Can God Set a Table in the Wilderness?

Psalm 78:19

May 22, 2011 | Ray Pritchard

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“They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the desert?’” (Psalm 78:19).

No, he can’t.
God can’t set a table in the wilderness.

Foolish question.
The wilderness is where you go to die.

So the answer is no.
God can’t set a table in the wilderness.
Or if he can, he won’t. So what’s the difference?

Thus said God’s people, speaking against God. This is what happens whenever you forget what God has done.

The wilderness is a fearful place to be. Nothing but barren hills, deep valleys, and sun-baked, gray dirt that seems to go on forever. A man without supplies wouldn’t last long in the wilderness. A million-plus people wandering around would soon starve to death. There isn’t enough water, there isn’t enough food, the sun beats down mercilessly during the day, and at night the desert grows dark, cold and dangerous. Few people can survive there for very long.

So the people who had trusted in their God spoke against him openly.  It wasn’t the first time. If you followed the Jews ever since the great miracle at the Red Sea, you would have heard them moaning and groaning and griping and complaining. “Who is Moses anyway? Why did God put him in charge? We miss Egypt. At least we had food to eat. It’s hot out here. We’re tired of wandering in circles. Why are we here?”

The wilderness is a fearful place to be.

And so it went for days on end.

In some ways the doubts were understandable. It is a fearful thing in life to be “between trapezes.” That’s a metaphor I learned a few years ago to describe the frightening moment when you leave the familiar for the unfamiliar. One writer described it this way:

“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change, or so in love with old ways, but it’s that place in between we fear … it’s like being in between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

In order to make it to the Promised Land, you’ve got to leave Egypt. It would have been easier for the Jews if upon crossing the Red Sea, they had stepped directly into Canaan. But that’s not how God usually works. We all have to go through some “desert time” to get from where we were to where God wants us to be. That “desert time” is like being “between trapezes.” On paper it made sense for the Jews to leave Egypt. Though they had enough to eat, Pharaoh had cruelly enslaved them. Who wouldn’t want to leave Egypt?

But having left, they discovered that the wilderness was a tough place to live. They were “between trapezes,” in that frightening place where you have let go of the past but the future has not yet arrived. You let go because you have to, but then you wait, hanging in space, hoping and praying that the other trapeze arrives in time. In that desperate place, it’s easy to doubt that God knows what you are going through.

I. The Wilderness is Solitary.

By definition the wilderness is a lonely place. It’s a huge, vast, trackless expanse of desert that seems to go on forever. Walk for a mile in any direction and the terrain looks the same. Climb over a hill and all you see is more of the same. Even though you may actually be surrounded by people, in the wilderness you feel all alone.

We all have to go through some “desert time” to get from where we were to where God wants us to be.


We’ve all been there.

Waiting for the job interview.
Hoping for good news from the doctor.
Watching the money run out.
Worrying about our children.
Wondering if we can hold on for another week.
Trying to forgive and finding it hard.
Praying for a son or daughter serving in Afghanistan.
Working to patch up a broken relationship.
Feeling stuck in mud and wondering if life will ever change.
Trying to rebuild our shattered dreams.

In those taut, tense, fearful moments, it’s easy to think, “God has forgotten me.”

But it is much more the other way around. We are the ones who have forgotten God.

II. The Wilderness is Necessary.

Notice the question of verse 19: “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”

We are the ones who have forgotten God.

At the table the family comes together to share a meal. At the table family members share their life together. Come to the table and there you will find food and drink and fellowship and laughter and encouragement. Come to the table and there you will discover that you are not alone. Come to the table and there you will find others who know what you are going through and welcome you anyway.

In Psalm 23 David says of the Lord, “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5). Come to the New Testament and there you find “the Lord’s table” where brothers and sisters in Christ meet together (1 Corinthians 10:21). Jesus told a story about a man hosting a great banquet with many empty seats because some who were invited decided not to come. He told his servants to go out and find anyone, anywhere who would come to his great feast. No seat must be left empty!

Come to the table and there you will discover that you are not alone.

Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (Luke 14:21).

And when there were still seats left, he sent his servants out again:

Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full (Luke 14:23).

If those who had been invited first would not come, then the master would go after the outcasts who would never otherwise come to such a fine affair. That’s how God does it. He goes after the people the world overlooks because the “beautiful people” have no interest in coming to him for salvation.

When we come to the Lord’s table, all earthly distinctions must be set aside. We come just as we are, sinners in desperate need of the grace of God. We lay aside the things that separate us, things like titles, status, race, color, language and culture, and we come hungry and thirsty to the table of the Lord. Jesus promised his disciples that they would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). And the final great meal is called the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).

All four gospels record the vast miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus fed the 5000 in “a remote place” (Mark 6:35). The disciples wanted to send the people away because they had no food. But Jesus told them to stay. He would provide the food the disciples would serve to the hungry crowd.

At God’s table, the food never runs out. No one ever goes away hungry.

At God’s table, the food never runs out.

We all know that children love to complain about their food. They don’t like spaghetti or they don’t like broccoli or they’re tired of chocolate milk or they would rather have donuts or why can’t we have tacos tonight? Many a mom has spent hours preparing a meal only to have her children ruin it with their unkind comments.

So it was in the wilderness for the people of God. When God provided manna and quail so they would not starve, it wasn’t enough for them. The food of Egypt seemed so much better.

How boring to eat manna every day.
How many ways can you serve quail?

