The wilderness of the Near ease is a desolate, dry land consisting mostly of rock and sand, and is unfit for casual habitation. Life in the wilderness takes constant attention. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness, learning its ways. Into this setting God led the Israelites after rescuing them from Egypt. Living conditions were poor, and the Israelites faced serpents, scorpions, and drought (Deu 8:15). The land became an object lesson in
trusting God through difficult circumstances as well as a test of Israel’s obedience. When the Israelites complained and rebelled against God, they were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years until all that entire generation of adults had died (Num 14:32-33). This time of wilderness wandering is referred to throughout the Bible, including in Job (12:24), Psalms (106:26), and Hebrews (3:8-11).
A PLACE APART
Perhaps because of the inherent difficulties of living there, the wilderness became a symbol for isolation and exposure to evil. It was thought of as a place of judgment. The scapegoat, the animal that bore the sin of the people, was sent into the wilderness (Lev 16:22). A possessed man was driven into wilderness by a demon in Luke 8. The wilderness is also a place of testing. Without the benefit of food and shelter, one is forced to either rely on God or turn from him. All our easy crutches are stripped away when we face the raw forces or nature. The Israelites had to be tested and humbled in the wilderness before they could enter the Promised Land (Deu 8:2). Paul faced trials and difficulties in the wilderness (2 Cor 11:26). Most notably, Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted (Matt 4:1-11). In these cases, the dangers of the wilderness became an outward symbol for the inner turmoil caused by the temptations of evil.
DESOLATE WILDERNESS TO FERTILE FIELD
God also shows his providential care over people in the wilderness. He redeems the desolation and danger of the wilderness and makes it a place of refuge and security. After Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, angels came and cared for him. Elijah escaped to the wilderness, and God provided him with a brook from which to drink and ravens to deliver food to him (1 Kings 17:1-6). The Israelites experienced God’s miraculous provision in the wilderness, including daily manna, quail to eat, and water from a rock (Deu 2:7). In fact, the Feast of Tabernacles is a remembrance of God’s provision in the wilderness (Lev 23:34-36). In the end times, the woman who represents Israel in the Apocalypse will flee to the wilderness and be saved from the dragon (Rev 12:6, 14). The culmination of God’s redemptive plan for humankind is symbolized by the desolate and dangerous wilderness becoming a place of refreshment and abundance. This began with the work of John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, received the word of God there (Luke 1:80; 3:2), and then carried out his ministry of preaching and baptism there (Mark 1:3-5). Jesus performed man miracles in the wilderness, showing his authority over the evil found there. Philip’s meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch took place in the desert (Act 8). Isaiah explains that when the Spirit comes, “the wilderness will be turned into a fertile field, and the fertile field will be considered a forest. Then justice will live in the wilderness, and righteousness will be at home in the fertile field” (Isa 32:15-16). Furthermore, “the desert and the dry land will be glad, and the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. . . .Water will gush out into the desert, and streams will gush out into the wilderness” (Isa 35:1,6). This reversal of fortunes is a common theme in Scripture as God brings justice to the world, bringing low what was exalted by the world and exalting what was made low by the evil forces in the world.