When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them along the road through the land of the Philistines, though it was shorter. For God said, "If the people face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt."
I. REDEEMED FROM EGYPT, THE PEOPLE ARE NOT PERMITTED TO LINGER ON ITS BORDERS. What snatches of repose are granted, are only meant as a preparation for resumption of the journey on the morrow. Their destination was Canaan. To this they must press forward. A rest of eleven months (at Sinai) will be granted afterwards, meanwhile, on the borders of Egypt, they must pause no longer than is absolutely necessary. At the beginning of the Christian life, delays, pauses, lookings back, are peculiarly dangerous. Egypt is too near. Return to it is too convenient. The pursuer will gain too easy an advantage. There must be no pausing till we are fairly out of the enemy's territory. Succoth to Etham, Etham to Pi-hahiroth (Exodus 14:2).
II. IT RESTS WITH GOD TO DETERMINE THE WAY BY WHICH HIS PEOPLE SHALL BE LED. "When Pharaoh had let the people go, God led them not," etc. (vers. 17).
1. It was the privilege of the Israelites that they had God as their guide. His pillar of cloud and fire went before them (vers. 21, 22). What wiser or safer guide could any one desire?
2. God's guidance was authoritative. Not only were the Israelites not left to pick out the way for themselves, but whither God directed, thither they were bound to go. They were not permitted to take any route they pleased. They were God's people, and must walk by his law.
3. God's guidance was frequently mysterious. They would often be perplexed to understand the reasons of it. A reason seems to have been given here, but otherwise the route chosen must have seemed a very strange one. The believer is often thus led by a way he knows not (Isaiah 42:16).
III. GOD CONSULTS FOR HIS PEOPLE'S GOOD IN THE WAYS BY WHICH HE LEADS THEM. "For God said, peradventure," etc. (ver. 17). Consider here,
1. God's procedure.
(1) He turned the Israelites aside from the road which naturally they would have followed. The way of the land of the Philistines was no doubt the road by which they expected to be led. It was the customary road. It lay straight before them. It was the shortest and most direct. How often does God thus turn us aside in Providence from what might seem to be the natural, as, without a thought to the contrary, it may have been the anticipated course of our lives? The road that lies straight before us is not the one in which we are permitted to walk. Even in Christian work, by what zigzag ways are we sometimes conducted to our ends!
(2) He led the Israelites by a long detour into the wilderness. If the end was to escape the Philistines, God did not allow the Israelites to suppose that he intended to pamper and indulge them. The wilderness was a worse place to travel in than "the way of the land of the Philistines." They would have to encounter many trials. A heavy strain would be put upon their faith. Though exempted from war at the beginning, they had to fight enemies on the way, and ultimately were marched up to the borders of Canaan, to undertake, at another point, the work of invasion. In like manner, the Christian curriculum is not an easy one. Whoever enters upon the Christian journey, expecting to find it all sunshine and roses, is doomed to sorrowful disappointment. The road, under God's guidance, soon takes a turn, which leads into the wilderness of trial.
2. The reasons of God's procedure.
(1) The direct way was at that time an impassable one. The Israelites, just escaped from Egypt, were not in a condition to force their way through the strongly defended territory of the Philistines. The difficulty, it is true, lay in them - in their want of faith, courage, and power of obedience, not in God, whose help was all-sufficient. But practically, the direct road was closed against them. So, in God's merciful guidance of his people, the path is sometimes bent aside, because no other is for the time practicable. Obstacles to their progress, insurmountable by them at that stage of their knowledge and experience, block up the road which seems more direct, and to be allowed to advance in it would be no kindness.
