Following this battle, Moses erected an altar. The name he gave to it introduces another name for God: Jehovah Nissi, which means “the LORD is my banner.” The Lord is the banner around which we rally, and who gives the victory.
Following this battle with the Amalekites, God told Moses to write these things down (Ex. 17:14). Scholars passed over that for years, assuming that nobody knew how to write in Moses’ day, and therefore Moses obviously didn’t write the Pentateuch. Consequently, it must have been written later. The only problem was that their premise was entirely wrong! Not only did they know how to write in Moses’ time, but lots of people knew how to write in lots of different languages. We know of about a dozen different written languages that were written and circulated all around that Sinai area, the very place where Moses led the people for forty years. Moses began to keep a record of these things. References to Moses’ record-keeping are found in Exodus 24 and 34; Numbers 33; and Deuteronomy 31.
The first lesson to see from all this is that the Christian life is not easy. William Taylor, a nineteenth-century Scottish preacher who concluded his ministry in New York, wrote, “We may learn that we are not done with hardship when we have left Egypt.1 It is just as Jesus said to His disciples: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). He warned us in advance that it is not going to be an easy path.
That’s the significance of Marah, which earlier we saw means “bitter.” Do you have bitter things that come into your life? It will be surprising if you haven’t because life is filled with bitter things. But those things come from God, for He has a purpose in them. Have you asked Him for the purpose? Are you really seeking to learn what He has to teach you in the Marah experiences of your life?
The second lesson is that although the Christian life is not easy, it is not all hardship, either. There are the Elims, those times of refreshment, that God also gives us. You have to get in the habit of looking for God’s deliverance. Look for the Elims that God will provide. Maybe you are in one of those periods now, or perhaps you have been. Maybe you know somebody that’s still camped by the bitter springs. Encourage them during these hard times, telling them to look in hope for the refreshment that can only come from the hand of God.
The third lesson is that every true leader will encounter opposition. Moses exhibited great faith in this section. Imagine leading two million people into the desert with no visible means of support, and with the oases very far apart. But in spite of his strong faith, and probably because of it, he suffered constant opposition from the people. We’ve only begun to see it here; he is going to have this opposition for the next forty years, right up to the time he dies.
That is true for any real leader. By definition a leader is different. He sees things in ways others don’t, and the masses of people are not going to appreciate that. John Calvin was dismissed from his pulpit in Geneva, and Jonathan Edwards from his charge in Northampton. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was hailed by the people: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9). But just a few days later they were crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” You see it is always that way. If you are a leader, don’t be surprised if it is that way with you.
The fourth lesson is that God is sufficient for every need we may have. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 reminds us that God led the Israelites all the way in the desert for forty years, providing them with everything they needed. He provided manna and quail for food, and water from the rock. When we walk with God through the wilderness of life, we find Him to be exactly what the Israelites found him to be in their pilgrimage. We find Him to be Jehovah Rapha—the LORD who heals, who takes care of us, who provides for us. We also find Him to be Jehovah Nissi, the LORD our banner, around whom we can rally.
The last lesson is that prayer and the study of God’s Word are essential if we’re going to live the Christian life. We can’t live without our manna. We can’t survive without the uplifted hands interceding for God’s blessing. Jesus said that “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Now if we believed that, we would be far more conscientious in our Bible study and far more consistent in our prayer. Our problem is that we think we can do things and do them without God. The world may seem appealing, and the life of prayer and Bible study may be hard because they take focus and discipline. But as Meyer says, “Better, ten thousand times over, the liberty wherewith Christ makes us free, though we fare only on manna, than the slavery of Egypt, with its flesh-pots—for there is life in the one, and death in the other”2 A true Christian knows that.
1William M. Taylor, Moses the Law-Giver (New York: Harper, 1879), 140-141.
2F. B. Meyer, Moses: The Servant of God (New York: Revell, n.d.), 148.