By Faith Israel... Hebrews 11:29
Hebrews 11:29 brieflysummarizes two contrasting story lines that are seen woven throughout the narrative of the Exodus story. In fact, this is the same narrative that permeates the entire story of the bible. The narrative that we see is that God’s people are saved by faith, but those who do not have faith are destroyed. Faith is a matter of life and death. Faith has temporal and eternal consequences.
We can see these things so clearly this morning when we read Hebrews 11:29 which says, “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.”
When you read about this moment in Israel’s history it would be easy to overlook or even to deny that God’s people had faith when they crossed the Red Sea. When I read this story in Exodus 13 & 14 I might summarize it by saying, ‘Israel crossed the Red Sea because there was no other route available to them. They crossed the Red Sea because they were fleeing in fear for their lives from Pharaoh’s massive army. They literally had no other choice to make. In that moment there was no other option available to them.’
If I were to describe Exodus 13 & 14 in this way the author of Hebrews would quickly correct my view of these things. He would reject my interpretation of these events and then he would humble me by commending the faith of God’s people on this occasion. He would shame me by proving to me that I had missed the whole point of this story! In many ways, this is exactly what I have experienced this week as I have considered Hebrews 11:29.
Two Reasons This Commendation Of Israel’s Faith Seemed To Be So Unlikely
When you consider all of the events surrounding this story you discover that there are two reasons why this commendation of Israel’s faithseemed to be so unlikely to have ever happened. The first reason this commendation seemed to be so unlikely was because as God began to bring His people out of Egypt a moment of faith like this did not seem to be necessary. After the 10th plague Pharah let the people go and the road to the Promised Land seemed to be right in front of them. The path they had to take was straight ahead and it was free from obstructions. It is inevitable that the LORD will lead us down a path that will require us to have faith.
The second reason that this commendation of Israel’s faith seemed so unlikely was because when the time of testing came while they were standing at the edge of the Red Sea their hearts and their mouths immediately displayed faithlessness and not faith. When they saw the Egyptian army moving towards them they grumbled and complained against the LORD and Moses saying, “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.” (14:11-12)
How can a person, or in this case an entire nation, recover from such faithlessness so quickly? How can the problem of faithlessness be discovered and diagnosed and then how can faith be restored?
The First Reason Why This Commendation Seemed So Unlikely
The first reason that this commendation concerning the faith of God’s people seemed so unlikely must be taken from the broader context of this narrative. As you read this story you discover that it is the LORD who is directing every circumstance through both primary and secondary means. The LORD is the One who is making the decision to lead His people to the Red Sea. God creates this moment where faith in God must be exercised. This does not happen by chance, by luck, by misfortune, or by a bad decision that someone has made. No, this all happens by God’s wise and providential hand so that He is glorified, so that His power is made known, and so that His people learn the importance of exercising faith and trust in Him and His Word.
Because God is doing these things no one is able to avoid these situations. No one will be able to bypass any trial or testing where God intends to use these things to accomplish His purposes. Believer, you need to understand that God intends to put you as an individual, and us as a congregation of believers, in situations where it can be said, “By faith they…”.
As we read Exodus 13:17 we see that it begins with these words, “Pharaoh let the people go…” At first glance, this appears to be the end of the story. From our perspective these words mean that the objective has been met and the goal has been achieved. The people of God are no longer slaves and they have been given permission to leave Egypt.
Shouldn’t the drama of this story simply end here? What more would need to be written than the words, ‘Pharaoh let the people go’? The order to release God’s people has come from Pharaoh’s himself and the Egyptians are in full agreement with this decision. This is a top down command from Pharaoh himself that the people should leave immediately.
However, this story is not over because there is someone greater than Pharaoh calling the shots, implementing the plan, writing this story, fulfilling His purposes, and accomplishing His will- the LORD.
Can I confess that the words, “Pharaoh let the people go”, do not seem to do justice to the tone of this moment. These words seem to be anti-climactic. These words seem to be an example of a profound understatement.
Before the tenth plague Moses had told Pharaoh that the Egyptians would soon be coming to him and bow down before him and cry out, ‘Get out, you and all the people who follow you.’ (Exodus 11:8) As you read those words you can hear the panic, the alarm, the dread, the terror in their voices as they fall before Moses saying, “Get out, get out, get out! Leave quickly and do not linger lest we be destroyed!”
The Egyptians are pleading, prompting, persuading and pressuring the Israelite’s to leave as quickly as they possibly can. They do this because they fear for their own lives and for the lives of all of their families. We read in Exodus 12:33, “The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’”
The Egyptians served many god’s but they had no eternal assurance and comfort in death. To be honest, God’s people often sound just like these Egyptians. God’s people lack faith and so they fear death to and this is part of the reason why the Red Sea experience is so necessary. The Red Sea will become a symbol of Christian baptism which represents our death with Christ, our resurrection with Him, and our assurance of hope about eternal life.
