We don't often think of it this way, but one of the most significant moments in the Pentateuch occurs in Exodus 16:2. By this point in time, the Israelites have seen one of the most impressive displays of God's power in the entire Bible. He rescued them from Egypt, brought them safely through the Red Sea, and destroyed Pharaoh's army when he attempted to follow them. Now, God is leading them to the bountiful land He promised to their fathers.
Nonetheless, they complain. Even though they have watched God destroy countless thousands on their behalf, they express regret that God did not destroy them too because their situation is so, so bad. We have seen similar behavior from them before, but this time, they prove themselves unchanged by an experience that Paul compares to baptism in I Corinthians 10:2.
In fact, they won't ever change. On its own, this incident seems insignificant. God even reacts to their complaints by giving them the food they ask for. It sounds like everything is fine, right?
Everything is not fine. Through their complaining, the Israelites have started down the slippery slope to disaster. The same spirit that leads them to grumble will also lead them to rebel when God tells them to go up and claim the land. They will grumble about God's choice of Moses to be their leader, His decree that priests must come from the tribe of Levi, and, in the height of irony, the delicious manna that He gave them in response to their grumbling about the lack of food!
In time, this exhausts even the patience of God. He decrees that none of the complainers will enter the land. Every time they grumble thereafter, He kills off another few thousand. By the end, of the more than 600,000 men who began the journey, only two survived to complete it. In the Bible, the people of God are frequently a wretched lot but rarely do they behave so shamefully as this.
It's easy for us to sneer at their bad behavior. However, it should call us to examine ourselves instead. In the style of Romans 2, we must ask whether, as we condemn the grumbling and complaining of others, we ourselves grumble and complain.
Do we, for instance, complain about the elders whom God has given charge over us? How about the preachers who faithfully present the word to us? What about the spouses that God has given us? What about the jobs that we can use to provide for ourselves and our families?
This is far from a complete list. Satan tries to get us to complain about a nearly infinite list of things. Many of these things are gifts from God, but somehow, we don't think they're good enough for us.
Because complaining is so common, we often treat it as a minor spiritual problem. However, the example of the Israelites shows that it is anything but. I'm not the judge of anybody, but I suspect that when Christ returns, more than one Christian will learn to their dismay that their practice of the sin of grumbling has led them to lose their souls. We cannot be faithful Christians and habitual complainers at the same time.
Instead, let us be people who are thankful, humble, and patient. If we suffer from the failings of others, how much more do we ourselves fail? If earthly life is imperfect, how much more should we look to the joys of life to come with eager anticipation? As with the Israelites, God has given us all we need. In all things, let us seek and glorify Him.
Matthew W. Bassford
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