What Can We Learn from the Israelites Wandering the Desert for 40 Years?

Even though God’s timeline may not align with ours, he doesn’t keep us in the desert forever. Whether the “desert” we’re currently enduring is a trial or if we think of the “desert” as this world, God doesn’t hold us in limbo forever.

Hope Bolinger
What Can We Learn from the Israelites Wandering the Desert for 40 Years?

No one likes a detour or delay in a journey. Whenever we encounter a road under construction or traffic that halts our trek by half an hour, we may feel tempted to throw up our hands and say, “Why now? Why did this have to happen to me?’

Enter the Israelites, who had endured hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. When God freed them, through his servant Moses and via 10 plagues (Exodus 7-11) and a splitting sea (Exodus 14), they must have thought that they’d arrive in the land of their dreams, the Promised Land, in no time.

But sure enough, they hit snags along the way. The journey takes too long, and they turn to other idols and gods to speed up the process (Exodus 32).

The proverbial straw breaks the camel’s back when they reach the Promised Land and send spies to scout the area.

When the spies realize that the fortified city and its people within are intimidating. All but Caleb and Joshua, two of the spies, try to dissuade the Israelites from going into the new land (Numbers 32).

Because of their obstinance and disobedience and forgetfulness of God’s promises, God delays their entry into the Promised Land by 40 years. Aside from Caleb and Joshua, anyone over a certain age would not see the Promised Land, since their generation did not exercise a strong faith in God’s provision.

Although the 40 years in the desert may serve as a cautionary tale of sorts, can we learn anything from the Israelites as they wandered for four decades?

Indeed. We’ll dive into some of the many lessons from the 40 years in the desert.

God Provides in Our Darkest Moments 

In the desert, the Israelites had run low on provisions (Numbers 11:5). It gets to the point where the Israelites pine after the “good ole days” of their slavery in Egypt, where they didn’t have to worry about starvation.

They get so hungry that they think hundreds of years doing hard slave labor in Egypt sounds like paradise.

God, seeing their need for food, provides them with a substance known as manna. A heavenly bread of sorts that means “what is it?” He also gives them protein via quail and provides these bread and birds from heaven daily until they enter the Promised Land.

God understood that the desert was a temporary limbo for the Israelites. They wouldn’t stay there forever but would enter the Promised Land decades later. Nevertheless, he meets their needs, nonetheless.

From this, we can learn that God meets us in limbo. We might be waiting on a job or living from paycheck to paycheck, but God provides for us in the desert and in the Promised Land.

He doesn’t leave or forsake us in our greatest hour of need.

God's Plan Never Seems to Align with Ours

Nor does his timeline.

The Israelites may have thought that everything would be smooth sailing since they left their former lives from Egypt. No longer would they have to operate under cruel taskmasters, and they had a bright future ahead.

But they expected it all to happen so fast. So easily. They didn’t realize that sometimes getting to the Promised Land takes time. That God may have wanted them to learn some lessons along the way about trusting him, and that he fights for them when they are surrounded by a great number of enemies on their way to the Promised Land (Exodus 17).

We can learn that God’s timeline and plan often veer far away from how we expect a situation to play out or an outcome to fall in our favor. Nevertheless, God’s plans always are best, and we have to trust in him. Especially when we need to rely on his provisions, like the Israelites in the desert.

God Doesn’t Keep Us in the Desert Forever

Forty years sounds like a long time. To the Israelites who were in their teens, they didn’t reach the Promised Land until they had turned 50 or 60 years old.

But even though God’s timeline may not align with ours, he doesn’t keep us in the desert forever. Whether the “desert” we’re currently enduring is a trial or if we think of the “desert” as this world (a limbo until we reach the Promised Land of paradise) God doesn’t hold us in limbo forever.

We will reach the Promised Land since promised is in the title. God doesn’t break covenants, and he won’t keep us suspended in the desert for eternity. Whether our trial lasts four years or 40, we will make it to the Promised Land.

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headshot of author Hope BolingerHope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, a multi-published novelist, and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,100 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.

Originally published April 16, 2020.