The Red Sea: Israel’s Deliverance and Egypt’s Defeat (Exodus 13:17-14:31)
Dr. James Dobson has recently been sharing some of the letters he has received from his listeners concerning the funniest thing which has happened to their family. There is one story which is both amusing and relevant. I will retell the story to the best of my recollection:
This family lived in the Northeast part of the country. In the bitterly cold part of winter their car had become especially dirty, what with road salts, frozen slush, and other wintry deposits. Conscious of the condition of their car, this family was driving down the road and came across an unusual sight. Water was gushing into the air from a broken pipe, beneath the surface of the road. A work crew had arrived and was just getting set up. Simultaneously, the family concluded that this was the perfect occasion for a car wash. They pulled the car far enough forward to park under the shower of water. The road crew watched, somewhat puzzled, and a little amused.
Since it was still bitterly cold, they left the engine running, and kept the heater going as well. In a short time, a rather unpleasant odor began to dominate. It was about this same time that the family noticed that the water which was running down the windshield was not clear, not clear at all. Finally they understood the problem—they were not parked under the shower of a broken water main, they were under the shower of a broken sewer main. Quickly. they departed, watching the filthy matter freeze to their car in the bitter cold of that day.
Things do not always turn out the way we expect. One can surely say this with regard to the Egyptian soldiers, who were pursuing the Israelites in the Egyptian desert. They left Egypt hastily, expecting that it would take but a little time and effort to round up the Israelites and drive them back to Egypt. Confidently, they pursued them into the midst of the Red Sea, only to discover, too late, that God was fighting for Israel and against them. In spite of their best efforts to escape, the entire army was wiped out that day, drowned in the Red Sea.
Israel’s passing through the Red Sea is one of the most exciting events recorded in the Old Testament. It was an event of great importance to the nation. It rid the Israelites, once for all, of Pharaoh’s dominion. It also released them from their obligation to return to Egypt, after traveling three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. This was, in fact, the birth of the nation Israel.
While this story is an exciting account of Israel’s escape, it is also the awesome account of the destruction of the Egyptian army who pursued them. In our next lesson, we will focus more on the deliverance of the nation Israel, but in this study we shall concentrate our attention on the destruction of the Egyptian army which pursued them into the sea. It is one of the vivid accounts of the judgment of God which we dare not neglect. Let us, then, consider the destruction of the enemies of God.
Charting Israel’s Course
The structure of verses 17-22 is an important clue to our understanding of this passage. I agree with Gispen132 that verses 17-19 are parenthetical and explanatory, and that verse 20 begins the description of Israel’s movements as they leave the land of Egypt and begin the trek to Canaan. Verse 20 therefore does not describe a change in course, but begins to describe the course which was the outworking of God’s purpose for Israel, as outlined in verses 17-18.
There were three possible land routes for Israel to take, by which they could have reached Canaan.133 The shortest route would have been to follow the “way of the land of the Philistines” (v. 17),134 but God deliberately avoided this road. The reason given is that they would have encountered war and this would have caused them to lose heart and turn back to Egypt (v. 17).
It is not altogether certain with whom the Israelites would have had to fight. Some reject the possibility of fighting with the Philistines because they have concluded that the Philistines had not settled in Canaan in sufficient numbers as yet.135 I am inclined to think that it is war with the Philistines to which Moses is referring here.136 While the Egyptians had forts strategically located along the routes to other countries, the Israelites had gained Pharaoh’s permission to leave Egypt. Besides this, Israel did, in fact, confront the army of Egypt at the Red Sea.
It may seem strange that God wanted to avoid a military confrontation when we are told in verse 18 (cf. also Exod. 6:26; 12:41) that the Israelites were “armed for battle.” The expression used here has been understood to refer only the orderly way in which the Israelites (nearly 2 million people, counting women and children, cf. Exod. 12:37) departed Egypt.137 Others understand that the Israelites did come out of Egypt at least partially armed, but all seem to agree that Israel was not at all prepared to fight a full scale battle at this point in time.138 It would be some time before the Israelites were ready to do battle. At this time, all Israel needed to do was to “be still and watch” (14:14).
Note is made of the fact that the “bones of Joseph” were taken along. This was a reflection of the faith of Joseph, and the carrying out of his instructions that his remains be preserved and carried from Egypt to Canaan (cf. Gen. 49:26; 50:24-26). The fulfillment of Joseph’s request is recorded in Joshua 24:32. Stephen also refers to this in Acts 7:15-16. The exodus of Israel is thus linked historically to the Abrahamic Covenant and to the faith of the patriarchs of Israel.