I’m not surprised by their ungratefulness considering how often I forget the Lord.
How quickly we take our blessings for granted.

How quickly we take our blessings for granted.

He led them through the Red Sea.
He delivered them from Pharaoh’s power.
He set them free from bondage.
He protected them from the plagues.
He led them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
He gave them water from the rock.

But it was not enough.
It’s never enough when you do not trust God!

So they complained and said, “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”
It looked impossible to them.

So God rained down manna.
Then he sent the quail.

But still they doubted the Lord.

We are just like them. When we get in trouble, we cry out, “God has forgotten us.”
God has not forgotten us, but we have forgotten God.

We have no idea how much food God has prepared for us.
We have no idea how much water is in the River of Life.

We have no idea how much water is in the River of Life.

We act like we serve a poor God.
As if our God cannot afford to help his people.

We say,”Where is the money?” and let that rule everything for us.
But in Christ are hid all the riches of heaven.

The wilderness shows us both our own weakness and how God can meet us in the most amazing ways. As long you stay in Egypt, you’ll never need manna and quail, but you won’t experience the miracle-working power of God either.

III. The Wilderness is Temporary.

The wilderness is not an easy place to be. It can seem . . .


We act like we serve a poor God.

It’s easy to get lost there.
You may spend a long time there.

But it is also the place where you . . .

Learn your own limitations,
Face your own failures,
Wrestle with temptation,
Listen to God’s Word,
See God work in unusual ways,
Learn to lean on others,
Find strength you didn’t know you had,
Encounter the impossible,
Learn what God is like.

Where is your wilderness?

An unpleasant person?
A difficult work situation?
Learning to deal with grief?
Losing your job?
Your own boring life?
Fear that grips your heart?
Cancer that grows inside you?
A father who abandoned you?
A sick child?
Paralyzing depression?
The church you pastor?
The town you hate?
The family you would rather not see?
A marriage slowly dying?

Can God prepare a table in a place like that?
Can God meet you right where you are?
Can God spread a table amid your personal wilderness?

Not long ago I spent a weekend at the Western Avenue Family Center in Toledo, Ohio. Ostensibly I came to speak at a banquet and then at two church services on Sunday. But it turned out that I came to see God at work in one of the most humanly hopeless spots in America. My friend David Kaiser leads a vibrant ministry reaching out to the physical and spiritual needs of people in a blighted area of South Toledo filled with darkness and despair. Amid rampant homelessness, drug abuse, violence, and the breakdown of all the normal structures of society, the folks at Western Avenue are shining a bright light for Jesus.

On Saturday morning I watched as men and women from the community came in to eat their free breakfast. Six days a week volunteers serve breakfast at the center. David pointed to one young girl who was serving the food. She seemed bright and cheerful and happy to be there. She became pregnant at age 13 by a man who is now in jail. By God’s grace she found the center and through the center she found Jesus and now at the age of 16 she is taking care of her baby while attending high school and getting high marks. She hopes to go to college one day, which would be a kind of miracle given the neighborhood. Now she volunteers by serving others in need. Her life has been radically transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. When I saw her smile and heard her story, I realized that she has found a “table in the wilderness.”

That’s what God does. He meets us when we feel abandoned and forgotten, and he says, “I will spread a table for you in this wilderness.” John Piper has a good word at this point:

O, how God must become weary with how often we question his itinerary for our lives. How often we think we know better how to get from here to there! We are so much more prone to grumble with the conductor when the train turns south, than we are to sit patiently and wait for lessons from the Lord. He is a very mysterious guide. We never quite know what is coming next. God would never make it in the travel industry because he is always leading his best clients into the wilderness.

Can God set a table in the wilderness? Yes, he can. But you’ll never know as long as you stay in Egypt. By definition you have to be in the wilderness first. Then and only then can God set a table for you.

Before we leave this topic, let us remember that our Lord was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he experienced great temptation from the devil but came out of it empowered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1-14).

Can God set a table in the wilderness? Yes, he can. But you’ll never know as long as you stay in Egypt.

The wilderness is never easy. But God has purposes for us in the wilderness that cannot be accomplished by staying in Egypt. Those who resolve to follow Jesus must eventually spend time in the desert with him. There in that solitary place, they gain what cannot be purchased except through pain and suffering.

It was necessary for Jesus to go into the wilderness. It is necessary for us also. Think of it this way. The wilderness isn’t a fun place to be. You always end up feeling alone and exhausted. You may not fast for 40 days, but you will often come to the end of all human resources. And you will feel like giving in and giving up. You will wonder why God has abandoned you. Nothing will make sense; all will seem confusing. But do not despair.

Stand your ground.
Remember the promises of God.
Cling to the Lord.
Do not turn back to the old way of life.
Do not give in to your emotions.
Lean on your brothers and sisters in Christ.

God never leads us into the wilderness in order to destroy us. He intends the time of testing to make us stronger. Think of what you find in the desert:

It’s far better to be in the wilderness with Jesus than in a fancy penthouse without him.

Victory is here!
Holiness is here!
Spiritual growth is here!
The Holy Spirit is here!
Jesus is here!

It’s far better to be in the wilderness with Jesus than in a fancy penthouse without him. Life isn’t about your dreams, your agenda, your hopes, your ideas, or your plans. Life is all about God’s dreams, God’s agenda, God’s ideas, and God’s plans. It’s his kingdom we’re praying to come, not ours.

Can God set a table in the wilderness?

He can.
He does.
He will.

You can count on it.

Let all God’s people say Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?