DIVINE GUIDANCE USES PERPLEXING AND CHALLENGING PATHS TO BOTH PROTECT AND PREPARE US FOR WHAT LIES AHEAD
Illustration: I love the spooky Halloween oriented commercial where you have the four terrified victims trying to determine what route to take to safety – They discuss various options with the girl advocating for the only sensible option: “Why don’t we just get in the running car?” No, instead they decide to hide in the garage behind the chainsaws … and then are forced to flee again when the bad guy cranks up his chain saw. So they are forced to take off again and their next choice makes equal sense: “Let’s head to the cemetery.” Sometimes the obvious route is not chosen.
This is a wonderful text about how God leads His beloved children. He leads in accordance with His perfect wisdom and His desire for our ultimate good. His ways are not our ways and we often cannot understand our seemingly wandering route while we are in the midst of the struggle. But God is accomplishing His purpose both to protect His children and to prepare us for the battles that lie ahead. He sovereignly and providentially gets us to the proper destination.
I. (:17-18) PERPLEXING ROUTE – DIVINE GUIDANCE DOESN’T ALWAYS IMMEDIATELY MAKE SENSE
A. (:17) Divine Guidance Doesn’t Always Take the Shortest Route
“Now it came about when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them 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 they return to Egypt.’”
If you had checked Google maps, you never would have chosen the path that God directed for the children of Israel.
God knows what amount of stress and pressure and temptation our faith can endure. He plans our pathway accordingly.
Bruce Hurt: Travelers going east out of Egypt had two options “the way of the sea” or “the way of Shur.” On the Way of the Sea (Via Maris) route Israel could have walked to Gaza in only about ten days. From Succoth the fastest and shortest route to take to the Promised Land would be a northeast route of about 150 miles. But the easiest is not always the best! And so we see how God leads them in Ex 13:21 “going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way.” What was this cloud? I personally think it was the Shekinah glory cloud. . . The Egyptians had fortresses on the Via Maris and would have engaged Israel in battle had they gone “the easy way.”
G. Campbell Morgan: A great principle of the Divine government emerges in these words, an under-standing of which will explain many experiences through which His people are called to pass. These people were but now released from slavery, and were undisciplined and untrained. Before they could be ready to withstand the opposition of new enemies, they had much to learn, and many experiences through which to pass. The near way geographically to their destination lay through the land of the Philistines, but to pass that way would inevitably have involved them in conflict. For this they were not in any way pre-pared. To have been thus plunged into it, would necessarily have filled them with despair, producing a change of mind which would have sent them back to Egypt. Therefore God led them round about, by a longer way, having its own difficulties as the sequel will show, but delivering them from this first peril. How constantly God does this with His people! He leads us by ways which seem to us to be long and tedious, when there are ways apparently so *much more direct to the goal where we know He wills we should be. Let us ever know that when He does so, He is avoiding for us perils of which we may not be conscious, but which are far graver than those through which we pass as we travel the pathway He marks out for us. The nearest way is not always the shortest. Our God never permits us, as long as we obey Him, to meet any danger unprepared. The length of the way, and the slowness of the method, are really making for quick and sure arrival.
B. (:18a) Divine Guidance Leads Through Paths of Suffering and Hardship
“Hence God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea;”
It must have been quite a challenge for such a multitude of people to embark upon a lengthy journey of unknown route and unknown destination via terrain characterized as wilderness and desert. How would God provide for their basic needs? Yet God’s leading was clear.
Remember how the Spirit led Christ into the desert for the purpose of being tempted by Satan.
Adam Clarke: Had the Israelites been obliged to commence their journey to the promised land by a military campaign, there is little room to doubt that they would have been discouraged, have rebelled against Moses and Aaron, and have returned back to Egypt. Their long slavery had so degraded their minds that they were incapable of any great or noble exertions; and it is only on the ground of this mental degradation, the infallible consequence of slavery, that we can account for their many dastardly acts, murmurings, and repinings after their escape from Egypt. The reader is requested to bear this in mind, as it will serve to elucidate several circumstances in the ensuing history. Besides, the Israelites were in all probability unarmed, and totally unequipped for battle, encumbered with their flocks, and certain culinary utensils. which they were obliged to carry with them in the wilderness to provide them with bread, etc.
