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The life and legacy of Moses: God will give the victory—but you must fight the battle

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 14-15

A commitment to the cause of freedom was made by those we will remember in this study. They risked their lives, their families, their entire nation and its survival. And our Judeo-Christian faith heritage is the result.

Where has God rewarded your faith commitment in the past? Think of the last time you trusted his word with your time, finances, ambitions, or relationships. Did he prove himself faithful to you? Where is he asking you to trust him with significant faith today? Even when Pharaoh is behind you and the Red Sea before you, the Lord of the universe is beside you. He may be all we have, but he is all we need.

When you can’t see his hand, trust his heart (Exodus 14:1-20)

There are times when we don’t understand why we’re where we are. We’ve been faithful to God as we knew his will, but hard times have come anyway. A pastor friend of mine looked forward to years of travel and study after his retirement, but died just a few months after beginning this much-anticipated chapter of his life. His widow still wonders why God led them as he did.

Another pastor friend has struggled greatly in a church he knows the Father called him to lead. His previous ministry was filled with joy and success, and he wonders why God has directed him to this place of struggle.

We sometimes find ourselves between an army and a sea, and wonder why. One of my favorite Christian songs includes the words, “When you can’t see his hand, and you don’t understand, trust his heart.” The children of Israel learned its truth, the hard way.

An unlikely route

When God led his people out of Egypt, he did not take them down any of the established roads of the day. He could have selected the “way of the land of the Philistines,” the short route along the Mediterranean coast to Canaan. However, this route was usually used by armies invading Egypt, and thus was heavily guarded.

The Lord could have led his people down the route further south, “the way of Shur” (Genesis 16:7). But this was a caravan route which ran to central Canaan, and would have been heavily guarded as well. Had the Israelites made their exodus down either of these roads, they would have encountered not only the military strength of Egyptian frontier outposts but also fierce opposition from Canaanite armies in the southern part of that land.

And so the Lord led his people in a way none before or after would choose: a road which ended at the western shore of the Red Sea. The exact spot is unknown to us, but the events which occurred at this location would change the course of Western history.

A feared enemy

Not long after the Hebrews left the land of their slavery, the mightiest army known to man came after them (Exodus 14:5-9). Pharaoh understandably interpreted their unusual direction to mean that they had lost their way and failed to find the roads eastward to Canaan (v. 5). Seeing a quick opportunity to regain his slave labor force, he dispatched his soldiers for what he assumed would be an easy military campaign against an unarmed foe.

The chariots he sent after Israel were drawn by two horses; one soldier drove the chariot and held the shield, while the other fought with arms. Their horses were bred for just this purpose. These armed chariots enabled the army to run down any infantry or people on foot. There was no place to hide, and no way to defend themselves. Imagine tanks against unarmed civilians, a Tienamen Square with predictable results.

The Hebrews were understandably terrified (vs. 10-12). They mocked Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (v. 11). “No graves” is the double negative in the Hebrew, literally translated “no graves at all.” The charge was ironic, given the Egyptian propensity for pyramids and tombs.

Then they claimed that they had earlier asked to be left in Egypt (v. 12). There is no biblical record that they said this to Moses when their freedom was close and welcome. Critics always emerge when times are hard.

A trusted friend

In contrast to the fearful terror of the Hebrews, their leader evidenced remarkable faith in their Father and provider. He urged his people to make three decisions, each of them valuable in any crisis. First, “do not be afraid” (v. 13a). Choose not to be paralyzed with fear. Second, “stand firm” (v. 13b). Choose not to retreat from the crisis at hand. Third, “be still” (v. 14) and wait for the power and protection of God.

He promises his “deliverance” (v. 13), a word sometimes translated “salvation”—here it is meant in the literal sense of saving their lives. Later God’s people would come to understand that this deliverance is also spiritual and eternal.

And so the Lord protected the nation until he was ready to provide his final and total victory (vs. 15-19). The pillar of cloud may have used a desert whirlwind, but obviously acted in supernatural ways. Likewise with the pillar of fire, sometimes explained as volcanic activity but also inexplicable apart from supernatural agency.

God’s will never leads where his grace cannot sustain. In a crisis, be sure that you are where God wants you to be. And trust that he will stand at your side.

Stake your life on his word (Exodus 14:21-31)

Now, with the future of the nation in the balance, Moses made a fateful decision. He would not flee from the Egyptian army in retreat, disgrace, and defeat. Nor would he engage in military assault and certain annihilation. Instead, he would choose faith in the God who had brought them this far.

And the Lord proved himself worthy of such trust. The “strong east wind” which came over the Red Sea was no accident, as it appeared the precise moment when Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea” (v. 21). God had already proven his control of this wind with the plague of locusts (Ex. 10:13). Now he would show this power on an even greater scale.

Then the people staked their lives on their commitment to this God (v. 22). The parting of the Red Sea may have utilized some sort of seismic event, but is not explainable only as such. No earthquake in history has ever enabled two million people to cross a body of water to dry ground on the other side. The wall of water on the right and the left also kept the Egyptians from going around them or attacking from their flanks. The Egyptian soldiers had no choice but to follow the Israelites into the Sea.

