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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/22/1996
17 Now it came about that when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them out by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, "Lest the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt." 18 Hence God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea; and the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt. 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, "God shall surely take care of you; and you shall carry my bones from here with you." 20 Then they set out from Succoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. 21 And the Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and night. 22 He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar or fire by night, from before the people.
The passage before us is a transition from the discussion of the redemption of the first born to the crossing of the Red Sea. But it is not a mere transition. It contains three interesting tid-bits which are worth lingering over as we begin this epic journey with the Israelites, for each has to do with God's providential care for his people as they travel through life.
The Lord was concerned that the people might be tempted to give up and turn back to Egypt if they encountered war too early in their journey. Even if he had not been omniscient, this concern would have been well founded. The Philistines were among the most cruel and warlike nations on earth at that time. The Hebrew word for "military helmet" is a loan word from the Philistine language. They were an Indo-European-speaking tribe that had somehow ended up in the Middle East instead of Europe. They appear first in the historical record as mercenaries, and then established their own kingdom. Israel, on the other hand, had been slaves for four hundred years. They were not used to standing up for themselves; they were not used to the pressures and fears of warfare, though they were as prepared as Moses could make them in a short time, going up "in martial array." So their reaction to the first threat of battle is quite consistent with the Lord's expectations here: "Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (14:11).
And yet, they did not in fact avoid war as a result of this detour. They soon had the Egyptian army hot on their trail. Didn't God know that this would happen? What did this detour accomplish, then? Well, the emphasis in vs. 17 is not on avoiding war, which was inevitable sooner or later, but on avoiding a return to Egypt. If you are running away from the Philistines, you would be running back toward Egypt. If you are running away from the Egyptian Army, which is between you and Egypt, you are still headed away from there. God could have miraculously delivered the people from the Philistines as easily as from the Egyptians. But it would not have made the same point, a point which needed to be made. The final defeat of Egypt needed to happen right before the Israelites' eyes in order to solidify their break from Egypt, to make it complete and final. The crossing of the Red Sea will then be like the crossing of the Rubicon: there is no turning back. They might (and would) murmur; they might idly talk of returning to Egypt; but going back there is no longer a realistic possibility after what is about to happen.
God's provision then is revealed as both necessary and wise. And we should remember this when his ways with us seem unnecessarily complicated and drawn out, when we are asked to wait or to take a longer journey than seems needful toward our goals. Sometimes the long way around is the shortest way home.
Joseph had made the children of Israel promise that when God took them back to their own land they would carry his bones back with them, in Genesis 50:24-25. That was four hundred years ago! Imagine what that means. The time elapsed is almost twice as long as the history of the United States. Four hundred years ago today it was 1596. Shakespeare's first play was not performed until 1592; he is not the great Bard we know but a rising star on the Elizabethan stage. It is not yet clear that he will be greater than Kit Marlowe or Ben jonson. The King James Bible will not be published until 1611. The Declaration of Independence is still 180 years away. Four hundred years is a long time.
Now, for four hundred years Joseph's coffin has been kept as a constant physical reminder of God's promise and Israel's destiny, the focus, as it were, of their identity as a people. Imagine how many times in all those years--especially toward their end--people said, "Nah--it's never going to happen." Imagine how you would feel now, carrying an object of such antiquity and significance, knowing that the prophecy is being fulfilled in your own life! And while imagining that, read again Peter's words to us: "This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles. Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the Fathers fill asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.' . . . But do not let this escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:1-4, 8-9).
Probably the pillars of cloud and fire were a single phenomenon, a single pillar of cloud filled with fire. It looked cloudy by day, but against the dark of night the fire within could be seen lighting it up. Why cloud and fire? Because throughout Scripture both are strongly associated with the Presence of God, both used as natural visible symbols of this invisible reality.
As we are reading Exodus, we naturally think first of the mysterious Fire of the Burning Bush and the Fire that will soon give off the Smoke of Sinai. We might remember the burning oven that passed between the pieces of the animals at the establishment of the Abrahamic Covenant back in Genesis. But there is also the Fire that was seen in the Tabernacle by night once it had been erected and the Cloud settled upon it (Ex. 40:38). There is the Fire that fell from heaven and consumed the soggy wood and sacrifices at Elijah's challenge to the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There is the Fire that goes before the Lord and burns up his adversaries in Ps. 97:3. There is the Fire that breaks forth and consumes with none to quench it in Amos 5:6. There is the Refiner's Fire of Malachi 3:2 which raises the question of who can endure the day of His coming? And then there are the tongues of Fire that descended on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:3. And finally this motif is summed up in Heb. 12:29--"Our God is a consuming Fire."
Cloud is almost equally important as a sign of God's presence. It is prominent on Mount Sinai at the giving of the Law in Exodus 19 and 24. It comes to rest upon the Tabernacle in chapter 40. It accompanies the Fire in many of the references above, such as Psalm 97. And it overshadowed the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration when out of it spoke the Voice of the Father, saying, "This is my beloved Son" (Luke 9:34-5).
These two manifestations say much about the God that Israel was forbidden to represent, being reminded often that she saw no form at Sinai. Fire speaks of both energy and of purity (e.g., the refiner's fire of Malachi and the use of fire to purify metals). To these concepts the cloud adds mystery. There are depths to it that you can never penetrate. To assign a form to this God, the form of man or beast or creeping thing, would be to presume that you could in fact penetrate those depths. And this Israel was not allowed to do. They were left to deal with the incomprehensible and inscrutable Numinous that was somehow also personal and rational and moral: a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. And thus they knew that God was with them.
Do you sometimes wish that we had a visible symbol of God's presence like that? Well, a wicked generation seeks for a sign. After a few months, Israel began to get used to this marvelous manifestation. Eventually they took it for granted. It is a sobering thought that it was in the very Presence of the awesome pillar of cloud that they listened to the negative reports of the ten spies at Kadesh Barnea. It was in full view of the Cloud and the Fire and with bellies full of Manna that they refused God's marching orders and condemned themselves to forty years of wilderness wandering. Would we be any different?
No. And that is why we now walk by faith and not by sight. But if we do walk by faith, God is just as much with us as He was with them. For we have our Lord's promise that "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age." Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams