After five sermons upon the Passover night and its deep significance to Israel going forward, the narrative of Exodus now follows the Israelites as they make their way out of Egypt. Here the stubborn, hard-heartedness of Pharaoh will cause the king to chase after his runaway slaves. Though triumphant for a moment, the Israelites will see Pharaoh’s war chariots and lash out against Moses. Yet through it all, we witness God’s steady, providential hand, working the salvation of Israel and the ruin of Pharaoh, both for His glory, that the world will know that He is Yahweh.
THE LORD WENT BEFORE THEM // VERSES 17-22
The narrative picks up with the words:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.
Here we are told explicitly why the LORD was going to lead the people of Israel through the wilderness following the exodus, even though there was a quicker way. And the way through the land of Philistines was indeed quicker. Their journey from Egypt to Canaan could have been made in as little as two weeks as opposed to the forty years that the Israelites would end up spending in the wilderness. Yet here we learn that God was not leading His people through the wilderness purely to test them; He was leading them away from war, which they were not yet prepared for, at least not with the Philistines. Indeed, rather than being equipped for battle as the ESV translates, the phrase more likely means that they were marching in military formation. The LORD was leading His army, His hosts, out of Egypt, yet they were still far from being ready to fight any significant war.
Of course, throughout their encampment in the wilderness, the people of Israel would complain to God and to Moses about their circumstances, longing to be back in Egypt, even as God was giving them literal food from heaven. Little did they know that God had brought them through the wilderness for their own good. Both the way of the Philistines and returning to Egypt seemed to be pragmatic options, whereas the wilderness is never so. Even Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for His period of temptation! No, pragmatism never leads us into the wilderness, but God very often does. And He does so for our good. After warning that He would make His people like a wilderness in Hosea 2, the LORD goes on to say, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (v. 14). The wilderness would be a place of the LORD taking His people apart in order to speak tenderly with them. Of course, we will also see that in the wilderness of Sinai the LORD meets with His people and even speaks to them directly.
We should likewise take comfort even when do not understand why the LORD has brought us, by His providential hand, into difficult circumstances. We, after all, have the promise that the Israelites did not yet have: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Although we will almost never be given in this life the kind of explanation that we find here (that God was leading His people away from war), we do indeed know that everything will ultimately turn out for our good, even our inevitable deaths. We need no further proof than to behold the cross, the giving of God’s only begotten Son, the Author of life and the Upholder of the universe for our sake. As Paul goes on to say in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” If God so graciously gave Jesus over to suffering in order to work our salvation, how can we not trust Him to also work our own suffering for our ultimate good?
Notice next, in verse 19, the very particular cargo that the Israelites took with them out of Egypt: Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” There are two points that we should draw from this.
First, Joseph himself was an example of trusting in God’s sovereign providence. While we may think that Joseph’s position as Pharaoh right-hand-man was as good as his life could get, his insistence on having his bones returned to Canaan revealed that Joseph continued to remember that Egypt was never his home. The greatest riches that the world could offer were his, yet his deepest longing was still for the promise of God, for the good land that the LORD assured to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Even though Joseph did not see that promised good, he was thoroughly convinced that the LORD would be faithful to bring his descendants out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Let Joseph, therefore, be an example to us as we walk through our pilgrimage in this world.
Second, we should take care to honor our ancestors in the faith. Moses felt a proper obligation to honor the faith of Joseph by fulfilling his desire to have his bones laid to rest in Canaan, even though Moses was not a descendant of Joseph, being of Levi. The principle of the Fifth Commandment need not be limited to our biological father and mother; instead, we should give due honor to all who have gone on before us, especially our spiritual ancestors in the faith. We are not, as so many are today, historical orphans. Or, to use the more technical term, we should not fall under the spell of liquid modernity, that is, a sense that our present world is detached from everyone and everything that has come before. Yet, as we have studied the past few weeks, God repeatedly calls His people to remember the past, to keep their history of redemption in their minds. Furthermore, Hebrews 12:1-2 explicitly calls us to gain encouragement for our present walk with Christ by considering the faithful lives of those who have gone on before us.
