“I did know thee in the wilderness, in the land of great drought.” (Hosea 13:5, KJV)
The nation of Israel was born in the desert, and God said that the wilderness is where they got to know each other. One theologian calls the desert a “laboratory,” a place of controlled conditions, apart from any outside influence, where God could find out if his people would love him for who he is. Jeremiah called it “a land of drought and deep darkness … where no man dwells ” (Jer. 2:6). The desert means we are stripped of every distraction between the soul and God.
Leonard Ravenhill spoke often of the desert. Today’s pattern, he said, is to send someone straight from the altar to the pulpit. We are sometimes guilty of heaping responsibility on new converts. Paul warns specifically against this. The biblical pattern, Ravenhill said, was for God to send them to the desert. The desert is the divine pattern.
In the English language, desert refers to dryness. And much of the Middle East is arid, though not nearly all of it. Desert in biblical languages points more to lack of people than lack of rain. In the time of King James, the appropriate word was wilderness, meaning the wild. We should not picture Jesus crossing Saharan sand dunes. He could just as easily have been on a lonely hilltop, as his disciples say was his habit for prayer.
Fugitive Moses was driven to the desert. Jewish tradition records that he spent forty years there, communing with the sheep, the sands, and the God who made them.
John the Baptist heard from God in the desert, and that word was more important than any counsel of the priests, governors, or caesars. “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:2, ESV)
Paul went to the desert:
“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:15-17, ESV)
Jesus was sent to the desert. The Pioneer and Perfecter of faith was not perfected in the synagogue or seminary, but through suffering. God’s university for him was the desert.
The desert is not just a potent biblical symbol for alone time with God; it is a consistent theme in Christian teaching. It is normal for a believer to experience seasons of aloneness, if not literally, then spiritually. The Spirit sent Jesus to the desert, and we should not be surprised if he sends us there too.
Tomorrow we begin at the baptism of Jesus. There we will take a look at what gave Jesus strength in the desert.
Father, teach me not to confuse working for you for the precious gift of knowing you. Let me treasure solitude, knowing that it is chance to change my focus from people to my Creator.