If you have a Bible, would you please turn with me in it to the book of Exodus, chapter 14; Exodus chapter 14. If you’re using one of our church Bibles you’ll find that on page 56. Once you have your Bibles open, let’s bow our heads and ask for God to help us understand them and believe what His Word teaches us. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we praise You that Your Word, the Bible, is living and active; it is sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart so that there is not one of us hidden from Your sight but we are all of us naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. We pray as Your Word does its work in our hearts and lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, that You would show us ourselves in our helplessness and native bankruptcy and then show us Your sovereignty and grace in Jesus Christ. And by Your Spirit’s mighty power, draw us from the bondage of our sin into the freedom of faith in Jesus. Would You do that please this morning by the Scriptures, for Jesus’ sake? Amen.
Exodus chapter 14. We are reading the first fourteen verses together. This is God’s own holy Word:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, ‘What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?’ So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His Holy Word.
Missing the Bigger Picture
Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese Imperial intelligence officer in the Second World War, serving with a commando unit on the Philippine island of Lubang. Instructed to do all he could to hamper the enemy assault on the island, his orders stipulated that under no circumstances was he permitted to surrender or to take his own life. And so when Allied forces finally captured the island February 14, 1945 and all but three Japanese soldiers were either killed or surrendered, Onoda was among the three that fled into the jungle. In December 1959, after years of no contact, Onoda was declared officially dead. But in 1974, after persistent rumors that he was alive and was conducting guerilla warfare in the jungles of Lubang a Japanese traveler went and searched for him, found him after about four days of searching, only to learn that Onoda refused to believe the war was over and would not surrender unless a superior officer told him to stand down. So the Japanese government located Onoda’s old commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, flew him to Lubang, searched in the jungle until they found Onoda, Taniguchi ordered him to surrender, and so on March 9, 1974, he walked out of the jungle still carrying his fully operational military issued rifle , five hundred rounds of ammunition, his sword, some hand grenades - he’d been fighting a war that ended thirty years previously. Immersed in the jungle, the world around him had changed, and he fought on, actually needlessly.
Onoda’s case is unique, I’m sure, but I think there are times when we are not all that unlike him. We become immersed in our situations, in our circumstances, don’t we? We fail to see the bigger picture. If only we’d consider the wider context it may very well change everything. That is the lesson of the first part of Exodus 14; we read it together a few moments ago. It teaches us to put our lives in a bigger context to see the big picture. If you’ll look at the way the passage is put together just for a moment you’ll see the structure of the passage itself is making that very point. Look at the text. Verses 5 to 9 - Pharaoh has a change of heart about letting Israel go free from its bondage in Egypt. He seems to forget God’s terrible judgments, ten plagues, that almost destroyed Egypt, and he turns back to his old ways and begins to pursue his now escaped slaves. And in verses 10 through 12, Israel likewise has a change of heart. If Pharaoh wants the Israelites to come back to Egypt, one look at their strategically indefensible position and the mast hordes of the Egyptian army bearing down upon them and Israel is perfectly ready to go back to Egypt.
The New Perspective of a Bigger Context
But surrounding all of that in verses 1 to 4 and in verses 13 to 14 at either ends of our passage, can you see there, bracketing the malice of Pharaoh and the terror of Israel, surrounding it all, encompassing the crises of the people, stands the calculated purpose and promises of a sovereign God. The structure of the passage itself, do you see, invites us to take in the bigger picture, to read our crises from a new perspective, to come out of the jungle and see things are not as we perceive them. However hopeless our condition, however dire our need, however improbably the coming of help may seem to us, if we are Christians we are being called here to remember that our lives, including our worst crises, play out within the context of the overarching plan of the sovereign God of all grace. Like the Egyptians and the Israelites in our text, we too are surrounded, our lives encompassed by the God who keeps His promises.
So this is a passage that helps us put our lives in a bigger context, the context of the design and purposes of God, but it’s also incredibly realistic about the mess of our lives, isn’t it? It comes out in the central section in verses 5 through 12 where neither the Egyptians nor the Israelites can hardly be called models of decency or faith. They’re a mess, frankly. And so our gaze is being lifted up to behold our God and find comfort in seeing again His sovereignty and His promises, but our vision is also being refocused, focused more acutely so that we may see ourselves as we really are. And both are necessary. We’ll never know how much we need the help of the God of Israel nor will we ever really be inclined to flee to Him till we see the sin and slavery that festers so deeply within us all.
