salvation and eternal life. Even when life is hard, and doesn’t make sense, we must hold fast to our faith in God, obey him, and trust his salvation.