And the LORD said to Moses, Why cry you to me? speak to the children of Israel, that they go forward:
It points out, with sufficient clearness, the best mode of journeying through life. "Go forward" —
(1) from that point to which God has conducted us;
(2) along the path God bids us take;
(3) by the light which God affords;
(4) with the staff which God provides; and
(5) to the land which God prepares.
I. You are, then, willing to go forward? But whether you will or not, you must. What better starting-point can you discover than that from which Israel began — THE POINT TO WHICH GOD HAS BROUGHT YOU NOW? Stop for a moment, my impatient fellow-traveller; we are not speaking of the point to which you have now brought yourself, but of that to which God has conducted you; and you must very soon, I think, feel that there may be an important difference between these two. God may, indeed, command us to go forward from the point to which He has Himself conducted us, but not by any means to make advance on that wrong path which we have chosen through our own folly and our sin. In such a case, God must have rather asked, "Why do you cry to Me? You are yourselves the cause of your distress and misery; there is no safety on this road, but only death and horror; speak unto the Israelites that they return immediately!" But now, because the Lord Himself has pointed out the place where they were to encamp, between Pi-hahiroth and Baal-Zephon, they are in the position which He bade them occupy; they now are standing in the place where He would have them be: now we may speak of going on. "Advance!" — it is a glorious word; and that which it denotes deserves the application of our noblest powers. But, in advancing, the main question is — not whether we are rising rapidly enough, but simply whether we are really on the right track, and keeping the great end in view. Yes; "Forward" is still a glorious word, but not the first, scarcely the second that we should employ; and you will be in a position to apply it with advantage to yourselves only when, like these ransomed ones, you have an Egypt at your back, and a Canaan before. But what think you? O man of sin, the path you now pursue leads down to death; repentance is the only way to life — regeneration of the soul the first, although perhaps the least felt requisite for entering on the new period. Nay, no advance ere you have first stood still, made full confession of your guilt, sought for deliverance from worse than Egypt's bondage, and cried for blood more precious than the blood of even the spotless Paschal Lamb, to hide your sins!
II. "Advance!" The order may be given easily, but is it quite as speedily performed? Then listen, in the second place, to what is further given in the summons — ADVANCE ALONG THE WAY WHICH GOD COMMANDS. "Which God commands." This, in a certain aspect, makes the thing much easier, but in another much more difficult. You will at once perceive this when you place yourself again in the position of the Israelites. Moses need not, in deep anxiety, inquire, "Whither?" for there is but one path, and not another given him to choose. There is the most peremptory command not to go back; nor would good come of turning to the right or left; moreover, there are mountains rising up to heaven, and rocks, which shut the people in, as if within a fortress. Forward, then! But well may we, also, in spite of not a little difference, find a resemblance to the path on which the Lord once more calls you and me to make advance. That way itself is, in its leading features, quite as plain, as difficult, and yet withal as safe, as that for which the Israelites now looked. If we are Christians, there is only one way possible for our understanding, our faith, our conscience; and that is the way God bids us go. See that the path before you is indeed the way appointed by the Lord; and do not venture on a single step before you bow the knee to Him in deep humility. But if it be quite evident that just this, and no other, is the road which God deems best for you, then act as if you heard His voice from heaven saying, "Why do you cry to Me? Surely you know that I am not a God who says, 'Go forward,' without giving strength wherewith to go." Nay, verily, God has not changed, so that He now should call His people to advance into the sea, and leave them there to perish in the flood. Suppose the Israelites, alarmed at the idea of advancing through the waves, had taken time to think, and then attempted to retreat; or sought, amidst the mountains on each side, an opening by which they might escape approaching death- according to the judgment of the natural man, they would have acted with the utmost prudence, yet they would have but been hastening into the yawning grave. The passage through the sea turns out to be much safer than the path along the quiet shore, as soon as it appears that God is with us. It is precisely when the prophet Jonah seeks to flee from Nineveh, and find a safe retreat in Tarshish, that such mortal danger comes so close on him; and, on the other hand, when Paul, led by the Lord to Rome, courageously defies Euroclydon and every storm, his life is saved, although the ship is lost. Our life is ever free from danger when we risk it in the service of the Lord; because, as has been truly said,we are immortal while God needs us here.
