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11. Why God Ordains Trials (Exodus 14:1-31)

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Life of Moses (11)

April 29, 2018

After an extensive tour of the United States, the late German pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke was asked what he saw as the greatest defect among American Christians. He replied, “They have an inadequate view of suffering.” (Cited by Philip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts? [Zondervan, 1977], p. 15.)

It’s vitally important to have a biblical understanding of suffering because the enemy of our souls uses trials to try to devour Christians. Peter wrote to a suffering church (1 Pet. 5:8-11):

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Note how Peter emphasizes the sovereignty of God: He has eternal dominion and He is using our trials to perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish our faith. Without that understanding of God’s sovereignty over trials, your options are that Satan has equal or greater power than God (dualism) or that God doesn’t concern Himself with the things that happen to us (deism). A slightly different option is the more recent “open theism,” which claims that God feels bad about your trials, but He doesn’t know or control the future. All of those views attempt to get God “off the hook” for bad things that happen. But they’re all heretical because they deny who God is as revealed in His Word.

In Exodus 14, after Pharaoh had driven Israel out of Egypt after the tenth plague, when God killed all the firstborn in Egypt, Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart. It wasn’t a change where they repented of their sins and cried out to God for His mercy. Rather, they decided that they had made a mistake to let the enslaved Jews go. So they sent the army to pursue Israel with the aim of bringing them back to Egypt as slaves. God directed Moses to lead Israel to turn back and camp in a place that was a military trap. God had a definite plan to glorify Himself by delivering helpless Israel and destroying Pharaoh’s army. The parting of the Red Sea is one of the most familiar stories in the Old Testament. Its application for us is that …

God ordains trials in our lives so that we will trust Him and honor Him when He delivers us.

It was shortly after God had delivered Israel from bondage that Pharaoh went after them. In the same way, Satan likes to go after new believers who haven’t yet learned what God’s Word teaches about suffering. So it’s especially important if you’re a new Christian or if you’re working with new Christians to learn the lessons of this chapter. There are three main truths:

1. God is sovereign over all things, including the trials that come into our lives.

Not just the “open theists,” but also many in the Pentecostal movement, claim that God doesn’t ordain trials. They usually ascribe trials to the devil, not to God. While the Book of Job is clear that Satan can inflict awful trials on the Lord’s people, it is also clear that he can only go as far as God allows. God uses demonic forces to accomplish His holy purposes (e.g. Paul’s thorn in the flesh, 2 Cor. 12:7), but they are subject to His commands. Thus …

A. God is sovereign over all of the trials that come into His children’s lives.

In Exodus 14, the Lord told Moses to tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in a spot by the sea, where they had no route of escape when Pharaoh’s army came upon them. Scholars debate the exact location for the exodus. Some translate “the Red Sea” as “the Sea of Reeds,” since the Hebrew word means “reeds.” The problem is that papyrus reeds do not grow in the deeper waters of the Red Sea, but only in the shallower marshlands of northern Egypt. Thus these scholars say that Israel crossed at one of the lakes or marshlands north of the modern Gulf of Suez.

But there are some problems with this view (see, Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], pp. 391-392). First, there are other places in the Bible where this Hebrew word clearly refers to what we know as the Red Sea (Num. 14:25; 21:4; 1 Kings 9:26; Jer. 49:21). Second, the depth of water that Israel passed through, which God then sent back to drown the Egyptian army, is greater than a shallow marshland or lake. Twice (Exod. 14:22, 29) the parting of the sea is described as a wall of water on the right hand and left. While God used a mighty wind to dry the seabed and part the waters (Exod. 14:21), it was clearly miraculous that the water stacked up like a wall on both sides.

More recent scholarship has shown that in former times the Red Sea extended farther north than it does today. It may even have been connected to the Bitter Lakes in the north, in which case there could have been papyrus reeds growing along its shore (Ryken, p. 392). While we cannot know for certain where the exodus took place, we can trust the biblical account that reports the mighty miracle that God did to deliver Israel through a deep body of water that subsequently drowned the pursuing Egyptian army.

But the significant point in Exodus 14:1-4 is that God specifically directed Moses to lead the Israelites to turn around and camp where they were trapped by the sea, which was suicidal from a military point of view. Pharaoh got a report of this and thought, “They’re sitting ducks! They can’t escape!” But the entire situation was orchestrated by God for His sovereign purposes.

