What Is It? The Story of Manna in the Wilderness

By Rev. Robert S. Junge

By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda)

A Sermon by Robert S. Junge

“And it was in the evening that the quail came up, and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a deposit of dew round about the camp. And the deposit of dew went up, and behold upon the faces of the wilderness a small round thing, small as the hoar frost upon the earth. And the sons of Israel saw, and they said a man to his brother, What is this? For they knew not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which Jehovah hath given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:13-15).

From common perception, many of us think of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land as being like our journey to heaven. In the story of the Lord’s miraculously delivering Israel from bondage in Egypt, perhaps we also glimpse the Lord’s answer to our own prayer: “Deliver us from evil.” We sense that in our journey through the confusing wilderness of life, we must somehow cooperate with the Lord if we are to reach our land of promise. Somehow we have to learn how to respond to our spouse, our children, our friends, our country, the Lord’s church, and even the Lord Himself!

We know that the Word teaches us how to live – how to respond. We get the general points: shun evil, love others, do good. But the specific answers elude us. The Writings explain that the specific answers are within the details of the literal stories in the Word. The Word has an internal or spiritual sense, which answers that recurring and nagging question, “What shall I do?” Yet the Writings also say, “He who does not look beyond external things cannot possibly apprehend this; for he knows not what that which is internal is, scarcely that there is anything internal, and still less that this internal can be opened, and that when it is opened, heaven is therein” (Arcana Coelestia 8513).

It's so easy to get caught up in simply coping with daily challenges. We can get enslaved by first one and then another external pressure and anxiety. Yet who and what we love, what we think, and what we will are the real internals of life. If we do not acknowledge and care about these internal things we will never see the internal of the Lord’s Word. We will never see the revealed internal meaning of life.

Today, with the help of what is revealed by the Lord in the Writings, we will try to see some of those details in the story of the Lord’s feeding Israel in the wilderness. Perhaps seeing a few of these things will help us begin to think beyond external things and begin to acknowledge the internal meaning of the Word and the internal reason for why we are here.

The Israelites had seen the miraculous plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians. Their faith, stimulated by those miracles, led them to follow Moses. In these stories, Moses represents the Word. He spoke whatever the Lord told Him, and the Word is the Lord speaking to us. In the beginning of our journey most of us see something different and wonderful about the Word. On the basis of that sense of wonder, and as part of the crowd of believers, we’re willing to follow, but only up to a point - only up to the time when we face difficult decisions, where the answers aren’t clear.

When we find ourselves bewildered in the wilderness of life, doubts creep in. We thirst for answers but, like Israel confronted with bitter water in the wilderness, we find that the few answers we do see in the Word are bitter and hard to take. It’s not so easy to follow some of those simple direct commands. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery! Yet we must try to live by whatever we do see. If we do the Lord will sweeten those few truths and give us delight in them, even as He showed Moses a piece of wood that would sweeten the water for Israel. The water of truth will not only begin to quench our thirst for answers, but it will also begin to clean up our lives.

But the story regarding manna comes later. This time Israel murmured for food. It is one thing to feel delight in having some of the answers. But life is not all about head stuff. By itself knowing answers won’t solve our relationships with our spouse, our children, or our friends and neighbors. Knowing is one thing, but living by what we know is another. Just as our bodies need food as well as water., we need affection and delight as well as truth to keep our spirits alive. We thirst for truth, but we hunger, even STARVE for delight, affection, and love. Most of us, at one time or another, have known such yearning and hunger. Life is a terrifying wilderness when love for others, and from others seems to be absent or is tested. Only the Lord can feed such internal hunger.

But the Lord cannot give us that delight unless we as if of ourselves live by what we see in His Word. He can provide for us, only as He could provide for Israel, when they were willing to follow Moses, who represents His Word. And following the Word involves a struggle, because the truth confronts not only our hereditary tendencies towards evil, but also the actual evils we have confirmed in our lives. We really enjoy those evils. In that state it looks like much more fun to turn back and pursue our own likes and dislikes. The past, the fleshpots of Egypt, can look mighty attractive in comparison to compelling ourselves to do what is right. We did evil in the past because it seemed delightful and sweet. And it still looks pretty delightful and sweet when we compare it to doing what the Lord asks.

In this context and thinking a little more deeply about the Word we can relate to the words of the story, “And all the assemblage of the sons of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness. And the sons of Israel said unto them, Oh, that we had died by the hand of Jehovah in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat to satiety! For ye have brought us forth unto this wilderness, to kill this whole congregation with hunger.” (Exodus16:2-3). Sometimes it seems as if the Lord asks too much.