(2) The direct road was fraught with danger for themselves. Their strength and faith were not equal to the opposition they would encounter. It would have proved too much for them. They must be allowed time to gather experience, to throw off the habits of their servitude, to be brought under discipline for war, to acquire steadiness and courage in facing an enemy. Led up against the Philistines in their present undisciplined condition, they would have fled at the first onset, and would have clamoured, even more vehemently than they did in the desert (Exodus 14:12), to be conducted back to Egypt. And does not this in large measure explain the mysterious turnings and windings in our own lives? God, who knows our frame, understands perfectly what degree of severity in temptation we are able to endure, and he mercifully orders our course, so that we may not be tempted above that we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). We pray, "Lead us not into temptation" (Matthew 6:13), and this is one way in which the prayer is answered. Another way is by preventing or restraining the temptation. But where, as in the present case, it is a temptation which, so to speak, belongs essentially to the situation - which we must encounter, if that path is to be travelled at all, then is there no way of avoiding it but by being led in a different road. Especially in the beginning of a Christian course may we expect these sudden turnings of our path. We are not then in a condition to encounter very powerful enemies, to endure very fierce temptations, and by taking us a little way about God shields us from them.
(3) There was a discipline to be gained in the circuitous route by which they were led. God's design, in sparing his people the battle with the Philistines, was not, as we have seen, to indulge and spoil them. The place whither he conducted them was the wilderness, and there he purposed to subject them to a severe moral training. The end of this training was simply to bring them up to the standard which as yet they had not reached, to develop in them the qualities in which they were as yet deficient, to impart to them, in short, that hardihood and strength of character and will which would enable them to cope with Philistines, or any other foes. The end God has in view in our own trials is precisely the same.
IV. OUR WISDOM, UNDER ALL THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF OUR LIVES, IS TO RESIGN OURSELVES TO GOD'S LEADING, BELIEVING IT TO BE ALWAYS THE BEST FOR US. We cannot err in resigning ourselves to the guidance of one omniscient, wise, loving, and supremely good. - J.O.
1. God does not order salvation to His as it pleaseth man, but as it pleaseth Himself.
I. They had been sated with the magnificence of man's works; God led them forth into the wilderness TO SHOW THEM HIS WORKS IN THEIR NATIVE GRANDEUR, and to refresh their exhausted hearts and spirits by the vision of the splendour of His world.
Through the way of the wilderness.I. THE WAY BY WHICH GOD OFTEN LEADS HIS PEOPLE MAY BE DESCRIBED AS THE "WAY OF THE WILDERNESS." There are several points of analogy or similarity between the journey of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, and the path of God's people through this world. For one thing, the journey of the sons of Jacob was circuitous. There can be little doubt that, after their release from bondage, they looked forward to a speedy occupation of the Promised Land; but in this they were disappointed. They were not permitted to go direct and at once to their inheritance. Then, again, it was not a way of their own choosing. There were two routes, either of which they might have followed; one, the ordinary caravan route through the country of the Philistines, entering Canaan from the south; the other, by the Red Sea and the wilderness of Sinai, entering Canaan from the west. There was no geographical necessity for taking the more circuitous route through Sinai. Indeed, without an explicit command from God, it would have been the height of folly for any leader, even Moses, to have attempted to conduct such a vast host all unprovided for into the desert. Now, the discerning reader cannot fail to be struck with the similarity of all this to the Providential ordering of human life. The current of our earthly being seldom runs straight. There are often many windings before it reaches its goal; and it may be that few of those windings would have been in accordance with our wishes. How true is this of Moses, who, in his impatience for the release of his countrymen, struck the blow for freedom too soon. And instead of being permitted to go direct to the work, he had to undergo forty years of preparatory service among the solitudes of Midian. Take Joseph, and you see the working of the same principle. How strikingly is the hand of Providence seen in his life! His experiences in Egypt before his promotion may seem a strange preparation for his after eminence, and certainly not of his own choosing. God was "leading him about." The pit in Dothan, servitude under Potiphar, confinement in prison, were so many steps or turnings in a life that rose to such distinction. Then again take the apostle Paul. The great ambition of his life was to preach the gospel at Rome. The noble apostle got his wish. He was permitted to go to Rome, but he went as a prisoner. The chains might seem to confine his influence, but, for aught we know, they may have added to the impressiveness of his message and testimony for his Master. God was leading him about, an ambassador in bonds. So in our life. The course of Providence sometimes takes strange turns. Our life-path is seldom what at one time we expected it to be, any more than the journey from Egypt to Canaan was what the Israelites expected. We come to our Etham on the edge of the wilderness, and at that point the current of our life is altered and its winding course begins. The altered current may lead us into the desert of adversity, or into the wilderness of affliction, where for years we may have to endure. Many a Christian has been led home through the winding path of pain. It is God "leading us about."
