Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
The departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt (which was indeed the birth of the Jewish church) is made yet more memorable by further works of wonder, which were wrought immediately upon it. Witness the records of this chapter, the contents whereof, together with a key to it, we have, Heb. 11:29. "They passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned;" and this they did by faith, which intimates that there was something typical and spiritual in it. Here is, I. The extreme distress and danger that Israel was in at the Red Sea. 1. Notice was given of it to Moses before (v. 1-4). 2. The cause of it was Pharaoh’s violent pursuit of them (v. 5-9). 3. Israel was in a great consternation upon it (v. 10–12). 4. Moses endeavours to encourage them (v. 13, 14). II. The wonderful deliverance that God wrought for them out of this distress. 1. Moses is instructed concerning it (v. 15–18). 2. Lines that could not be forced are set between the camp of Israel and Pharaoh’s camp (v. 19, 20). 3. By the divine power the Red Sea is divided (v. 31), and is made, (1.) A lane to the Israelites, who marched safely through it (v. 22, 29). But, (2.) To the Egyptians it was made, [1.] An ambush into which they were drawn (v. 23–25). And, [2.] A grave in which they were all buried (v. 26–28). III. The impressions this made upon the Israelites (v. 30, 31).
We have here,
I. Instructions given to Moses concerning Israel’s motions and encampments, which were so very surprising that if Moses had not express orders about them before they would scarcely have been persuaded to follow the pillar of cloud and fire. That therefore there might be no scruple nor dissatisfaction about it, Moses is told before, 1. Whither they must go, v. 1, 2. They had got to the edge of the wilderness (ch. 13:20), and a stage or two more would have brought them to Horeb, the place appointed for their serving God; but, instead of going forward, they are ordered to turn short off, on the right hand from Canaan, and to march towards the Red Sea. Where they were, at Etham, there was no sea in their way to obstruct their passage: but God himself orders them into straits, which might give them an assurance that when his purposes were served he would without fail bring them out of those straits. Note, God sometimes raises difficulties in the way of the salvation of his people, that he may have the glory of subduing them, and helping his people over them. 2. What God designed in these strange orders. Moses would have yielded an implicit obedience, though God had given him no reason; but shall he hide from Moses the thing that he does? No, Moses shall know, (1.) That Pharaoh has a design to ruin Israel, v. 3. (2.) That therefore God has a design to ruin Pharaoh, and he takes this way to effect it, v. 4. Pharaoh’s sagacity would conclude that Israel was entangled in the wilderness and so would become an easy prey to him; and, that he might be the more apt to think so, God orders them into yet greater entanglements; also, by turning them so much out of their road, he amazes him yet more, and gives him further occasion to suppose that they were in a state of embarrassment and danger. And thus (says God) I will be honoured upon Pharaoh. Note, [1.] All men being made for the honour of their Maker, those whom he is not honoured by he will be honoured upon. [2.] What seems to tend to the church’s ruin is often overruled to the ruin of the church’s enemies, whose pride and malice are fed by Providence, that they may be ripened for destruction.
II. Pharaoh’s pursuit of Israel, in which, while he gratifies his own malice and revenge, he is furthering the accomplishment of God’s counsels concerning him. It was told him that the people fled, v. 5. Such a fright was he in, when he gave them leave to go, that when the fright was a little over he either forgot, or would not own, that they departed with his consent, and therefore was willing that it should be represented to him as a revolt from their allegiance. Thus what may easily be justified is easily condemned, by putting false colours upon it. Now, hereupon,
1. He reflects upon it with regret that he had connived at their departure. He and his servants, though it was with the greatest reason in the world that they had let Israel go, yet were now angry with themselves for it: Why have we done thus? (1.) It vexed them that Israel had their liberty, that they had lost the profit of their labours, and the pleasure of chastising them. It is meat and drink to proud persecutors to trample upon the saints of the Most High, and say to their souls, Bow down, that we may go over; and therefore it vexes them to have their hands tied. Note, The liberty of God’s people is a heavy grievance to their enemies, Esth. 5:12, 13; Acts 5:17, 33. (2.) It aggravated the vexation that they themselves had consented to it, thinking now that they might have hindered it, and that they needed not to have yielded, though they had stood it out to the last extremity. Thus God makes men’s envy and rage against his people a torment to themselves, Ps. 112:10. It was well done to let Israel go, and what they would have reflected on with comfort if they had done it from an honest principle; but doing it by constraint, they called themselves a thousand fools for doing it, and passionately wished it undone again. Note, It is very common, but very absurd and criminal, for people to repent of their good deeds; their justice and charity, and even their repentance, are repented of. See an instance somewhat like this, Jer. 34:10, 11.
