The Hebrew for desert is מדבר. The Hebrew for speaking is מדבר. Spot the difference? There isn’t any when you see it written down – it’s from the same word root. The word for desert is pronounced “midbar” and speaking is pronounced “medaber” but perhaps it is no coincidence that the two overlap, for God often speaks in the desert.
I loved the fact that the book of Numbers is called “In the desert” or “B’Midbar” in the Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t often fill Western believers with joy to read these things in the Torah – it can seem kinda dry, like the desert, but if we are willing to stop, to still our souls, to wait and to listen, we can hear the beautiful voice of God in the dryest of places.
Sometimes our most powerful experiences and connections with God are in desert times in our lives. As a pastor I knew once said that while a dessert is something we do want but don’t need, time in the desert is something we don’t want, but do need! God deliberately calls us away into the desert for his purposes.
An odd honeymoon destination
The people of Israel spent 40 years in the desert, but it wasn’t simply because that’s what happened to be between Egypt and Israel. Listen to what God says about that time in Jeremiah 2:2:
“I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.”
God reflects on that time in the desert as almost like a honeymoon – they had made a covenant and agreed to be his people, and he was leading them into their destiny with him. He talks about their time in the desert with him as a time of intimacy. He appeared in a very dramatic way to them at Sinai, and gave them his Word. Of course, despite God’s guidance, provision and presence, it was not all smooth-sailing.
Later on he explains his interesting choice of honeymoon destination in Deuteronomy 8:
“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
The desert reveals the priorities of our hearts
Desert times really separate the men from the boys. It can really show things as they really are… the true state of the heart is revealed. It is a place of revelation, testing, refining, humbling… which can often result in deeper intimacy with God.
There are also a number of parallels between Israel’s 40 years in the desert and the 40 day fast and then temptation of Yeshua. Matthew 4 tells us that
“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil…After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
It is interesting to see Yeshua’s reply:
“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
He was thinking about God’s desert agenda for the Israelites too, and quoted Deuteronomy 8. The number 40 often signifies a time period of gestation too – 40 years, 40 days and nights… and both these parallel desert experiences were times of preparation and testing.
This is not the only time that God leads people into the desert – Hosea 2, 14:15 says of Israel,
“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
He will lead her into the midbar (desert) and medaber (speak) to her heart. God continues,
“There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth as in the day she came up out of Egypt.”
God loves that soft, loving response of willingness, and longs to bless. It’s hard to imagine any parent deliberately letting their children suffer hunger or thirst, yet this is what God deliberately did with his people. But there was a purpose. God tested his people then, to purify their hearts and their response to him, and we should not be surprised when he does it to us too.
Perhaps you’re in a desert time of testing. It’s a season all believers have to go through from time to time. A time where the true priorities of our hearts are revealed. But this is not a punishment, or even a mistake. It is not because God loves us less, or has forgotten about us, or doesn’t want to bless us – quite the opposite. He delights to replenish, restore and provide – but he is looking for the loving response of a willing heart, fully dedicated to him, and no other. If he led Yeshua to the desert, we can be sure he will do the same with us!
Expecting God to speak
Would you be willing to pray for those encountering hard, desert times to hear the voice of God speaking intimately to them in their time of need? The people of Israel have been through so much – sometimes with God, sometimes feeling abandoned by God, sometimes utterly denying his existence. Would you take time even now, to pray for the people of Israel to respond to God as they did at first, with love and trust? And may God strengthen you too, when you encounter the desert, with anticipation that in the desert, he will speak.