Yes, people of God grumble. Even those surrounded by wall-to-wall miracles, the Israelites, whose story we go see at the movies every time Hollywood remakes the book of Exodus. They grumbled. The very people who saw some of the most impressive marvels in history complained afterward.
Their unhappiness got so bad they started to reminisce about the good old days, back before they were saved, when they were still in darkness and slavery—“when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (16:2-3). Back when we were safe, and life was predictable. Before God and Moses came along and messed it all up, leaving us in the middle of the wilderness, hungry.
That very last word captures the essence of the problem—hunger.
We’re not used to life-or-death hunger. Not in a first world America or Canada. We know we’re having lunch. The only question is how we want it cooked—with a cool, pink center or gray throughout? In fact, we have to consciously diet or we’ll eat ourselves to death.
Yet studies often demonstrate the most privileged strata of society also turns out to be the most dissatisfied and unhappy. That’s because hunger doesn’t just come from an empty stomach. It emanates from an empty soul. And the more people obsessively feed on the things of the world around them—non-food—the more agitated they become.
Christians get caught up in this, too, replete with complaints of every kind.
In Exodus, God’s response was gracious: “I am about to rain bread from heaven for you” (16:4). Like water drops from the sky He would make bread fall on them. He said, “The people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day” (v. 4).
This was the picture, in case you’re tempted to think God is stingy, that He hands out penny candy in the face of terrible need. God delivers fresh bread right to your door. He gives and we collect. That’s the arrangement. It’s what we call grace.
God stated the purpose of this scene, saying, “In the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (v. 12). For sure the people already knew. But knowing God isn’t like memorizing a phone number. It’s multifaceted and takes an entire life to wrap your mind around.
The people had just gotten started. They’d come to know God as a “Man of war” when He’d destroyed the Egyptian army (15:3). They had also experienced Him as healer when He made intolerably bitter waters become sweet for drinking (15:25). But that was just two things.
He wanted to be the giver of bread to them, God as sustenance and satisfaction. This is a challenge for our time as well. Could God actually be the factor of our greatest satisfaction not only in a desolate wilderness, but in a land of stunning abundance? Where we binge-watch television programs for days, and there’s ten different kinds of toothpaste? Could God really rise above all those things to become the chief source of our satisfaction? Yes, and He’s determined to do it.
Here’s how it happened in Exodus. “In the morning, dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness, a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground” (v. 13-14). This was the sustaining God in action, creating a breakfast event.
God gave instructions on collecting it. He said, “Gather of it, as much as you can eat” (v. 16). God’s grace is an all-you-can-eat proposition. How much do you want or need? Whatever the amount, it’s available.
“Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack” (v. 18). This is part of the miracle of spiritual food. Whether you only have five minutes to gather it or a leisurely two hours, it will end up being exactly what you need.
God’s second great instruction was “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning” (v. 19). Why would anybody want to do that? Maybe so they could sleep in a little or save time for other things the next day. Some folks disobeyed and “left part of it till the morning and it bred worms and stank” (v.20).
Manna was never meant to have a shelf life. It reminds me of a buddy I had while overseas. American servicemen were crazy about schnitzels—fried pork patties with cheese on a bun, slathered with mayo. My buddy decided that he would store a schnitzel in his wall locker until morning so he could have it for breakfast. That way he wouldn’t have to rush through the morning ritual of shaving and getting dressed to go out. He could just eat his yummy schnitzel all loaded with mayo right out of his warm wall locker, where it had sat all night. Less than an hour and a half after eating it, they carried him out on a stretcher—the gift of salmonella.
Manna is like that schnitzel except even worse. It’s not supposed to keep. It’s a “morning by morning” food (v. 21), a daily experience. There’s no doubling up on it, like some Christians often attempt.
For instance, if you read seven chapters of the Bible today, that doesn’t mean you can forget the Scriptures for the rest of the week. Or since you went to church twice today, it doesn’t mean you can take a break until next Easter. Spiritual food doesn’t work that way.