While the writer gives us the names of the places where the Israelites stayed,139 the exact locations of these places are simply not known.140 At best, one can only conjecture as to their locations, and even at this scholars disagree. In general, we can safely infer that the nation was moving in a south-easterly direction. The wilderness which the Israelites are skirting is not the wilderness of Sinai, but of Egypt.141
Verses 21 and 22 describe one of the primary means God employed to guide the people as they traveled. A pillar-shaped cloud, in which God was present (cf. 14:24), served to guide the people both day and night.142 In the daytime the pillar took the form of a cloud; at night the pillar was a pillar of fire, thus being visible as a guide, as well as providing light for the people as they traveled (remember that at night vipers would be active, for example). Later, this pillar would serve as a protective buffer when moved between the Israelites and the Egyptians (14:19-20). There have been a number of naturalistic explanations of this pillar, but their only value is for our amusement.143
The important thing to observe, I believe, is that God was faithful to provide the Israelites with a visible manifestation of His presence, protection, and guidance. The pillar, we are told, was constantly with them and never left (or failed) them. God continually gives His people evidences of His presence with them.
Changing Israel’s Course
With the pillar to guide the Israelites, one may wonder why it was necessary for God to speak to Moses concerning the leading of the people in verses 1-4 of chapter 14. There is a very good reason, I believe. Moses was to bring about a “change of course” for the Israelites, one that would greatly perplex the people without an explanation. The Israelites were instructed to “turn back” and to camp near Pi Hahioroth, between Migdol and the sea.144
Had the pillar of cloud moved in this direction without any word from God, the people may have been inclined to disregard it. They might have thought that the pillar needed repair. There are several reasons why.
God’s instructions were required to assure the Israelites that the new course which the pillar would set were correct, even though perplexing.
First, the Israelites were going to “turn back,” that is, to reverse their direction. Why in the world would they possibly retrace their steps backwards? Instead of fleeing from Pharaoh, it might look as though they were making it easy for him to catch up with them. Second, the course which they were about to take would be one that would place them in a very dangerous position.
Through Moses, God ordered a change of direction which to many Israelites must have seemed strange and indeed risky, for their course was to turn in a southwesterly direction which in a short time would place great bodies of water between themselves and the Sinai peninsula to the east.145
It didn’t take a military genius to figure out that what the Israelites were doing was to put themselves in a very vulnerable position, trapped, between natural barriers. Were Pharaoh to pursue them, they would be in a bunch of trouble. God explained through Moses that this change of course was indeed intended to encourage Pharaoh’s pursuit. Pharaoh, God knew, would think that the Israelites were miserably lost or misguided, and that recovering them as a work force would be like “taking candy from a baby.”146 Pharaoh’s attack would result in his defeat, to the glory of God (v. 4).
Changing Pharaoh’s Mind
From what we are told in these verses, Pharaoh was ready for any sign of hope that he might recover the slave labor which he had released. Shortly after the Israelites had departed, Pharaoh and his officials had second thoughts about the wisdom of releasing this valuable economic resource—slave labor (v. 5). Pharaoh mustered his entire division of chariots and went after them in hot pursuit, six hundred chariots in all (v. 6). Pharaoh’s decision was not only hard-hearted, it was hard headed. Six hundred chariots (with 2, or at the most 3 men per chariot) would hardly seem to be a match for 600,000 men.
The change of course of the Israelites seemed to be playing right into Pharaoh’s hands. He overtook the Israelites at Pi Hahiroth, undoubted looking like the cat that had just eaten the canary. How could he possibly fail?
Calming Israel’s Fears
Israel was in trouble now. “To the east was the sea, to the south and west were the mountains, and the north was blocked by Pharaoh’s armies.”147
The Israelites were shaken by the sight of the rapidly approaching chariots of Pharaoh and his men. They were terrified (v. 10). At first, the people cried out to the Lord (v. 10), but as the troops drew nearer and as Israel’s hopes of escape faded, their fear turned to bitter regret, focused toward Moses. Were there not enough graves in Egypt? Had they not told Moses to leave them alone, and not to meddle with Pharaoh? What had Moses done to them now? They would have been better off to have stayed on as slaves in Egypt. Such is the reasoning of fear and unbelief.
Moses was much more calm, at least initially. Confident that God would deliver them from the Egyptians, Moses sought to reassure the Israelites of God’s protection, and of the defeat of the Egyptians. They were told to “fear not.” They need not fight, but only to stand firm and observe God’s victory over the Egyptians. They would never see these Egyptians again.
From what God had revealed to Moses, he was confident of the defeat and destruction of the Egyptian army, now hotly pursuing them. What Moses was apparently not aware of was how and when this victory would occur. As the Egyptians drew closer, Moses probably expected to see them wiped out before the eyes of all, perhaps by some plague. Instead, they only got closer—much too close for comfort. Moses may have raised his staff, pointing it in the direction of the Egyptians. Like a jammed rifle, it didn’t seem to work. At some point, Moses began crying out to God, not unlike the Israelites had done before him (compare 14:10 with 14:15). The man who had begun “cool and calm” had begun to lose his grip.