Verses 17-18 spoke of God leading the Israelites, but how did He do so? Did He speak to Moses, as He so often did, so that Moses could relay the command throughout all of their numerous host? Not this time. Verses 20-22 describe how Yahweh led His people:
And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
Here again we find the LORD coming down. In the tenth plague, the LORD’s descent brought judgment upon the both the Egyptians and the Israelites, although the Israelites were spared via the blood the lamb. Now the LORD’s descent was one of guidance. His presence came down among the people of Israel in the visible manifestation of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Does that sound marvelous? Would you not delight in such a visible display of God’s direction? One reality that we must continue to remind ourselves of as we read and study the Old Testament is, as the author of Hebrews said, “God has provided something better for us” (Hebrews 11:40). With a few specific exemptions, the saints of the Old Testament did not have the Spirit of God dwell in them; rather, He dwelt among or with them. Not so with us! In Christ, we have received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to be our comforter and guide, which was evidenced by the tongues of fire at Pentecost. Of course, we cannot expect direct, verbal answers on many of life’s questions of which we might desire direction, such as which job to take or who to marry. Yet the Spirit does guide us in all truth (John 16:13) and enables us to understand the Word of God as we read.
I WILL GET GLORY OVER PHARAOH // VERSES 1-9
As we begin chapter 14, we find an interesting direction from the LORD:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.”
“From the standpoint of military strategy,” writes Philip Ryken, “the detour God told the Israelites to take was sheer lunacy. They were already well on their way to freedom when God ordered them to turn around, go back, and camp between the desert and the sea.” This very much appeared to be a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of situation. Yet note the LORD’s reasoning:
For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so.
The LORD was preparing to purposely box His people in between the sea and Pharaoh’s army. This would appear to give the children of Israel no option but death. We can safely say that kayaks and canoes were not among the plunder that each household of Israel took with them, so the sea offered them no hope. And when Pharaoh’s army came, which we are soon told consisted of six hundred chariots, they stood no chance in battle. We should note that at this point in history the chariot was most advanced military technology available. Thus, while six hundred men against the large host of Israel may not seem like much, this would have been rather like a modern special operations squad battling against a large army that still fought with swords and spears. Could the Hebrews have technically won by sheer numbers? Perhaps, but it would only be through their own fallen bodies clogging the wheels of the chariots. In other words, it would be nothing less than a bloodbath.
Why, then, did God place them in such a lose-lose situation? I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. God was not satisfied with not only forcing Pharaoh to let His people go but actually driving them permanently out of Egypt. No, the Lord of Heaven was determined to behead this son of the serpent, which would be a clear message to the serpent himself of his ultimate end.
Yet we should also mark the grace of God that is on display through His determined judgment. God will swallow Pharaoh and his army up into the waters of the deep. The self-declared deity would have his mortality revealed. But in destroying Pharaoh, the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. In other words, the LORD was not done revealing Himself to the Egyptians. Of course, they certainly were not going to abandon their idolatry to worship Yahweh, but Yahweh had revealed Himself sufficiently to them.
Indeed, my daughter and I were reading about a Pharaoh who would have lived about a hundred years after the exodus (if you hold to the early date of mid-1400s BC) whose name was Amenhotep. This particular Pharaoh is unique for outlawing the worship of the Egyptian pantheon and attempting to establish the worship of the one god, whom he called Aten, a god who forbid any image of himself. After Amenhotep’s death, the Egyptians promptly restored their former temples and attempted to erase Amenhotep’s name from history as a heretic. The Egyptians would have similarly done such an erasure of their humiliating defeat by Yahweh, the God of their slaves, yet is it possible that something of knowledge of Yahweh continued in Egypt?
Given this prediction, we are next given a scene of Pharaoh and his servants deciding to reclaim the Israelites:
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
In the light of day and after the initial shock of losing his firstborn son had worn off, Pharaoh clearly began to think about all the free labor that he had let slip through his fingers. Of course, by now, do we really expect anything different from Pharaoh? What is a bit striking is how Pharaoh’s servants, who rebuked him earlier for not letting the Israelites go, were now equally convinced that the exodus was a mistake.
Ryken comments on the rebellion of Pharoah, saying:
Pharaoh’s change of heart shows that he never truly repented of his sin. He had been given every opportunity to set his captives free. Time after time Moses had told him to let God’s people go. First he refused. Then as the plagues started to come, he began to negotiate. He bargained and bickered. He asked for prayer, even begging Moses to give him God’s blessing. But he never let go. When, finally, he said that he would do what God wanted, he immediately changed his mind and went right back to his sins.
Pharaoh’s rebellion is a warning to anyone who never quite gets around to doing what God requires. By way of example, consider the fate of four fishermen whose boat suddenly overturned and spilled them into the sea. The men were out on the Delaware Bay, miles from shore, fighting for their lives in high waves. Only three of the men survived. Afterward one of them told a reporter about all the promises he made while he was struggling to stay afloat. “Let’s just say that I’m going to church from now on,” he said. Hopefully the man will keep his word. However, his was the same kind of promise that Pharaoh made, and more often than not, it is the kind of promise that gets broken. What God wants is a total commitment to him, right here, right now, and for the rest of our lives.