Yet the next principle God established for collecting this grace might have seemed contradictory. The people went out, gathered, and ended up with an amount not only for one day, but two. Moses told them, “all that is left over lay aside to be kept until morning” (v. 23). “And it did not stink and there were no worms in it” (v. 24). Why? Because that day was “a solemn rest, a holy Sabbath” (v. 23). No work was allowed on the Sabbath.
The idea here is that even spiritual feeding—what Christians sometimes call devotionals—can become a legal obligation, an oppressive “work.” In the name of spiritual health, we shouldn’t be led to a place where the Sabbath disappears and we are left exhausted by practices of various sorts.
We have to keep the balance God prescribes. Yes, spiritual feeding is a necessity. But the process shouldn’t leave us emaciated and tired. Gathering manna is a joyful necessity.
In fact, verse 27 tells us that this principle was ignored, and “On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none.” When grace becomes a relentless work of human effort, nourishment will not be found.
The experience of manna is a wonder in itself. From an interpretive angle, think about what it involves:
- The word manna literally means “What is it?” implying something mysterious (vv. 15, 31).
- “It was like coriander seed” (v. 31). Seeds, of course, are packets of life planted for future harvest. Every time God’s people ate manna, in His eyes it was like something being planted in them for the future. Never think spiritual feeding is worthless. It always creates hope.
- The manna was white. That’s the color of glorious, sinless purity, as when Jesus was transfigured and His garments became “white as light” (Matt. 17:2). When we feed on heavenly bread, our disposition toward sin changes. We recoil from darkness even if we were comfortable with it just last month.
- The taste of the manna “was like wafers made with honey.” Spiritual food has a taste. That’s a big part of the reason why we keep coming back for more. Yes, religion is like castor oil, but the genuine grace given by God is like wafers and honey.
- God directed that the manna be taken and memorialized (v. 33). He wants to make memories with us and He does it through the food He shares with His people. Some of the most vivid, intense, profound experiences we have will be manna-related and can stand out in your memory long after the fact.
Manna lasted every day for forty years until the people reached the good land (v. 35). This wonder bread sustains us until we get to where God wants us to be.
On a personal note, I’ve fed on it for thirty-one years and I’m still here, actively involved in the Christian life. That’s significant for a guy who is weak and beset with troubles. In the beginning I had expected my Christian faith to last three weeks, tops. Yet here I am, three decades later.
In case you were wondering, manna is not a thing or an abstract experience; it is a Person. In John 6:48, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
According to Jesus then, the manna of Exodus 16 was a symbol of some greater reality to come—Himself.
He tells us how to feed upon Him: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). So there you have it. We must come to Him and believe in Him. You might say you’ve already done that. Millions of Christians could make that claim.
Okay, you might have bread, but do you enjoy it? You could live at the grocery store, but if you don’t eat anything in it, you’re no different from a starving man on a desert island. When the last meal of living bread you can remember was when you met Jesus years ago, you’re missing the point.
Yes, coming to Him and believing was necessary to save you once for all. But that’s not enough for a robust enjoyment of your salvation. Remember, manna is daily. Coming to Him and believing is an exercise of faith that needs to continue.
Most every real Christian I know would agree with me, saying, “Yeah, I need to do that more.” But let me ask you, When? What day? What time? If those questions aren’t answered, it’s not going to happen, sort of the way someone might tell himself he ought to learn French or Kung-Fu or to play the banjo. But then adds, “Someday.”
And while we’re at it, what will you do when you set aside some time to come to Jesus?
If it involves a faith interaction with Him, probably anything is fine. But that might not be specific enough for you at this point. The more general the intention, the greater the odds you’ll end up doing nothing, or saying things like, “I feel close to God when I check Facebook statuses and drink coffee.”
Let me suggest something more likely to get you somewhere, especially if you only have five or ten minutes. Try cracking your Bible open and deeply reading a verse. Then turn the thought of it into your prayer. Use it to praise and thank God. Or use it to confess your sins.
Gather your manna. It’s yours.
Not someday, but today.
To be continued