It is obvious that this miraculous supply of food for the desert was in itself a provision for the bodily nature of the Israelites, and not for the spiritual. Hence it is called by our Lord, “not the true bread that cometh down from heaven”, because the life it was given to support was the fleshly one, which terminates in death: “Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead”. And even in this point of view the things connected with it have a use for us, apart altogether from any higher, typical or prospective reference they might also bear to the things of the gospel. Lessons may be drawn from the giving and receiving of manna in regard to the transactions of our present temporal life, properly and justly drawn. Only we must not confound these, as is too commonly done, with the lessons of another and higher kind, which it was intended, as part of a preparatory dispensation, to teach regarding the nourishment of the soul. For example, the apostle uses it in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (8:15) to enforce on the rich a charitable distribution of their means to the needy, so that a sufficiency of these temporal goods might be provided for all, such as the children of Israel found on gathering the manna. This has no respect to anything typical in the transaction, as in both cases alike it is the bodily and temporal life alone that is contemplated.
In like manner, we should regard it only in a common or historical point of view, if we should apply the fact of their being obliged to rise betimes and gather it with their own hands, to teach the duty of diligence in our worldly callings; or to apply the other fact of its breeding worms when unnecessarily hoarded and kept beyond the appointed time, to show the folly of men labouring to heap up possessions which they cannot profitably use, and which must only be a source of trouble and annoyance. Such applications of the historical details regarding the manna are in themselves perfectly proper, but are quite out of place when put, as they often are, among its typical bearings.
This may be seen even by those who do so, when they come to certain of the details – to the double portion on the last day of the week, for example, that there might be an unbroken day of rest on the Sabbath. If considered, as in the examples given above, with reference merely to what is to be done or enjoyed on earth, the instruction would be false, for the day of rest is the season above all others on which, in a spiritual point of view, men should gather and lay up for their souls. They are here, therefore, under the necessity of mixing up the present with the future, making the six days represent time during which salvation is to be sought, and the seventh eternity, during which it is to be enjoyed. Yet this part also of the arrangement regarding the manna has an important use in reference to the present life, apart altogether from its typical bearing. For when the Lord sent that double portion on the last day of the week, and none on the next, it was as much as to say, that in His providential arrangements for this world, He had given only six days out of the seven for worldly labour, and that if men readily concurred in this plan they should find it to their advantage. They would find that in the long run they got as much by their six days’ labour as they either needed or could profitably use and, besides, they would have their weekly day of rest for spiritual refreshment and bodily repose. Nor can we regard this lesson of small moment in the eye of heaven, when we see no fewer than three miracles wrought every week for 40 years to enforce it: a double portion of manna on the sixth day, none on the seventh, and the preservation from corrupting of the portion for the seventh when kept beyond the usual time.
When we come, however, to consider the divine gift of manna in its typical aspect, as representative of the higher and better things of the gospel, we must remember that there are two distinct classes of relations. These relations correspond, indeed; yet they are distinct, since the one has immediate respect only to the seen and the temporal, and the other to the unseen and the eternal. In both cases alike there is a redeemed people, who are travelling through a wilderness to the inheritance promised to them and prepared for them and who, as they proceed, receive from the immediate hand of God the provision they require for the support of life. But, in the one case, it is the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh, redeemed from the outward bondage of Egypt – redeemed at the most from bodily death. In the other case, it is the spiritual members of an elect Church redeemed from the curse and condemnation of sin. In the one case, it is the literal wilderness of Arabia, lying between Egypt and Palestine. In the other case, it is the figurative wilderness of a present world. In the one case, it is manna; in the other case, it is Christ.