Those who deny God’s sovereignty over the horrible trials that we see around us are trying to protect God from the charge of being responsible for evil. But the Bible affirms that God uses demons and evil people to accomplish His holy purposes, but He is not responsible for their evil actions (1 Kings 22:19-23; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). If you deny God’s sovereignty over trials, you rob people of God’s comfort. A godly woman from our church who died of cancer in her fifties (after already losing her husband to an early death) told me shortly before she died that if she didn’t believe in God’s sovereignty over her cancer, she would have despaired. Knowing that He is sovereign gave her great comfort.

B. God sovereignly ordains trials for our ultimate good.

Romans 8:28 is a familiar verse that brings great comfort when we go through trials: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” While we should not glibly lay that verse on a suffering person, saints who suffer should lay hold of it as an anchor for their souls.

Hebrews 12, which describes God’s discipline to train believers, assures us (Heb. 12:10b-11), “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Psalm 119:67 states, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep Your word.” It continues (Ps. 119:75), “I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.”

I’m not minimizing the trauma and pain of the difficult trials that many of God’s saints have endured. But the only comfort in that suffering is to view it as Joseph viewed his brothers’ selling him into slavery (Gen. 50:20): “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Note also …

C. God is sovereign over the hearts of all people, including powerful political leaders.

God repeatedly lets Moses know that Pharaoh’s change of heart came about because God hardened his heart (Exod. 14:4, 8, 17). Proverbs 21:1 affirms, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

As you see evil dictators around the world committing atrocities against people, you may wonder, “Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t He do something?” The psalmists often utter similar cries (e.g. Ps. 2:1-3; 13:1-4; 94:2-7). But they take great comfort in remembering that (Ps. 2:4), “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.” God promises (Deut. 32:35), “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, in due time their foot will slip.” The Book of Revelation reveals the persecution that the antichrist will inflict on the saints, but it assures us that after he has inadvertently served God’s purposes, God will destroy him and vindicate His saints.

So, the first lesson is that God is sovereign over all things, including the trials that come into our lives. But, the question remains, “Why does He ordain these trials?”

2. God ordains trials so that we will trust Him to deliver us.

There are three lessons here about trusting God:

A. God ordains trials so that we will trust Him.

God does this on different levels. Often, He brings trials into our lives before we have trusted in Christ as Savior to show us our need for Him. Countless testimonies run along the lines, “I was a happy unbeliever when suddenly I got hit with some overwhelming trials that showed me that I needed God. About that time, a Christian friend told me that Jesus died on the cross for all my sins and offers me eternal life as a free gift if I would trust in Him. I realized that I needed Christ and trusted Him at that time.”

I love the story of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). If he had not been blind, he probably wouldn’t have been as desperate to meet Jesus. But as it was, when he heard that Jesus was passing by, he cried out (Mark 10:47), “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many tried to silence him, but he yelled all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus heard him, stopped, and called him to come. Jesus asked (Mark 10:51), “What do you want Me to do for you?” He wanted Bartimaeus to acknowledge his need and his faith. Bartimaeus said, “Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!” Jesus healed him instantly, saying (Mark 10:52), “Go; your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus’ blindness drove him in faith to the only One who could help. If you’ve never trusted in Christ as your Savior, let your trials drive you to faith in Him!

But also, God ordains trials for us as believers so that we will trust Him more deeply. The apostle Paul was not weak in faith. But even he needed to trust God more. He wrote (2 Cor. 1:8-10), “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us.”

But we need to be careful so that our cry to God in a time of need is genuine. In Exodus 14:10, as Pharaoh and his army drew near to the trapped Israelites, we read that they cried out to the Lord. But then they immediately (Exod. 14:11-12) accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt so that they could die in the wilderness. They remind him that they had said when they were back in Egypt that it would be better to remain slaves in Egypt than to die in the wilderness. Their accusation assumed that they knew better than either Moses or God about what would be best for them! So their cry to God was just a cry of panic, not of genuine faith. Genuine faith submits to God’s mighty hand in trials, casting all cares on Him (1 Pet. 5:6-7). Complaining or accusing God of harming you is evidence of a lack of genuine faith.

B. We can trust that God always has the resources we need for deliverance.

The angel of God and the pillar of cloud that had been going in front of Israel to direct their way moved behind them to provide a barrier between Israel and the Egyptian army (Exod. 14:19). It served as darkness for the Egyptians, but as light for Israel (cf. 2 Cor. 2:15-16). C. H. Mackintosh (Notes on the Pentateuch [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 205) observed, “He has placed Himself between us and our sins; and it is our happy privilege to find Him between us and every one and every thing that could be against us.” He also notes, “The same waters which formed a wall for God’s redeemed, formed a grave for Pharaoh.” The point is that God has infinite resources to provide deliverance for us. As Isaiah 54:17 promises, “No weapon that is formed against you will prosper.…”

C. Trusting God sometimes means doing nothing else, but at other times using appropriate means.

Exodus 14:13-14 reflects Moses’ great trust in the Lord:

But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.”