I. The Bondage of Persistent Rebellion
So before we think about the promises of God and the sovereignty of God and the grace of God, I want us to take another look at ourselves. So let me direct you to verses 5 to 9 first of all. Here we see the bondage of persistent rebellion. The bondage of persistent rebellion. Word reaches Pharaoh, verse 5, that Israel has begun its escape from Egypt. Now you’ll remember how in the chapters leading up to this as God brought the dreadful judgments of the ten plagues upon Pharaoh, Pharaoh had pled with Moses, chapter 12:31-32, to be gone from his land. The people of Egypt, likewise, were urgent and insistent with the people to leave, chapter 12:33, but now they’re finally gone. Chapter 14 verse 5 - “The mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people and they said, ‘What is this we have done that we have let Israel go from serving us?’” And so Pharaoh mobilizes his army and he has among the vast army of chariots and horsemen a six hundred strong elite chariot unit. These are the WMDs of the ancient world ensuring Egyptian military supremacy. It’s a terrifying sight to see them bearing down upon you. And they pursue the Israelites and are soon ready to enforce the will of Pharaoh as they take up positions before the trapped, cornered Hebrew people.
The Forgetfulness of Pharaoh
But what is really remarkable about this moment is the extraordinary forgetfulness of Pharaoh, don’t you think? It’s extraordinary. Several times as God struck Egypt with the ten plagues Pharaoh seems to crumble, doesn’t he, and permit Israel to leave. He even asks Moses more than once to intercede with God on his behalf. But then after each plague passes, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he goes back to his old ways and changes his mind. But the tenth plague, the dreadful judgment on the firstborn of the land affecting every household in the country, surely that one was different. It does seem as though Pharaoh is finally broken, horrified at the judgment of God, and he expels Israel from Egypt. He pushes them out. Surely nothing could be more devastating than the death of the firstborn. How can Pharaoh ever go back to his old ways after such an event? And yet look at our passage. Here he is again, changing his mind, pursuing his runaway slaves. He really is playing with fire, isn’t he, even though he’s been burnt more than once before now. What can account for it? The extraordinary forgetfulness of Pharaoh who keeps returning, like a dog to his vomit, to his rebellion and sin.
Well it is the bondage of persistent rebellion. The bondage of persistent rebellion. Pharaoh wants to keep the Hebrews in chains but our passage shows us very clearly, doesn’t it, that it’s really Pharaoh who is a slave. There is a deep bondage that holds his heart enslaved to sin and he can’t get free. God has acted in dramatic, supernatural power again and again, ten times over - terrible judgments and still Pharaoh has not changed. Sometimes our argument is if only we had enough evidence we would believe. No one had more evidence than Pharaoh and his heart is impervious. It is incontrovertible the displays of God’s power in his land and none of it sways him because of the deep bondage of his heart enslaved to sin.
The Slavery of the Heart
It’s a chilling picture of spiritual inability and here’s the punch line - if today you are not a Christian, the Bible says the same thing about your heart. The Bible says the same thing about your heart. Whatever the evidence presented to you, by nature you will always find your life of sin, life on your terms, far more compelling than life on God’s terms. Unless the Lord Himself intervenes to change your heart, you will resist and refuse and reject the evidence and deny the message until, just as with Pharaoh here in verse 4 and again in verse 8, the Lord hardens your heart and hands you over to the consequences of your sin. I really want us to feel the horror of that possibility and of that reality. If you’re not a Christian, that is your condition. Perhaps it’s tempting to tell yourself, “I’ll come to Christ when it suits me. I know the Gospel, I’ve heard it, I may even believe that it’s true, but I’ll repent of my sin once I’ve had my fill. I can turn to Jesus when I’m good and ready, so why not enjoy myself a little longer. There’s plenty of time yet.” What a dreadful lie you’re telling yourself. What a dreadful lie. You are a slave to your sin. You are unable to come to Christ when you are good and ready. Left to yourself you never will be good and ready! Paul says “the natural person does not accept the things of the spirit of God for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them for they are spiritually discerned” - 1 Corinthians 1 and verse 14. Pharaoh thinks his big problem is the loss of his Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh’s big problem is the slavery of his own heart. If you’re not a Christian, whatever else may trouble you understand this - this is your deepest need; this is your big problem. Your heart is enslaved to sin and you can’t get free! You need God Himself, sovereignly, supernaturally, to set you free. So in the first place, Egypt’s story, Pharaoh’s story, shows us the bondage of persistent rebellion.