That we are warranted to connect the two together in this manner – and to see the one, as it were, in the other – is not simply to be inferred from some occasional passages of Scripture. It is rather to be grounded on the general nature of the Old Testament dispensation, as intended to prepare the way, by means of its visible and earthly relations, for the spiritual and divine realities of the gospel. Whatever is implied in this general connection, however, is in the case of the manna not obscurely intimated by our Lord in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, where He represents Himself as “the bread which cometh down from heaven”. It is clearly taken for granted by the Apostle Paul, when he calls it “the spiritual meat”, of which the Israelites did all eat – not as if, in eating the manna, they of necessity found nourishment for their souls. But such food, being God’s special provision for a redeemed people, had an ordained connection with the mysteries of God’s kingdom. And, as such, it contained a pledge that He who consulted so graciously for the life of the body would prove Himself equally ready to provide for the necessities of the soul – as He did in a measure even then, and does now more fully in Christ. The following may be presented as the chief points of instruction which in this respect are conveyed by the history of the manna:
(1.) It was given in consideration of a great and urgent necessity. A like necessity lies at the foundation of God’s gift of His Son to the world: it was not possible in the nature of things for any other resource to be found; and the actual bestowal of the gift was delayed till the fullest demonstration had been given in the history of the Church and the world that such a provision was indispensable.
(2.) The manna was specially the gift of God, coming freely and directly from His hand. It fell by night with the dew, which is itself the gift of heaven, sent to fertilize the earth and enable it to yield increase for the food of man and beast. But in the wilderness, as there is no sowing, there can be no increase. If bread still comes with the dew, it must be, in a sense quite peculiar, the produce of heaven, hence called “the corn” or “bread of heaven”. How striking a representation in this respect of Christ, who is always presented to our view as the free gift and offer of divine love, both as to His person and to the purchased blessings of His redemption!
(3.) But plentiful as well as free. The whole fulness of the Godhead is in Jesus, so that all may receive as their necessities require. No one needs to grudge his neighbour’s portion, but all rather may rejoice together in the ample beneficence of heaven. So it was also with the manna; for when distribution was made, there was enough for all, and even he who had gathered least had no lack.
(4.) Falling as it did round about the camp, it was near enough to be within the reach of all. If any should perish for want, it could be from no outward necessity or hardship, for the means of supply were brought almost to their very hand. Nor is it otherwise in regard to Christ, who is, in a manner, in the gospel of His grace, laid at the door of every sinner. The word is nigh him and, if he should still perish, he must be without excuse; he perishes in sight of the bread of life.
(5.) The supply of manna came daily, and faith had to be exercised on the providence of God that each day would bring its appointed provision. If they attempted to hoard for the morrow, their store became a mass of corruption. In like manner must the child of God pray for his soul every morning as it dawns: “Give me this day my daily bread”. He can lay up no stock of grace which is to save him from the necessity of constantly repairing to the treasury of Christ. And if he begins to live upon former experiences, or to feel as if he already stood so high in the life of God, that, like Peter, he can of himself confidently reckon on his superiority to temptation, his very mercies become fraught with trouble, and he is the worse rather than the better for the fulness imparted to him. His soul can be in health amid prosperity only while he is every day living ” by the faith of the Son of God, who loved [him], and gave Himself for [him]”.
(6.) Finally, the manna had to be gathered in the morning of each day and a double portion provided on the sixth day so that the seventh might be hallowed as a day of sacred rest. Thus Christ and the things of His salvation must be sought with diligence and regularity, but only in the appointed way and through the divinely-provided channels. There must be no neglect of seasonable opportunities on the one hand nor, on the other, any overvaluing of one ordinance to the neglect of another. We cannot prosper in our course unless it is pursued as God Himself authorises and appoints.
There is nothing uncertain or fanciful in such analogies, for they not only rest upon the correspondence between the temporal condition of Israel and the spiritual condition of the Church, but also upon the character of an unchangeable God. His principles of dealing with His Church are the same for all ages. When transacting now with His people directly for the support of the spiritual life, He must substantially re-enact what He did of old when transacting with them directly for the support of their bodily life. And as even then there was an undercurrent of spiritual meaning and instruction running through all that was done, so the faith of the Christian now has a most legitimate and profitable exercise when it learns from that memorable transaction in the desert the fulness of its privilege, and the extent of its obligations in regard to the higher provision presented to it in the gospel.
1. Reprinted, slightly edited, from the Fairbairn’s The Typology of Scripture. This is an excellent volume, particularly in its interpretation of the typical passages of the Old Testament, but many readers would find sections of it rather technical. It is available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom. Fairbairn (1805-1874) was latterly Professor of Theology in the Free Church College, Glasgow.