The Desert Complaint Department

A lesson in what NOT to do–even though God is always faithful.

Complaining is a flaw of sinners. It is part of humanity’s sinful condition. We grumble about long lines, prices, people, the weather, and so much more. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites murmured and complained against God until they so exasperated Him that He threatened to destroy them. Yet He remained faithful to them, as He remains faithful to us, despite His judgment of their sin.

Seven times in six verses in Numbers, some form of the word murmur appears. It is derived from an ancient word that describes the sound people make when they complain—a constant, low rumble like you would hear if you put a conch shell to your ear or endured a sleepless night.

After all the miracles the children of Israel had seen God do in Egypt, including the parting of the Red Sea so that they could walk through on dry land, they still complained so bitterly that God heard a constant rumbling from their encampment in the wilderness.

They repeatedly complained about food and water (Num. 20:2–5; 21:5). When they had manna from heaven, they complained they had no meat (11:4–6). They grumbled and rebelled against Moses’ leadership (14:2–5; 16:1–3). Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ siblings, complained about Zipporah, Moses’ wife (12:1). The people even complained about God’s judgment that resulted from their complaints (16:41).

Shortly after they were freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites began to run low on food. They forgot the hardship they had endured and longed for the meats, fruits, and vegetables of Egypt. So God sent manna to satisfy their appetites (Ex. 16:1–4). Soon they grew tired of manna and grumbled about the lack of meat (Num. 11:4–6).

God was supplying all their needs. Even their clothes didn’t wear out (Dt. 8:4). But that wasn’t enough. How often do we stop to reflect on God’s goodness to us in providing all we have, rather than complain to Him about what we don’t have? He promises to supply all our needs “according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Yet I’ve heard many Christians grumble like the Israelites.

Aaron and Miriam complained about Moses’ wife, Zipporah. Although their specific issue with her is not recorded, their gripe was directed against Moses—the only person with whom God spoke face-to-face. They questioned his decisions and even his leadership. Did they not fear God’s anger?

Apparently, they should have. Scripture says, “The LORD heard it” and was greatly displeased (Num. 12:2). God judged Miriam by afflicting her with leprosy (v. 10). To avoid a similar fate, Aaron immediately sought God’s mercy and forgiveness, and God graciously restored Miriam to health (v. 15).

According to James 4:1–3, dissatisfaction and grumbling result from not getting what we want or expect. But against whom do we ultimately complain and grumble? In reality, our complaint is against God. When the Israelites complained, Moses warned them they were murmuring “against the LORD” (Ex. 16:8). Moses and Aaron could not provide them with food, nor did they bring that enormous multitude out of Egypt (Jer. 32:21). Freedom and food came from God, and the lack thereof was under His control (Ps. 24:1).

Similarly, when we don’t get what we want, we tend to complain. Regardless of who or what we complain about, we complain against God because He is the one in control. He is the one who provides for us and gives us what He wants us to have. He is the one in charge of our circumstances and the one who tells us, “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14–15).

God always has been patient with complainers.

God always has been patient with complainers. From Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:12–13) to the Israelites to the early church (Acts 6:1) to this very day—complaining has characterized every society. And although murmuring bears consequences, God offers patience, mercy, and forgiveness to His children.

Although He confronted and judged the Israelites for their sin, He remained faithful to them. He forgave them and continued to meet their needs and guide them. It is wonderful to know we serve a patient, faithful God. We can say with the psalmist, “For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations” (Ps. 100:5).

I often think of my maternal grandmother’s favorite story, which so clearly depicts humanity’s sinful, never-satisfied nature. She was a waitress for many years; and although the incident did not happen to her, it’s a reminder that to God, perhaps our complaints sound equally as ridiculous:

A certain disagreeable gentleman ate his breakfast in the same diner, day after day, year after year. The waitresses did their best to serve him, but he always complained about something: The eggs were overcooked or undercooked; the toast was too light or too dark; the coffee was too strong or too weak. No breakfast was ever quite right.

So one waitress, determined to please him, took extra-special care to make sure everything was perfect. His coffee was right on time and just right. His juice was exactly the right temperature and had just enough pulp. He ordered two eggs, one scrambled and one over easy. When she set the plate before him, he shook his head in disgust. What could be the problem? she wondered.

“Is everything to your liking?” she asked. “Are the eggs okay?”

“No,” he complained. “You scrambled the wrong one.”

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