Read: Exodus 14:1-31
Israel is between a rock and a hard place when Pharaoh traps them at the Red Sea. But God can make “a way outta no way.”
No sooner have the people of Israel escaped from their slavery in Egypt, than they come to a screeching halt on the edge of the Red Sea. Exodus 14 tells the story.
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 . . . When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. (Exodus 14:5-10)
So the children of Israel were between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” In front of them stretched an impassable sea; behind them marched an implacable foe. Stop for a moment and think about their predicament; just try to put yourself in Israel’s place. They had just been freed from bondage through a marvelous intervention by the hand of God. During the night of the Passover they were spared from the angel of death because they had applied the blood of the sacrificial lamb to their households. Now they’re going out into the wilderness to meet with the Lord and worship him at Mt. Sinai, after which they will move on to the promised land and the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises.
What could be better? Could they possibly be walking any more closely with God, or be more clearly living at the center of his will? But almost before their journey of faith gets started they run into a roadblock and that makes it look like the Exodus is going to be a shorter flight than the one taken by the Wright brothers! Their position had to be terrifying, but also deeply troubling. I mean, how do you make sense of a God who apparently goes to all this trouble to rescue you, only to abandon you to the enemy just a few miles down the road?
The truth is, if you walk with God by faith, it doesn’t mean that your way will automatically be easy. Obedience is no guarantee that you’ll never have to follow a rough road or face difficult obstacles, or even take puzzling detours and come to apparent dead ends. As believers, we often find ourselves perplexed and at a loss when we try to understand the God whose ways are not our ways.
“Do Not Be Afraid”
But the Red Sea isn’t just a place where Israel will learn some hard lessons about how to walk by faith. It’s also where they will learn even more about the Lord’s power and determination to save. When the people looked up and saw the pursuing host of Egyptians they reacted with panic and terror, and then they did what they would habitually do from Egypt all the way to Canaan — they began to grumble. They criticized Moses, and by implication God himself:
And the people of Israel cried out . . . “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? . . . it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:10-12)
One of the things that constantly amazes me as I read the Old Testament or for that matter as I reflect upon the history of the church (which is just a continuation of the same story), is the patience of God. Why does he go on putting up with us? What does he see in people, people who are so cowardly, so small-souled, so quick to doubt, that they would complain about their own salvation because the process wasn’t going as smoothly as they expected? How can the Lord stand it when the people he is rescuing accuse him of saving them from Egypt just so he can kill them in the wilderness? I mean, that’s what the Israelites were saying. That not only insults the character of God, it doesn’t even make sense!
I don’t know why God kept on loving Israel, but he did – just as he keeps on loving us. There’s a beautiful old Bible word for this patience of God; the Lord, says the old version, is long-suffering. Later in the book of Exodus God reveals his inmost nature to Moses. “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth . . .” (Exodus 34:6 KJV). So when the panicky people lash out against him, God responds patiently and graciously. Moses answers for him:
Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. . . The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. (vv. 13-14, NIV)
There’s a text we should all meditate on in every day of trouble.
“The Lord Will Fight for You”
Moses’ promise to the frightened people of Israel that God would fight for them was almost immediately fulfilled. Trapped against the salt marshes and lagoons of the “Sea of Reeds” (as it’s called in Hebrew), Israel’s position was utterly hopeless. But then the Lord intervened. Interposing a fiery cloud between them and their enemies, God sent a strong wind to blow in from the desert, which pushed back the waters and dried a path for the people (vv. 21-22). But when the Egyptians tried to follow, their heavier chariots bogged down in the soft ground (vv. 23-25), and as God caused the waters to revert to their normal course Pharaoh’s host was drowned in the swirling currents.
The people of Israel had been witnesses to God’s power all along during the sequence of the plagues, but somehow this was different. The thing about the ten plagues is that they were all more or less ordinary occurrences. Bad water, flies and frogs, hail storms and locusts, an eclipse of the sun, even a sudden plague that devastated the population overnight – those were all things that could have happened naturally. Perhaps that’s why Pharaoh kept on changing his mind about letting God’s people go. He could convince himself that these natural disasters were merely coincidences. And maybe even the people of Israel did not fully realize what God was doing for them. But at the Red Sea God’s power was unmistakable. The infinite, almighty God was focusing his omnipotence on one precise spot of the earth’s surface for the purpose of rescuing his people. The point wasn’t so much that God could do amazing things; after all, anyone who believes in God knows that he can do anything he wants to. The point was that God chooses to use his power to deliver his helpless people; he will do whatever it takes to save them.
Fear and Trust
Here’s the story’s punch line. “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him” (v. 31). Fear and trust – those are the two sides of faith. The lesson taught to God’s people at the Red Sea was all about who God is and what he can do. He is the Rescuer. His name is Salvation. Nothing can stop him in his determination to deliver his people. The preacher Fleming Rutledge borrows a phrase from the African American church to describe the Red Sea story. It’s about the God who “makes a way outta no way.” That’s what our God can do. That’s who he is. When we find ourselves at a dead end, he cuts a path forward. We belong to a God who can turn cul-de-sacs into through streets, a God who makes a way outta no way.
No wonder Moses leads Israel in a song of praise when they got to the other side of the sea. This is what he sang:
The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. (Ex. 15:2-3)
Did you catch all that? God is “my strength . . . my salvation . . . my God . . . my father’s God . . . a warrior.” Everything God does tells us more about who he really is. His saving acts show his true character. And what the story of the Exodus reveals is that God is the real deal. He’s not tame, he’s no one’s pet. God is a warrior who can rescue his people, who overthrows and destroys their enemies. The real God is more than just a little scary, even to those who know him. Especially to those who know him. Such a God would be feared and respected, sure. But would he be trusted? Can he be loved?
But God’s awe-inspiring power is only one side of his character. The other is his tender mercy, his faithfulness, his grace, his goodness, his love. “In your unfailing love,” sings Moses, “you will lead the people you have redeemed . . . to your holy dwelling” (Exodus 15:13, NIV). It’s love for his people – that’s what lies behind the mighty, saving acts of God, and that love will lead us all the way to his eternal home. So trust him, and fear, yes, fear him, but trust – always and forever.