C. (:18b) Divine Guidance Does Not Promote Disarray and Chaos – But Order and Discipline
“and the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt.”
This cannot mean they were equipped in military fashion to fight because the text has already made clear that they were not prepared for such confrontation with the enemy. This term “martial array” refers to the orderliness and discipline of their procession. This was not some chaotic mob scene.
J. Vernon McGee: the children of Israel left Egypt in an orderly manner. They did not come out of the land like a mob but in an organized way. They did not have an army but they lined up five in a row. If you had seen them going through the wilderness, you would have observed a most orderly group.
John Wesley: There were many reasons why God led them through the way of the wilderness of the red sea. The Egyptians were to be drowned in the Red-sea, the Israelites were to be humbled, and proved in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 8: 2. God had given it to Moses for a sign, Exodus 3:12, ye shall serve God in this mountain. They had again and again told Pharaoh that they must go three days journey into the wilderness to do sacrifice, and therefore it was requisite they should march that way, else they had justly been exclaimed against as dissemblers. Before they entered the lifts with their enemies, matters must be settled between them and their God; laws must be given, ordinances instituted, covenants sealed; and for the doing of this it was necessary they should retire into the solitudes of a wilderness, the only closet for such a crowd; the high road would be no proper place for these transactions. The reason why God did not lead them the nearest way, which would have brought them in a few days to the land of the Philistines, was because they were not yet fit for war, much less for war with the Philistines. Their spirits were broke with slavery; the Philistines were formidable enemies; it was convenient they should begin with the Amalekites, and be prepared for the wars of Canaan, by experiencing the difficulties of the wilderness. God is said to bring Israel out of Egypt as the eagle brings up her young ones, Deuteronomy 32:11, teaching them by degrees to fly.
II. (:19) PATRIARICHAL PROMISES — DIVINE GUIDANCE FULFILLS GOD’S WILL
“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.’”
430 years is a long time to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise – but the long time delay does not in any way compromise the integrity of the promise.
A. Nevin: And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. This rendered the march a kind of funeral procession, and such as no other history relates. Never was body so long in its conveyance to the grave, for forty years were taken up in bearing Joseph to his burial. We read at the death of Joseph that “they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” The precious deposit, likely to be cared for by some of the descendants of his own family, was dear to all. It was a memento of the vanity of human greatness. It was also a moral as well as a mortal memento. Joseph was a very pious character; he had been highly exemplary in every relation and condition of life, and much of God, of providence, and of grace was to be read in his history. What an advantage to be always reminded of such a man in having his remains always in the midst of them! But the body would be above all valuable as a pledge of their future destination. It was a present palpable sign of God’s covenant with their fathers in their behalf.
Calvin: Assuredly the faith of the departed Joseph, even in his dry bones, preached loudly to his descendants of the promised deliverance, lest they should grow careless from the long delay; and when at length the Israelites were led forth, the bones or ashes of the twelve Patriarchs were like so many standard-bearers, going before the several tribes to encourage their confidence. Wherefore the cowardice of the people was still more detestable, so often basely turning their backs upon their journey, when they had in sight so eminent a ground for confidence. The words of Joseph, which Moses reports, “God will surely visit you,” etc., confirm the expression of the Apostle, (Hebrews 11:22,) that “by faith — he gave commandment concerning his bones,” because he thus takes upon himself the character and office of their surety, to exhort his nation to embrace the promise.
III. (:20-22) PROVIDENTIAL GUIDANCE – DIVINE GUIDANCE LEADS US ONE STEP AT A TIME WITH THE ASSURANCE OF GOD’S PRESENCE
A. (:20) Divine Guidance Can Look Challenging
“Then they set out from Succoth and camped in Etham
on the edge of the wilderness.”
