AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
When we think about serving God, we expect Him to protect us from our enemies, not rile them up against us. Israel is still en route out of Egypt when God says to Moses:
“Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them.” (Ex. 14:2-4)
We have to give God points for honesty. He is being very clear that He’s intentionally leading the Israelites into a trap. It’s easy to assume the Red Sea crisis happened because Pharaoh suddenly had a change of heart about letting them go. But God wants to coax Pharaoh into war by placing the Israelites in a position where they will look particularly vulnerable so He has them backtrack until they’re pinned up against the Red Sea and the desert. Now when the Egyptians come at them from the desert side, they’ll have nowhere to go.
God is clear that Pharaoh doesn’t come of his own volition—he receives some Divine assistance. “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”, God says. It’s popular in the Church today to blame every bad event on Satan or man’s inherent wickedness. But God is clear in the Bible that He is the one instigating a lot of fights—stirring men up and enticing them to do evil they might not otherwise do. Pharaoh had just lost his son and heir to the throne. His country is a mess and all of his people are in mourning. This is hardly the time to go risk the lives of able-bodied men that Egypt desperately needs to help her rebuild. But with God riling him up, Pharaoh once again throws common sense and the interests of his people out the window and decides to try and go after his slaves.
We don’t hear Moses protesting God’s orders, although we can’t help but wonder if he kept some of the details of God’s plan to himself to avoid riling the people up. Once the Israelites were in their trapped position, Pharaoh and his army of charioteers came in hot pursuit. We’re told the people were terrified, implying that they hadn’t been warned ahead of time that this was going to happen. At this point God has been leading them with a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night. As the Egyptians move in, the fiery cloud pillar moves to the back of the Israelites while Moses raises his staff over the sea per God’s instructions. As the waters part and the Israelites start crossing over (on miraculously dry land), the cloud pillar shields them from behind, casting darkness over the Egyptians while giving light to the Israelites. By now it’s night time and rather strange that the Israelites would be getting enough light to see by. God is really cranking out the miracles.
Suppose God parted the ocean in front of you and asked you to walk through two massive walls of inky black water at night? This was a very nerve-wracking experience for the Israelites and it was only the terror of being slaughtered by the Egyptians that pushed them onward. Knowing their lack of faith in Him, perhaps God allowed the Egyptians to come as close as He did to motivate the Israelites to do what He wanted. Without the threat of death behind them, they might well have sat down on the ground and refused to move.
As soon as the cloud moves back enough to allow the Egyptians to see what’s happening, they charge forward in pursuit. It’s still night and we’re told that God looks down at them from His fiery cloud pillar and throws their army into confusion. He also freezes the wheels of their chariots so that they become impossible to drive. At this point, the Egyptians are quite a ways into the Red Sea and they suddenly decide to retreat.
And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.” (Ex. 14:25)
Everything is going just the way God wants it. As the Israelites finish crossing, He tells Moses to stretch out his hand once again and at daybreak the walls of water collapsed onto the Egyptian army. There were no survivors. As drowned corpses start washing up onto the shore, the Israelites decide that, what the heck, they might as well put their trust in this God for a while.
God’s idea of a good time is publicly glorifying Himself. He accomplishes this by doing things which make eyes bulge and jaws drop in shock.
“And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” (Ex. 14:17-18)
Notice how Yahweh is still emphasizing that it is the Egyptians He is focused on impressing. It’s been about the Egyptians ever since the first plague began. God doesn’t say “so then the Israelites will know I am Yahweh” because they’re not supposed to need the education. But ironically, the Israelites are acting as dense as the Egyptians about who God really is.
As soon as they spotted trouble on the horizon, the Israelites went into meltdown and started giving Moses their “why did you bring us out of Egypt just to kill us off” routine.
“Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex. 14:12)
When God’s help comes in a form we dislike, we are quick to rewrite the history books. The Israelites are disowning the fact that they were pleading for salvation for hundreds of years. Now that God looks like He isn’t going to be everything they want, they are quick to side with the enemy. Today we Christians are tempted to do the same thing: when trouble comes, we try to find ways to align with Satan’s representatives by compromising our standards and ignoring our convictions rather than risk waiting on a God who might not come in time.
The next time your obedience to God lands you in a tough spot, don’t jump to the conclusion that you must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. God intentionally leads us into tough situations and impossible binds in order to showcase His glory in our lives. Yes, He will take care of us, but He’s going to get the most spiritual mileage out of it that He can.
If we want to be close to God, we need to understand His style. God likes to send us in to challenging situations unrehearsed and then teach us how to ad lib each moment with Him. He likes to spring surprises on us and impress us with His shocking solutions. He purposely blinds us from always seeing the next step so that we’ll spend more time focusing on Him. God wants us to see Him as our infinitely capable Provider for whom nothing is impossible. When we recognize we’re in over our heads, it creates opportunities for God to show us how much He cares for us by rescuing us and helping us and working things out better than we ever thought they could be. Ask the Holy Spirit to increase your confidence in God’s personal love and care for you so that the next time you find yourself in a bind, you’ll be the one handing out Moses’ advice to those who are panicking around you:
“Yahweh will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Ex. 14: 14)