The Lord was testing the nation of Israel as they were wandering in the wilderness. There were over 600,000 men, plus women and children that were in need of daily water and food - and the Lord was providing for them. But He allowed them to feel their lack and their need of His provision before He gave what they needed to prove them. Everytime a trial came their way, what was in their hearts came out: murmuring and griping; complaining against God and the leader He appointed to lead the people.
The nation of Israel at first couldn't find any water, and then, when they did, the waters were bitter (Marah means "bitter"). As long as the people were rebelling and going their way, their way was bitter. But when the tree was put into the bitter waters, they were made sweet.
Consider these verses:
Acts 5:30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.
Acts 10:38-40 How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly;
Acts 13:23, 28-30 Of this man's seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus... And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. But God raised him from the dead:
Galatians 3:13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:
1 Peter 2:24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
The cross of Christ is compared to a tree (it certainly was made out of beams from a tree). Without the salvation Jesus provided by dying upon the cross for our sins, our lives are empty and bitter. Yes, sin may bring pleasure for a season, but the pleasure eventually leaves a spiritually bitter taste in our minds. Sinful pleasures can never fulfill the longing in our souls - only knowing the Lord and walking with Him can do that!
I remember how bitter my life was like before I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ: it was bitter. All the abuse in my past created scars that wouldn't heal, bitterness that tainted each day, leaving a depression and a complete lack of purpose. Life was bitter to me!
But then came Jesus - and He healed my soul, healed the waters of my spirit, healed the wounds in my heart and mind - gave me a reason for living, gave me forgiveness. With Jesus' cross (ie. His death upon the cross) affecting me, the waters of my life were made sweet! There was healing.
There is also another application to this passage in the Bible: that of taking up our cross daily.
Luke 9:23 And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
When we, as believers, get our eyes off of the Lord, life is made bitter again - there is no joy, no peace of mind. When God has only half of a believer's heart, you might as well call them Mara!
Consider the story of Naomi recorded in the book of Ruth. Naomi and her family moved to Moab in a time of famine, instead of trusting the Lord to provide and staying in Bethlehem. They went their way, out of the will of God, and it cost them dearly. Within ten years, she lost her husband and her two sons, and one daughter in law went back to her pagan gods. Empty and barren, Naomi returns with Ruth to Bethlehem, and we read this sad account:
Ruth 1:19-21 So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?
Naomi means "pleasant." But she was no longer pleasant; instead she was bitter and anguished. As the story goes on, she puts her eyes back on the Lord and gets right with Him - and He brings healing to her troubled soul.
When we are determined to go our own way, there is bitterness - when we die to ourselves, die to our own will, there is healing and blessing. Consider Jesus, our example:
Matthew 26:37-44 And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.
Luke 22:41-44 And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Jesus faced a unique battle. He knew He was going to the cross to bear the sin of the world upon Himself. The Son had never been separated from the Father or the Holy Spirit in all of eternity - and God cannot look upon sin - knowing that when He bore our sins it would bring temporary separation in the Godhead, He struggled with what He had to bear. However, enduring that cup of God's wrath was the only way Jesus could provide for our salvation - and three times He prayed in earnestness and agony, submitting His will to His Heavenly Father's, and won the victory. The blood vessels bursting in His face (bloody sweat) showed the intense pressure and anguish He was in - still He gave His will to His Father. Then God strengthened Him, and He went on with a renewed determination to go to the cross.
When we give God only half of ourselves - picking and choosing what parts we will submit to Him - there is bitterness, there is turmoil within, no peace of mind. When we submit to His will in every area of our lives (inasmuch as we know that will) - when we take our cross up daily, then the Lord will heal those bitter waters.
Exodus 15:26 And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
Israel was a very forgetful nation - but there is a lesson to learn here. The Lord taught them how to make their bitter waters sweet, showed them that this healing was based on their obedience and submission to Him; then notice where the Lord took them next:
Exodus 15:27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
An abundance of fresh water - a well for each tribe, and seventy palm trees. Seventy - seven times ten - a multiple of seven contains the same meaning as seven: completeness, perfection, fulness. The Lord was indicating to them that abundance and blessing came from their obedience to Him and His Word. All that they needed was theirs when they got their hearts right with Him and walked right before Him. Satisfaction and fulfillment was found when the cross was added to the waters of their lives!
Are the waters of your life bitter or sweet? Have you come to the cross of Christ and received the Saviour that died upon that cross? Are you dying daily to yourself - have you taken up your cross today?
60 Day Devotional Series: Numbers In The Bible