II. We now proceed to inquire into THE PURPOSE OF THIS ROUNDABOUT JOURNEY THROUGH THE WILDERNESS. When the sons of Jacob left Egypt, they were little better than a band of undisciplined slaves, and they had to be trained. The growth of every noble quality had been cramped and hampered by degrading bondage, and the wilderness was to be their training-school. There was, therefore, a moral purpose in the forty years' wandering. It was intended to train them to be and to do, to develop in them noble qualities, and train them for noble deeds. They could have marched to Canaan in eight or ten days; but eight or ten days would have been too short a period for the growth of character. No one can read their history without observing the change which forty years had produced on them. They gained new experiences, and developed those manly qualities needed to fight their way to the possession of Canaan. Now, is it not in this way still that God prepares His people for their mission? As a general rule the men who have made the deepest impression for good on the world's history have been led up to their throne of influence by a long path of preparation. Few leap into their position at a bound. The shortest way is not always the best. There is, perhaps, no station in life in which difficulties have not to be encountered and overcome before any decided measure of success can be achieved. Those difficulties are, however, our best instructors, as our mistakes often form our best experience. Horne Tooke used to say of his studies in intellectual philosophy, that he had become all the better acquainted with the country through having had the good luck sometimes to lose his way. And a distinguished investigator of physical science has left it on record that whenever, in the course of his researches, he encountered an apparently insuperable obstacle, he generally found himself on the brink of some novel discovery. The severe preparatory discipline which God's men have to undergo is for most part unknown to the world. We cannot tell how the Israelites spent thirty-eight years of their desert life, we only know the effect it had on them. We might further extend this thought to the discipline which God applies for the soul's sanctification. The ultimate end of all the Divine dealings with man in this life must be sought in the life to come. The soul has often to pass through the path of affliction or adversity ere it is fit for the fellowship of the pure in heart in the Promised Land. The reward will be more prized and the rest the sweeter on account of the experience gained when God led you about through the way of the wilderness.
III. IN ORDER TO DERIVE FULL BENEFIT FROM THE EXPERIENCES OF LIFE, SEVERAL THINGS HAVE TO BE ATTENDED TO. Discipline, however suitable it may seem, wilt not of itself further the work of grace in the heart, unless it is accepted as from God. Confining ourselves to this narrative, we find two or three conditions without which Divine discipline will yield no moral profit.
1. In the first place, we must not harbour a spirit of discontent with our lot. To this spirit are traceable many of the calamities of the wilderness, and it barred the gates of Canaan against the generation that left Egypt. That generation did not benefit by God's dealings. Now all this is true in our life. We often miss the good that is meant for us by dissatisfaction with the channel through which it comes. The apprentice lad must not chafe if he is put to distasteful work and at a low wage: let him learn that this is the price to be paid for future advancement, and let him cheerfully accept his post. Murmuring at cross-bearing will do us no good, but rather harm, as it will prevent us from attaining to acquiescence in the Divine will.
2. Secondly, in order to secure the greatest good from our lot, we must banish from our company whatever tends to lead us astray. When the Israelites left Egypt they were joined by a group called the "mixed multitude." The Church's greatest danger lies not so much in attacks from without, as in temporizing with worldly-minded men, and harbouring in her midst those who are not of her in spirit. But this "mixed multitude," while it is typical-of nominal Christians in the Church, may be regarded as a type of those unholy desires and passions that are more or less to be found in the heart of every one of us. We all carry about with us a "mixed multitude" of unsubdued appetites which crave for gratification; and not more surely did the Israelites suffer from the presence of this base throng, than we shall have the peace of our life marred, and its usefulness impaired, by giving reins to those unholy forces. They need to be constantly kept in check, else they are sure to lead us astray. Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that doth so easily beset us; and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith.
3. There is one more condition that we must comply with, if we would finish our course with joy, and that is, we must loyally follow the guidance of our Heavenly Leader.