II. The Pull of Former Slavery
But then look at verses 10 through 12 and look at Israel’s story. Here is the pull of former slavery. The bondage of persistent rebellion; the pull of former slavery. Pharaoh has unleashed his chariots and they arrive at Pi-hahiroth to take up positions before the trapped, defenseless Israelites. Their backs are to the sea, they’re facing the Egyptian lines, the battle-hardened elite troops of the enemy bearing down upon them and verse 10 understandably says “they feared greatly.” They cry out to the Lord. Verse 11, they turn on Moses. Philip Ryken says that through the question of verse 11 an entire tradition of Jewish comedy is born. Verse 11, “What, there weren’t any good graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out into the desert that we would die? Didn’t we tell you this was what was going to happen?” verse 12. “We told you to leave us alone that we might serve the Egyptians. It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” Did you hear that? “We’d prefer slavery to this kind of freedom.”
The Pull of the Old Programming
It is said of long-term offenders in prison after their release they find it very difficult to readjust to the comforts of life on the outside. Incarceration, for some, leads to institutionalization as though they’d been reprogrammed, hardwired to live according to the old regime even though they’re now free. And something like that has happened to Israel here, hasn’t it? When hardship and crisis strikes, even though they’ve had every reason to trust God, to believe God, to expect Him to intervene and work in unexpected and supernatural ways, even so when things get difficult they look back to the old life. Their old slavery seems preferable to this new freedom. And the truth is, we are not so very different, are we, if we are Christians. Some of us have had our hearts set free from the same bondage we just saw Pharaoh continues to be ensnared by. We have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Our hearts have been made new. Our chains fell off, our hearts were free, and we’ve risen, gone forth, to follow Jesus. And yet, aren’t there times when the old programming reappears? In the crisis, when following Jesus gets hard the enemy comes in and temptation and trial press down, and we begin to wonder, “You know, maybe life would be easier living the old way. Maybe it was more comfortable with the shackles of sin’s bondage still binding my arms and feet.” Sometimes following Jesus is scarier, harder, costlier, and the old life just looks so tempting. “Go with the flow. Why stand out from the crowd? Just blend right in. Live like the world. To do otherwise is just too hard.” And so we find ourselves saying, “You know, maybe the old slavery is preferable after all to my new freedom.”
III. The Goal of God’s Strategy
The bondage of persistent rebellion; the pull of former slavery. I wonder if you’ve felt that pull. Maybe you’ve even given in sometimes. There is a remedy for both problems in our passage - the bondage of persistent rebellion; the pull of former slavery. There is the goal of God’s strategy. Last week when we looked at the end of chapter 13 we saw how God led the people by an unusual route, not the shortest route - two weeks crossing by the Via Maris, the way of the sea from the upper Nile region straight to the land of promise. No, He led them southeast almost in the wrong direction entirely, all the way to the edge of the desert down in Etham. But now look at verse 1. He tells Moses to do something even more perplexing, doesn’t He? He says, “Moses, pull a U-turn. Now that I’ve led you all the way down here to the desert, I want you to turn around and go back north to the very edge of the Red Sea and make camp at Pi-hahiroth.” Now we don’t really know where Pi-hahiroth was, although we can be confident it was not the ancient equivalent of Destin or Orange Beach. It is not a resort town at the seaside. In fact, the name is rather ominous. It means something like, “the opening of the canal.” The canal was part of the defensive fortifications at Egypt’s border.