Divine Instruction and Intervention
My imagination may have run a little wild in the description I have just given of Moses’ uncertainty, but I doubt that it is too far afield. Without informing us of the exact manifestations of Moses’ fears, the text does give us a record of God’s mild rebuke to Moses in verse 15: “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” Not only do we know from God’s words to Moses that he had cried out to Him, but there is a very clear inference that Moses was wrong in doing so. Why was it wrong for Moses to cry to God for help? There is only one reason that I can think of: Moses should have known what to do, and he should have done it.
It is possible that Moses knew what to do because God had already given him precise instructions. Because we do not find any such instructions in our text, I am inclined to set this possibility aside. It is my opinion that God rebuked Moses for crying out for instructions because Moses should have been able to figure out what to do, and he should have then done it.
Let’s think for just a moment about what Moses did know. He knew that God had guided them to the place in which they found themselves—between the Red Sea and the Egyptians. The pillar had led them there (13:21-22; 14:19), and God had also explained to Moses that this was what He was going to do, so that He could gain glory through Pharaoh and his army (14:1-4). Moses knew that God had promised to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan, which was across and beyond the Red Sea (cf. Gen. 15:13-21; Exod. 3:7-8, 16-17; 6:4; 12:25; 13:5). Moses also knew that God had given him power through the use of his staff.
It is therefore my opinion that Moses should have reasoned that the only direction he could and should go was toward Canaan, and that meant through the Red Sea. The means for passing through the sea was for Moses to lift up his hand with his staff and to part the sea. This is precisely what God instructed Moses to do, but I believe that God’s gentle rebuke of Moses in verse 15 implies that Moses should have reasoned this all out.
I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize the relationship between faith and reason. Some seem to think that faith and reasoning are opposed to each other, and that faith is therefore, by its very nature, unreasonable. I think this is far from the case. When God had Israel turn back, it only seemed unreasonable, until the purpose of God (in causing Pharaoh to think that they were lost, thus prompting his attack) was made known by God to Moses. God’s actions were very reasonable, when seen in terms of God’s purpose.
Our Lord persistently encouraged men and women to use their minds. “Consider the lilies of the field,” He urged (Matt. 6:28), which was an appeal to man’s ability to reason. Abraham, we are told, “reasoned that God could raise the dead” (Heb. 11:19), when He commanded him to sacrifice his son. God did not tell Abraham He would raise his son, Abraham reasoned it was so, based upon his experience of having a son when he and Sarah were “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19-21). God delights in faith that reasons and then responds. Moses should thus have reasoned what God wanted him to do and done it without asking God for guidance. I believe that we often ask God for guidance when reason would clearly indicate our course of action already.
In spite of Moses’ lack of faith, God graciously responds to his cry for help. He specifically instructed Moses to raise his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea, so as to divide the water, making it possible for the Israelites to pass through on dry ground (14:16).148 The Egyptians, God informed Moses, would enter the sea behind them, due to their hearts being hardened, but this was to result in their destruction and God’s glory (v. 17). The nation of Egypt will know for certain that God alone is Lord through this event (v. 18).
God did more than just speak. The angel of the Lord, manifested in the pillar of cloud and/or fire, moved from in front of the Israelites to become their rear guard. He stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Throughout that night the pillar brought darkness to the Egyptians and light for the Israelites, thus enabling the Israelites to see as they passed through the sea, and perhaps preventing the Egyptians from seeing the sea as they followed after them (v. 20).
Israel’s Deliverance and the Egyptians’ Destruction
Moses did as he was instructed, stretching forth his hand over the sea. This brought about a “strong east wind”149 which drove back the sea all night long, even turning the seabed to dry ground (v. 21). This was no doubt to facilitate the need of the Israelites to quickly pass through the sea with their goods, which were likely loaded on wagons or carts of some sort.
It must have taken a certain amount of faith on the part of the Israelites to enter into the sea.150 They, unlike the Egyptians, had the benefit of the light provided by the cloud. Thus, they were able to clearly see the water of the sea piled up like walls151 on both sides of them (cf. 14:22). What faith the Israelites lacked was compensated for by the fact that the Egyptians were right behind them. When confronted with the choice between the sea and the Egyptians, the sea would have been the less dangerous choice. God’s motivations are a wonder to behold!
To me, the most difficult thing for me to believe is not the parting of the sea, or of the Israelites passing through it, but the fact that the Egyptians followed them into the sea. Think of this for just a moment. Any well-trained army knows better than to plunge (pardon the pun) into an ambush. Whenever an army is faced with its enemy ahead and barriers are on both sides, there is a serious concern of being trapped in the middle by your opponent. Even worse, if you were to see the sea parted by the God of your adversary, would you be inclined to enter into that sea, knowing that you were seeking to capture the very people God was aiding to escape? To me, there are only two possible explanations to the entrance of the Egyptians into the sea, and both of them are incredible.
One surprising possibility is that the Egyptians entered into the sea without even knowing it. This possibility is usually one which we would not even entertain, largely due to our own preconceived ideas of what happened. I do not know of anyone else who has come to this conclusion, so I would caution you to think critically here (as elsewhere). Nevertheless, there are several observations which make this an option which must be reckoned with.
First, we are not told anywhere that the Egyptians knew that they were entering into the sea. We are told that they entered the sea (v. 23), but it is not specifically reported that they knew this was the case. Second, the time of the passing through the sea (for both the Israelites and the Egyptians) was late at night (cf. 14:20, 24,27). Third, the pillar which gave light to the Israelites, produced or promoted darkness for the Egyptians (v. 20). True, the Israelites could see the sea in the light provided by the pillar, but could the Egyptians? Fourth, it would seem highly unlikely that the Egyptians would enter into the sea, knowing that God had parted it for His people. Fifth, the Egyptians appear to be guided only by the Israelites. The Egyptians were in hot pursuit. Where the Israelites went, the Egyptians followed. (It wouldn’t be difficult to follow the tracks of 2 million people, now would it?) The Egyptians were concentrating on the object of their pursuit (the Israelites), not the scenery around them. You tend not to see what you are not looking for. Sixth, since the seabed had become dry ground, there would be no particular evidence that the Egyptians were in the midst of the sea. If, perchance, my speculations here are correct, can you imagine the horror of the Egyptians when they first realized where they were? They really did get in “over their heads” this time.
The only other possibility is that the Egyptians knowingly pursued the Israelites into the sea, somehow blinded to the incredible dangers of doing so. As I have said before, it is absolutely incredible that the most powerful, well-trained army of that day could blunder so badly as to march straight into a perfect ambush, without the least hesitation. There is only one explanation for their actions—hearts which were supernaturally hardened, to the degree that the Egyptian army failed to see the obvious, to their own destruction. As God said to Moses, “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17).
In the morning watch, which is known to be from 2 a.m. till dawn,152 God looked down from the pillar of fire and brought confusion to the Egyptian troops (v. 24). This was brought about by causing the wheels of their chariots either to fall off,153 to swerve, or to sink into the sands, which may now be wet. The poetic description of Psalm 77 seems to inform us that the occasion for the confusion was a thunderstorm:
The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen (Ps. 77:16-19).
Assuming that the Egyptians did not know they were entering the sea, can you imagine the horror of the charioteers when the first bolt of lightening revealed the seas towering above them? Too late, the Egyptians recognized that God was fighting for the Israelites and against them. They sought to retreat, returning to the shore from which they had entered the sea. Instead, they plunged, headlong, into the waters (cf. v. 27) as they returned to their place.
At daybreak, God instructed Moses to once again lift his staff over the sea, but this time to bring the waters of the Red Sea thundering down upon the Egyptians. The sea closed in on the Egyptians, so that every one of them was drowned (v. 28). In marked contrast, the Israelites passed through the sea on dry ground, safely reaching the other side (v. 29). The Red Sea thus became the instrument of Israel’s deliverance and the Egyptians’ destruction. The Israelites witnessed the power of God and came to a deeper appreciation of Moses as the leader God had appointed, and through whom God’s power was manifested in a mighty way (v. 31).
The destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea causes us to look seriously at the judgment of God. Several principles of divine judgment are evident in the events of the exodus as described in our text.
The judgment of God begins sooner than His final destruction. To put it differently, the judgment of God begins with the hardening of men’s hearts. While the final destruction of the army of Pharaoh came at the time Moses lifted his hand over the sea and it came crashing down on the enemies of Israel, that judgment was already at work much earlier. The drowning of the charioteers was but the final blow of divine judgment, a judgment which had begun a year or more earlier.
God had begun to judge the Egyptians at the time that Moses returned to Egypt and appeared before Pharaoh, and the plagues were commenced. Each plague was a judgment of the gods of the Egyptians (cf. Exod. 12:12). For about a year, the ten plagues had been poured out upon Egypt. The destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea was the culminating act of divine judgment.
But how is it possible, given ten previous plagues and the present perils of entering into the Red Sea, that the Egyptians could so blindly persist in their oppression of God’s people, and in their indifference to God’s warnings? The biblical answer, found in Exodus and confirmed in other biblical texts, is that they persisted to pursue their own destruction because their hearts were hardened.
A little investigation in a Bible concordance will show that reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (and sometimes his officials’ or his army’s hearts) occurs 14 times in Exodus. Of these 14 instances, six refer to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8), three refer to Pharaoh hardening his own heart (8:15, 32; 9:34), and five are indefinite (7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). From these passages and others, we can identify several characteristics of hardening.
(1) The hardening the heart is a process. Pharaoh’s heart was not hardened once, it was hardened repeatedly. Hardening is thus a process, not a one-time event.
(2) The hardening of the heart involves both divine and human initiative. On the one hand, God hardens a man’s heart, yet, on the other hand, a man hardens his own heart. When God hardens a man’s heart, He does not cause a man to think and to do other than what that individual is inclined to do. God does not harden a man’s heart by making him want to sin. Pharaoh did not want to release the Israelites, nor did he wish to submit to the God of Israel. God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he would pursue the Israelites (14:4), but this is precisely what Pharaoh was already predisposed to do (14:5).
Men often harden their hearts at crucial decision points. Notice that Pharaoh’s heart was always hardened with respect to a particular decision. Each time hardening occurred, it was in regard to a decision which Pharaoh had to make. During the period of the plagues, he had to decide whether or not to let Israel go. After the plagues, he had to decide whether or not to pursue the Israelites to bring them back (thus breaking his word which gave them permission to go). Pharaoh’s army had to make a decision whether or not to pursue the Israelites into the sea. At each decision point, the Egyptians were hardened or hardened themselves.
From a divine perspective, God hardened men’s hearts in order to achieve His pre-determined purposes (such as the destruction of the Egyptian army and the deliverance of the Israelites). From a human point of view, men hardened their hearts by deciding to do that which was clearly identified as sin. The link between sinning and hardening is seen in Pharaoh’s actions: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses” (Exod. 9:34-35). The New Testament likewise speaks of hardening as the product of the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). Thus, we can say that men not only harden their hearts, which results in sin, they also sin, which results in a hardened heart.
(3) The hardening of a man’s heart occurs when God “locks that man on his course.” The man makes his choice, based upon his own nature and course, but when God hardens that man’s heart, He prevents man from changing the course he has set for himself. What I am saying is that hardening the heart does not override the choices a person would make for himself, it is like a catalyst which causes the person to lie in the bed he has chosen to make, as it were.
I know of people who have heard the gospel and have said, “I know that I am a sinner, and that I need to trust in Christ as my Savior. I also know that to make such a choice will necessitate a change in my lifestyle. Therefore, I am going to live my life the way I want to (sinfully), and then, when life is nearly over, I will trust in Christ and be saved from the coming wrath of God.” But, you see, God does not give such a person any consolation in this decision. The hardening of a man’s heart compels that man to live out the consequences of his choices and lifestyle. The process of the hardening of the heart forces us to make our eternal choices now, knowing that we may not be free to change our course in days to come.
(4) The hardening of a person’s heart dulls and deadens their perception of danger and judgment. As we have seen in the headlong plunge of the Egyptians into the sea, the only explanation for such a foolhardy advance is that their hearts were hardened, so that they advanced, with little or no perception of the dangers of their actions. It was not until things actually began to fall apart that the Egyptians finally realized the grave danger they were in (14:25). When one’s heart is hardened, they are unable to see the danger which is abundantly clear to others.
(5) The hardening of the heart can occur both to believers and to unbelievers alike. Pharaoh and the Egyptians who died in the Red Sea were undoubtedly unbelievers. It is not difficult to acknowledge the hardening process in the lives of unbelievers. I believe Scriptures indicate that a similar hardening can happen to the Christian. We read, for example, that the Israelites of old had their hearts hardened (2 Cor. 3:13-14; Heb. 3:7-19), and the application is extended to saints today. So, too, the hearts of our Lord’s disciples were hardened (cf. Mark 6:52; 8:17). I have seen numerous instances where Christians have chosen to do wrong, and as they progress on the path of sin, their hearts become increasingly hardened. Their fate will not be that of the unbeliever, but surely severe consequences will follow (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5).
(6) The hardening of men’s hearts is for the purpose of achieving what is good. The hardening of the hearts of Pharaoh and his soldiers was for the purpose of releasing Israel, once and for all, from Egyptian bondage. It was also for the purpose of glorifying God. And finally, it was for the purpose of demonstrating to the remaining Egyptians that God alone is Lord (Exod. 14:4). Is it possible that because of this disaster, Egyptians came to faith in the God of Israel?
The final judgment of God comes suddenly and unexpectedly upon those whose hearts have been hardened by sin. We have already seen that the hardening of men’s hearts is the judgment of God. In other words, it seals the fate of those who are destined for judgment. Because of this, hardening the hearts of men dulls their sensitivity to sin and judgment so that it comes upon them suddenly and unexpectedly, as it did to the Egyptians.
As I was thinking of the aloofness and apathy of men with regard to God’s judgment, it occurred to me that throughout the Scriptures those whose hearts have been hardened have found that judgment comes upon them suddenly and unexpectedly.154
The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him (Deut. 28:20).
Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (Ps. 73:18-19)
Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Prov. 6:15).
A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Prov. 29:1).
While they are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thes. 5:3).
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon” [quickly, NASB]. Amen. Come Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).
Throughout the Scriptures the judgment of God falls quickly and unexpectedly on the unbelieving, whose hearts have been hardened to sin and to the judgment to come. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of the saints as being ready, expectant, sensitive to sin, and pursuing and promoting purity as the day of the Lord’s return draws near (cf. 1 Thes. 5:4-11; 2 Pet. 3:8-18; 1 John 3:2-3).
In marked contrast to the destruction-bent pathway of the Egyptians is the security of the Israelites, whether or not they perceived it at the moment. Reading the account of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea reminded me of the fact that things are often not what they seem to be. The Israelites were fearful, concluding from their circumstances that the Egyptians would be victorious over them. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were confident, thinking that there was no way they could not recapture the Israelites and take them back to Egypt as their slaves. Both the Egyptians and the Israelites were wrong in the estimation of things. Confident as they were, the Egyptians perished in the sea. And fearful as the Israelites were, they passed through the sea, delivered once and for all from their oppressors.
The Egyptians felt confident and secure because it appeared that they had the upper hand. They had the chariots and the soldiers. They had the military might of Egypt. But the Egyptians failed to reckon with the fact that they were opposing themselves to God and to His people. No matter how strong and secure one might feel, opposing God is a deadly occupation.
The Israelites were fearful and would even have considered going back to Egypt (cf. Exod. 14:10-12). The only thing which prevented this was the providential care of the God who had purposed and promised to deliver them safely to the promised land. Thus, God led them by another way than the “way of the Philistines,” knowing that war would have resulted in their losing heart and retreating (13:17-18). The Lord also assured the Israelites of His presence and guidance by the pillar of cloud and fire, and informed them as to why He was leading them so as to appear to have lost their way. The Lord also prevented the Israelites from retreating by placing the pillar of fire and the Egyptian army behind them. While the destruction of God’s enemies was assured, so was the deliverance of His people. No people were more secure than the Israelites, no matter how the circumstances appeared. No people were in greater peril than the Egyptians, regardless of their confidence and military might.
The ultimate issue, which determined the destruction or deliverance of God, was this: ON WHICH SIDE OF THE CLOUD DO YOU STAND? In our text, the judgment of God and the salvation of God employed the same means—the Red Sea. Those who stood in the sea in front of the cloud (the Israelites) were delivered, but those who stood behind the cloud (the Egyptians) were destroyed. To put it in a little different way, those who had sided with the God of Israel were saved, while those who opposed Him were struck down by the sea.
While this text graphically portrays the hardness of man’s heart, which leads ultimately to his destruction, it also pictures very clearly the salvation which God offers to all men, regardless of race. The sea was the instrument of God’s wrath, which destroyed the Egyptians. But that sea was also the instrument of Israel’s deliverance. Today, the dividing line between those who will be saved and those who will suffer God’s wrath is not a cloud, but the cross. God’s righteousness demands that sin must be paid for. The sinner must face the wrath of a righteous God. But in His grace, God has provided salvation, by pouring out His wrath on His Son, Jesus Christ. This he did nearly 2,000 years ago on the cross of Calvary. All those who accept Christ’s sacrifice on that cross are saved, and all those who reject it (either actively or passively), must bear the coming wrath of God, which will come upon them just as quickly and unexpectedly as God’s wrath fell on the Egyptians.
If this is true, the most important question you will ever answer is this, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH REGARD TO CHRIST AND HIS CROSS? Our Lord Himself said,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16-18).
I urge you not to delay in this decision about the cross of Christ. To delay is to further the hardening process of your own heart, and to bring about greater blindness and insensitivity toward your sin and the judgment which will come upon you.
133 “Most traffic leaving Egypt heading eastward would take one of three roads. The most direct route to Canaan was the Via Maris, ‘the way of the sea.’ This road began at the frontier fortress of Sile, near modern Qantara, and reached Canaan at Raphia. … Another route that was taken by travelers heading eastward was ‘the way of Shur’ which crossed the Sinai peninsula to southern Canaan where it connected with the important water-parting route from Jerusalem and Hebron to Beersheba in the Negeb. … The third route, known today as ‘the pilgrim’s way,’ ran across the peninsula from the head of the Gulf of Suez to Exion-geber which was located at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 155-156.
“The fact is that it was not absolutely necessary for the Israelites to cross a body of water in order to travel from Egypt into the Sinai peninsula. Many persons imagine that Egypt in ancient times was separated from that peninsula by a continuous body of water, as it is today. But the Suez Canal was dug in the nineteenth century A.D. The isthmus of Suez at its narrowest is about 70 miles from north to south. Of this distance, about forty miles are covered by lakes, the rest being land.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 156-157.