This is a great picture of our salvation. We can’t do anything to help God out in the process. All we can do is receive God’s salvation by faith. But even saving faith and repentance must come from God (Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:25-26).

Some object, “How can God command sinners to repent and believe in Christ if they’re incapable of repenting and believing?” But the Bible shows that with the command, God grants faith and repentance to those He sovereignly ordains to save (Acts 5:31; 11:18). Mark 3 reports that in the synagogue Jesus saw a man with a withered hand. He couldn’t move it. But Jesus called the man in front of everyone and commanded (Mark 3:5), “Stretch out your hand.” Was Jesus mocking him? He wasn’t able to stretch out his hand! But with the command, Jesus imparted the power to obey. The man stretched out his hand and was healed.

Here (Exod. 14:15), God gives Israel the impossible command, “Go forward.” That was a good idea, but there was this little problem of the Red Sea preventing them from going forward! But when Moses trusted God and lifted his staff over the sea, it parted so that the Israelites could obey God’s command.

There are a few other instances in the Bible where God commanded His people to do nothing except to trust Him and He brought a miraculous deliverance (2 Chron. 20:15-17). But God’s usual method is for us first to trust Him and then to use appropriate means to deal with the trial at hand: Pray for a job, but then do all you can to secure that job. Pray for healing, but get proper medical attention. Pray for problems in your marriage, but obey biblical commands that apply to your marriage.

Thus, God is sovereign over all things, including the trials that come into our lives. He ordains those trials so that we will trust Him to deliver us. But why does He do that?

3. God ordains trials so that we will honor Him when He delivers us.

In Exodus 14:4, God explains His reason for these events, “Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” He repeats (Exod. 14:18), “Then the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I am honored through Pharaoh, through his chariots and his horsemen.” Philip Ryken (the subtitle of his book) says that the theme of Exodus is “saved for God’s glory.” He further explains (p. 396) that everything that God has ever done, is doing now, or will do is for His glory. That is clearly the reason for Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea. God is glorified both when He judges the wicked and when He saves His elect. Thus,

A. When God delivers you, give Him the glory.

This applies both to your salvation through the gospel and to His delivering you from a trial. In Psalm 50:15 God commands, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” Pharaoh’s army, with its hundreds of chariots, was the most powerful war machine of its day, but it was no match for God’s power. He divided the sea to let Israel cross and to lure the Egyptian army to pursue them. Once Israel was on the other side, God commanded Moses to stretch out his hand so that the sea returned to its normal state, drowning all of the Egyptian soldiers. As a result (Exod. 14:31), Israel feared the Lord and believed in Him, as well as in His servant Moses (although temporarily).

If you’re going through a difficult trial, I encourage you to read the triumphant words of Romans 8, especially the crescendo at the end, where Paul declares (Rom. 8:31), “If God is for us, who is against us?” He goes on to list every conceivable trial, including being slaughtered as sheep for God’s sake. But then he adds (Rom. 8:37), “In all these things we overwhelming conquer through Him who loved us.” But that raises a final question: “What if God doesn’t deliver you?” What should you do then?

B. When God doesn’t deliver you, give Him the glory.

Many of God’s saints trusted in Him but died prematurely from disease or were killed for their faith. The great faith chapter, Hebrews 11, records the many victories that God’s people obtained by faith. But after stating that women received back their dead by resurrection, the author continues (Heb. 11:35-38):

… and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

The same faith in God had very different results! I love the boldness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego when the arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them into the furnace if they didn’t bow to his idol (Dan. 3:17-18):

“If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

They were ready to glorify God whether He delivered them or whether they burned to death!


At the cross, Satan and all of God’s enemies thought that they had gained final victory by killing Jesus. But through the cross, God disarmed and triumphed over the forces of darkness, securing our salvation (Col. 2:15). God raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him above all rule and authority (Eph. 1:20-22). So even if we suffer martyrs’ deaths, God will be glorified by raising us from the dead and having us rule with Him throughout eternity!

The 1563 Heidelberg Catechism begins with the question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” It answers:

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Honor God by letting that be your only comfort in life and death!

Application Questions

  1. A critic says, “If God ordains trials, then He is unloving and responsible for evil.” Your reply?
  2. How does an understanding of God’s sovereignty help us to endure hardship in the Christian life?
  3. Which is more difficult to endure: persecution from without or attacks from within the church? Why?
  4. Why are we generally so fragile when it comes to any sort of criticism or hardship in serving the Lord? Would persecution be good for the American church?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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