God leads us, but his ways often seem to make no sense. Consider the exodus from Egypt. Israel left Egypt armed and in battle formation. But not as ready for battle as they may have thought. They could have taken a major trade route and gotten to the Promised Land quickly. That wasn’t God’s plan. Instead, they headed to the desert, apparently aimlessly.
I don’t know about you, but I always try to find the most direct route to where I want to go. When I’m driving somewhere, I get there quickly. When I’ve tried to reach life goals that way, it hasn’t worked out so well. Maybe if I had known how to listen to God years ago, I would have found a roundabout path that would have actually gotten me where I wanted to go.
Let’s see what we can learn from God’s choices. You can read the scriptural account of the Exodus.
Israel’s condition as the exodus started
The Israelites had never known freedom from oppression. Neither had the grandparents of the oldest among them. In a perverse way, slavery is protection from making hard decisions. Freedom is difficult for people who haven’t known it. Of course, they thought they were ready. They were all armed for battle, but not trained.
Israel would see war in any case, but God saw to it that they met and overcame an old enemy before they ever met a new one. He also saw to it that their encounter would be so terrifying and so beyond their ability that only he could bring victory.
Not only did the Lord lead the people the long way to where they were going, he told them to backtrack. He told Moses why: he wanted to provoke Pharaoh and work one more miracle at his expense. He led them to a very vulnerable place.
It looked to Pharaoh like the Israelites were lost and easy to recapture. Where they camped was surrounded by sea and desert. He would sweep in for the kill, right into the trap the Lord set for him.
From overconfidence to despair
God was not surprised when Pharaoh sent all those chariots, but the Israelites did not expect to see them. It was a test. Would they remember the Passover and all of the other miracles each of them had personally experienced or observed?
They did not.
The men were armed, but not well enough. They could not flee, both because of the geography and the inability for such a large group of people to move quickly. It would have been a good time for prayer, but fear overruled faith. They blamed the leadership and started criticizing Moses. Moses reminded them not of past miracles, but God’s recent promise of deliverance.
He boldly promised that God would fight while the people kept silent, but it appears that he was not as confident in God’s revelation as he wanted to appear. God asked him why he was crying out.
Reading modern translations, you might think he was asking why Israel was crying out, but in the King James, it says, “Wherefore criest thou unto me.” That is, “thou” (singular) and not “ye” (plural). God did not ask Moses about the people’s frantic unbelief, but his own.
We, too, need to be so sensitive to God’s voice that he can interrupt our prayers if necessary. Prayer is a dialog, not a monolog. We must listen, not just talk. Moses could have prayed himself into an unbelief as suffocating as anyone else’s, but God told him to order the people forward.
God’s impossible command
Since the Egyptians were attacking from all sides by land, “forward” could only mean into the sea, which looked like an insurmountable barrier. It also meant towards the cloud that showed God’s presence. But Moses was responsible only for leading Israel; God was responsible for controlling the sea and defeating Egypt.
Moses stretched out his rod over the water. God parted the sea so the Israelites could walk across. The presence of God moved from the head of the line to the rear.
The mood of the Israelites probably moved from panic to complacency, as it became clear that the Lord would get them across safely while he held back the Egyptians.
I cannot generalize that the way forward is always toward the greatest obstacle, but it is always toward God, and God will always get between the Christian and the full power of the enemy–no matter how close it feels.
If the sea was shallow, the wall of water on each side did not need to be tall, but it limited both the width of the path the Israelites walked on and the ability of the Egyptians to attack their flank. Once everyone was at least in the sea and most were on the other side, the cloud of God’s presence must have shifted again.
Night was over, and at daybreak, the Egyptians stormed into the sea. The seabed was dry enough for people to walk over, but not enough to support horses and chariot wheels. Charging chariots must have collided with the bogged down, broken chariots ahead of them. The sea wall made it impossible to maneuver. As the Egyptians attempted to turn from following Israel to the safety of land, God gave Moses a new command.
While it still looked to the Egyptians like they had time to make it safely to shore, God told Moses to stretch his hand over the sea. The sea flowed back to its rightful place, covering all the chariots, men, and horses.
If we just look at Pharaoh as a man, it seems that God was cruel to toy with him like that, but if we look at him as a type of Satan, a different picture emerges.
Satan will never do anything righteous. He vigorously opposes God and intends to do every kind of harm to God’s plans, no matter how spectacularly he comes out second best in their encounters. He actually thinks he is strong enough and crafty enough to succeed. And he is too stubborn to recognize defeat and too utterly predictable to gain more than short-term advantage.
Our continuing bondage and exodus
We, like the Israelites, are fleeing from oppression to freedom. The god of this world (a title Satan stole from Adam in Eden) has held the whole human race in bondage to sin and does not want to let anyone go. He will make sure that we meet conflict and opposition. God will determine where the battle takes place.
Satan cannot thwart God’s plans, but he must be destroyed before they can be completed. And so God puts himself, as well as his people, in positions that look weak and defenseless, knowing that Satan will overplay his hand (as he did in forcing the crucifixion of Jesus).
