The Desert in Scripture


The Desert Way: A contemplative way of life

“I will allure her, and lead her into the desert, and I will speak to her heart.”  — (Hos. 2:14)

In Scripture, when God wants to speak to an individual or a community, he calls them out into the desert. When he rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, he led them into the desert of Sinai where they travelled for forty years toward the freedom of the Promised Land. In the desert, he gave them the ten commandments and other laws that taught them how to follow God’s will. It was a difficult journey, and many of the people complained about the hunger and thirst and wished they could go back to Egypt. But the hunger and thirst is an important part of the desert experience. When life is stripped down to bare essentials, we discover what is most important and what we most long for.

We long for God because God longs for us. The Hebrews did eventually reach the promised land. But the Bible tells a story of a people who keep turning away from God, trying to go back to an easier time, or to ignore the demands of love that God makes on his people. One of the ways that God calls his people back is by taking them back out into the desert. The book of Hosea tells the story of a prophet who marries a prostitute. She is unfaithful to him, but he keeps forgiving her and trying to start all over, as God forgives his people. God says, ‘I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst.’  — (Hos. 2:5)

Once she has experienced this thirst, then she will be open to God and he can come to her. God says,   

‘I will lead her into the desert, and there I will speak to heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came out of Egypt.  — (Hos. 3:16-170)

There are many lines in the psalms that come out of the experience of thirst in the desert: ‘My soul is thirsting for you like a dry weary land without water’ (Ps 62). As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God’ (Ps 41). In the silence and solitude of the desert, there are no distractions, and we discover how much we long for God and hear God speaking to us. The next line in Psalm 41 is: ‘So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory. For your love is better than life. My lips will speak your praise.’

Psalm 83 expresses the fruits of the desert experience: ‘They are happy  whose strength is in you. As they go through the bitter valley, they make it a place of springs. They walk with ever-growing strength, they will see the God of gods in Sion.’

In the beginning of the Gospels, John the Baptist goes out into the desert to become the herald of the Lord. In order to make people ready to meet the Messiah, he called them out into the desert and told them to reform their lives. When Jesus was ready to begin his ministry, he went out to meet John and was baptized by him. After he was baptized, a voice came out of the heavens and said, “This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on him (Mt. 3:17).” And then Jesus himself went into the desert for forty days to speak to God and undergo the temptations of Satan. He was tempted to ask God to prove his love by performing miracles for him, but Jesus said, “I will not put God to the test (Mt. 4:7).”

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