“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” Well, not so fast, children of Israel. You have walked away from your enslavement in Egypt, but your former Master is chasing you down. Once Pharaoh awakened from the midnight horror of losing his oldest son and looked at his situation in the clear light of a new day, he realized that he had made a mistake in letting Israel go. So, he mustered his motorized divisions and rumbled after his former slaves, who appeared to be wandering in confusion not far away.
It is fascinating, and telling, that Israel’s God was involved in Pharaoh’s frantic push to recapture his escaped slaves, while those slaves had barely acknowledged their God yet. Verse 8 of this chapter says that, after Pharaoh changed his mind (verse 5), Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as he had done throughout the Ten Plagues. Why would Yahweh do that? We’ll see in a moment.
But first, notice how Israel responds to the sight of Pharaoh’s army. “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to Yahweh.” It’s about time they called out to their Liberator, but their faith was short lived. In the next breath, these liberated slaves were ready to go back to prison. With a storm of angry questions, they turned on Moses and said an awful, nearly blasphemous thing. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”
It wouldn’t be the last time they would say something like that, and they aren’t the only children of God who have said the same thing. When faced with an impossible situation, God’s people often focus on the seen difficulty, rather than on their unseen God. We pay lip service to God with a momentary cry for mercy, but we are governed by our fear of Pharaoh, or whatever threatens our life. And we choose for the devil we know, rather than the danger we don’t know.
You would think that Ten Plagues and Passover would have convinced Israel once and for all that Yahweh’s power and love were greater than anything in Egypt. And you would think that Pharaoh would have been permanently cowed by the God of Israel, having seen all of his gods defeated by Yahweh. But there is no accounting for the stubbornness of evil and for the weakness of faith. So, we should be grateful for this story, because it shows us God’s complete victory over evil and his overflowing grace toward the small faith of his weak children.
As Israel gazed in horror at the advancing Egyptians, Moses gave them a strange order: “stand firm” and “be still.” Resist the flight or fight impulse that is instinctive when we are threatened. Do not try to run away. Do not even think of attacking that army. Instead, “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.” If you do that, you will see your invisible God overpower your visible enemy. Your faith will become sight.
Having heard from Pharaoh and Israel and Moses, we finally hear Yahweh speak. He tells Moses what is about to happen, and why. “Tell the Israelites to move on.” Yes, they must stand firm in their faith and be still in their hearts, but they must keep marching into their full liberation. Well, yes, but there was the little matter of the Red Sea that blocked their forward progress. “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the waters, so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” The Egyptians? No so much.
The key point in the ensuing action is that Yahweh is the main actor. Israel need only stand firm, be still, keep marching, trust and obey, and they will be saved. So “the angel of God… went behind the Israelites… coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel,” forming a protective barrier so that Israel could escape through the Sea.
Then Yahweh “drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land… with a wall of water on their right and their left.” The Egyptians, whose hearts Yahweh had hardened (verse 17), plunged after the Israelites on that dry ground between those walls of water. But as they thundered on, “Yahweh looked down… and threw the Egyptian army into confusion… made the wheels of their chariots come off….” When Moses stretched out his staff once again, the walls broke, the waters rushed back into place, and “Yahweh swept them into the sea…. Not one of them survived.”
Modern readers, sensitized by a century of violence, might recoil in horror from a God who would act with such destructive power. Why would God do such a thing? God answers our questions with a very clear response. God had two motives: the one private, the other public, the one for the church, the other for the world.
Verse 30 says, “That day Yahweh saved Israel…. And when the Israelites saw the great power Yahweh displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared Yahweh and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” God’s chosen people had a God given mission to bring the knowledge and love of God to the world, but the world in the form of Egypt had frustrated that mission by imprisoning Israel for over 400 cruel years. After exercising infinite patience with those evil persecutors, Yahweh finally acted with decisive power to save Israel and, through them, the world.
One of the reasons for this “second liberation” was to move Israel to complete trust in Yahweh and in his servant, Moses, who would lead them to the Promised Land. We’ve already noted how Israel should have been moved to complete trust in God by his first act of liberation through the Plagues and the Passover. But their faith was weak and small, and they needed a demonstration of God’s saving power and love that they would never forget. The parting of the Sea and the destruction of their enemy served that purpose for the rest of Israel’s history. Whenever their faith wavered, they remembered this event, this decisive act of salvation.
And then there was God’s second motive in this decisive act, the public motive, the one that had to do with the world. Today, people make a great deal of the distinction between private and public religion; we must keep our religion to ourselves, practice it in private at home and in church, but keep it out of the public square. For the purposes of a functioning democracy, that may be necessary. But in this story, God shows us that he not only saves individuals in church; he also deals with nations in public.
When he told Moses what he was going to do, Yahweh said, ”I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army…. The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I gain glory….” In claiming to be god and in worshipping the other gods of Egypt, Pharaoh and his people had robbed God of his glory (Romans 1:21-23). As Yahweh was defeating these idol-worshipping people, they cried out, “Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.” In their defeat, they acknowledged that Yahweh is God, the God who saves his people and judges those who rob him of his glory.
The world does not work properly, indeed, it falls into ruin, when humans “fall short of the glory of God.” So, in his love for the world, God acts in history to bring the nations to acknowledge his sovereignty. The nations won’t do it easily or readily. Even the worst plague, even the death of loved ones, even the loss of wealth, even the destruction of mighty armies often won’t make people bow the knee. But in his severe mercy, the Lord keeps intervening in the affairs of both individuals and nations. He will not rest until “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see ourselves in Israel’s situation. Our backs to the Red Sea and a might army attacking us, we are in an impossible situation today. What can we do as a seemingly invincible virus attacks, and whole nations are brought to their economic knees, and the people don’t trust their leaders, and everyone is tempted to either flee or fight? Well, even as we must “move on,” continuing our march toward liberty and justice for all, we must “stand firm… be still… and trust the Lord to deliver us.”
The word “deliverance” in verse 13 is yeshua, which is, of course, the Hebrew version of Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves.” Even as Israel always looked back at the parting of the Read Sea, so we look back at the salvation God gives to us through the Red Sea of Christ’s blood. As we face impossible situations, let us repeat the words of Romans 8:37; “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Israel’s frequent desire to return to Egypt even though it was the house of bondage reminded me of a scene from the prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” One of the “lifers” is unexpectedly granted parole. He has spent decades in prison, where his every action is controlled by the rules of the house. So, when he is free to do as he wants, he doesn’t know what to do and he yearns for the good old days in jail. When he can’t get back in, he hangs himself in despair. The prison of the world is sometimes more appealing than the strange new world in which God gives us liberty. That, of course, is why he gave Israel the Ten Commandments and why he gives us the Holy Spirit. The Ten gave shape to their new liberated life and the Spirit gives us the ability to live that life.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 Commentary