Having saved his people from the sea, God now saved them from the soldiers. Their chariots bogged down in the same ground which the Israelites had covered with ease (v. 23-25), causing the Egyptians to finally recognize that the Hebrew God was fighting and winning for his people. Then he sent the sea back over the Egyptian army.

A skeptic once claimed that the Red Sea was a marsh only two feet deep, requiring no miracle for the Jews to cross. A believer replied, “Hallelujah! God drowned the entire Egyptian army in two feet of water!”

With this result: all of Israel was saved, while all of the army pursuing them was destroyed. Never in military campaigns does such a victory occur. Finally Israel recognized the greatness of her God and “put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (v. 31).

Years later, the children of Israel would again be required to demonstrate this kind of faith. The crossing of the Jordan into Canaan illustrates the same faith which was needed on this day of Exodus and deliverance.

As the people broke camp on the eastern edge of the Jordan, they found the river “at flood stage all during harvest” (Joshua 3:15a). The river flows north to south, over 200 miles from Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. It plunges nearly 2000 feet down across its journey, but typically flows in a peaceful, meandering stream. However, every year the spring rains and melted snow from Mt. Hermon combined to turn the stream into a raging torrent. The harvest period was roughly between Easter and Pentecost; this event most likely occurred in early April.

Now the people stood before a river which was a mile wide, 12-15 feet deep, rushing by so swiftly that it promised to drown any who stepped into it. The cattle and possessions of the nation would be lost. The children would have no chance to survive. Few adults could expect to live through this flood.

Picture the scene in your mind. The priests take up the Ark, grasping the poles which support its weight. They lift these poles to their shoulders. They march toward the river. They stop. No one speaks. You can hear only the pounding of the water as it rushes by, crashing against the shore. You can feel its spray against your face and smell the mist as it rises.

They don’t have to do this. They can stay where they are, secure and at ease. But they’ll never inherit the promises and power of God. They can try to find their own way across the river, but they’ll likely fail and drown. Or they can step out in faith. And they do.

Instantly, the pounding waters stop. The foam ceases, the spray dies. The river’s roar falls silent. All is quiet and still. And where only moments before there had been a deep, torrential river, now there lies before them a dry bed anyone can cross.

Now the people were required to demonstrate their own faith (v. 17). Would the flood stay blocked? Was it safe to step into the river bed? It would take the nation half a day to cross. Imagine parents with children in hand, all their worldly possessions at their side. What would your response have been?

Theirs was unanimous—the entire nation followed God by faith. They stepped into the miracle. And only when they did, could they see its power and experience its provision. It is still the same with us today.

A group of botanists spotted a rare specimen growing down the side of a dangerous cliff. They asked a local boy if he would climb down and retrieve the flower for a reward. He left for a moment, then returned with a large man at his side. He told the botanists, “I’ll go down, so long as my father holds the rope.” We can make the same decision today.

Give him the glory he deserves (Exodus 15:1-2, 20-21)

A basic leadership principle is: you can do anything so long as you don’t care who gets the credit. In spiritual context we should amend the maxim to read, you can do anything which God wills so long as he gets the glory. He will not share his glory with us.

Somehow Moses and Miriam knew the truth of this principle. The song they led the people to offer God admitted that the victory was not theirs but his. While their faith made it possible to receive his power, they did not earn it. Their deliverance was the gift of his grace alone.

Their praise is instructive for our worship today. First, we offer our song “to the Lord” (Exodus 15:1). Worship is not about us but him. Its success is not defined by whether or not we liked the music or the message, but whether he did. He is the audience of One. When did he last receive your praise?

Second, we remember all he has done for us (vs. 1b, 21). We think of his deliverance past, and trust him for his protection to come. Praise leads to thanksgiving. For what should you be grateful today?

Third, we offer him our lives in personal commitment. Note the personal pronouns: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him (v. 2, emphasis added). Martin Luther claimed that the most important word of the 23rd Psalm is the little word “my”: “The Lord is my shepherd.” When we worship him not just as the God or our God, but my God, we have given him our hearts. When last did you place him on the throne of your life?

You and I have experienced an exodus no less real than that of ancient Israel. We have been led from slavery to sin, defeating the armies of Satan and his demons, stepping from death into life eternal. We have been delivered. Give your God the glory he deserves.

Conclusion

Is there a Pharaoh in your life today? An army surrounding you? A Red Sea before you? A complaining multitude coming against you?

At my son’s recent baccalaureate ceremony last spring, the speaker made a telling point: even a dead fish can float downstream. Anyone can go with the crowd, back off when times are hard, give up when opposition comes. It takes courage and character to go against the flow, to trust God when you cannot see him, to stake your life on his word and will, to give him the glory he deserves. But such commitments make possible an exodus from night to day, from death to life.

Are you with Moses today?