After the ten plagues, Pharaoh had not only let the people go, he expelled them. Later it dawned on him: his entire economy depended on slave labor and he had driven all the slaves out. He had to get them back. They had obeyed the Egyptians for as long as anyone remembered. Surely he could make them return. Thus he forgot that it was God’s supernatural power, not the slaves, that had compelled him to let them go.
Likewise, the entire human race, and each individual in it, starts out subject to Satan. He is the god of this world and the world does his bidding. Jesus came to rescue the world and defeated Satan at every turn. Every time someone turns to Jesus for salvation, Satan loses a slave, a loss he refuses to accept. He cannot undo what Jesus has done, but he can make us forget it or neglect it. When we do, he can make us obey him again.
So it is with the church. Satan wants his slaves back. He can rage, threaten, intimidate (or soothe and tempt to unwatchfulness), but he cannot win. When we seem the most helpless against him, God is ready to show himself strong.
Too many people start to panic, grumble, and speak out against the human leadership, as if trouble were their fault and stronger than God. Thank God he will always see to it that some people will speak a genuine word of faith over the situation.
We must always remember that we have no human enemies. Pharaoh and his army were not the enemies, but merely Satan’s pawns. Satan intends for people to obey him. He will use soft tactics when he can and rough tactics where he must. If he seems more formidable than God, it’s because Satan runs roughshod over people’s will, motivated by hatred.
Whatever his tactics, God knows all about them. He seeks to reform a person’s will, motivated by love. Satan has no understanding of love (although he certainly understands the counterfeits he has made), and so cannot predict God’s tactics.
Only when we truly break free from old bondages are we ready to face new challenges. Satan will always stand in our way. We are no match for him, but if we follow God, then no matter how roundabout the way seems, and no matter how terrifying the opposition seems, he will see to it that we prevail.
How God exploits Satan’s overconfidence
For a while, it will look like all hope is lost and that the enemy is too powerful to withstand. Actually, from any viewpoint but God’s, that exactly describes the human condition in everything from the struggles of any given individual to, say, American foreign policy.
If God doesn’t assign work for people to do, it means that he intends to win the battle on his own. The promise of God is that if we can’t do anything to help ourselves, then we don’t need to.
This passage rather clearly demonstrates that God can and will help those whose faith has vanished–so long as at least one among them, like Moses, will speak the word of faith. I would rather be that one than be among the clueless multitude that forgets God in a crisis.
Back then, God was visibly present with his people. He spoke directly to Moses. We no longer have a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The church has multiple leaders, not just Moses. Some of them have direct revelation of some part of what God is up to, but no means of communicating it to the whole church. It appears that Moses didn’t, either.
It almost looks like God wanted most of the people to be essentially clueless so that they would feel and act as helpless as they looked to the enemy. We at least have Scripture, which sets out the general plan for ultimate victory. We have no idea where we are in the working out of that plan.
When we don’t know where we are or where we’re going and all hell breaks loose, maybe we’re exactly where God wants us, and deliverance from the immediate troubles is just around the corner.
What time is it, spiritually?
Late night, just before daybreak, is when enemies attack. If God’s people are alert, they will get out of danger. The devil, who loves the darkness because his deeds are evil, will pursue prey that is no longer where he expects and become vulnerable to God.
In Romans 13:12, Paul reminds Christians that the night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Two thousand years later, that is still true and will remain so until Jesus returns. The night is a time for sleep. Paul warns us to wake up, be alert, and put on the armor of light even though it is still night.
Deliverance comes at daybreak, which in the broad sweep of world history has not happened yet. We need to put off the deeds of darkness (not only slumber but sin) while it is still dark.
The parting of the sea is a biblical milestone, but not a complete victory. Satan corrupted all but two of the adults that experienced that victory; no one else lived to enter the Promised Land.
Our unending challenge
So here’s our unending challenge: to be more alert than the Israelites were. As they crossed the sea on dry land, looking over their shoulders in fear of Egyptian chariots, they had no faith. As they watched the sea go back to its place, they still had no faith. It was only when they saw corpses on the shore that they began to trust God and Moses. They spontaneously poured out their praise in the song in the fifteenth chapter. Their trust did not last very long.
When we see any kind of victory, we, too, ought to praise God with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and relief, but it’s not enough.
In the exodus, God had broken one of Satan’s weapons, but not his whole arsenal. Until we see Jesus face to face, we must resist the temptation to sink into complacency at the time of victory. In the midst of celebration, we must remain on guard.
It helps greatly to remember to maintain an attitude of praise and trust when it is difficult–when we feel the full force of the enemy at our heels. We ought to be just as sure of victory then as when we can actually see some evidence.
Of course, even the miracle that ends this story left Israel in the wilderness and subject to more attacks. Victories in this life seem like near misses, and the next problem awaits us.
In fact, despite relentless Satanic attack, a few faithful people always remained in Israel, even in the most backslidden of times. The church, too, has survived multiple crises both in times of stress and complacency and continues to grow.
As individuals, we need to wait for God to do what he planned for us from the beginning. Eventually (if only in the next life), everything will be set right.