(D. Merson, M. A.)
II. God led them forth by the way of the wilderness, that He might reveal not nature only, BUT HIMSELF. He led them into the wilderness, as He leads us, that He might meet with them, speak with them, reveal Himself to them, and teach them to know themselves in knowing Him.
III. God.led them into the wilderness, THAT HE MIGHT THERE CULTIVATE THEIR MANLY QUALITIES, and fit them to hold the possessions they might win.
(J. B. Brown, B. A.)
2. God in wisdom sometimes translates His Church from the house of bondage to a wilderness.
3. Wilderness and Red Sea paths, are the way of God's people here below.
4. God makes the way to rest not always straight, but to be about.
5. Israel, or God's people, go the round that God doth lead them.
6. Orderly and well instructed are the Church's motions under God in wilderness-ways.
(G. Hughes, B. D.)
1. Israel was in an enemy's country. So are the elect by nature.
2. Their bondage was rigorous. So was the Christian's.
3. Their departure, like the believer's, was opposed.
4. And when liberated, their enemies pursued them.
II. SOME REASONS WHY GOD DID NOT ADMIT THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL INTO THE PROMISED LAND, IMMEDIATELY ON THEIR GOING OUT OF EGYPT, AND WHY HE DOES NOT ADMIT HIS ELECT INTO GLORY IMMEDIATELY ON THEIR CONVERSION.
1. The Egyptians must be drowned — enemies subdued.
2. The Israelites must be humbled (Psalm 66:10-12).
3. He led them some hundreds of miles about; yet it was the right way (Psalm 107:7).
4. God's way is right, although it may appear round about (Psalm 18:30).
III. SOME REASONS FOR GOD'S CONDUCT IN KEEPING THEM IN THE WILDERNESS.
1. They were not fit as yet for severe warfare.
2. Their enemies were great, and themselves weak.
3. He had much to teach them.
IV. THE MANNER IN WHICH THEY WENT UP. "Harnessed" — or by fives, or five in a rank, or rather by five bodies or squadrons, and so marched out, not in a disorderly or confused way, but in great order and regularity.
1. Their loins were girt (Ephesians 6:14).
2. Their heart was secured (Ephesians 6:14).
3. Their feet were shod (Ephesians 6:15).
4. Having a shield, helmet, and sword (Ephesians 6:16, 17).
(T. B. Baker.)I. THAT IT IS THE WAY OF GOD TO BRING THE GOOD TO A PLACE OF REST. This is the object of all life's discipline.
II. THAT IT IS THE WAY OF GOD TO BRING THE GOOD AWAY FROM THE THINGS THAT WOULD BE UNFRIENDLY TO THEIR WELFARE. He selects the life path of the good —
III. THAT IT IS OFTEN THE WAY OF GOD TO BRING THE GOOD A CIRCUITOUS ROUTE TO THEIR DESTINATION. The nearest way is not always the best.
IV. THAT IT IS THE WAY OF GOD TO BRING THE GOOD ALONG UNWELCOME PATHS. Impossible to get to Canaan without perplexities. God is always with the good in their wilderness wanderings.
V. THAT IT IS THE WAY OF GOD TO BRING THE GOOD INTO A BETTER AND MORE THOROUGH KNOWLEDGE OF THEMSELVES. Men get to know more in the desert. Some Christians are taken to heaven through a long route of pain. They long for home, but the journey is prolonged. It is hard to see the reason of their protracted existence. The Divine purpose is not yet accomplished in them.
VI. THAT IT IS THE WAY OF GOD TO BRING THE GOOD INTO A WISE EXERCISE OF THEIR OWN STRENGTH. "And the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt." They walked in battle array. And so, while it is the way of God to conduct human life to its destination, it is also the duty of man to exercise his own wisdom and strength, so that he may do all to aid the plans of God concerning him. Lessons:
1. That God leads men from Egypt to Canaan.
2. That men must give themselves up to the guidance of God.
3. That life is often through a long wilderness.
4. However long the journey, men must trust in God.
(J. S. Exell, M. A.)I. GOD LED THEM. "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." When He calls you up the slopes of the mount of sacrifice, it is to bring you within the sound of Divine voices at the summit; when He calls you to the "edge of the wilderness," or to a "desert place apart," it is to "speak comfortably" unto you "out of the cloud."