But when we see the contrasts and cry out, the Lord is there, even as He was there for Israel. Then Jehovah told Moses, how He would feed Israel – how He would satisfy their hunger. “And it was in the evening that quail came up, and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a deposit of dew round about the camp. And the deposit of dew went up and behold upon the faces of the wilderness a small round thing, small as the hoar frost upon the earth. And the sons of Israel saw. And they said a man to his brother. What is this? Because they knew not what it was” (Exodus 16:13-14).

We talk about love. We say we love this or that person or thing. Love moves us. It is our very life, for if you were take away our loves what would we be? But we really do not grasp what love is. Love is that hidden manna that feeds us and lifts us up forever. Yet as we ponder it, like Israel, we may well say, “What is this?” When He was on earth the Lord helped us to understand. “Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, Moses gave you not the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the Bread of God is He who comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. Then said they to Him, Lord always give us this bread. And Jesus said to them, I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:32-35). Our challenge is to learn to say, “Lord always give us this bread.”

The Lord came into the world to restore love to Him and towards each other. He is the Source of all love. His love is there like manna every morning to sustain us. But we have to cooperate. Moses told Israel, “Gather ye of it every man according to the mouth of his eating” (Exodus 16:16). We have to do our part. The Lord’s love is there all the time, but we must as it were gather it, and take it into our lives. We have to do our part.

But love is given every man “according to his eating,” (Exodus 16:17). We will be fed. The Lord will inspire our hearts with love, but in the measure of our spiritual need. No more and no less than we can apply to our lives. And we truly apply His love to our lives, when we acknowledge it as a gift from Him -- when we take it into our hearts – in a sense when we “eat it up.” “Lord, always give us this bread!”

But if we forget the Lord’s care and let our own anxiety and fear control, then we will not truly receive his love. In fact it will repel us. If we turn His love to our own selfish concerns, it will not nurture our spiritual life. We will find no delight in the Lord’s love. Those were not content with the Lord’s measure, neglected the words of Moses, and saved some until the morning, found that the manna bred worms and stank.

So we cooperate with the Lord. We receive His love and make it a part of our life even as we receive Him as He that comes down from heaven and gives life into the world. Gathering, measuring, and eating, all according to His Word, we act as if everything depended upon us. Yet it is not truly so. Love is reciprocal. It is true that we must respond AS IF everything depended upon us – with all our hearts. Yet in doing so we must also acknowledge the Lord as the Source of all human love.

To remind us of His side of the covenant, on the sixth day the Lord provided double the manna. What is left over does not stink and breed worms on the seventh day. Those who cooperate with the Lord and yet truly acknowledge Him as the Source of their love and their life will know the peace of His day of rest – the Sabbath of the Lord. Love and wisdom will be united in their hearts, and they will walk confidently. They will be in the order of life – the Lord’s order.

That order prescribes that we receive love as if it were our own. To achieve this sense we must go through alternating states. Life has its evening and its morning states – its ups and downs. In evening states we know external or natural delights. But in the morning we recognize that there is more to life than pleasure. We have uses to perform for our fellow man – uses towards others that express the love that the Lord provides – uses that will bring us true and internal delight and happiness. Yet “this good cannot arise except through the delights that are of the natural man” (Arcana Coelestia 8522). We need both external and internal delights, but in their proper relation to each other.

There is an expression that charity begins at home. We need to take care of food, clothing, shelter, and a host of natural things, in order to go out each day inspired to serve our neighbors. But these needs and their accompanying delights are servants; they are means to the true uses of life. The Lord also provides quail in the evening, which signify these natural delights. For example, we have times when we work with and instruct our children from a deep love to prepare them for heaven, and we also have times when we simply play with them. All human relationships have their internal and external delights. We need both. But if natural delights rule, they turn to lust and they bring spiritual death (Numbers 11).

Life is indeed a journey. We will face many trials in the wilderness. But the Lord has an inheritance prepared for each of us in His promised land. Everything that happens to us looks to this end. No matter how it appears on the dark days, if we are faithful, there will be times when the taste of the manna will be like that of a cake of honey. The Lord will be there, and He will provide as He provided for the sons of Israel. “And the sons of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat the manna until they came unto the border of the land of Canaan” (Exodus 16:35).

Additional Reference: Divine Love and Wisdom 1.