III. "But what avails it me, even though I know the way, so long as, in short-sightedness, I still must grope about under dark clouds?" You are quite right; but you too, just like Israel, are this day summoned to advance UNDER THE LIGHT THAT GOD AFFORDS. YOU can imagine that you now behold the mysterious fiery pillar, scattering its golden rays upon the silvery waters in the darkness of the night, and straightway turning its fierce lightnings on the host of the Egyptians. But say, has not God, in His written word, sent light from heaven sufficient in amount and clear enough to brighten, with its friendly rays, many a gloomy night and many a cloudy day? And have you ever been kept waiting long without an answer, when, with the earnest question: "What will the Lord have me to do?" you took your precious Bible up, in silent solitude, not to consult it, like so many, just as if .it were a kind of heathen oracle — examining the first page that might open up to you — but earnestly endeavouring to find out what the Lord desires? But is it not the case that we are just like that rebellious Israel — constantly inclined to cheese their own way rather than simply pursue the path to which the cloudy pillar guided them? And even after we have been already taught, on numberless occasions, through the shame and injury that have befallen us, we still direct our eyes continually to the ignis fatuus of human wisdom, when we rather should fear God, and give attention to His word. And what should hinder you from choosing that same word of God to be a lamp unto your feet, a light unto your path? Should the obscurities and enigmas that here present themselves to you prove such a barrier? Even the fiery pillar had for Israel its impenetrable and mysterious side; but this much they perceived quite well, that it afforded them more light than a thousand other lights. And there is something wondrous in the fact that this great light illumines everything, although you know not where it has its seat; nor can you find in anything besides a proper substitute when it has been removed. Or — just acknowledge it — are you offended at the vehemence with which the Word of God denounces sin? Yes, verily, the cloudy pillar sent forth dreadful thunderbolts, but they were only aimed at hardened ones like Pharaoh; and that same light of God's unspotted holiness, which is so terrible to sinners, is the consolation of all those who make His mercy the foundation of their hopes. Or has that light no longer an attraction for you, inasmuch as it has lost the splendour of most novelties? Surely the fiery pillar was quite as invaluable in the fortieth year that followed Israel's Exodus, as in the first night when they were redeemed? And should you not be rather cheered by the consideration that, when everything to-day announces instability and change, the word of God endures for aye?
IV. But do you make complaint — not against God, but rather against yourself? And do you fear your strength will fail? We could not urge you to advance, did we not also, in the fourth place, indicate THE STAFF WHICH GOD BESTOWS ON US. Let it suffice to state that, without living faith working within the heart, it is as hopeless to set out upon life's journey as it would have been impossible to march through the Red Sea without the all-prevailing, wonder-working rod. Poor man, you rise up, but you know not whence; you wander here and there, hut do not know how long; you ask for strength, yet know not whence it may be gained! The Lord's words are most true: "Cursed is the man that maketh flesh his arm... Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord." But have you never found that all things are possible to him that believeth, and that even mountains of difficulties seemed to dwindle away into molehills when touched by this wonder-working staff? The time will often come when you shall stand before a task for which your own unaided wisdom will be quite unequal; but the prayer of faith works wonders, and strength comes down from above into the heart which owns, in deep humility, that it is naught hut weakness when apart from God.
V. The Lord arouses us to march on TO THE LAND WHICH HE PREPARES FOR US. You are aware that Israel was called not merely to forsake the land of Egypt, nor even to spend a desert life in peace and liberty, but to march on into a land which God, ages before, had promised to bestow on the posterity of those who were His friends. Not one of all those multitudes who passed through the Red Sea had ever seen that promised land. Upon the ground of credible authority, they were constrained to the belief that it was a reality awaiting them beyond the flood. Not even the wisest of them all was free to choose the mode of access to that land which flowed with milk and honey. But their great Leader ever held Himself responsible for the result, although the moment when the earthly paradise was to unfold its gates was still kept in deep secrecy. Nor are we called to wander aimlessly, and to march on without exactly knowing where we are to go. The Lord from heaven has appeared on this vile earth that we, exiles from Eden, might have an eternal dwelling-place; and though no messenger has come back from the habitations where He has prepared us room, we know, as surely as we live, that what no eye hath seen, what ear hath never heard, what hath not entered into any human heart, is hid with Christ in God for all who know and love Him. Whoever will draw back unto perdition may perceive, in Israel's case, that while God presses upon sinful men His heavenly gift, He will by no means let Himself be mocked. The way that leads to it may not, perhaps, be quite the shortest (and those who, like Israel, are slow to learn require a longer training-time), still less is it the most agreeable, but most assuredly it is the best. And the inheritance itself will only seem more beautiful if we, like Moses, are obliged to wait a long time on God that we may get possession of the whole. Do you know any prospect more inspiriting than that of one day having done entirely with that daily dying which we now call "life"; of our at last, some time or other, breathing with a pleasure and a freedom we have never yet felt here, where every day brought us more than enough of its own ills; of once more hearing there, too, the command, "Forward!" and then advancing through the spacious fields of heaven, but finding nowhere near us any foe, nor seeing any wilderness before? Surely, even though it cost us other forty anxious years, as it cost Israel the Promised Land, what one of us would think the price of such a calling far too dear?
(J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward: