“What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? . . . It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex 14:11-12)
. . . We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope. . . (1 Cor 1:8-10)
Backs against the wall, between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea – however you want to put it, the Israelites were there. Finally free from the cruel oppression of Pharaoh, it seemed their liberty was to be short lived – and maybe not lived at all. Pharaoh’s army was hard on their heels, and they were beside the Red Sea with nowhere to go but into the teeth of the Egyptians.
Their flight to freedom had started well, with God’s pillar of cloud leading by day and a pillar of fire by night. There wasn’t a moment they hadn’t been clear about where they were to go, and when. But then God had done an inexplicable thing. He told them to turn back, which landed them in this defenceless position. Now, as their pursuers bore down on them, trust flew out the window and panic took over. They saw their trouble very clearly; their God not so much.
There were many things they didn’t understand about following God. One of them was that sometimes God moves us forward by turning us back. Another is that God’s direction always has a purpose. However ominous, the cloud in our personal sky is a direction-finder: will we follow Him or our own instincts? Which will determine our direction?
For the Israelites, it seemed there were only two choices: serve the Egyptians or die in the desert. They hadn’t learned to fear God and not man. They didn’t understand the difference between serving God and serving man.
Moses answered the people, “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 be still.” (Ex. 14:13-14)
It’s counter-intuitive to be still in the face of danger. How could anyone possibly be tranquil and undisturbed in such a dire situation? Psalm 46:10 gives us the answer: “Be still and know that I am God.” The stillness, the rest, the calm, all comes from the knowledge of God and who He is. That knowledge ushers us into His presence and His peace — not to a place where God has to say, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” (v.15) In other words, “Why are you so agitated? All things are in my hand. Tell the Israelites to move on.”
We move on under God’s direction and protection. As vs 19 and 20 illustrate, God can lead from the front, or He can be our rear guard, coming between us and the enemy bent on taking us back into slavery. In this case, His pillar of fire continued to give light to the Israelites from the front, but His cloud moved between the two armies, keeping the enemy in the dark. And so the unimaginable happened: the Israelites moved across the seabed on dry land, and when the Egyptians tried to follow, they were drowned.
At least two of God’s purposes seem evident here. The first was to remove all threat of Egyptian reprisals. Truly, the Egyptians they saw that day they would never see again. The second and greater purpose is given in verse 31: “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” As Paul would later affirm, “this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.“
Centuries later, when King David was on the run from his son Absalom, he experienced a similar threat to the Egyptian pursuit, but met it with a very different response. He really was still, knowing his God. To paraphrase his words in Psalm 3:
“Lord, I’ve got so many people chasing me, wanting to kill me! Many others are looking at my situation and saying You won’t deliver me; they think I’m done for. But You, Lord, are the shield that surrounds me, a defence the enemy can’t penetrate. You alone are my claim to glory, the One who lifts my head high with hope and trust and assurance.
“I call out to You, Lord, and You answer me from the heights of Your holiness. Despite the looming threats, the relentless onslaughts, I can actually lie down and go to sleep. I wake up to a new day that You have made, because You sustain me. I don’t focus on the multitudes who attack me from every angle; I keep my eyes on You, where they belong.
“Move into action, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike the enemy on the jaws that spout evil; break the teeth of those who want to devour those You love. For deliverance doesn’t come from armies or alliances; it comes from You. May You bless Your people, those who trust in You.”
Father, when I’m under great pressure, please enable me to be still and know that You are God. You are my guide, my protection and my deliverance, today and always.