2. He resolves, if possible, either to reduce them or to be revenged on them; in order to this, he levies an army, musters all his force of chariots and horsemen, v. 17, 18 (for, it should seem, he took no foot with him, because the king’s business required haste), and thus he doubts not but he shall re-enslave them, v. 6, 7. It is easy to imagine what a rage Pharaoh was now in, roaring like a lion disappointed of his prey, how his proud heart aggravated the affront, swelled with indignation, scorned to be baffled, longed to be revenged: and now all the plagues are as if they had never been. He has quite forgotten the sorrowful funerals of his firstborn, and can think of nothing but making Israel feel his resentments; now he thinks he can be too hard for God himself; for, otherwise, could he have hoped to conquer a people so dear to him? God gave him up to these passions of his own heart, and so hardened it. It is said (v. 8), The children of Israel went out with a high hand, that is, with a great deal of courage and bravery, triumphing in their release, and resolved to break through the difficulties that lay in their way. But the Egyptians (v. 9) pursued after them. Note, Those that in good earnest set their faces heaven-ward, and will live godly in Christ Jesus, must expect to be set upon by Satan’s temptations and terrors. He will not tamely part with any out of his service, nor go out without raging, Mk. 9:26.
And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.
We have here, I. The fright that the children of Israel were in when they perceived that Pharaoh pursued them, v. 10. They knew very well the strength and rage of the enemy, and their own weakness; numerous indeed they were, but all on foot, unarmed, undisciplined, disquieted by long servitude, and (which was worst of all) now penned up by the situation of their camp, so that they could not make their escape. On the one hand was Pi-hahiroth, a range of craggy rocks impassable; on the other hand were Migdol and Baalzephon, which, some think were forts and garrisons upon the frontiers of Egypt; before them was the sea; behind them were the Egyptians: so that there was no way open for them but upwards, and thence their deliverance came. Note, We may be in the way of our duty, following God and hastening towards heaven, and yet may be in great straits, troubled on every side, 2 Co. 4:8. In this distress, no marvel that the children of Israel were sorely afraid; their father Jacob was so in a like case (Gen. 32:7); when without are fightings, it cannot be otherwise but that within are fears: what therefore was the fruit of this fear? According as that was, the fear was good or evil. 1. Some of them cried out unto the Lord; their fear set them a praying, and that was a good effect of it. God brings us into straits that he may bring us to our knees. 2. Others of them cried out against Moses; their fear set them a murmuring, v. 11, 12. They give up themselves for lost; and as if God’s arm were shortened all of a sudden, and he were not as able to work miracles to-day as he was yesterday, they despair of deliverance, and can count upon nothing but dying in the wilderness. How inexcusable was their distrust! Did they not see themselves under the guidance and protection of a pillar from heaven? And can almighty power fail them, or infinite goodness be false to them? Yet this was not the worst; they quarrel with Moses for bringing them out of Egypt, and, in quarrelling with him, fly in the face of God himself, and provoke him to wrath whose favour was now the only succour they had to flee to. As the Egyptians were angry with themselves for the best deed they ever did, so the Israelites were angry with God for the greatest kindness that was ever done them; so gross are the absurdities of unbelief. They here express, (1.) A sordid contempt of liberty, preferring servitude before it, only because it was attended with some difficulties. A generous spirit would have said, "If the worst come to the worst," as we say, "It is better to die in the field of honour than to live in the chains of slavery;" nay, under God’s conduct, they could not miscarry, and therefore they might say, "Better live God’s freemen in the open air of a wilderness than the Egyptians’ bondmen in the smoke of the brick-kilns." But because, for the present, they are a little embarrassed, they are angry that they were not left buried alive in their house of bondage. (2.) Base ingratitude to Moses, who had been the faithful instrument of their deliverance. They condemn him, as if he had dealt hardly and unkindly with them, whereas it was evident, beyond dispute, that whatever he did, and however it issued, it was by direction from their God, and with design for their good. What they had said in a former ferment (when they hearkened not to Moses for anguish of spirit), they repeat and justify in this: We said in Egypt, Let us alone; and it was ill-said, yet more excusable, because then they had not had so much experience as they had now of God’s wonderful appearances in their favour. But they had as soon forgotten the miracles of mercy as the Egyptians had forgotten the miracles of wrath; and they, as well as the Egyptians, hardened their hearts, at last, to their own ruin; as Egypt after ten plagues, so Israel after ten provocations, of which this was the first (Num. 14:22), were sentenced to die in the wilderness.
II. The seasonable encouragement that Moses gave them in this distress, v. 13, 14. He answered not these fools according to their folly. God bore with the provocation they gave to him, and did not (as he might justly have done) chose their delusions, and bring their fears upon them; and therefore Moses might well afford to pass by the affront they put upon him. Instead of chiding them, he comforts them, and with an admirable presence and composure of mind, not disheartened either by the threatenings of Egypt or the tremblings of Israel, stills their murmuring, with the assurance of a speedy and complete deliverance: Fear you not. Note, It is our duty and interest, when we cannot get out of our troubles, yet to get above our fears, so that they may only serve to quicken our prayers and endeavours, but may not prevail to silence our faith and hope. 1. He assures them that God would deliver them, that he would undertake their deliverance, and that he would effect it in the utter ruin of their pursuers: The Lord shall fight for you. This Moses was confident of himself, and would have them to be so, though as yet he knew not how or which way it would be brought to pass. God had assured him that Pharaoh and his host should be ruined, and he comforts them with the same comforts wherewith he had been comforted. 2. He directs them to leave it to God, in a silent expectation of the event: "Stand still, and think not to save yourselves either by fighting or flying; wait God’s orders, and observe them; be not contriving what course to take, but follow your leader; wait God’s appearances, and take notice of them, that you may see how foolish you are to distrust them. Compose yourselves, by an entire confidence in God, into a peaceful prospect of the great salvation God is now about to work for you. Hold your peace; you need not so much as give a shout against the enemy, as Jos. 6:16. The work shall be done without any concurrence of yours." Note, (1.) If God himself bring his people into straits, he will himself discover a way to bring them out again. (2.) In times of great difficulty and great expectation, it is our wisdom to keep our spirits calm, quiet, and sedate; for then we are in the best frame both to do our own work and to consider the work of God. Your strength is to sit still (Isa. 30:7), for the Egyptians shall help in vain, and threaten to hurt in vain.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward:
We have here,
I. Direction given to Israel’s leader.
1. What he must do himself. He must, for the present, leave off praying, and apply himself to his business (v. 15): Wherefore cryest thou unto me? Moses, though he was assured of a good issue to the present distress, yet did not neglect prayer. We read not of one word he said in prayer, but he lifted up to God his heart, the language of which God well understood and took notice of. Moses’s silent prayers of faith prevailed more with God than Israel’s loud outcries of fear, v. 10. Note, (1.) Praying, if of the right kind, is crying to God, which denotes it to be the language both of a natural and of an importunate desire. (2.) To quicken his diligence. Moses had something else to do besides praying; he was to command the hosts of Israel, and it was now requisite that he should be at his post. Every thing is beautiful in its season.