134 “This was the direct route, but was heavily guarded by Egypt: the commentators give instances of the careful lists, kept by the Egyptian guards, of arrivals and departures at the frontier. The Israelites would certainly have ‘seen war’ (Hebraic for ‘experienced war’) along that route.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 116.
“The Pharaohs used this road for their expeditions to Syria, both during Moses’ time and afterward; it was the most direct link between Egypt and Canaan. Yet God avoided it, since the Philistines were outstanding soldiers, and God did not want His people to lose heart and change their mind when they were attacked by chariots in the open plains and would prove inferior to the Philistines in military equipment.” Gispen, p. 138.
135 “The mention of the Philistines has been used as an argument against the factual accuracy of this narrative; it is claimed that the Philistines did not yet live in the southern coastal plains of Canaan at this time and did not settle there until after 1200 B.C., while the Exodus took place around 1445 B.C. … However, the Philistines were already mentioned in Genesis 26 as living in Canaan, and Gerar was called ‘the land of the Philistines’ in Genesis 21:32, 34. The Philistines are also mentioned in 15:14 and 23:31. Noordtzij has offered plausible reasons why the Egyptian inscriptions before 1200 B.C. are silent about the Philistines. … Excavations, especially those at Gerar, where pottery from the period 2000-1500 B.C. has been found similar to that of the later Philistines, also support Noordtzij’s opinion. It is thus correct to speak here of the land of the Philistines.” Gispen, p. 139.
136 Keil and Delitzsch hold this view, observing that, “The Philistines were very warlike, and would hardly have failed to resist the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan, of which they had taken possession of a very large portion.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 38.
“The statement that the Israelites left Egypt ‘armed for battle’ (some think that the word used here is related to the Egyptian word for ‘lance,’ others that it means ‘arranged in battle units,’ …) serves to explain their subsequent readiness to do battle with e.g., Amalek (ch. 17). The Israelites took not only jewelry, but also arms out of Egypt!” Gispen, p. 139.
“The use of this term in Joshua 1:14; 4:12 and Judges 7:11 has led some to suggest the meaning ‘armed’ or perhaps ‘equipped for battle.’ Whether it is approriate to describe the children of Israel as ‘armed’ at this point is doubtful. They, in all probability, did secure some armor from the Egyptians but could not at this point be described as a mobilized army.” Davis, pp. 156, 158.
142 “This pillar of cloud and fire is mentioned on several occasions during the wilderness journey, cf. 40:38; Numbers 9:15-23; 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:33; Nehemiah 9:12, 19; Psalms 78:14; 105:39; 1 Corinthians 10:1. This pillar, the proof of the Lord’s presence, expressed His love and care for Israel (cf. Gen. 15:17).” Gispen, p. 140.
143 Cole is disappointingly wishy-washy here, leaning toward the explanation that the pillar was a desert ‘whirlwind.’ Cf. Cole, p. 118. Hyatt (p. 150) includes such possibilities as the tradition of the Arabs of carrying braziers filled with burning wood at the head of an army or caravan to indicate the line of march. He also suggests volcanic activity as a “more probable” explanation.
146 “If Israel encamped by the Sea opposite Baal-Zephon (which lies on the other side), then Pharaoh would think that they were confused or had lost their way, and did not know their way in the wilderness east of Egypt and west of the Red Sea. This was an obvious conclusion from the rather curious route Israel followed. Then the Lord would harden Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 4:21; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8, 17; Josh. 11:20) so that he would pursue Israel, and the final outcome would be that the Lord would gain glory for Himself through Pharaoh and his entire army, so that the Egyptians would know that He was the Lord (cf. e.g., 10:2). Verses 2-4 give us an impression of Pharaoh’s reprobation and of God’s omnipotence (cf. 9:15; Rom. 9:17, 22-23). From a human standpoint this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was necessary to give Israel complete freedom and to release it from any obligation to return, since Pharaoh had broken his promise. … Pharaoh’s disposition toward Israel, and that of his officials … changed. They were not forced to sin, but made a voluntary choice in the wrong direction. And what was seen in the first chapter was repeated: greed and the desire for gain once again came to the fore, now that the plagues had been gone for a few days. They asked themselves and each other what could have induced them to let their cheap labor go. But the mistake could be corrected.” Gispen, pp. 141-142.
148 I must, of necessity, point out that there are many attempts made to explain the passing through the sea in terms of natural causes. Davis warns us that, “A very popular view is that the Israelites crossed in a generally shallow and marshy district which could easily have been cleared of water and laid dry by the normal action of a strong wind.” Davis, p. 164.
I believe Gispen’s advice should be taken at this point: “No sound arguments can be brought against the historicity of this event. … We should stay with the text of Exodus for both the fact and their explanation…” Gispen, p. 136.
