The delivered Israelites, with the spoils of Egypt, are boldly marching behind the presence of Yahweh manifested by the pillar of fire and cloud. For the first time in their lives, everything seems to be going their way!
But the depth of one’s faith is rarely tested in the smooth waters of life, but by the raging torrents. The LORD appears to be uncertain about the faith and courage of His chosen people. For God said in Exodus 13:17—
“If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”
The Israelites are armed for battle, but God decides to lead them into the desert rather risk the short road to the Promised Land, where Philistines and Egyptian forces might discourage His people. Instead, He decides to paint them into a corner to teach the NT promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13—
No temptation [trial] has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted [tried] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted [tried], he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
The Greek word PEIRAZO is either translated TEMPTATION and TEMPTED or TRIAL and TESTED depending on the context. God never tempts us with evil, but He does tests our faith. Adversity, affliction, trouble sent by God serve to test or prove one’s character, faith, and holiness.
God is faithful so He will keep every promise, and hence will give us strength and deliverance in every temptation or trial if we trust in Him. God will see that our temptations and trails are not more than we are able to resist with His help.
As we come to Exodus 14:1-4, God begins to test the faith of Israel to see whether His people will trust Him—
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to camp 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. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.
TELL THE ISRAELITES TO TURN BACK . . . SO THE ISRAELITES DID THIS. They passed the first part of the test with flying colors.
The direction they took we cannot be certain. Let us guess that it was northward toward the direction from which they came. ZEPHON means THE NORTH, and BAAL is the Canaanite god after whom the town was named.
How much faith would it take TO TURN BACK? Humanly speaking, it only makes much more sense to travel as fast and straight as possible away from Pharaoh—not to turn back towards him. If you were an Israelite, would you think at this point God is fickle or Moses has lost it?
Once again divine planning is in view. God has a strategy. God had led His people into a place of helplessness and hopelessness without His aid. His purpose is to have Pharaoh think that “the Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.” The Israelites are being led around in circles by God and He is without question enticing Pharaoh to pursue them. The king of Egypt assumes that Israel’s divine help has run out and that they are hopelessly entangled on a dead-end road since the desert, the sea, and marshes bar their way out of this trap of their own making.
How this brings out the deep-seatedness of unbelief! How it demonstrates the folly of human reasoning! Granted the Israelites were trapped before the Red Sea and shut-in by the desert. But the trap is Yahweh’s trap! And its about to be sprung!
Did Pharaoh suppose that God’s people would fall easy victims before his onslaught? What of Israel’s God? Had He not already showed His strong arm and mighty hand on their behalf? Had He not demonstrated to touch Israel is to touch the pupil of His eye. What fool man is! How he disregards every warning! How determined he is to destroy himself!
Since God is testing Israel’s trust in Him, He makes no mention of His plan of deliverance. They will not see the way out of the maze of confusion until God provides the way out. Their only responsibility is to trust Him to provide a way-out.
The focus is on what will happen to God and to the Egyptians’ relationship to God. While Israel is the immediate object of divine activity, God’s purposes are more comprehensive. God will get glory or gain honor over Pharaoh and his armies. The objective is to bring the Egyptians, indeed the entire world, to the point of knowing that Israel’s God is the Lord of all the earth.
Therefore, God’s trap has at least four purposes:
1. For God to get glory for Himself
2. To show Israel His great sovereign power
3. To test Israel’s faith in Him
4. To show the Egyptians and the world once more that Yahweh is the true God
These purposes are wrapped up in the declaration: THE EGYPTIANS WILL KNOW THAT I AM THE LORD. Interestingly, the declaration, THEY WILL KNOW THAT I AM THE LORD, is the theme of the Book of Ezekiel. It occurs 53 times in Ezekiel. Behind this important declaration always lies the GLORY and SOVEREIGN POWER OF YAHWEH.
Ironically, in the Book of Ezekiel, Yahweh reveals the glorious power of His might as the Sovereign God to Israel by raising up King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as His servant to carry them in to seventy years of captivity.
Just the opposite is happening here. God is leading His people out of captivity and He is going to receive glory for Himself through Pharaoh and all his army. The paradox is that God receives the glory whether Israel is being delivered or being taken captive—whether they are being blessed or cursed. He is sovereign in all situations.
Another irony is present in the text. The word for GLORY belongs to the same Hebrew root as one of the verbs for HARDENING. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart gains glory for God. Exodus 14:5-9—
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.
