My satnav gives me options on how to get from A to B. Do I want the shortest route or the fastest route? They are not necessarily the same. The shortest route might take in minor roads where I could get stuck behind a farmer’s tractor, so I normally choose the fastest one.

In Moses’ day, of course, there was no satnav, but we can look at the maps and estimate a likely journey time. So, from Egypt to the promised land by the fastest route: how long do you reckon the journey would take? Bear in mind that the people were on foot, carrying all their belongings, with children and animals tagging along, and having to set up camp every night and light fires for cooking meals every day. Taking all this into account, the answer, apparently, is about two weeks. And how long did it actually take? Forty years. Mmm—clearly the Israelites hit a glitch somewhere along the line. What was it?

The book of Numbers reveals all: they spent the best part of those forty years at a standstill in the desert.

But why? Before we get too judgmental and start condemning the Israelites for their failures, we should pause and consider. The apostle Paul outlines many of the setbacks recorded in Numbers that befell the Israelites, and then states, ‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’[1] It seems, then, that the analogy of Christian life and experience that we have noted in the ‘types’ of Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus continues here in Numbers. But what exactly corresponds to what?

About the Passover and the exodus there is no dispute: they speak of Christ’s death and our liberation from spiritual slavery. But what does the desert represent? And what about the promised land? Traditionally, the desert has been viewed as a picture of the typical Christian life with all its challenges and struggles, after which we at last cross the River Jordan of death to enter the promised land of God’s presence. The negro slaves in the USA expressed such views in spirituals like, ‘Deep river. My home is over Jordan…I ain’t got long to stay here’, and lots of Victorian hymns took a similar approach: ‘Just beyond the silent river, Over on the other shore, Many loved ones there shall greet us, Where the many mansions are.’[2]

But there’s a problem with this. The promised land would see the Israelites at war with the land’s Canaanite inhabitants. Does that mean, then, that there will be conflict in heaven? Clearly there will not, so maybe we need to tweak our interpretation a little. It makes more sense to see the desert as an untypical Christian life of dryness and defeat—an undesirable situation and one that God wants to see us out of. The promised land, on this scheme, would still be this side of glory: the life of victory over sin that God desires for us in the spiritual warfare we are all engaged in.

I well remember how this truth came home to me at the age of seventeen. I’d been a Christian for some years but was half-hearted and defeated, full of pious talk and good behaviour in church but swearing and telling dirty jokes with the lads at school during the week. My parents sent me on an Easter retreat for young people, to which I went with zero enthusiasm. But God met me there in a big way. The main teaching was about the Israelites in the desert, living a life of dryness and defeat far from the promised land and its life of victory. ‘Where are you?’ came the challenge. I was stuck in the desert and I knew it. I went out that afternoon, found a lonely spot in a field and wrestled with God. In the end he met me in a powerful way. I made my way back to the retreat centre baptised in the Spirit, full of joy and glory, and walking on air. I arrived just in time for the evening meeting and, as I was the pianist for the weekend, took my place on the piano stool without speaking to anyone. The leader then entered the room, pausing in the doorway and looking around. His eye caught me and he did a double-take. Coming over, he spoke quietly into my ear: ‘What’s happened to you, David?’ Evidently the change showed. I whispered back, ‘I’ve got over Jordan!’ It was true, and I’ve been living in the promised land ever since.

The apostle Paul would have approved of my description. I had discovered for myself that the story of the Israelites in the desert mirrors our own. That means that we need to be careful, because if we condemn them, as Paul did, for their manifest failings in the desert, we may well end up condemning ourselves.

Well, let’s take that risk and consider why they got stuck in the desert. Maybe that will enable us to answer the question, ‘Why do some Christians today end up living in a spiritual desert, barren, dry and constantly defeated?’ So let’s read on to find the key to avoiding such a fate.

The Israelites got stuck in the desert because they were for ever looking back to Egypt. In reality they had been miserable in Egypt. They had been slaves there, worked half to death, with no freedom, no rights and the sting of the slavemaster’s lash on their shoulder-blades. Government officials had killed their newborn babies to regulate population-growth. Food had been strictly rationed and travel forbidden. It had been grind from dawn till dusk. Why would anybody in their right mind look back with nostalgia to all that?

But memory can play awful tricks. It has a way of filtering out the negatives so that when we look back we remember it as all being rather rosy, and this was the case here: ‘We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.’[3] Tasty though these undoubtedly had been, they hardly balanced out the grim tally of negatives that God’s people had suffered as slaves. Remember this when you start getting nostalgic about your pre-Christian years. Yes, of course you had fun sometimes—sin offers real pleasures[4]—but there was a massive downside to that stage of your life, and it’s not worth hankering after now. Besides, anyone who walks looking back over their shoulder is going to trip and fall, so don’t do it. No, you have passed through the Red Sea of baptism,[5] which has cut you off from Egypt and makes returning there unthinkable. So away with looking back. It will keep you in the desert. Give your brain a shake, come to your senses and set your sights on the road ahead that leads to the promised land. It’s a choice you need to make, and only you can make it. The choice you make will either keep you in the desert or get you out of it. Which will it be?

The Israelites also got stuck in the desert because they complained all the time. They had a negative mindset that focused on the problems instead of on God’s promises.

They moaned non-stop about their alleged hardships; about the boring diet of manna, even though it was God’s miraculous provision; about Moses’ leadership; about the spies’ report of giants in Canaan; about God’s severe treatment of the spies who brought that negative report; about the lack of water, in spite of supernatural supplies of it—about everything.