II. GOD LED THEM NOT THROUGH THE LAND OF THE PHILISTINES, ALTHOUGH THAT WAS NEAR... BUT HE LED THEM ABOUT BY THE WAY OF THE WILDERNESS OF THE RED SEA. He had not taken them into His confidence, they could not understand Him, they had no sympathy with His vast and gracious designs, therefore He did not "give an account of any of His matters." "What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter." Let no one hesitate to "go up and possess the land," for fear he be overpowered with temptations that beset the path of Peter or Paul or Luther, or of some venerable man of God who but too faithfully has given an account of his conflict with the world and the flesh and the devil. God will take you to heaven, but He has not promised to take you by the near way. It may be by a very long way. One thing I know, it will not be through the way of the land of the Philistines, or of any foes who would effect your ruin and drive you back in despair to the country from whence you came out. Only one enemy will encounter you at a time, and you will be prepared for each as he comes, and the "last enemy" will be kept to the last, and you will be made "more than conquerors." "God is faithful who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able."
III. "AND THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL WENT UP IN BATTLE ARRAY OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT." The great work given the Church to do is the conquest of the world. These are the marching orders of the Captain of Salvation.
IV. IF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL HAD ENTERED PALESTINE BY THE NEAR WAY, HOW MUCH WOULD THEY HAVE MISSED! The sojourn in the wilderness was not a scene of unrelieved gloom. They bought and sold, they increased in cattle and in riches. "Their garments waxed not old, nor their shoes upon their feet." They were left generally unmolested by any of the tribes, and when attacked, they were as a rule able to hold their own. Had they not come by the roundabout way, the song of Moses had been unsung, Miriam's harp had been untuned, Elim, with its wells and palms had been undiscovered, Sinai, with its words of love and law had been unknown, the cloud had never been seen, the manna had not been tasted, the water from the rock had not followed them. They would have had no opportunity of partaking in a sacramental feast with the princely Jethro, and of exerting such a favourable impression upon his tribe that many who were "without" were induced to come within and to respond to the invitation, "Come with us and we will do you good, for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel." Theirs would not have been the joy which they did experience when, Jordan crossed, they did eat at last the old corn in the land in a city of habitation; they would not have left behind them "footprints on the sands of time," which will cheer the hearts of countless generations of pilgrims until the world shall have an end; they could never have conceived how good and how patient God was, they could never have believed how corrupt their own hearts were, had not Moses at the end of all the wanderings recalled one scene after another, ore act of rebellion after another committed in the light of the unwearied love which "blackened every blot." This last point deserves more than passing notice. "Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness to humble thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, to know whether thou wouldst keep His commandments or no." God knew what was in their hearts. The people did not know their own hearts. Some one will say, "I would that I had died in the days of childhood, I should have been saved many a weary march." But you would have missed many a providence, the memory of which will cast a shadow of seraphic loveliness on the background of your eternal home, and which will enable you to strike a higher note than otherwise you could ever have reached. Had you not passed through that night of bitter anguish, you could not have fathomed the depths of the words as you did, "Thy way is in the sea, Thy path is in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known." Had you not been forced to take thought for the morrow, you could never have said as sincerely as you did say, "My heavenly Father knoweth that I have need of all these things." Had it not been for that sore sickness, there would not have been lying upon your life, consecrating it, a "light that never was on land or sea." The scars of your suffering are "marks of the Lord Jesus." Your little bits of experience are so many types which to-day you can set up, and from which you can spell out the might, and majesty, and mercy of the blessed God.
(J. Macmillan, M. A.)You and I often mark a path out for ourselves; and to us it seems so easy, so likely, so promising of success. Then all at once something happens that disappoints us, and directs us another road that we find further round, and apparently much harder; and we call it a "mysterious providence." Of course, all is mysterious that is the result of wider knowledge than our own. Do you remember old Quarles' lines: —
"I say this way; God says that.
