In a sea of memorable moments, we finally come to what is likely the most well-known moment of the book of Exodus, if not all of Scripture. More than Moses’ meeting with God through the burning bush, more than his infant ride down the Nile, more than any of the plagues, more than Pharaoh’s stubborn refusals to let the Hebrews go, the parting of the Red Sea is, for many, their first thought when Exodus is mentioned. Therefore, as we have done with this entire series, let us continue to do here: let us tune our ears and set our sight upon Scripture itself that our previous understanding and mental images might be conformed to God’s holy Word.
THE SEA DIVIDED // VERSES 15-22
Even though it was the people of Israel who cried out to the LORD and to Moses about their no-win situation, notice that LORD seems to rebuke Moses: The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.”‘ It seems that God’s rebuke to Moses here was as the representative of the whole nation. Yahweh was calling the Israelites to cease their grumbling against the LORD and to be ready to move. Spurgeon gives a word worth heeding:
Spiritual people in their destresses turn at once to prayer, even as the stag when hunted takes flight. Prayer is a never-failing resort; it is sure to bring a blessing with it. Even apart from the answer to our supplications, the exercise of prayer is healthy to the person engaged in it. Far be it from me ever to say a word in disparagement of the holy, happy, heavenly exercise of prayer. But there are times when prayer is not enough– when prayer itself is out of season. We may think that is a hard saying, but my text is to the point. Moses prayed that God would deliver his people; but the Lord said to him, “Why are you crying out to me?” As much as to say this is not the time for prayer, it is the time for action. “Tell the Israelites to break camp.” When we have prayed over a matter to a certain degree, it then becomes sinful to tarry any longer; our plain duty is to carry desires into action, and having asked God’s guidance, and having received divine power, to go at once to our duty without any longer deliberation or delay.
Notice, therefore, what action Moses was to take: Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. Notice also how matter of fact this command is, as if it were utterly obvious that Moses needed to divide the sea with his staff. In verse 22, we will see Moses’ obedience is proceeded by the LORD’s miraculous parting of the waters. The doing was all God’s, yet just as with most of the plagues, Yahweh used Moses as an instrument to work His signs and wonders.
While we may rightly marvel at the faith of Moses, we would do well to remember that we are called to exercise a similar faith, if not an even greater one. After all, we are similarly used as instruments of God, not for splitting large bodies of water, but for calling stony hearts to become flesh. We are entrusted with and commissioned to proclaim the gospel, the good news that Jesus saves sinners from their sins. He commands us to make disciples of all nations, the very nations that rage against Him! He calls us to speak the Word and display the Scriptures to those who do not yet have ears to hear nor eyes to see!
Tell me which is the greater miracle: a parted sea or a dead heart resurrected? The sea, though an emblem of chaos in the Bible, never once rebelled against its Creator. When the LORD commanded it to be gathered so that dry land might appear, it obeyed. When He commanded the vaults of the deep to be opened that the earth might once again be covered with water as in the beginning of creation, it obeyed. When He ordered the waters to return to their earthen chambers to reveal a remade earth, they obeyed. Like all inanimate creation, the seas have a long track record of obedience to their Maker.
We, however, do not. Although both were great displays of His divinity, Jesus’ reviving of Lazarus was a greater miracle than His calming of the sea. To share the gospel is to call dead men to life, which is a greater miracle than the parting of the sea in our text. Yet, like Moses, we must remember that we are mere instruments of God. Just as Moses himself could not part the sea, neither can anyone, no matter how spiritual, bring one person to life in Christ.
In many ways, I am very thankful that it seems the tides of culture are shifting in a more favorable direction. There seems to be an ever-increasing number of people who are acknowledging the superiority of the Christian worldview to pure secularism. In our world that is jettisoning the truth, we should be glad to work alongside all who are not against us. However, assenting to the truth of Christianity is not the same as being made alive in Christ. Even when everyone once again agrees that there are only two genders, our war is not won. Because Scripture is true, we can, through our own arguments and appeals, convince others of its necessity, yet we cannot raise a single heart to life in those truths through argumentation and persuasion. It is all the work of God; we must only be faithful to stretch out our hands, holding out the cross.
Again, the LORD told Moses in verses 17-18 that He will get glory over Pharaoh, so that all of Egypt will know that He is Yahweh. He was determined to behead the snake, making an open spectacle of the supposed deity before all of his people. This, of course, prefigures what Christ did upon the cross when He put the demonic hosts “to open shame” (Colossians 2:15). Of course, neither the majority of Egyptians in that day nor the demons came to worship Yahweh as Lord willingly, yet they will be among the vast throng that one day bows their knee before Christ and exalts Him as Lord.