2. What he must order Israel to do. Speak to them, that they go forward. Some think that Moses had prayed, not so much for their deliverance (he was assured of that) as for the pardon of heir murmurings, and that God’s ordering them to go forward was an intimation of the pardon. There is no going forward with any comfort but in the sense of our reconciliation to God. Moses had bidden them stand still, and expect orders from God; and now orders are given. They thought they must have been directed either to the right hand or to the left. "No," says God, "speak to them to go forward, directly to the sea-side;" as if there had lain a fleet of transport-ships ready for them to embark in. Note, When we are in the way of our duty, though we met with difficulties, we must go forward, and not stand in mute astonishment; we must mind present work and then leave the even to God, use means and trust him with the issue.
3. What he might expect God to do. Let the children of Israel go as far as they can upon dry ground, and then God will divide the sea, and open a passage for them through it, v. 16–18. God designs, not only to deliver the Israelites, but to destroy the Egyptians; and the plan of his counsels is accordingly. (1.) He will show favour to Israel; the waters shall be divided for them to pass through, v. 16. The same power could have congealed the waters for them to pass over; but Infinite Wisdom chose rather to divide the waters for them to pass through; for that way of salvation is always pitched upon which is most humbling. Thus it is said, with reference to this (Isa. 63:13, 14), He led them through the deep, as a beast goes down into the valley, and thus made himself a glorious name. (2.) He will get him honour upon Pharaoh. If the due rent of honour be not paid to the great landlord, by and from whom we have and hold our beings and comforts, he will distrain for it, and recover it. God will be a loser by no man. In order to this, it is threatened: I, behold I, will harden Pharaoh’s heart, v. 17. The manner of expression is observable: I, behold I, will do it. "I, that may do it;" so it is the language of his sovereignty. We may not contribute to the hardening of any man’s heart, nor withhold any thing that we can do towards the softening of it; but God’s grace is his own, he hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will be hardeneth. "I, that can do it;" so it is the language of his power; none but the Almighty can make the heart soft (Job 23:16), nor can any other being make it hard. "I, that will do it;" for it is the language of his justice; it is a righteous thing with God to put those under the impressions of his wrath who have long resisted the influences of his grace. It is spoken in a way of triumph over this obstinate and presumptuous rebel: "I even I, will take an effectual course to humble him; he shall break that would not bend." It is an expression like that (Isa. 1:24), Ah, I will ease me of my adversaries.
II. A guard set upon Israel’s camp where it now lay most exposed, which was in the rear, v. 19, 20. The angel of God, whose ministry was made use of in the pillar of cloud and fire, went from before the camp of Israel, where they did not now need a guide (there was no danger of missing their way through the sea, nor needed they any other word of command than to go forward), and it came behind them, where now they needed a guard (the Egyptians being just ready to seize the hindmost of them), and so was a wall of partition between them. There it was of use to the Israelites, not only to protect them, but to light them through the sea, and, at the same time, it confounded the Egyptians, so that they lost sight of their prey just when they were ready to lay hands on it. The word and providence of God have a black and dark side towards sin and sinners, but a bright and pleasant side towards those that are Israelites indeed. That which is a savour of life unto life to some is a savour of death unto death to others. This was not the first time that he who in the beginning divided between light and darkness (Gen. 1:4), and still forms both (Isa. 45:7), had, at the same time, allotted darkness to the Egyptians and light to the Israelites, a specimen of the endless distinction which will be made between the inheritance of the saints in light and that utter darkness which for ever will be the portion of hypocrites. God will separate between the precious and the vile.
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
We have here the history of that work of wonder which is so often mentioned both in the Old and New Testament, the dividing of the Red Sea before the children of Israel. It was the terror of the Canaanites (Jos. 2:9, 10), the praise and triumph of the Israelites, Ps. 114:3; 106:9; 136:13, 14. It was a type of baptism, 1 Co. 10:1, 2. Israel’s passage through it was typical of the conversion of souls (Isa. 11:15), and the Egyptians’ perdition in it was typical of the final ruin of all impenitent sinners, Rev. 20:14. Here we have,
I. An instance of God’s almighty power in the kingdom of nature, in dividing the sea, and opening a passage through the waters. It was a bay, or gulf, or arm of the sea, two or three leagues over, which was divided, v. 21. The instituted sign made use of was Moses’s stretching out his hand over it, to signify that it was done in answer to his prayer, for the confirmation of his mission, and in favour to the people whom he led. The natural sign was a strong east wind, signifying that it was done by the power of God, whom the winds and the seas obey. If there be any passage in the book of Job which has reference to the miracles wrought for Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt, it is that in Job 26:12, He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smileth through Rahab (so the word is), that is, Egypt. Note, God can bring his people through the greatest difficulties, and force a way where he does not find it. The God of nature has not tied himself to its laws, but, when he pleases, dispenses with them, and then the fire does not burn, nor the water flow.
