Are You Ready to Grumble?

They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord 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.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “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 16:1-8)

This is an interesting text. It opens in verse 2 with these words, “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled…” Now that is an opening. Not just one or two people, not even a group of people, but the whole congregation grumbled. I must confess that I like a good grumble. Don’t we all? Don’t we find something pleasurable about finding someone who will listen to our complaints and grumblings? Sometimes when I find a listening ear I can simply go off. I find it easy to talk about everything I perceive to be a problem. I can grumble with the best of them.

Grumbling is easy, but after I grumble I don’t always feel good about myself, especially when I grumble about petty things that really don’t matter. I look back on my grumblings and I think about how selfish or meaningless they were. A lot of grumbling is unnecessary. We grumble when we feel sorry for our self. We grumble when things don’t go our way. Those are not very good reasons to grumble, but believe it or not some grumbling is ok. The psalmist is a faithful grumbler. He does not go behind God’s back. He approaches the throne of God and voices his complaints. Here are two examples.

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the throng of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless,
shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
(Psalm 64:1-4)

With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me,
you know my way!
In the path where I walk
they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see:
there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
(Psalm 142:1-4)

The psalmist is an expert grumbler, but there is a major difference between the grumblings of the psalmist and the grumblings of the congregation in Exodus 16. The psalmist calls to God out of faith. The psalmist trusts that the Lord will hear his complaint and act. The congregation’s grumble does not originate from faith or trust. It is an act of rebellion. They no longer trust in the God who delivered them from Egyptian bondage and in verse 3 they long to be slaves in Egypt once again.

What will God do? How will he deal with this outright rebellion? We may think we know. We may have an idea about the God of the Old Testament and we may think we know how he would act. It is never a good idea to rebel against God. It is never a good idea to spit in the face of God, especially when he has done so much for you. He freed the people from Egyptian bondage because they cried out to him. They were being abused. They were being mistreated. God heard their cries and he acted. Now they are rebelling against God. Now they want to go back to Egypt and live as slaves. What will God do? We may expect hellfire and brimstone. We may expect one gigantic lightning bolt to come down and take them all out. We probably wouldn’t be surprised if one of the plagues God used against Egypt is now unleashed on his own people. God has been so good. He has done so many things for his people and all they can do is complain.

Sometimes we come to the text with ideas about God. We may have some preconceived notion about what God should do. We may think God acts one way in the Old Testament and another way in the New Testament. We may be expecting God to strike these people dead for their complaining, but that is not what happens. God hears their complaint and he gives them what they want. He says in verse 4, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you.” Even in their complaining God is merciful and gracious. When the people rebel he responds with grace and kindness.

We expect God to do one thing, but he does another. We want to believe we are not like the congregation in Exodus 16, but maybe we are more like them then we want to admit. These people witnessed God’s goodness firsthand. They knew he was a God who answered prayers. They knew he was a God who acted. They knew he was a God who could do mighty miracles in order to free his people, and yet they somehow believed he would let them die in the wilderness. They knew all these things and yet they did not trust God.

We have the story of Jesus. We know more about God than the people of Israel knew. God has been fully revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We know how far he was willing to go to set us free. We know about the great love he has for us, love that led him to a cross. We know the cost he was willing to pay in order to reconcile us to himself. We know God’s great love for us. We know how merciful he is. We know his bountiful grace, and yet sometimes we feel as if he does not love us. We think his mercy cannot reach us. We believe his grace will not cover our sin. When we fall into this line of thinking we are no different from the congregation in Exodus 16. We know the goodness of God, and yet we find some reason not to believe, not to trust, not to depend upon a loving and merciful God.

Thankfully, God does not give up on us. When Israel complains, God responds by giving them what they need. When Israel rebels, God responds by blessing them. We serve a God full of grace and mercy. He loves us more than we can ever imagine, and he has promised to never give up on us or turn his back on us (Rom. 8:38-39). This is the God we serve.

May we learn to give up on our meaningless complaining and live into the grace and mercy of God and never doubt his goodness or love for us.

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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

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