Having just addressed how the Egyptians were urging the people to leave quickly we should also notice that this is in line with what God had already commanded His people to do. During the observance of the Passover the LORD had told his people, “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover.” (Exodus 12:11) The clear implication is that God is going to deliver His people and they are to be ready to leave Egypt in haste.
It is comforting to see that the Egyptians, who had so often hindered the people in their faith and obedience to the LORD, were now being used by God as an instrument to accomplish His desire for a hasty exodus. We may get so used to seeing our enemies in the adversarial role that we may miss the fact that God often uses them for our good and for His purposes as He does here. This should provoke us to thankfulness and gratitude even for our enemies.
As the Egyptians ‘urged’ God’s people to leave in haste the path that they began on seemed to be the right one to take. There really was only one clear, quick and safe route for the people of Israel to take. This is why it is so shocking to see in Exodus 13:17 that this is not the path that the LORD will lead them on. Instead the LORD, who has commanded them to leave in haste, will take them on a detour! He will direct them to take a path that will entrap them in the land of Egypt. We read these words in Exodus 13:17, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near.” God will often slow us down and inconvinience us if it will increase our faith. In the end, we win!
What possible reason could there be for the LORD to make a decision like this?
The reason given in the immediate context is found in the rest of this verse. We read, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For (because) God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’”
Ultimately, underlying this reason is the fact that God’s people need to learn to trust God, have confidence in His Word, and they need to live by faith in any and all circumstances. This is what is so important that God will change His plans and take His people out of Egypt a different way.
God, who knows the hearts of His people, is aware of the fact that there is a very big problem in the hearts of His people. He has diagnosed them as being weak in faith. They are faithless and they will be double minded at the first sign of trouble and will want to return to Egypt (James 1:5-8).
The Philistines occupied the Promised Land. They were not as strong or as mighty as the Egyptians but when God’s people encountered them they would have turned back and returned to Egypt. The Philistine army was insignificant when compared to the Egyptian army but when the Israelite’s would see war they would flee and not fight in faith while trusting God. Being faithless they would flee from a lesser power (the Philistines) and return to the Egyptians. This is a big problem!
I wonder what Israel would have said if the LORD would have taken a survey of His people before they made this detour. What would they have said if the LORD asked them, “Will you fight the Philistines when they are encountered in the Promised Land?” I think they would have confidently answered ‘Yes, we will fight them and win’.
If the LORD would have asked His people, “Will you flee from before the Philistines and return to Egypt?”, they would have optimistically said, “There is absolutely no way we would do that!” Like the apostle Peter they would boldly say, “Though everyone else falls away from you, I never will!” (Matthew 26:33)
There are a four reasons for us to suspect that Israel might believe that they would fight the Philistines.
Israel is flying high right now because they are are leaving Egypt after having just plundered that nation. We read in Exodus 12:35-36, “The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sing of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.” Usually plunder is taken at the end of the battle and at the conclusion of a war so maybe they might be thinking this battle is over.
Even though they had all of this plunder it is their weapons that is emphasized as they are leaving Egypt. In Exodus 13:18 we read these words, “And the people of Israel went out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.” These weapons may have made God’s people confident that they could defeat the Philistines. They did not see with the eyes of faith that the battle is the LORD’s to fight.
In Exodus 14:8 we read these words, “...the people of Israel were going out defiantly”. As Israel leaves Egypt they are confident, bold, insolent, insubordinate, mutinous, obstinate against ever being enslaved again.
When Pharaoh comes after God’s people who have been described as ‘defiant’ and ‘equipped for battle’ so he comes after them prepared to squash any resistance that Israel might try to muster on the battlefield. In Exodus 14:19 we read these words, “The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea…”. Egypt has been afraid of these slaves for quite some time even when they were solidly under their thumb, but now Israel is a large nation with the hope of being free and they are armed! If Israel chooses to fight he will be prepared.
Despite all of these things they were missing the most important thing. The did not possess the one thing that really matters. They had weapons, they had gold and silver, they had a defiant attitude but none of this really gives lasting peace and freedom. The LORD, who knows the hearts of all people, knows that they lack faith and confidence in Him and in His power. The LORD knows that they do not yet trust Him so God will take them by the hand and make them encounter something to help their faith (Exodus 15:31).
Right now the Israelite’s think that they are ready for anything but the LORD knows that only a few of them truly have faith. If they face trials, wars, or adversities His people do not have the faith to be courageous, confident, thankful, and hopeful.
Because of this lack of faith the LORD, who had commanded them to leave in haste, now sends them in a different direction. We read in Exodus 13:18-22, “But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.” And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”
Then we read in Exodus 14:1-4 these words, “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.”
