This past summer I had the privilege of watching a DVD series entitled Faith Lessons: That the World May Know, In the Desert (volume 12) by Ray Vander Laan. Mr. Vander Laan was actually my Bible and Christian Psychology teacher at the Christian high school I attended, making these lessons all the more dear to me. In these DVDs, Mr.Vander Laan takes you on-site to the deserts in Israel to bring alive the Word of God. I learned so much about various trees and shrubs, the terrain, wadis and so many other lessons that never really stuck before studying this desert series. I realized that many pictures found in God's Word are lost to the average reader of the Bible, because we fail to try to understand the setting they were written in.
It says in God's Word "He led them like sheep in the desert..." Deserts are harsh, dry and difficult. They are a picture of struggle, pain and the unknown. The children of Israel had not rebelled yet, so why would a loving God lead them into difficult circumstances? It is in the desert that you learn that you need Him- manna from heaven, water from the rock... God must be trusted for everything. He molds his people and causes them to be dependent upon Him. Egypt had been a nation for the eyes- it was amazing and beautiful. But God didn't desire a people for the eyes, but for the ears. He wanted a people more powerful than the pharoahs; a people dependent on His words, and like sheep, to hear the voice of their Shepherd.
One well loved passage for many Christians is Psalm 23. Almost all Christians can recite it by heart! Shepherds lead their sheep by their voice. A sheep would follow the shepherd's commands. The straight paths or paths of righteousness were the paths that the sheep would travel on to follow the shepherd's voice. If a sheep did this, all would be well. This is much like our life, isn't it? It is simple, and yet so difficult to do at times. We are simply told to listen and respond to His Word.
If you are anything like me, you have always pictured a shepherd to lead his sheep through green pastures. We picture lush, belly-deep alfalfa for the sheep to bask in and partake of. But the shepherds in Israel were (and still are) shepherds in the wilderness. Mr. Vander Laan shows us pictures of shepherd girls leading their sheep through vast hillsides where there is little green to be seen. In this environment there is little yearly rainfall and the little humidity in the air allows for small tufts of grass to sprout up next to rocks scattered here and there. It was hard work for a sheep to eat. Instead of basking in deep alfalfa, a sheep received one mouthful at a time. But Mr. Vander Laan reminds us that belly-deep alfalfa is not real life. Ouch! In our modern Western society, we are programmed that we need to be prepared for the future- it's all about a hefty bank account and retirement plans so we can be "set" for life. We end up trusting in our own resources, our own hard work, or maybe even our financial advisors, and leave little room to be dependent on the Shepherd to provide for our daily needs. But the picture of Psalm 23 is that He, the Shepherd of our souls, leads us little by little, from tuft to tuft- to satisfy our hunger day by day. It's just enough to keep following the Shepherd. This is much like the manna principle we see in the Old Testament- God provided for the Israelites daily. It is as if God is telling us "Trust Me" and you will have what you need for right now.
Although we often picture deserts as vast, flat wastelands, the deserts in Israel are actually often rocky and mountainous. The children of Israel often didn't know what lay ahead of them. They couldn't see around the next bend. Everything ahead was unknown. Our lives are often like that, aren't they? We may want to know that all is smooth and well just ahead, but we are called to trust in God and walk by faith, not by what we see (II Corinthians 5:7). Many of the greats in the Bible were desert people- Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachael and Leah, Moses, the children of Israel, and even David before he became king spent much time learning in the desert. God will often use "desert moments" to make us know Him better and become more dependent upon Him.
Jesus' words reiterate all of this in His sermon on the mount, where He instructs His followers not to worry about their life (food, clothing, shelter) "for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." What a comfort to know that God has promised to provide for all that we need, one day at a time... Never mind that this goes against much of what the world (maybe even other Christians) are saying- choose instead to follow the voice of the Shepherd.