The Lord has taken his people out of Egypt in the most dramatic fashion. Ten plagues have afflicted the Egyptians and their gods have been judged. But having led them out, the Lord now takes his people on a detour; he doesn’t lead them in the way they might have expected. We’ll see why as we unfold this next section.
1. Providence: God guides his people
One of the hallmarks of this section in Exodus is the way that the Lord in his providence leads his people. Twice we are told here that he guided them (vv.17,21) and the whole movement of the story makes the same point: The God who has called his people out of Egypt will guide them; he goes before them, he directs them, he sets the agenda and calls the shots.
When we think of guidance, we often reduce it to a merely personal level and in terms of whether we ought to do this or go there and so on. That isn’t how it is seen here or in the rest of scripture. That isn’t saying that we cannot know the Lord’s help in those areas but that we must place that within the far larger context of the Lord leading his people into salvation and guiding his people for the sake of his gospel purposes.
That’s where the almost incidental detail about taking up Joseph’s bones fits in here. Egypt was not the people’s resting-place; the Lord had made great promises which went back to Abraham and forward into all the nations. It is because he has made those promises and is committed to fulfilling them that the Lord leads his people in his providence.
That leading-for-the-sake-of-the-gospel is something every church ought to seek to be sensitive to. Decisions are to be taken in the light of the Lord’s overall purposes and with the readiness to see him overrule because of those same purposes.
It’s good in our thinking to always be governed by God’s glory in the gospel of his Son. That’s how his providence works.
And that providence is unfailingly kind and aware of the weakness of his people; he knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. The Lord chooses the route the people are to take not because it is the quickest or easiest (his guidance is not a heavenly TomTom) but because he is mindful of their fragile hearts – they could get discouraged so easily (13:17; as indeed they do in 14:11f).
The example of the people as they grumble here (and it won’t be the last time they do so) is clearly not one to emulate but rather to learn from. But isn’t it good to know that the Lord does not ride roughshod over the particular characteristics and sensitivities of his people. That isn’t saying he won’t challenge us to grow and to overcome some of those aspects of our personalities but it is saying that he is a gentle and kind Ruler of his people, that he takes note of how we are.
2. Presence: God is with his people
God guides his people; but he doesn’t guide them from a distance. The second great theme in this passage is the presence of God with his people. He goes before them in the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. He goes behind them in the same way to protect them from the Egyptians (14:19). He is also seen as being among them and as fighting for them against their enemies from close quarters (14:24).
This is not an incidental point but one that is central in the whole purpose of God in redeeming his people out of Egypt. His presence will not simply be with them in times of trouble to rescue them, like a superhero who appears for a time and then goes back to his own normal life. The Lord redeems his people and fights for them in order that he might make his dwelling among them.
This is the great highpoint at the end of the book of Revelation – not the new heavens and new earth (great though that will be) but the final reality that “now the dwelling of God is among the people and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
That is the final reality in all its fullness but, just as Israel here knew the nearness of God, so too we have a first-instalment of all that will be ours finally in the gift of the Holy Spirit now.
He is present with his people, mediating the very life of God to us, personally and corporately. Just as the cloud symbolising God’s presence went before the people here in Exodus and filled the temple in the OT, so the reality is now experienced as God’s Spirit fills us as his people.
You cannot read the NT without being conscious of that fact and we ought also to be aware of it in our life together – not in a touchy-feely kind of way but in the reality of a new life that is expressed in genuine love and in all the fruit of the Spirit.
Our responsibility is to cultivate that life within us, not grieving the Spirit but keeping in step with him, conscious of the holy presence of God in our life together.
3. Power: God delivers his people
God’s providence and presence are clear in this scene but of course the great reality that we encounter here is the power of God in delivering his people and his glory made visible in that rescue.
The crossing of the red sea is one of the most memorable stories in the whole Bible and was often looked back upon in the OT as an instance of God’s powerful care for his people and his determination to save. Recalling it gave shape to their present and hope for their future.
We have not been delivered from an Egyptian army but from a far more deadly enemy; our rescue was not through water but by the way of the cross. That greatest of all saving events gives shape and meaning to our lives and bequeaths us a hope that will never disappoint us. Just as the deliverance from Egypt which culminated in walking through the Red Sea on dry ground would be the foundation on which they would build their lives as God’s people, so our being joined to Jesus and his victory over sin and death does the same for us.
God has called us out of our old existence of slavery to sin into a new life in glad submission to him as our Lord. Our task now is to live in the light of that and to work through the implications of belonging to such a gracious Lord.
But we ought to spend a few moments reflecting on the way this event is used by Paul is 1 Cor 10 where he reminds the church in Corinth that although many people were baptised into Moses in the waters of the Red Sea, God was not pleased with most of them and they were subject to judgement. Why was he not pleased with them? Because it is impossible to please God without faith and although these people were externally joined to the people of God, there was a distinct lack in their personal commitment to the Lord.
Being joined to a church is not the issue; being joined to the Lord in faith is. It would be fatal to make a mistake on that point. You need to make sure that what was said of many of these people who crossed the Red Sea could never be said of you.
The crossing of the Red Sea is an act of salvation for the people of Israel but the same event gives rise to the judgement of God upon Pharaoh and his cavalry. The nation that had sought to drown the newborn males of Israel has its strongest and best fighting men consumed by the waters. Again the Lord uses creation to make his point: sin will be judged; the Lord alone is God – he is the supreme Lord over all the watery chaos; there is no other.
The death and resurrection of Jesus also have this two-sided dimension to them – that which means salvation for all who put their faith in him also means judgement for those who refuse to honour him as Lord with their trust.
And in all this, the Lord displays his glory, as he did by the waters of the Red Sea; the glory of his holiness and the glory of his grace. Let’s give him the praise he is due and the service he is worthy of.