The Israelite’s do not end up in this precarious situation because Moses or any other person made a mistake. The LORD is directing His people to do these things. And to their credit, the people of God are obeying the LORD in all of these things. Sometimes we can find ourselves in these situations through no fault of our own. We find ourselves in these situations because we obeyed God and He intends to increase our faith.
If their faith is strong when they encounter problems they will realize that everything will be OK because they have obeyed the LORD. If, however, their faith is weak they will fear, doubt, question God, become pessimistic and look back longingly at Egypt the land in which they were enslaved.
When Pharaoh sees that the people are wandering in the wilderness by the Red Sea and he becomes convinced that they have made a grave mistake. When he sees that they have encamped by the sea Pharaoh has the time he needs to muster his army and pursue the Israelite’s to bring them back into bondage.
All too quickly Pharaoh forgets all the mighty acts that the LORD which had persuaded him to let Israel go. In Exodus 14:5 we read, “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?’” Even after these ten plagues Pharaoh has not truly humbled himself and repented.
Pharaoh should acknowledge that it was the LORD who has mightily redeemed His people form his hand; instead, Pharaoh is still boasting about himself saying, “What is this we have done, that we let Israel go from serving us?” Pharaoh still thinks that he has power and control in this situation. Therefore, there needs to be a final battle with a decisive ending if the Egyptians are to know that Yahweh is the LORD (Exodus 14:4).
The Second Reason It Seemed Unlikely That Israel’s Faith Would Be Commended
It seemed unlikely that Israel would be commended for having a strong faith because when they looked up and saw Pharaoh’s army their hearts were immediately revealed as having no faith (14:10-12). When this happened they spoke up and said, “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.” (14:11-12)
Left to themselves in a moment like this they would have surrendered to Pharaoh immediately! Without faith their defiant spirit immediately evaporated. Without faith their plunder was not help as a ransom. Without faith heir weapons no longer gave them any comfort. Without faith they were no longer aware of the LORD who was with them in the Pillar leading them.
How will they get out of this situation?
Without faith they have no good options. Without faith you have no good options in your circumstances either!
Without faith they could have taken the shorter road to the Promised Land and then returned at the sight of war. Without faith they could attempt to fight the Egyptians and they would die. Without faith they can try to cross the Red Sea when it opens and they would perish with the faithless Egyptians. Without faith they could immediately give up and become slaves again.
In this dire moment Moses was used by God to turn things around. Moses only spoke a few words. Moses did not ramble on frantically as he grasped for something to help in this situation. No, he spoke a few short words that were God-centered, God- exalting, God-glorifying. His words were not man-centered, but full of Good News about what God would do. These words immediately gave God’s people faith.
Moses says to them, “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.” (14:13-14)
These words changed everything for God’s people that day. Are they impacting your heart this morning? When Moses spoke these words the LORD was with the His people in the Pillar that was leading them but it was these words that created faith in God’s people! Oh, that we would not despise or think so little of the Word of God.
Isn’t it encouraging to see that things can change so quickly when the Gospel is preached and believed. The Gospel when received and believed can change things can change things temporally and eternally. The Gospel when received and believed can change things in us and around us. As fast as God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He has now given faith to His people through these words. Oh, that we would not harden our hearts if we hear His voice in His Word today.
We ought to thank God for men like Moses who will speak the truth and encourage and strengthen our faith. Consider for a moment what God has used Moses as a preacher to do in this moment. Defeat was imminent but now there will be victory because Moses spoke words that produced faith in God’s people. Perhaps this week we might all spend some time meditating on Exodus 14:13-14 and see what type of words the LORD used in this moment to produce this faith in His people.
The book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were facing their own crisis moments. They were being persecuted and they were beginning to loose their grip upon Christ and their understanding of the gospel. Their faith was waning in the face of mounting pressure and they were tempted to compromise and return to bondage.
The author of Hebrews writes this entire chapter to encourage their faith by reminding them of this great cloud of Old Testament witnesses (12:1). We have so many examples of men and women who looked to the LORD Jesus and saw the salvation of God. What a gift it is to come to the Scriptures and be encouraged in our faith by these saints.
Near the end of the book of Hebrews the author reminds these Christians to remember their leaders who faithfully speak the Word of God to them. He reminds them to consider the outcome of their way of life and to imitate their faith (13:7). Some of these believers had stopped gathering with the saints and so they were isolating themselves and cutting themselves off from all of these things.
You, however, have acted in faith today by coming to hear the Word of God, by remembering those who speak the Word of God faithfully, and by being around other believers who speak the word of God. May God honor your faith by giving you victory in Christ to the glory of God over your trials and afflictions. And may your faith prove to be longer lasting than of those whose faith was commended in Hebrews 11:29.
There were only a few of this generation whose faith truly and lastingly pleased the LORD. We read in Hebrews 3:16-19, “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter into His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Or consider 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Therefore brothers and sisters in Christ having been encouraged and warned today concerning the importance of our faith in Jesus Christ let me close with James 1:2-4, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”