Moaning and complaining will keep you, too, in the desert. Turn your back on it. Again, it’s a choice. Be aware that grumbling is the everyday language of society at large and can rub off onto you. Listen to people chatting in the supermarket, in the pub, on the street corner. It’s mostly negative talk. ‘Oh dear, food prices are up again. It’s this awful government’s fault. I blame management. I blame the trade unions. I blame the folks next door. Things are going downhill.’ This kind of talk is catching, and you will need to make a determined effort to strike a more positive note and turn the conversation round. But you can do it.

If complaint is the language of the Egypt, the language of Canaan is thanksgiving and praise, and that’s the one to practise. I’m told that the people of Alsace—a region in north-eastern France—speak French with a German accent. That’s because it is on the border with Germany and, what’s more, the region was for many years actually part of Germany. Here’s the danger of living near the border: influences come over from the other side. Spiritually, you used to live in Egypt, but now you are a citizen of Canaan. Just make sure that you settle down a long way from the border and that Egyptian-style grumbling doesn’t sneak into your system.

Grumbling makes God angry. ‘The people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused.’[6] In his anger he kept them in the desert. So put a stop to your own complaining so that the Lord can release you from desert dryness and defeat into a life of victory.

Most seriously of all, the Israelites got stuck in the desert because of their unbelief. Though God had promised time and time again to give them the land of Canaan,[7] they simply refused to believe it. Everything he graciously promised to them they countered with a ‘but’. The ten unbelieving spies were typical: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.’ And the Israelite chorus-line responded loud and long with ‘Oh dear! We’ve had it!’ and ‘Why did we leave Egypt in the first place?’What they were really saying to God was, ‘Oh yes, we know you said you’d give us the land of Canaan but we don’t believe a word of it. You’re a liar and you don’t really want to bless us at all, you just want to ruin us.’

That was dangerous talk, guaranteed to keep them in the desert. No wonder the writer to the Hebrews, pondering on these matters, exclaims, ‘See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.’ And he ends his exhortation with this bottom line: ‘They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.’[8] God is still a giver, and he who promised the land to the Israelites promises a life of victory to you: ‘Sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.’[9] If you don’t want to be stuck in the desert you’d better believe it!

In fact, if we are to escape the desert and get to victory-land we need to adopt attitudes totally opposite to those that kept Israel in the wilderness. They got stuck because they looked back to Egypt, so we’ll do the opposite and look forward. Paul’s commendable attitude is worth imitating: ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’[10] Like me, you probably know some people who once walked with the Lord but who do so no longer. Determine now that you will never be one of them. Say to yourself, ‘With his help, I’ll be walking as closely with God twenty years from today as I am right now.’

Looking forward will keep us focused, long-term, on the age to come and the better world that will greet us at Christ’s return. But in the medium-term it will challenge us to keep living a life of victory in this present age, gradually overcoming our weaknesses and becoming more like Jesus, breaking free of our emotional and psychological hang-ups and holding fast to the Lord in spite of sickness, setback or personal tragedy. It will require a degree of godly effort—Paul spoke of ‘straining toward…’ and ‘pressing on’. It wasn’t an attempt at salvation by works but a proper response to the wonderful grace of God. He calls you to a similar effort.

If you are young, don’t let your proper focus on short-term goals—getting married, securing a decent job, getting the next pay rise—distract you from the greater goals we have indicated: ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.’[11] And if you are getting on in years, don’t let your natural focus on events of the past (which is where most of your life now is) keep you from a future-orientation. Be like Caleb who, at eighty-five years of age, was still keen for further victories.[12] Looking forward will get you into the promised land.

So will giving thanks, which is the opposite of complaining. Give thanks to God, which marks out the believer from the non-Christian.[13] You want to do God’s will, don’t you? His will for you is to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’.[14] And not just to God. It will extend to expressing your thanks liberally and often to all who serve you, encourage you, give to you and bless you. Thankfulness will keep you in harmony with God and smooth your path into the promised land.

That just leaves believing God’s promises, which is the opposite of unbelief. God promised to give the Israelites the promised land. Sure, they would need to move in there and do some fighting to secure for themselves what he had promised, but secure it they would if they went in with faith. Sadly, however, they just didn’t believe him. Don’t be like them. God’s promises to you are similar to the ones he gave them. In the power of the Holy Spirit you can tackle every sin, every setback, every challenge that presents itself and be confident of victory and conquest. ‘Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’[15] And this is not just for a few high-fliers; it’s for all God’s people: ‘Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith’.[16] You just have to believe it and you will soon be in the land to witness your Jericho come tumbling down.

Are you still in the desert? The desert is a choice—and so is the promised land. You know which choice to make!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

1. See 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

2. Ira D. Sankey, Sacred Songs And Solos, Marshall, Morgan & Scott Ltd., No.933


The Desert Is A Choice


This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.



3. Numbers 11:5. See also Numbers 11:20; 14:2-4

4. Hebrews 11:25

5. 1 Corinthians 10:1-2

6. Numbers 11:1

7. E.g. Genesis 35:12; Exodus 6:8; Numbers 13:1

10. Philippians 3:13-14


8. See Hebrews 3:12-19

9. Romans 6:14

11. Ecclesiastes 12:1

12. See Joshua 14:10-12

13. Romans 1:21

14. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. See also Colossians 3:15

15. 1 Corinthians 15:57

16. 1 John 5:4

The gist of this article

Why did the Israelites spend 40 years in the desert en route to the promised land when they could have got there in a couple of weeks? The answer gives us clues as to why some believers spend years living a dry and barren Christian life.