Eremos: Guide to the Wilderness

Word of the Week

July 6, 2024

Erēmos: Guide to the Wilderness


But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.

Luke 5:16 NASB

How would you respond to an invitation to join a weeklong trek in the wilderness?

Some people are already gathering their gear, ready to head for the open spaces.  Nothing could be more thrilling than hiking trails far from civilization, sleeping under the stars, hearing nothing but the mountain breeze.

Others shudder at the idea, foreseeing an ordeal of boredom, bug bites, and exhaustion.

Visions of wilderness vary immensely.  The US government has legally designated over 800 locations as protected wildernesses, ranging from the 9-million-acre Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska to the 5 acres of the Pelican Island Wilderness in Florida.

What is your definition of wilderness?  More important, what does the Bible mean when it mentions wilderness?

This week we will explore the Greek word for wilderness.  Who knows what we will discover?

The New Testament uses the Greek word erēmos [EHR-ay-mahss] for an unpopulated, lonely place, a “wilderness.”  The word occurs about 50 times along with several other related terms.

Wilderness in the New Testament was not just one location.

  • John the Baptist preached and baptized in the wilderness of Judea, a tumult of rock and hills stretching south from Jerusalem and west of the Dead Sea (Matthew 3:1). And when Jesus came out of the river from His baptism, He went into a section of that wilderness for His bout of temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:1).
  • Jesus was up north near the Sea of Galilee when He heard of John’s death. He responded by going to an erēmos where He could have some privacy (Matthew 14:13).  However, the crowds discovered Him and filled the isolated place with eager hearers; it was in this “wilderness” that Jesus fed the 5000 (Matthew 14:15).
  • Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch on a deserted road that ran south from Jerusalem toward Gaza (Acts 8:26).
  • Moses and the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, much farther south (Acts 7:30, 36, 38, 42, 44).

It wasn’t always the desert.  But it was away from towns and cities, away from settled populations.  The key feature was that you would be isolated from the hustle of life in society.

Lots of things can happen in the wilderness.

You can hear the truth preached.  That’s what John (Mark 1:4) and Jesus (Luke 9:12) did.

You can meet God in prayer.  That’s what Jesus often did (Luke 5:16).

You can hear God’s voice.  That’s what Moses did at the burning bush (Acts 7:30).

The solitude of the wilderness lends itself to undistracted attention to the Lord.

Sometimes the wilderness was a place of spiritual conflict.  That’s where Jesus met Satan (Mark 1:13).  It’s the place where the demon-possessed man was driven by evil spirits (Luke 8:29).  The wastelands of Judea were a fitting place for hand-to-hand combat in the spiritual realm.

It could even be a place for plotting evil.  The Roman officer who arrested Paul suspected him of being a notorious rebel who had led assassins into the wilderness to plan an insurrection (Acts 21:38).

The wilderness can sometimes be a place of judgment.  That’s what Israel experienced for forty years as a whole generation died out (1 Corinthians 10:5).  In addition, Jesus described the desolation of Jerusalem in the aftermath of God’s impending judgment (Matthew 23:38).

What can I learn from the wilderness?

Wilderness is marked by solitude.  There are times when we, like Jesus, need to schedule a retreat where we can be undistracted by all the people pressing on us.  If you can’t go to the hills, remember what Jesus said about going into your closet to be alone with God.

Wilderness offers simplicity.  You may have to start your own fire to cook hot dogs, rather than stopping at McDonalds, but most of us are distracted by the emotional clutter that pounds at us.  It’s good to tune out the static and tune in the Savior.

Wilderness offers silence.  Can you find a way to turn off the electronic media for a while?  Can you learn to sit quietly for a bit with just God and you?  Who knows what God might tell you if you simply stopped to listen?

When your wilderness is a dry stretch when nothing seems to be happening, wilderness offers a chance to strengthen your faith.  Even if the Israelites brought much of their trouble on themselves, the wilderness years produced a generation who learned to trust God.  During the days when you don’t have the strength to climb the next ridge, you can trust the One who promised to be with you.  Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.”

Whatever wilderness your path may cross, your Guide has promised to bring you through to the destination safely.

Study Hint:

As you can see, erēmos is used in widely varying ways.  Paul even uses it in Galatians 4:27 as part of a figurative description of a woman unable to bear children.

A complete study of the word would also involve these related words:

Erēmia (noun) – a desert, lonely or unpopulated region

Erēmoō (verb) – to make desolate, to make lonely, to depopulate

Erēmōsis (noun) – desolation, devastation, depopulation


Coming Up

Raising kids and making disciples are very similar processes.  In both cases you have to invest a lot of effort helping them become stable, and then you have to release them to stand on their own.  Next week we’ll look at two Greek words that describe both parts of this process.

©Ezra Project 2024

3 Responses

  1. I had a wilderness experience journey. I spent 26 years in prison. I was separated from the world. This was The Lord’s opportunity to get my attention and allow me to be taught His Word. It was fruitful and what I truly needed in my life at that time. This was a blessed wilderness experience for me.

  2. I have come to appreciate the times of wilderness. Being a care taker of in laws or my own parents for several consecutive years seemed at times so exhaustive and spiritually draining. However, it was during those arduous years that I would drew nearer to my savior relying on his grace, mercy and strength. I grew spiritually so deeply in what appeared initially as the most improbable times. I can truly live out James 1:2 = Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…

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