II. An instance of his wonderful favour to his Israel. They went through the sea to the opposite shore, for I cannot suppose, with some, that they fetched a compass, and came out again on the same side, v. 22. They walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea, v. 29. And the pillar of cloud, that glory of the Lord, being their rearward (Isa. 58:8), that the Egyptians might not charge them in the flank, the waters were a wall to them (it is twice mentioned) on their right hand and on their left. Moses and Aaron, it is probable, ventured first into this untrodden path, and then all Israel after them; and this march through the paths of the great waters would make their march afterwards, through the wilderness, less formidable. Those who had followed God through the sea needed not to fear following him whithersoever he led them. This march through the sea was in the night, and not a moon-shiny night, for it was seven days after the full moon, so that they had no light but what they had from the pillar of cloud and fire. This made it the more awful; but where God leads us he will light us; while we follow his conduct, we shall not want his comforts.
This was done, and recorded, in order to encourage God’s people in all ages to trust in him in the greatest straits. What cannot he do who did this? What will not he do for those hat fear and love him who did this for these murmuring unbelieving Israelis, who yet were beloved for their fathers’ sake, and for the sake of a remnant among them? We find the saints, long afterwards, making themselves sharers in the triumphs of this march (Ps. 66:6): They went through the flood on foot; there did we rejoice in him: and see how this work of wonder is improved, Ps. 77:11, 16, 19.
III. An instance of his just and righteous wrath upon his and his people’s enemies, the Egyptians. Observe here, 1. How they were infatuated. In the heat of their pursuit, they went after the Israelites into the midst of the sea, v. 23. "Why," thought they, "may not we venture where Israel did?" Once or twice the magicians of Egypt had done what Moses did, with their enchantments; Pharaoh remembered this, but forgot how they were nonplussed at last. They were more advantageously provided with chariots and horses, while the Israelites were on foot. Pharaoh had said, I know not the Lord; and by this it appeared he did not, else he would not have ventured thus. None so bold as those that are blind. Rage against Israel made them thus daring and inconsiderate: they had long hardened their own hearts; and now God hardened them to their ruin, and hid from their eyes the things that belonged to their peace and safety. Surely in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird (Prov. 1:17); yet so blind where the Egyptians that they hastened to the snare, Prov. 7:23. Note, The ruin of sinners is brought on by their own presumption, which hurries them headlong into the pit. They are self-destroyers. 2. How they were troubled and perplexed, v. 24, 25. For some hours they marched through the divided waters as safely and triumphantly as Israel did, not doubting but, that, in a little time, they should gain their point. But, in the morning watch, the Lord looked upon the host of the Egyptians, and troubled them. Something or other they saw or heard from the pillar of cloud and fire which put them into great consternation, and gave them an apprehension of their ruin before it was brought upon them. Now it appeared that the triumphing of the wicked is short, and that God has ways to frighten sinners into despair, before he plunges them into destruction. He cuts off the spirit of princes, and is terrible to the kings of the earth. (1.) They had hectored and boasted as if the day were their own; but now they were troubled and dismayed, struck with a panic-fear. (2.) They had driven furiously; but now they drove heavily, and found themselves plugged and embarrassed at every step; the way grew deep, their hearts grew sad, their wheels dropped off, and the axle-trees failed. Thus can God check the violence of those that are in pursuit of his people. (3.) They had been flying upon the back of Israel, as the hawk upon the trembling dove; but now they cried, Let us flee from the face of Israel, which had become to them like a torch of fire in a sheaf, Zec. 12:6. Israel has now, all of a sudden, become as much a terror to them as they had been to Israel. They might have let Israel alone and would not; now they would flee from the face of Israel and cannot. Men will not be convinced, till it is too late, that those who meddle with God’s people meddle to their own hurt; when the Lord shall come