The issue remains, Will Israel serve God or Pharaoh?
Before God proceeds with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh is pictured as having already changed his mind. God’s hardening activity does not occur in a vacuum; it is not contrary to Pharaoh’s (or the Egyptians) own general will about the matter. God intensifies a well-ingrained predisposition. In effect, God uses existent human stubbornness against itself by closing down available options. Pharaoh is already engaged in an extensive mustering of his troops. He spares no cost or effort.
This is no minor military maneuver from the Egyptian perspective. In Chapters 14 and 15, we are told every chariot (14 times) and every horsemen (12 times) is thrown into the pursuit.
God specifically led Israel to their place of encampment by the Red Sea, and He told Moses that the Egyptians would pursue them. The Red Sea is ahead of the Israelites, and the army of Egypt is behind them. These people are caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. From a natural viewpoint, the Israelites are in a bad spot.
Similarly, God has explained the Christian life to us in His Word so that we know what to expect. Satan is not pleased when sinners are set free from his grasp, and he pursues the Christian to try to get him back into bondage. New Christians in particular must be warned that their adversary is coming!
It’s out of the frying pan into the fire!—for the Egyptians as well as the Israelites! How will God’s people respond to the test? Exodus 14:10-12—
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 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!”
What poor memories they had! God had smitten Egypt with His judgments and delivered Israel with great power, yet they did not believe that He could see them through.
Their boldness and trust have vanished as a sweet smelling fragrance carried away by the wind and what rises to the nostrils of God must have been the stench of unbelief and cowardice. God desires His people to be strong and courageous—not terrified!
Has the God who rescued them from bondage by ten miraculous signs suddenly lost all His power or deserted them? No! Certainly, there has been no desertion on God’s part—the Fiery Cloud still stands before them.
Their cry contains a heavy dose of sarcasm and mocking, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” Most of Egypt’s recorded history had been a land of tombs and sepulchers. Egypt is a great burying ground. The Israelites are sure they are going to be slaughtered out in the desert.
The Israelites, when they were in the land of Egypt, cried out for deliverance. God provided the opportunity for them to leave; but the minute they were in danger, they wanted to return to Egypt.
So Moses takes the blunt of their cry being a much more immediate target than the LORD. That’s often the case! When people are upset with God, they attack those who serve Him. Note their “I-TOLD-YOU-SO” attitude in Exodus 14:12—
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!”
Suddenly the hardships of their Egyptian bondage were forgotten. Here we learn that they didn’t really want freedom if a cost was attached! It is now obvious that when Pharaoh made them make bricks without supplying the straw, the Israelites had turned their backs on Moses and Aaron.
Murmurings, ingratitude, despair and cowardice permeates their statement filled with faultfinding and discontent. This is the first of many murmurings against Moses, which are really against the LORD according to Exodus 16:7-9. Murmuring marks people who lack faith in God.
At this point, the Israelites are murmuring, not praising the LORD. Without praise, God’s glory would not become known to the world. God’s goal of glory is dependent on Israel’s praise. Between two powers, planning and struggling for preeminence stand the Israelites in fear for their lives. They know more of Pharaoh’s intent than of God’s. So their cry takes the form of a complaint.
Bondage is preferable to life between the devil and the deep blue sea. At such moments, the enemy seems so near; God seems so far away. Even in the aftermath of a grace-filled experience.
Another lesson we learn is that intellectual knowledge of the presence and power of God is not faith. The Israelites saw the evidence of God in the mighty acts of the ten plagues as well as the Fiery Cloud. In time of crisis, faith is tested. Faith that will not trust the LORD to provide the way is empty and void of substance.
In John 6:66, a time of crisis came for many of Christ’s disciples—
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
Many of His disciples went back. They stumbled over His remarkable declarations of the Word of God. They had no genuine faith. Like many of the Israelites who followed the Fiery Cloud, they would not commit their lives to Him. The crisis had come. These half-hearted seekers after the loaves and fishes and political power turned abruptly from Jesus, walked out of the synagogue with a deal of bluster and were walking with Jesus no more.
In John’s Gospel, three crises come for those whose faith was superficial:
In Chapter 6, they would not walk with Christ.
In Chapter 12, they would not believe Christ.
In Chapter 19, they crucified Christ.
The evidence is given—signs and miracles have been performed. Like the Jews of Christ’s time, the Israelites of the Exodus have God in their midst. It is a time of crisis for each individual. What they will do with Yahweh? Will they trust Him or reject Him?