FEAR NOT, STAND FIRM // VERSES 10-14
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD.
Upon seeing Pharaoh’s army of chariots, the Israelites lifted up their eyes. Sounds like a proper response, right? Sadly, this was not the kind of upward gaze that Psalm 121:1-2 describes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Of course, Israel had every reason to look to the LORD for their help. Had they not witnessed Yahweh’s control over the earth by turning the dust into gnats? Did they not watch as all of Egypt was cloaked in darkness with the sole exception of their own home in Goshen? They saw firsthand the LORD’s creative ownership over the earth, the heavens, and all that is within them. Nor did they cry out to the Creator Almighty in the sense that David did in Psalm 30:8, “To you, O LORD, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy.”
Here is exhibit A for how we know that their looking to and crying to the LORD did not come from a place of confidence in their Redeemer:
They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
There was likely a great deal of sarcasm in their asking whether there were no graves in Egypt because of course there were enough graves. Remember that the Egyptians were obsessed with death and sought to gain some feeling of control over it through elaborate embalming rituals and richly furnished tombs. Indeed, almost everything that we know about ancient Egypt comes from their tombs. There were, in fact, plenty of graves in Egypt.
We then hear the first of many wishes to return to Egypt, to the land that was familiar to them, even their willingness to return to slavery. The very people who were previously going out of Egypt with great defiance, as victors of a war that they did not even have to fight, were now lamenting that they had ever left Egypt at all. Here again is proof of their love for the land of their oppression. Although their life in slavery was bitter, it was familiar; therefore, they preferred it to the unknown walk in the wilderness.
And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”
Douglas Stuart suggests a different translation for the second half of verse 13. He notes:
The modern English versions usually render this in the manner of the NIV, “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again,” but that is not in fact the meaning. The meaning is that of our translation. [Because you have seen the Egyptians today, you will never see them again.] What Moses was saying was, in effect: “You should be glad you are seeing the Egyptian army coming at you. Because you have seen the Egyptians, it means that God’s prediction that he will trick them and trap them is about to be fulfilled. If you didn’t see them, now that would be cause for worry because then God’s prediction to us would not be coming true.”
The people of Israel were first given three commands by Moses: fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD. Their fear was formed in their unbelieving hearts. The sight of the charging Egyptian chariots made them forget the great might that God so meticulously displayed through the plagues. Their fear, therefore, was misplaced. They needed to fear Yahweh, which dispels all other fears.
Next, they were told to stand firm. Even though they were boxed in by the sea and the chariots of war, they were to hold their ground. Paul, of course, gives us the same command regarding our spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. In our wrestling against the powers of darkness in the heavenly places, we are called simply to stand firm.
Finally, Moses commanded them to see the salvation of the LORD. As with the plagues, the Israelites would merely be spectators to their own deliverance, as Moses made explicit by saying, which he will work for you today. Verse 14 then makes this even clearer by saying, the LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. Yahweh was about to have his final victory over Pharaoh, and Israel only needed watch in silence.
This, of course, is a beautiful picture of the true exodus that Christ accomplished upon the cross. Although the passions of the flesh wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11) and although the devils of hell exert all their efforts to tempt us to sin and accuse us of sin, we have a Champion who has gone into battle on our behalf. He delivered us from our slavery to sin, the far greater Pharaoh, by taking our sin upon Himself in our place, by paying sin’s penalty for us. Like the Israelites upon the shores of the Red Sea, we are mere bystanders, recipients of God’s glorious grace.
Yet while this may all sound very easy, it turns out that our pride and self-reliance tend to buck quite hard against the reality of grace. You see, if we are saved through no work of our own, then we have no ground for boasting. We deserve none of the glory. We are not in the running at all for MVP because we didn’t even participate. This is the great hinderance of the gospel. It is freely worked by the LORD on our behalf; we only must have the humility to receive it freely. In The Great Divorce, Lewis envisioned a dialogue between a man at the foothills of heaven being invited to come further up and further in:
‘I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
As we come to the Lord’s Table, we enact a visual display of the gospel. The banquet is set before us. Our Lord Himself is offered to us. We only need the humility to receive in silence, to ask for the Bleeding Charity. O brothers and sisters, come taste that the LORD is good, and see today the salvation that He has worked for us by Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Ryken, Exodus, 384–385.