with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment, the mighty men will in vain seek to shelter themselves under rocks and mountains from the face of Israel and Israel’s King, Rev. 6:15. Compare with this story, Job 27:20, etc. 3. How they were all drowned. As soon as ever the children of Israel had got safely to the shore, Moses was ordered to stretch out his hand over the sea, and thereby give a signal to the waters to close again, as before, upon he word of command, they had opened to the right and the left, v. 29. He did so, and immediately the waters returned to their place, and overwhelmed all the host of the Egyptians, v. 27, 28. Pharaoh and his servants, who had hardened one another in sin, now fell together, and not one escaped. An ancient tradition says that Pharaoh’s magicians, Jannes and Jambres, perished with the rest, as Balaam with the Midianites whom he had seduced, Num. 31:8. And now, (1.) God avenged upon the Egyptians the blood of the firstborn whom they had drowned: and the principal is repaid with interest, it is recompensed double, full-grown Egyptians for newborn Israelites; thus the Lord is righteous, and precious is his people’s blood in his sight, Ps. 72:14. (2.) God reckoned with Pharaoh for all his proud and insolent conduct towards Moses his ambassador. Mocking the messengers of the Lord, and playing the fool with them, bring ruin without remedy. Now God got him honour upon Pharaoh, looking upon that proud man, and abasing him, Job. 40:12. Come and see the desolations he made, and write it, not in water, but with an iron pen in the rock for ever. Here lies that bloody tyrant who bade defiance to his Maker, to his demands, threatenings, and judgments; a rebel to God, and a slave to his own barbarous passions; perfectly lost to humanity, virtue, and all true honour; here he lies, buried in the deep, a perpetual monument of divine justice. Here he went down to the pit, though he was the terror of the mighty in the land of the living. This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, Eze. 31:18.
IV. Here is the notice which the Israelites took of this wonderful work which God wrought for them, and the good impressions which it made upon them for the present.
1. They saw the Egyptians dead upon the sands, v. 30. Providence so ordered it that the next tide threw up the dead bodies, (1.) For the greater disgrace of the Egyptians. Now the beasts and birds of prey were called to eat the flesh of the captains and mighty men, Rev. 19:17, 18. The Egyptians were very nice and curious in embalming and preserving the bodies of their great men, but here the utmost contempt is poured upon all the grandees of Egypt; see how they lie, heaps upon heaps, as dung upon the face of the earth. (2.) For the greater triumph of the Israelites, and to affect them the more with their deliverance; for the eye affects the heart. See Isa. 66:24, They shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me. Probably they stripped the slain and, having borrowed jewels of their neighbours before, which (the Egyptians having by this hostile pursuit of them broken their faith with them) henceforward they were not under any obligation to restore, they now got arms from them, which, some think, they were not before provided with. Thus, when God broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces, he gave him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness, Ps. 74:14.
2. The sight of this great work greatly affected them, and now they feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses, v. 31. Now they were ashamed of their distrusts and murmurings, and, in the good mind they were in, they would never again despair of help from Heaven, no, not in the greatest straits; they would never again quarrel with Moses, nor talk of returning to Egypt. They were now baptized unto Moses in the sea, 1 Co. 10:2. This great work which God wrought for them by the ministry of Moses bound them effectually to follow his directions, under God. This confirmed their faith in the promises that were yet to be fulfilled; and, being brought thus triumphantly out of Egypt, they did not doubt that they should be in Canaan shortly, having such a God to trust to, and such a mediator between them and him. O that there had been such a heart in them as now there seemed to be! Sensible mercies, when they are fresh, make sensible impressions; but with many these impressions soon wear off: while they see God’s works, and feel the benefit of them, they fear him and trust in him; but they soon forget his works, and then they slight him. How well were it for us if we were always in as good a frame as we are in sometimes!