At first, it seems a little thing,
A want unmet, a prayer unwinged.
Voiceless, it interrogates the King,
When sounded, Lucifer sings.
If you do not stand at the gate armed with sword and spear, if you keep down the drawbridge and fail to post men on the watchtower, gurgles and grunts will occupy your heart. Self-love and unbelief have a fruitful marriage, multiplying little moans and murmurs as rabbits in the forest or as crabgrass in the front lawn.
What is in a grumble? The sound, unheard in heaven, is the heart shaking its head, rolling its eyes, cursing under its breath. It is the seemingly harmless exhale of several respectable sins — ingratitude, thanklessness, discontent. It’s a controlled rage, an itchy contempt, the muffled echo of Satan’s dismay. A broken tune. It can be voiced in a sigh or strangle a praise. It is the cough of a sick heart.
We overhear these pitiful pleas all over the New Testament. The volume turns up with the crowds and soon-to-be apostate disciples of John 6, and in episodes with the envious scribes and Pharisees. Yet New Testament authors often bend the ear backward to hear the mumblings of an ancient people. None better expose the horror of this muffled mutiny than ancient Israel.
The apostle Paul writes,
We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:9–11)
God’s Spirit records Israel’s history in the wilderness to teach us about this too-easily-committed and too-easily-overlooked sin of grumbling.
Lessons from the Mumblers
If we had to venture a guess as to who the first grumblers mentioned in Scripture would be, could any man or angel have suspected it to be God’s own people, and that right after their wondrous redemption from Egypt?
Ten plagues have fallen on Pharoah’s defiance. His army and chariots now lie at the bottom of the sea, a calm settles upon the water’s surface — Israel is free. Uproar sounds in the heavens, and praise to God extends to earth. Music sheets are passed around beside the Red Sea, they begin,
I will sing to [Yahweh] for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:1)
Who could have guessed that these same tongues would rot into a chorus of murmurs by the end of the same chapter? Satan’s song intrudes. Lucifer’s lyrics, once sung, get stuck in their heads. Trial after trial — needing water, then food, then water again — leads to more and more muttering. Consider, then, just a few lessons from the all too familiar sounds of Exodus 15–16.
1. God deprives us to see what’s inside us.
God led Israel around the Philistines, in front of the Red Sea to bait Pharoah, and through the Red Sea, and now to the wilderness of Shur. Millions marched waterless. One day turned to two turned to three. Finally, in the distance, water. They bend down to drink — yuck. Dying of thirst, they spit out the sour beverage. They named the place “Marah,” meaning bitterness (Exodus 15:22–23). We finally find water and it is undrinkable? Is this where trusting the Lord gets you? For the first time in the Hebrew Bible we read, “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24).
“When you find yourself kneeling by the bitter waters of God’s providence, what does God hear from you?”
And then, as he did with the water, so God did with their stomachs: “he tested them” (verse 25). He “let them hunger” and led the people to depend upon him that whole forty years to see what was in their hearts (Deuteronomy 8:2–3). And he found Marah in his people — out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth sighs. When you find yourself kneeling by the bitter waters of God’s providence, what does God hear from you? Cries to your heavenly Father for help and mercy, or grunts against an unreliable god?
2. Grumbling complains against God.
Grumbling would weaponize our circumstances against God if we let it. Yet, it doesn’t always feel like that, does it? I am complaining because my darling child pooped through her diaper, or because I’m late for work and now stuck in traffic — not because I dislike God. Hear Moses’s analysis of Israel’s grumbling,
“At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against the Lord. For what are we, that you grumble against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him — what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” (Exodus 16:6–8)
Moses speaks in capital letters: The arrows of your complaints fly at the Lord. So it is with us. He hears our creaturely objections, as protests against his throne, even when we do not lift our eyes to meet his. What is a boss or infertility or ruined plans or cancer that we gripe at them? God rules all with infinite wisdom and care. Against him, him only have we grumbled, and done what is evil in his sight.
3. Grumbling is severely short-sighted.
Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water. (Exodus 15:27)
The springless wilderness of Shur often leads to the plentiful land of Elim. Even in Shur, God responded graciously to his people’s huffing and puffing, turning the bitter water sweet. But before the relief arrived and the parched throats tasted sweet drink, how many kept trusting him?
This point climaxes at the arrival to Elim — and cuts me to the heart. How many times have I finally arrived at the place of twelve springs and lush palm trees — the place God was leading the whole time — with sharp regrets about my distrust? He blessed me, but despite me. I pouted the whole way.
“To my shame — and to the glory of his patience — our God is more gracious than we are grumbling.”
To my shame — and to the glory of his patience — our God is more gracious than we are grumbling. But this should make us hate the murmurs more. Our protests and complaints cannot see past our own noses. Often just around the corner is the respite of some smiling providence. Our God leads us out of Egypt to hold a feast to him in the wilderness (Exodus 5:1). Blessed is he who did not curse God under his breath in the meantime.
4. A grumbling heart distorts reality.
Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (Exodus 16:3)
The muttering heart thinks the worst of God and the best of its former suffering. God would be their provider and their healer (Exodus 15:26). Yet, meat pots and a full-service bakery in Egypt sprout in the malcontent’s mind. They would rather have died under the Lord’s plagues in Egypt than suffer want in this wandering wilderness. A month ago, they praised God for sinking his enemies under the sea like a stone; now they wished to be that stone.
When the way seems meandering and lost, when resources dry up, when circumstances seem too cruel to have a purpose, God is for his people, teaching us precious truths.
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
God’s great Israel, Jesus Christ, learned this lesson in his forty days in the wilderness, and he quotes it at the devil when tempted (Matthew 4:4). These seasons can teach us also to walk by faith, to nourish our souls with his word, to venture all upon his promises. And these lessons, should we learn them, become the defining moments of our lives and our proudest memories in heaven.
Satisfied and Shining
At first, it seems a little thing,
A knee now bent, thanks to bring.
When in need, it trusts a worthy King,
When sounded, heaven rings.
Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
This is the Christian’s lot — not just starving grumbles alone, but feeding worship. God has delivered us through a greater exodus and manifested a higher love in his Son: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We are a people who now address one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs “with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
How startling then, for angels to hear us begin our day with songs to Jesus, only to end that same morning with snorts of irritation and resentment. Paul gives a glorious battle cry against it. Directly after the momentous charge to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (Philippians 2:13), listen to the first thing Paul would have us work out in the next verse.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life. . . . (Philippians 2:14–16)
Paul describes the luminary life of trusting saints; a life that shines in a dark and thankless world (Romans 1:21). Blamelessness, innocence, proving ourselves to be children of God — all by a supernatural life of worship instead of bleating.
Don’t you want to live that brightly to the glory of Christ, holding fast to his word, journeying toward the greater Elim just around the bend?