Another (often related) item of discussion among the scholars pertains to the place from which the Israelites crossed over the “sea”: “Broadly speaking, there are only three possible routes for the exodus, either near the Mediterranean coast (which is unlikely, because of the proximity of the Egyptian outposts) or directly across the Sinai peninsula to Kadesh (which not only seems to conflict with the biblical evidence, but would be very difficult from the point of view of the water supplies), or south to Sinai, and then north to Kadesh (which seems most likely on any score).” Cole, p. 117.
“… I am of the opinion that, even if the Gulf of Suez was still connected with the Bitter Lakes and the Lakes were thus part of the Gulf, the statements in the text more fully agree with a crossing through the Gulf of Suez where it is deeper, thus in the vicinity of present-day Suez. … The biblical data point to the Gulf of Suez, not to the Mediterranean Sea. It would also be difficult to imagine that Solomon’s fleet was stationed on Lake Serbonis (cf. 1 Kings 9:26).” Gispen, p. 137.
149 Davis concludes that while the wind is a ‘natural’ force, this ‘wind’ had to be supernatural: “This writer feels that the best interpretation of the ‘strong east wind’ is to regard it as a supernatural wind rather than a purely natural wind. There are at least four reasons for assuming this view. First, it is doubtful that a purely natural wind would make a ‘wall’ (v. 22). Second, if this wind came from the east (v. 21) it most likely would have walled up the water in the wrong direction; that is, north and south. Third, two walls are mentioned (v. 22) which indicates that the waters were divided by this special wind (cf. v. 16). … Fourth, if this were a natural wind capable of moving enough water so as to provide a depth to drown the Egyptians, could the people have walked through such an area, assuming that a natural wind would have come through the area with tremendous velocity?” Davis, pp. 165-166.
Cole adds, “Winds and fire are often described poetically in the Bible as almost personified messengers of the God who controls them (Ps. 104:4).” Cole, p. 121.
150 “Hebrew yam is a very general word which may be used of a lake, a sea (such as the Mediterranean), a river (such as the Nile, Isa. 19:5) or possibly other bodies of water. However, in Exod. 13:18 a body of water is referred to as the Red Sea, and that is the designation often used in other passages which speak of the crossing of the sea (Exod. 15:4, 22; Dt. 11:4; Jos. 2:10; 4:23; 24:6; Ps. 106:7, 9, 22; Neh. 9:9 etc.). The Hebrew in such passages is yam sup, which means literally ‘sea of reeds,’ or ‘sea of rushes.’ In Exod. 2:3, 5 sup is used of ‘the reeds’ in which Moses was placed. Yam sup could well be rendered ‘Reed Sea.’ The translation of RSV by ‘Red Sea’ is based upon the rendering in LXX, eruthra thalassa, and Vulgate, mare rubrum. In antiquity ‘the Red Sea’ was a general term including the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps even more. … The OT uses yam sup with more than one meaning. In 1 Kg. 9:26 it clearly refers to the Gulf of Aqaba, and probably also in Num. 21:4; Dt. 2:1. In Num. 33:10 (P) yam sup obviously means the Gulf of Suez, and is distinguished from ‘the sea’ through which the Israelites had passed just after leaving Hahiroth (33:8).” Hyatt, p. 158.
151 It is disappointing to read Cole’s conclusions about the “walls” of water on both sides of the Israelites: “This metaphor is no more to be taken literally than when Ezra 9:9 says that God has given him a ‘wall’ (the same word) in Israel. It is a poetic metaphor to explain why the Egyptian chariots could not sweep in to right and left, and cut Israel off; they had to cross by the same ford, directly behind the Israelites.” Cole, p. 121.
While the Bible often uses metophorical language, it seems to me that Cole is somehow trying too hard to find a phenomenon here that is too ‘natural’ and not enough ‘supernatural.’ Davis writes, “It appears that the basic sense of the use of the word wall (Heb. homah) is to designate a passageway between two generally perpendicular masses. On the basis of the Hebrew text alone, however, it is difficult to determine whether a literal perpendicular wall is necessarily implied. … In the light of the full context, however, preference certainly must be given to the former [perpendicular wall] viewpoint …” Davis, pp. 167-168.
152 “I Samuel 11:11 also mentions this, the last of the three watches, from 2 a.m. to dawn, about 6 a.m. This, the darkest hour before the dawn, was traditionally the time for attack, when men’s spirits are at their lowest.” Cole, p. 122.
153 “The expression ‘took off’ their chariot wheels (v. 25) is a translation of the Hebrew word sur meaning in the Hif’il stem to ‘take away or to remove.’ … The Septuagint, on the other hand, speaks of God ‘clogging their chariot wheels’ an idea which has been carried over into the Revised Standard Version.” Davis, p. 167.