“Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.”
It is morning—a new day—and a new year has begun!
The night—another day—and with it another year has passed away!
And what a year it has been!
Indeed, we would stand aghast if all the moments it contained would be flashed suddenly before us, and we could see in a moment all that has transpired in it. For some there were moments of joy; for other, moments of sadness; and for most of us, a mixture of both.
But now it is morning, as we stand at the threshold of a new year!
The height of folly it would be that, like the children of this world, we should expect something new and better that the future should bring. O, indeed, we may expect there will again be moments of joy and gladness. For they shall marry and be given in marriage, new arrivals will continue to gladden our homes. And most of all we shall continue to experience the blessings and joys of salvation. But we may also expect that all these joys will be tempered with sorrow and pain, the same as we endured in the years now passed. The ever recurring cycle that brings nothing new under the sun will also bring with it the usual moments of darkness and pain. And we need not be described as too pessimistic when we say that there are reasons to believe that conditions in the world and in the church will not be better, but perhaps even worse than in the year that has ended. The growing unrest in the world does not now appear as having been stunted in its growth. Though the war in Asiz appears to be coming to its conclusion, the unrest in Palestine and other areas of the world continue to bring us great concern. The internal troubles in our own land and throughout the world will no doubt continue to increase. And the conditions in the church world appear to be heading for more turmoil and trouble. Indeed, all this does not present a rosy prospect as we stand at the beginning of another year. But we ask in the light of God’s prophetic Word, is there anything different to expect?
Moreover, we cannot now avoid being confronted with many questions concerning us as churches, as families, as individuals. As churches, shall we continue to be faithful to the truth, and our calling to faithfully proclaim it? Will our children continue in faith of our fathers, or will they be carried away with the tide of apostasy evident on every hand? Will we personally be able to withstand the fiery darts of Satan as he will continue to fling them at us? When the angel of death shall strike into our homes, will we be able to remain strong in faith, or will we murmur that the way of the Lord is not right?
All these questions, and many more like them, quite naturally raise another question: When all these things come to pass, what shall we do? What shall we do when all things appear to be against us?
Such, according to the context of our text, was the question of Israel. And to that question the God of Israel thunders in our text:
Tell the children of Israel to go forward!
Ah, indeed, the historical setting presents to us a helpless Israel!
You remember, they were on the march. They had just been delivered out of Egypt, the house of bondage. For four hundred years they had dwelt under the whip-lashes of and in servitude to the Pharaohs of Egypt. Another Pharaoh had risen to command who knew not Joseph and the past favors God had provided for His people in the land of Goshen. The new Pharaoh sensed that the children of Israel had increased under the favor of God, might soon turn against him and destroy him and his land. Under severe bondage he brought them, until they cried out to the Lord for deliverance. And God heard their cry, and sent them one who would lead them out. After ten great plagues which God visited upon the Egyptians, Moses leads Israel out and toward the promised land.
Not, however, did God choose to have His people go over the shortest route to the land of the promise; but He lead them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to the region west of the Red Sea. The divine reasoning was two-fold: on the one hand, He would teach His people that the way to Canaan and rest was a way fraught with difficulty and fear, in order that they might place all their confidence and trust in Him their Deliverer; on the other hand, He purposed to lead Israel’s erstwhile captor to his sudden destruction in the Red Sea.
However, there at the Red Sea, Israel discovered their helpless condition. For to the left of them lay the sea, and in front of them and to their right were insurmountable mountains, while behind them pursuing were the steel-clad armies and chariots of their enemy. Pharaoh, as the Lord had, predicted, had hardened his heart and was in fast pursuit to confiscate what had been so recently taken from him. With six hundred horsemen and chariots he followed hard after Israel, intent on bringing them back to Egypt and servitude. Caught in a pocket as it were with no possible means of escape were the children of Israel. And they were sore afraid, murmuring at the same time that Moses had taken them out of slavery only to let them die at the hand of their enemy. Most desperate was their situation. Listen to them complain: “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away, to die in the wilderness? Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.”
Lest we should conclude that what we have here is an isolated incident in the history of this ancient people, we ought to remind ourselves that typically they are a picture of the church of God. A type they were of the church that is principally delivered from the prison-house of sin and death, and a type of the church as she still resides in the world.
O, to be sure, through the redemption we have in Christ Jesus, we, like Israel delivered from Egypt, have been delivered from the power of sin and death. And on the basis of that redemptive work of Christ we have a right to the heavenly land of Canaan and rest, and the Lord will surely bring us there. But it is equally true, as it was for the children of Israel, that we are not there yet. We must go through the wilderness of this world. And under divine direction there is also the Red Sea, the insurmountable mountains, and the pursuing hosts of evil.
No different will this be in the year into which we have now entered. Dark and fearsome may be the days that lie ahead for us as churches, and as individuals—for us and our children. So terrifying may be the days that despairingly we may exclaim: What shall we do? the divine answer is:
Tell the children of Israel to go forward!
Literally the text says: Pull up! Break camp, and move on!
You see, Israel dwells in tents, not in permanent, earth-fastened domiciles. Though we pitch our tents for a night, they must be pulled up in the morning, and we journey on. The march to Canaan must progress.
Not merely a command of a sovereign Lord, but a command of sovereign love! For it is Jehovah our covenant Lord Who commands. Not merely an almighty God Whose right it is to command expecting our obedience; but He is our covenant God Who has established eternally and unchangeably His covenant of friendship with us, and Who from everlasting has loved us with a love that will not let us go—a love that always seeks our eternal perfection—a love that will also destroy all our enemies, and perfectly deliver us.
A command that is motivated by a threefold purpose! First, it is His purpose to bring His Israel to Canaan. That is the final destination of the journey. To that destination Israel cannot come by standing still, or by going backward to Egypt. Israel must pull stakes, and go forward to get there. It is a long march, not, as we have seen, by the shortest route, but over the long and trying route,—it is the way of sin and grace, over which Jehovah leads His people unto the promised land. Second, in close connection with the foregoing, it is His purpose to save Israel. Not only so marvelously and miraculously out of Egypt, the house of bondage; but now also through the Red Sea, the type of baptism, which in turn was symbolic of entering into Christ’s death and resurrection, which saves us. And third, His purpose was to test them and try their faith. Not to learn how Israel will react to the trial, for this He knows omnisciently. He who could know the thoughts of the reprobate heart of Pharaoh, shall He not know the thoughts of the hearts of His elect? But His purpose is to let Israel through the trial place all their confidence only in Jehovah. For this He prepares the conditions for the trial, and it is He who tries them.
The trial of faith!
O, be not too hasty to condemn this people as being faithless, and rebellious! Indeed, it seemed that they had forgotten their Deliverer. For they cried out unto the Lord not with a cry that seemed to proceed out of faith, but rather of distrust, and rebellion. Moreover, they also raised accusation against the Lord’s, servant Moses, accusing him of having deceived them and leading them into a trap where they must be consumed, all of them. At the moment all they envisioned was death. They had no eye, so it seemed, to behold the cloud that moved before them as a guide, and behind them as a protector. They saw only the swiftly advancing steeds of Pharaoh. They appeared crazed with fright. It looked to them like their doom was fixed. So great was their vexation that also Moses apparently is carried away with it. For he also cried unto the Lord. It was a cry which clearly displeased the Lord, as is evident from the question: “Wherefore criest thou unto me?”
What shall we conclude from all this? Are we to draw from it that they were all faithless reprobates?
Indeed not! Though undoubtedly there were reprobates among them, for they were not all Israel that is called Israel. Rather we turn to the Scriptural commentary on this passage in Hebrews 11:29 “By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land; which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.” So that here we have a true picture of the helplessness of the children of God expressed when He brings sore trials upon them. It is the trial of their faith!
And what is demanded of that faith Jehovah gives?
That it follow blindly in the way God leads? O, NO! Faith is never blind, nor does faith which is spiritual and rational ever follow blindly. Rather, it looks at the signs of Jehovah’s presence as evidenced in the cloud, and relies on His promises that He will bring them safely to their promised rest. It is that faith that sees in the waters of the Red Sea the baptism that saves. It saves them not only by separating them from the power of the devil, which is presently destroyed symbolically in the destruction of Pharaoh and his host, but it saves them through the blood of atonement, through the death and resurrection with Christ of which those waters also speak. They must, in one word, believe that their God Who had promised to bring them to Canaan would go with them as they passed through the waters.
Thus the way, which looked like, a trap in which they would be consumed, became the way of escape, and would bring them forward unto their final and glorious salvation. In that faith let us also go forward, my fellow pilgrim!
Have no fear, but by grace place all our trust in Him Who is indeed the God of our salvation.
And we shall never be ashamed!