Thomas Coke: God is their Deliverer, and now becomes their Guide. The direct way was short; but God led them not by the shortest, but the safest way. If his ways seem winding, we may be satisfied he is a sure Guide. The Philistines were before them, and they must not see war as soon as they escape from slavery; they are not fit for such service yet. God knows how to proportion our trials to our strength, nor will he suffer his people to be tempted above what they are able. Besides, he had much to do among them, both in mercies and judgments; and a wilderness was the fittest place for his designs. Let us, therefore, commit all our ways unto the Lord.
B. (:21) Divine Guidance Is Clear and Reassuring
1. Presence of the Lord
“And the LORD was going before them”
2. Pillar of Cloud by Day
“in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way,”
3. Pillar of Fire by Night
“and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light,”
4. Promoting Travel by Day and by Night
“that they might travel by day and by night.”
Wiersbe: on pillars for guidance – We don’t have this same kind of visible guidance today, but we do have the Word of God which is a light (Ps. 119:105) and a fire (Jer. 23:29). It’s interesting to note that the pillar of fire gave light to the Jews but was darkness to the Egyptians (Ex. 14:20). God’s people are enlightened by the Word (Eph. 1:15–23), but the unsaved can’t understand God’s truth (Matt. 11:25; 1 Cor. 2:11–16). The Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Truth, guides us by teaching us the Word (John 16:12–13). Just as God spoke to Moses from the pillar, so the Lord communicates with us from the Scriptures by making them clear to us. There are times when we aren’t sure which way God wants us to go, but if we wait on Him, He will eventually guide us. How foolish it would have been for the Jews to pause in their march and take a vote to see which route they should take to Mount Sinai! Certainly there’s a place for community counsel and referendum (Acts 6:1–7), but when God has spoken, there’s no need for consultation. On more than one occasion in Scripture, the majority has been wrong.
Youngblood: Like the burning bush (Ex 3:2), the pillar was the visible symbol of God’s presence among His people. The Lord Himself was in the pillar (Ex 13:21; 14:24) and often spoke to the people from it ([Exodus 19–20;] Nu 12:5–6; Dt. 31:15–16; Ps. 99:6–7). The later hymn-writers of Israel fondly remembered it (Ps 78:14; Ps 105:39). A similar cloud of smoke came to represent the glory of the Lord in the Sanctuary throughout much of Israel’s history (Ex. 40:34–35; 1 Ki 8:10–11; Isa. 4:5; 6:3–4).”
C. (:22) Divine Guidance Does Not Take a Day Off
“He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day,
nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.”
Adam Clarke: This pillar or column, which appeared as a cloud by day, and a fire by night, was the symbol of the Divine presence. This was the Shekinah or Divine dwelling place, and was the continual proof of the presence and protection of God. It was necessary that they should have a guide to direct them through the wilderness, even had they taken the most direct road; and how much more so when they took a circuitous route not usually traveled, and of which they knew nothing but just as the luminous pillar pointed out the way! Besides, it is very likely that even Moses himself did not know the route which God had determined on, nor the places of encampment, till the pillar that went before them became stationary, and thus pointed out, not only the road, but the different places of rest. Whether there was more than one pillar is not clearly determined by the text. If there was but one it certainly assumed three different appearances, for the performance of Three very important offices.
1. In the day-time, for the purpose of pointing out the way, a column or pillar of a cloud was all that was requisite.
2. At night, to prevent that confusion which must otherwise have taken place, the pillar of cloud became a pillar of fire, not to direct their journeyings, for they seldom traveled by night, but to give light to every part of the Israelitish camp.
3. In such a scorching, barren, thirsty desert, something farther was necessary than a light and a guide. Women, children, and comparatively infirm persons, exposed to the rays of such a burning sun, must have been destroyed if without a covering; hence we find that a cloud overshadowed them: and from what St. Paul observes, 1 Corinthians 10:1, 1 Corinthians 10:2, we are led to conclude that this covering cloud was composed of aqueous particles for the cooling of the atmosphere and refreshment of themselves and their cattle; for he represents the whole camp as being sprinkled or immersed in the humidity of its vapours, and expressly calls it a being under the cloud and being baptized in the cloud.