The Bitter Made Sweet

Vol 5:10 (Oct 1959)

The Bitter Made Sweet

John Bramhall

“The waters of Marah were bitter… the waters were made sweet” (Exod. 15:23-25).

The slavery of Egypt was over. Pharaoh’s evil host was drowned in the sea. A song of triumph rose from joyous hearts. The Israelites were well on their way to the promised land (Exod. 12-15).

For three days they travelled before finding water — only to discover that the water was bitter and unfit for drinking! How discouraging! How disappointing! (Exod. 15:22-25).

However, the Lord solved their problem. He showed Moses a tree, and told him to throw it in the water. When this was done, the water became sweet. How encouraging! How refreshing!

“Now all these things happened to them as types, and have been written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come” (1 Cor. 10:11. J.N.D. Tr.).

The Israelites’ journey through the desert, from Egypt to Canaan, entailed a great variety of hardships. These are all typical of Christians’ experiences today as we travel through the world, seeking to enjoy our promised blessings in Christ, while looking forward to our safe arrival in His presence.

From Israel’s distress at Marah, we can learn practical lessons for ourselves. What God did then, He is still able to do for us now. Through the greatness of His love and grace, He is able to sweeten all our bitter “waters of Marah”, even today!

The Bitter Waters of Sin

Where does God begin His ministry of sweetness to our souls? Every believer can recall the days of deep conviction, when the Spirit of God plowed into the conscience and produced the bitter taste of sin and guilt. This caused us to cry unto the Lord for salvation.

The Lord showed us “a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” Blessed cross! Blessed Sacrifice! Blessed Saviour! He poured His love and grace into our wounded souls, washing away our sin and guilt before a holy God, cleansing us through His precious blood!

“He cleansed the bleeding sin-wounds and poured in oil and wine;
He whispered to assure me, ‘I’ve found thee; thou art Mine.’
I never heard a sweeter voice; it made my aching heart rejoice.”

He transformed the bitter waters of sin and guilt into the sweetness of His cleansing and pardon.

The Bitter Water of Defeat

On starting our heavenly pilgrimage, elated with the joy of salvation, we were perhaps surprised to find that the sources where we had drunk with delight once before, had now run dry. Possibly we had not yet realized that the world had become a desert to us. However, God must teach us the blessedness of this fact, in order that we may be brought to say, “All my springs are in Thee” (Psa. 87:7).

Neither did we realize, perchance, how great were the dangers of “the flesh” and “the devil”; but God ever seeks to bring us into practical conformity with our new position in Christ; and He therefore permits us to experience the bitter waters of failure and defeat.

Paul tasted the bitter struggle between the two natures within him: the sinful old man with which he was born; and the new man which he acquired at the time of his second birth. In bitterness and misery he cried, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). The Lord showed him a tree, and we hear Paul say victoriously, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25); so he passed into the joy of victory, the triumph of a Spirit-controlled life as described in Romans 8. Instead of the bitter waters of defeat, he was enabled to partake of the sweetness of victory.

The Bitter Waters of Discouragement

The sources of discouragement are varied: pain, sickness, sorrow, bereavement, and other trials. These often produce the unfortunate spirit of murmuring which characterized Israel at Marah: “The people murmured.” Consider the discouragement caused by pain, and God’s antidote for it.

Sitting by a dying saint suffering intensely with cancer of the throat, I ventured to say, “The pain must be unbearable, sister.” She sweetly answered, “When I think of what my Saviour suffered for me on the cross, it helps me to bear the pain.” The Lord showed her “a tree”, and “the waters were made sweet.”

Similarly, God is still sufficient for sickness, sorrow, and all the other trials which cause “the bitter waters” to come into our souls. Paul wrote of his own case, “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And HE said unto me, MY grace is sufficient for thee: for MY strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:8-10). Instead of the bitter waters of weakness, through the ever-present grace of Christ he received the sweet waters of divine sufficiency!

The Bitter Waters of Disappointment

There are two chief sources of disappointment in our lives: people and circumstances. How bitter can be the deep wounds of disillusionment when those whom we trusted eventually fail us! We all taste this experience, for none is perfect. What shall we do? Give vent to our deep emotions in bitterness of spirit? God forbid!

Paul wrote about his own experiences in similar circumstances, “All they which are in Asia be turned away from me” (2 Tim. 1:15). “Demas hath forsaken me” (2 Tim. 4:10). “ALL men forsook me. I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge” (2 Tim. 4:16).

But, “the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” Listen to his triumph, “NOTWITHSTANDING THE LORD STOOD WITH ME, AND STRENGTHENED ME” (2 Tim. 4:17-18).

Have your plans and prospects also failed you? What does it matter about mere things? What if you and I could lose HIM? Thank God, we cannot! for He abideth faithful! Let the Lord show you HIMSELF, the ever-sufficient One! and then you will be able to sing:

“HE is not a disappointment! Jesus is far more to me
Than in all my glowing day-dreams I had fancied He could be;
And the more I get to know HIM, so the more I find HIM true;
And the more I long that others should be led to know HIM too.”

From the bitter waters of disappointment, He brings us to the sweetness of HIMSELF!

The Bitter Waters of Death

If our Lord be not come, the last experience of the pilgrim will be death. And yet, surely the same blessed One Who sweetens every other trial of life, will also be there to sweeten the last testing that earth may hold for His own. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psa. 116:15).

The Lord showed Moses “a tree”, a beautiful figure of Him Who in infinite grace was cast into the bitter waters of death, in order that those waters might yield naught but sweetness for us forever! We can truly say, “The bitterness of death is past” and nothing remains for us but the eternal sweetness of resurrection life!

If the experience of death must be ours, we shall but pass into the sweetness of His eternal presence and see Him face to face. Then again, His imminent return may completely eliminate the bitter waters of death, if we are “alive and remain” when He descends from above to gather us home! In either case, He is nothing but sweetness to the soul!

If God ever brings us to a Marah, let us always remember that He has gone there before us and planted a sweetening tree within easy reach: the present sufficiency and preciousness of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is more than equal to our deepest need, praise His holy Name! The tree is symbolical, not only of His blessed cross, but also of Himself. Whenever He is brought into our own bitter circumstances of life, He always makes the bitter waters sweet.