In verses 19-20, we find that the pillar of cloud and fire moved from before the Israelites as their guide to behind them as their protector, standing between them and the Egyptians so that Pharaoh’s chariots were powerless to touch God’s people. Is this not a glorious visual display of David’s most famous words: “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1)? After all, what are the principal duties of a shepherd over his sheep. He is to see that they are provided for, which we will see the LORD do in Exodus 15-17. But he is also to both guide and protect the sheep, as we see Him do here in chapter 14. As an under-shepherd of our Good Shepherd, it is likewise my duty to guide, protect, and provide, not of myself, but as a fellow partaker of Christ, by being a minister of the Word. It is in the Scriptures that I am to take you to Christ, the living water, the bread from heaven, the pillar that stands before us day and night to lead us to Father, and the pillar that stands behind us to rend the slander of the Accuser against us null and void. Oh, I pray that you do see Him!
Verses 21-22 tell us that upon Moses’ obedience, the waters parted, and the people of Israel crossed the sea upon dry ground. The fact that the water to their right and to their left was as the walls of a fortified city was yet another visual testament of God’s defense of His people.
As with the plagues, there is much modern pushback against the miraculous nature of this miracle with many scholars desperate to find any sort of natural explanation. Many argue that because the Hebrew calls it the Reed Sea that the Israelites actually crossed a smaller lake in northern Egypt rather than in the very reed-less Red Sea. Ryken, however, notes that the Red Sea likely went further north than it does today, meaning that the Israelites may have crossed at an area that is no longer sea. Another thought that is often made is that the Israelites simply crossed over a shallow portion of the sea that was made even more shallow by a strong wind. Regarding this thought Ryken tells a humorous story:
Donald Bridge tells the story of a liberal minister preaching in an old, Bible-believing African-American church. At a certain point in his sermon the minister referred to the crossing of the Red Sea. “Praise the Lord,” someone shouted, “Takin’ all them children through the deep waters. What a mighty miracle!” However, the minister did not happen to believe in miracles. So he said, rather condescendingly, “It was not a miracle. They were in marsh-land, the tide was ebbing, and the children of Israel picked their way across in six inches of water.” “Praise the Lord!” the man shouted again. “Drownin’ all them Egyptians in six inches of water. What a mighty miracle!”
Indeed, scholars who argue for passing through shallow water seem to always forget that mud is a thing. The fact that the sea floor was instantly dry was a miracle unto itself. Furthermore, the LORD used a strong east wind to divide the sea into two walls of water. As resident of tornado alley, strong winds are not unfamiliar. Indeed, as powerful as tornadoes are, they do not split even rather small lakes whenever they touch down upon them. How strong exactly was that particular east wind then? How were the Israelites (or the Egyptians, for that matter) not blown away by wind that surely dwarfed hurricanes and tornadoes? There is simply no getting around miraculous nature of this event, and like so many of God’s miracles, closer inspection reveals a myriad of miracles being rolled together into one.
THE SEA RESTORED // VERSES 23-29
In verse 23, we find out exactly how hard the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants had become. Although they had experienced the horrors of the plagues, culminating in the death of their firstborn, and although were held back from assaulting the Israelites by the pillar of cloud that clothed them in darkness, they drove on. Indeed, they drove into the sea after their former slaves, giving no thought to the walls of water upon either side. This is the definition of madness. Their longing to re-enslave the Israelites blinded them to the very conspicuous trap that had been set for them. So, it always is with the wicked. They live, as it were, between two walls of water that will collapse in upon them at any moment. Often the wicked do meet a measure of judgment in this life, yet they most assuredly meet it in eternity.
Yet notice that the wicked’s blindness will not endure. During the morning watch (which subtly reminds us of 12:42, that the LORD was continuing His watch over Israel), Yahweh looked down and threw the Egyptians into panic. It seems to me that there are undertones of Babel here. At Babel, the LORD looked down and confused their languages and scattered them across the globe. He enacted a similar yet more severe judgment upon the Egyptians. Moreover, it seems that their panic was induced by their finally opened eyes. They cried out, Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians. What else could have produced such despair than for them to have truly grasped the deep pit that they had driven themselves into!
The tragedy is that all who face God’s eternal judgment will meet a similar end. In the moment before being swallowed up into Sheol, their eyes will be opened. They will see their miscalculation, and more importantly they will see the wrath of Yahweh.
While the chariots of Egypt were clogged, God told Moses to stretch out his staff again to return the waters of the sea, drowning the Egyptians in the process. Again, there is parallel between the staff of Moses and the cross of Christ, and here we see this is true once more. Just as God used the staff to bring salvation for the Israelites yet judgment upon the Egyptians, so it is with the cross. For all who are saved, the cross is the very power of God, yet for all who are perishing, the cross bears the stench of death, eternal dying.
Not one remained. Pharaoh and all of his mighty army were swallowed upon into the sea. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right and on their left.
Paul said that by this passing through the sea the Israelites “all were baptized into Moses” (1 Corinthians 10:2). They were saved from Pharaoh, just as Moses himself was as an infant floating upon the Nile. But they were also saved from the waters of God’s judgment, just as Noah and his family were. Like the wicked before the flood, Pharaoh and his army were swept away into the deep. The Israelites, however, passed through without ever touching the water.
While our baptism into Christ has parallels to this baptism as well as to Noah’s, it is quite different in that we are plunged under the water, rather like Pharaoh or the pre-flood wicked. Yet we are still delivered just as Noah and the Israelites were. It seems that we can see something of the fullness of Christ’s atonement for our sins in our baptism. Noah, after all, left the ark and entered into the remade world only to fall into sin himself as Adam did. While the Israelites were saved from the sea and Moses was saved from the sea and the Nile, none of them entered the Promised Land, save for Caleb and Joshua. They were all delivered by the mighty hand of God, yet the Deliverer Himself had not come. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 6:1-4:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue to sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Our baptism is not merely a sign of being cleansed of our sins in Christ, like a type of spiritual bath. Rather, it is also a sign of our death, that our flesh has passed under the waters of God’s judgment. Therefore, whenever we look at our text, we should see ourselves in both the Israelites and the Egyptians. Just as the Egyptians were drowned in the sea, so too is our baptism a visible sign of the drowning of our own sinful flesh. Yet like the Israelites, we have also passed through. We have been rescued and redeemed, crucified with Christ, buried with Him, yet raised up as a new creation.
The choice that is now laid before everyone is to either be buried with Christ, to pass through the waters of God’s judgment in Him so that God’s wrath falls upon Christ rather than us. Or to face the coming judgment alone as Pharaoh did. Indeed, after the flood God pledged never again to destroy the earth with water, yet Peter tells us that the final destruction will come through fire (2 Peter 3:7). Likewise, the ultimate end of Pharaoh and all who follow after his rebellious pattern is not a watery but fiery grave within the lake of fire. Let us, then, give ear to Thomas Watson’s counsel:
If a garrison surrenders at the first summons, there is mercy. But if it battles until it is stormed and captured, there is no mercy then. Now it is a day of grace, and God holds forth the white flag of mercy to the penitent; if we battle with God until he storms us by death, there is no mercy.
Oh, let us surrender to Him today. Let us be crucified and buried with Him that we may also be resurrected in Him.
SEE, FEAR, BELIEVE // VERSES 30-31
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. What Moses declared came to pass. Yahweh fought for His people; they only needed to be silent. He alone rescued them. He alone delivered them. He alone redeemed them. Thus, He alone was worthy of all the glory. Even Moses, faithful and obedient as he was, was only an instrument in the hands of the LORD, and no one thanks the hammer rather than the builder for the work that was done.
Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians They witnessed firsthand the marvelous might of their God, the only true God, who claimed them as His own people. They witnessed His power against their enemies, against their enslavers, against the most powerful military in the world. Across all the earth, Pharaoh was feared, yet they had seen with their own to eyes One who swallowed Pharaoh up into sea and spit his corpse upon the shore for the birds to devour.
so the people feared the LORD. Fear is the proper response to such a salvation. Fear is the proper response to such a God. It was the beginning of Israel’s wisdom, and their turning from foolishness. And with their fear came belief: and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
Take note that the fear and belief of Israel only come after seeing God’s working of their salvation. So, it is with us. We too are called to fear God and believe upon Him, yet this faith is no blind leap in the dark. To belief in Christ for salvation requires faith, but it is a reasonable faith. It is not a faith in reasoning itself, yet it is a faith that is undergirded with reason. Israel had tangible evidence of their salvation. They carried the plunder of Egypt with them, and they could see the bodies of Pharaoh and his men dead upon the sand. We too hold in our hands the Word of God that is better “than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72), the Word that testifies of Christ our Lord. We look back in our mind’s eye to the cross and the empty tomb, where Jesus conquered sin, hell, and death once for all.
Of course, in the goodness of the LORD, He has not left us with only mental images; instead, He has given us the sacraments as visual sermons that we too may see our salvation. If you trust in Christ alone for your salvation but have not yet been baptized, come and see where “sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stain.” If you have been baptized into Christ, come to the Table and see Him who is the Bread of Life and the Living Water, true food and true drink for our hungry and thirsty souls. See in Christ the power and the salvation of the LORD; fear and believe in Him alone.