The Impossible Power of God
And notice in our text that camping there is going to put the Israelites between Migdol and the sea. Migdol means “fortress” or “tower.” It’s an Egyptian border garrison. So God turns the people around and sends them to a spot where their backs are against the sea, they’re facing an enemy fortress beside a defensive canal with an opening in it to let chariots and Egyptian soldiers through. And so they’re sitting ducks, aren’t they? And soon enough the chariots are spilling out to take up positions before the now trapped and terrified Israelites. If God’s leading them down into the wilderness at the end of chapter 13 was odd, what in the world is going on here? What is God doing? Well the whole thing is a setup, isn’t it, something God apparently delights to do. He loves to setup seemingly insurmountable odds to overcome them in order to display His great glory. Think about Elijah on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. You remember the story? The prophets of Baal build an altar, offer a sacrifice to their false god, Baal, and they begin to dance and chant and cry out to Baal and cut themselves and perform their rituals to entice their empty deity to somehow send fire and consume the sacrifice. And of course nothing happens. And then it’s Elijah’s turn. He builds an altar this time to the Lord, the God of Israel, and offers sacrifice. But before he begins to pray, he calls for four jars of water to douse the wood and the sacrifice and then four more and then four more until the whole thing is sodden and saturated and there’s a trench dug around it; it’s now full of water. There’s no way this thing’s going to burn. Elijah’s lost his marbles, surely! Not at all. Elijah knows God delights to work in impossible situations to display the supremacy of His majesty and the glory of His grace. And so Elijah begins to pray, 1 Kings 18:38-39, “The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust and the water in the trench. And when all the people saw it they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!’”
The Lord Will Fight For Us
God delights to teach His people who He is and what He’s like, to display to us His glory in impossible circumstances and that’s exactly what He’s doing here in Exodus 14 as the Israelites are trapped between the devil, or Pharaoh at least, and the deep blue sea. He wants us to see and know that the Lord, He is God. Salvation belongs to the Lord. The Lord will get the victory and the Lord will work mightily and the Lord can be our deliverer. And so verse 4 He says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, he will pursue them, but I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And when the Egyptians begin their charge and Israel begins to cry out in terror Moses tells the same thing to them. Verse 13 and 14, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you and you have only to be silent.”
So what’s the answer to the deep dilemma of our spiritual slavery and bondage if we are not Christians? We can’t save ourselves. We are utterly helpless. We cannot come to Christ on our own, so what hope is there? Hope lies in the merciful intervention of a sovereign God. He can set you free. You have only to be silent and stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord. He can rescue you. And how will I know when He’s rescued me? Great evidence will be the end of your attempt to justify your rebellion against Him. It will be giving up your excuses for not coming to Jesus. The great evidence that He has worked in your spiritually enslaved heart to set you free will be as you hear now the call of the Gospel to come and trust in Jesus you will run to your only Savior and by faith cast yourself upon Christ. Has God set you free? Then come to Jesus. Show it by trusting your only Redeemer, your Liberator, your Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And what’s the answer to the fear that often drives even Christians to turn back and look for the old life of sin, the old life in Egypt? Isn’t it to cling to the promises of a God who will fight for us? He loves to bring His children down into impossible situations so that we are stripped of every other resource and we say, “I’ve got nothing! I don’t know what to do! It’s beyond me! I’m helpless!” And then comes His promise. “You have only to silent. Stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today.” Sometimes He brings us down into those circumstances and all the odds are stacked against us and we do not know how He will do it but He does and He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and He brings what seems impossible good out of overwhelming evil. And like the people on Mount Carmel, we fall down and say, “The Lord, He is God and on Him I can utterly rely.” The Lord fights for you, believer, and you can cling to His promises. You don’t need to go back to the old life. Yes, it’s hard, but you are in this battle but you’re not in it alone. The Lord Himself will fight for you. The bondage of persistent rebellion, the pull of former slavery, but praise God for the goal and outcome of His perfect strategy. It sets hearts free, it fights for His people, and it gets great glory for His name. Shall we pray together?
O Lord our God we praise You that You love to save us. You love to bring us down to places where we don’t know what to do and we feel our weakness and smallness and emptiness. And then as You work we say, “The Lord has done it and it is marvelous in our sight!” Would You do that please in our lives as we look to You seeking to stand firm, fear not, and to see the salvation of the Lord. And we pray, O Lord, especially for those who are not yet believers. By the mighty work of Your Spirit set their hearts at liberty and bring them to know Christ, for Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.
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