We eat lest we die. Hunger is a powerful and persistent reminder that we are not God. We are not all-sufficient. We need food in order to live and stay alive.
Food is not a reward in Scripture. Food is grace. In this world, food is often a reward for doing something good. We reward children with lollipops if they behave at the doctor’s office. We reward ourselves with desserts at the end of a long day. In contrast, God feeds his people when they least deserve his kindness.
Unlike the way of the world, the Lord meets the needs of his people by feeding them food before or after they disobey, and sometimes even as they are rebelling. Think of some of the often-told stories about food in Scripture:
God rained bread from heaven after Israel grumbled and complained. An angel baked warm bread over hot stones as Elijah was running away from Jezebel. Jesus fed the 5,000 men after Herod murdered John the Baptist. Jesus served a Passover meal on the night he was betrayed. After his resurrection, Jesus grilled fish and bread on the beach for his disciples who had denied him and ran away.
What do they have in common? God’s people do not deserve to be fed. Food is not a reward for good behavior. In his grace and mercy, the Lord invites undeserving sinners and rebels to his table.
Food declares that life and salvation come by grace alone. We are invited to come to the table by faith alone, not by our works or worth. The Lord gave us visible signs to teach us his invisible attributes. Food embodies God’s goodness, gifts that God’s people do not deserve. Food declares the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. In eating and drinking the Lord’s provision (visible), we taste and see his grace and mercy (invisible).
Within days of the deliverance at the Red Sea, God’s people begin to groan and grumble. They accuse God of bringing them to the wilderness to kill them with hunger (Exodus 16:3). They are not asking God for food. They assume that God’s purpose was to harm them. They witnessed God’s protection and their own salvation. Still, they do not trust God, and they do not believe that he is good.
God responds to their complaints and accusations with the promise of bread: “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you” (Exodus 16:4). As a mother of young children, this is a perplexing response. Moms know we should never give in when toddlers throw tantrums. The Israelites do not deserve to be fed.
But God promises more than bread. Why did the Lord say that he will “rain bread from heaven”? Why not say bread will appear with the morning dew, or bread will cover the ground? Why describe the sending of food in this peculiar way?
God is not sending a normal kind of rain. There is a neutral, desirable kind of rain, the kind that Elijah prays for during the famine (geshem). But here in Exodus, God is sending a different kind of rain, matar—the rain of judgment.
Matar is the way the Lord sends rain during the time of Noah—for forty days and forty nights because the earth is filled with violence. Matar is when the Lord rains sulfur and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. Matar is when the Lord rains hail on Egypt when Pharaoh will not let his people go, destroying all that it fell upon. Matar is the rain of judgment, when God steps into human history and stops evil and violence.
Instead of bringing a flood, hail, fire and brimstone, the Lord rains bread. Bread gives life. Bread sustains. His people need to eat, or they will die. Instead of destroying his people, God sends them judgment that gives life. Instead of death, God gives them mercy. The Lord feeds his people in order that they might know him (Exodus 16:12). The Lord rains visible bread to teach them his invisible attributes. He withholds the punishment they deserve and feeds them sweet bread that they do not deserve.
Judgment and mercy are kneaded together in the bread of heaven, baked and transformed into wafers of honey, sweet flakes that fall from heaven like snow and seeds. For forty years, their daily bread descends with the morning dew (Exodus 16:14, 31).
God’s people are given the dignity to choose him. Will they trust or reject his word? “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning” (Exodus 16:19). When the people trust and obey, they find new bread every morning. Some do not believe God is going to provide, so they horde. Manna turns into maggots. Maggots are found on carcasses. Maggots are signs of death and decay. God’s people must choose: life or death.
In many cultures, food and feasts are often associated with celebrations. But in Scripture, God’s table is first a place of repentance.
We cannot love God the way he loves us. God needs nothing. He is all sufficient. Our affection is weak and frail. Yet, he gives us the dignity to respond and to choose him. He provides a way for us to meet him and accept his love.
So God sets a table and he calls us to come. His table is a place of daily communion with Christ, daily repentance and rest. His table may be set in the wilderness (Psalm 78:19), it may be on the battlefield, in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5). Through the fire and the waters, he is with us. He gives us himself.
Repentance is turning away from our own way. Repentance is turning toward God and coming before his presence. Repentance is a joyful, vivid, and strong acceptance of God’s judgment and forgiveness. Repentance is not a passive acquiescence. Repentance is not a lazy, dull, and miserable compliance. We attend his banquet with great rejoicing. Empty-handed, we come home.
The Safest Space
“Safe space” statements are becoming quite common: “This is a safe space, there is no judgment here. This is a judgment free zone.” In God’s presence, however, because he is a holy God, his very presence exposes my unholiness. In his light, his brightness exposes and judges me. Does this mean God’s holy presence is not a “safe space”?
We hate human judgment because human judgment is reductionistic. We reduce each other down to our sin and label one another according to stereotypes. We compare people. We compare ourselves to others. “Safe space” without God is only a contract between humans: “I will not talk about your sin if you don’t talk about my sin.” For humans to say “this is a judgment free zone” is not a promise to love.
God’s judgment is not like human judgment. God’s judgment looks like the cross, where the judgment of God meets the mercy of God. At the cross, God’s judgment falls on Christ and Christ lays down his life for us. Safe space is where forgiveness and pardon is free to anyone who believes God’s word and trusts that he is good.
The Father prepares a feast for rebels and sinners to come and eat with him: “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
Safe space is where sins and offenses are forgiven, not ignored, not swept under the rug. Safe space is around the Lord’s table, beneath the cross of Jesus. Safe space is the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land where the Lord is our shield and our defender. This is not a judgment free zone. The Lord rains down judgment that gives life, the bread from heaven. Under the reign of King Yahweh, we are truly safe. He is our refuge.
So, come home. To serve the father is better than to eat pods with the swine. Confess with the prodigal son, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Our Father runs to you and invites you to his rest. He has slaughtered a fattened calf. He has prepared a feast for his sons and daughters. We eat lest we die.