What will they do with Moses, the servant of God, who foreshadows Christ?
Will they walk with Moses?
Will they believe Moses?
Will they kill Moses?
These three crises will arise over and over in the Desert Experience of the Israelites. Fortunately, for Moses at this moment, the people are TERRIFIED. There is no place to run or turn other than to the LORD. They are boxed in by the sea, desert, and Egyptians.
Here it becomes evident what tending sheep for forty years in the desert did for Moses. The former quick-tempered Moses has adorned patience and wisdom. Exodus 14:13-14—
Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and [you will] see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Moses’ fourfold command to Israel calls for faith: DO NOT BE AFRAID; STAND FIRM; SEE; and BE STILL.
DO NOT BE AFRAID is the first command. This command is commonly spoken by God when He appears to man as the angel of the LORD as God had earlier done with Abraham and Isaac and later to Joshua. It is a word of assurance that one’s worst fears will not be realized. God is present and at work on their behalf. DO NOT BE AFRAID is spoken by God to suffering Israel in years to come and to shepherds abiding in the field with their flocks. For the people of God in one suffering situation after another is a word of assurance. God is on their side, at work on their behalf. They need not be afraid.
STAND FIRM is the second command. The people are not to flee but to station themselves at the point of readiness. Yet they are not to fight, as the word might suggest, nor are they to use their armaments. Rather, they are to stand ready to observe the salvation that God at the divine initiative will work for them. They need not worry about standing up to the Egyptian army. God is about to liberate Israel from the Egyptians forever.
SEE THE DELIVERANCE OF THE LORD is the third command. The NIV and most commentators miss the point here. They are saying what God does will decisively affect their SEEING. Their perspective will now be shaped by what God does, not by what Egyptians do. Their future will take the shape of freedom wrought by God rather than bondage. Certainly, this is true, but the word SEE is in the imperative mood in the Hebrew, and therefore a command.
Hebrews 11:29 tells us that is “by faith they passed through the Red Sea,” and faith is the opposite of sight. The mistake arises from jumping to the conclusion that “see the deliverance of the LORD” refers to PHYSICAL SIGHT. It was SPIRITUAL SIGHT that Moses referred to, the exercising of the eyes of the heart. Faith is looking not at the things that are seen, but a looking “at the things which are not seen.” That’s what 2 Corinthians 4:18 exhorts—
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen—for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Turning one’s eyes upon the unseen, rather than the things of sense is a strange paradox to the natural man.
BE STILL is the fourth command. This command goes beyond asking the people “not move a muscle.” It is a word calling for silence—to stop murmuring! In other words, trust the LORD! To wait patiently upon Him to act according to Psalm 37:7—
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
FRETTING and MURMURING are two outward signs of unbelief.
Obedience to Moses’ fourfold command will bring DELIVERANCE for THE LORD WILL FIGHT FOR YOU. The image of God as Warrior or Leader in battle is not a prominent theme in the OT, but is present in this context and it is a sound biblical principle: LET GOD FIGHT YOUR BATTLES!
Hence, the Israelites are faced with a choice: To fear man or trust the LORD. Proverbs 29:25 says—
Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.
How often do we fail because we do not heed Moses’ fourfold command: DO NOT BE AFRAID; STAND FIRM; SEE; BE STILL?
Spiritual battles, fought in our own strength and power, are doomed to failure. It is far better to let the LORD fight for us than to attempt to win the battle against a superior force without Him. No individual, group, or nation without God’s help can do battle with the Evil One and win.
Do you remember what precedes 1 Corinthians 10:13. Listen to verse 12—
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
I sense a spirit of pride in Israel’s bold march out of Egypt! The term BOLD indicates GOING OUT WITH A HIGH HAND. The Israelites thought they were standing firm, but they fell. Pride should have been replaced with the humble prayer that Jesus taught—
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Instead, they cried out to the LORD and blamed His servant Moses for their predicament. The Israelites criticized their spiritual leader in lieu of praying and seeking to encourage one another. Instead of looking upward and forward, they looked back! What a tragedy! The future lies ahead in God, not in the past with the Evil One.
Sad to say the Israelites were walking by sight, not faith. For when they saw the Egyptian army coming, they gave up in despair and cried out in fear. Fear and faith cannot dwell in the same heart; if we trust God, we need not be afraid.