Paul describes the luminary life of trusting saints; a life that shines in a dark and thankless world (Romans 1:21). Blamelessness, innocence, proving ourselves to be children of God—all by a supernatural life of worship instead of bleating.
At first, it seems a little thing,
A want unmet, a prayer unwinged.
Voiceless, it interrogates the King,
When sounded, Lucifer sings.
If you do not stand at the gate armed with sword and spear, if you keep down the drawbridge and fail to post men on the watchtower, gurgles and grunts will occupy your heart. Self-love and unbelief have a fruitful marriage, multiplying little moans and murmurs as rabbits in the forest or as crabgrass in the front lawn.
What is in a grumble? The sound, unheard in heaven, is the heart shaking its head, rolling its eyes, cursing under its breath. It is the seemingly harmless exhale of several respectable sins—ingratitude, thanklessness, discontent. It’s a controlled rage, an itchy contempt, the muffled echo of Satan’s dismay. A broken tune. It can be voiced in a sigh or strangle a praise. It is the cough of a sick heart.
We overhear these pitiful pleas all over the New Testament. The volume turns up with the crowds and soon-to-be apostate disciples of John 6, and in episodes with the envious scribes and Pharisees. Yet New Testament authors often bend the ear backward to hear the mumblings of an ancient people. None better expose the horror of this muffled mutiny than ancient Israel.
The apostle Paul writes,
We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
(1 Corinthians 10:9–11)
God’s Spirit records Israel’s history in the wilderness to teach us about this too-easily-committed and too-easily-overlooked sin of grumbling.
Lessons from the Mumblers
If we had to venture a guess as to who the first grumblers mentioned in Scripture would be, could any man or angel have suspected it to be God’s own people, and that right after their wondrous redemption from Egypt?
Ten plagues have fallen on Pharoah’s defiance. His army and chariots now lie at the bottom of the sea, a calm settles upon the water’s surface—Israel is free. Uproar sounds in the heavens, and praise to God extends to earth. Music sheets are passed around beside the Red Sea, they begin,
I will sing to [Yahweh] for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
Who could have guessed that these same tongues would rot into a chorus of murmurs by the end of the same chapter? Satan’s song intrudes. Lucifer’s lyrics, once sung, get stuck in their heads. Trial after trial—needing water, then food, then water again—leads to more and more muttering. Consider, then, just a few lessons from the all too familiar sounds of Exodus 15–16.
God deprives us to see what’s inside us.
God led Israel around the Philistines, in front of the Red Sea to bait Pharoah, and through the Red Sea, and now to the wilderness of Shur. Millions marched waterless. One day turned to two turned to three. Finally, in the distance, water. They bend down to drink—yuck. Dying of thirst, they spit out the sour beverage. They named the place “Marah,” meaning bitterness (Exodus 15:22–23). We finally find water and it is undrinkable? Is this where trusting the Lord gets you? For the first time in the Hebrew Bible we read, “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24).
And then, as he did with the water, so God did with their stomachs: “he tested them” (verse 25). He “let them hunger” and led the people to depend upon him that whole forty years to see what was in their hearts (Deuteronomy 8:2–3). And he found Marah in his people—out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth sighs. When you find yourself kneeling by the bitter waters of God’s providence, what does God hear from you? Cries to your heavenly Father for help and mercy, or grunts against an unreliable god?