His way is best, for He knows what
Of lions may beset my road.
I'll follow Thee! Lead on, my God!"
He knew what was best and safest, and, in the long run, surest; and by the good hand of God they were kept out of mischief and away from danger. The old proverb is still very true: "The longest way about is often the nearest way home." "He that goes straight across, may have to carry a cross. He that goes round about, may have the chance to go without." His thoughts are not our thoughts, and it is a grand thing to be under His guidance; for "the way of man," as the good Book says, "is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." We know not what is good for us, and, like children, if we were to run alone, we should soon run into mischief. You and I have often been imposed on, both by what we hope and what we fear. Many a time we have tried to run away from what afterwards turned out to be a blessing, and many a time we have been disappointed to save us from being destroyed. I remember on one occasion, when I was young, I got it into my head that I was able to drive. Having narrowly escaped an upset, and frightened myself almost out of my wits, I resigned the reins into more skilful hands than mine, and travelled safely. Let us be as wise as the psalmist, and say, "The Lord shall choose mine inheritance for me!" Let us learn a lesson of patience, too. We may be very anxious to pluck the fruit; but we had better wait till it's mellow, for fear the pain kills all the pleasure. God's time is a good time, and God's way is a safe way, both to-day and to-morrow, too!
(J. J. Wray.)
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE ISRAELITES. The deliverance of the chosen tribes was at this moment like the first rays of the morning spread upon the mountains. They had been redeemed from bondage. They were commencing their journey to the promised land, every spirit filled with pleasure. They were confident of their power to endure the trials of the way. The heart-searching God knew their deficiencies; and a variety of circumstances connected with their feeble faith determined Him in wisdom to divert their feet towards Canaan by a devious path.
1. The Philistines, who lay between them and the promised inheritance, were a brave and warlike people, against whom the sons of Jacob, numerous as they were, could not hope to succeed in battle. Wisely, therefore, did the Lord judge that they would shrink from such enemies. Such are the Christian's foes. They are well practised. Satan has triumphed over man in every age, over the philosophy of Greece, the wisdom of Rome, and the refinement of Britain. And thinkest thou, Christian, that the enemies of thy soul are enfeebled? No! What, then, would be the consequences if God led thee past them to Canaan? Wisely and graciously are you led by the wilderness.
2. The Israelites were disarmed, and therefore utterly unable to cope with the Philistines, who were prepared with every means of defence which a people whose delight was in war could invent. The young believer just escaped from the house of bondage is defenceless. His enemies are armed. He cannot expect to wield the sword of the Spirit with the full energy of one who has been accustomed to fight with it.
3. In thus estimating the goodness of God towards the children in their need, we must add that their spirits were bowed down by long captivity. The hard bondage in mortar and brick was not the school in which to learn courage. Hence Israel was not fitted to match against the free soldiers of Philistia. The slavery of Satan unfits for conflict with the foes of the soul.
II. THE DEALING OF GOD TOWARDS THEM. God might have made Israel at peace with the Philistines; or have given them courage to defeat their foes. But this procedure would have comprehended less of moral discipline.
1. He avoided the nearest way to the promised land, and led them by the way of the wilderness. The Israelites would be astonished at the line of march; they would be disposed to murmur. Has not God often contradicted your desires? You ought not to impugn His wisdom. The passenger ignorant of navigation cannot direct the course of the ship. The shipmaster knows the rocks: God knows our path best.
2. The Most High saw fit, not only that His chosen tribes should avoid the shortest way, but that they should pass through the dangers of the Red Sea, and sojourn in the wilderness of Zin. Could this be the result of wisdom? Clouds and darkness are round about Him. It is the exclusive province of unerring wisdom to draw a line between the discipline necessary for our moral good, and that severity of affliction, which might overwhelm us with despondency. We must confide in our heavenly Father.
3. Never, then, should it be forgotten, that although the journey of the Israelites was contrary to their expectations, their wishes, and their clouded judgment, it was the safest and the best path to Canaan.
(R. P. Buddicom.)
(Morgan Dix, D. D.)
(J. B. Brown, B. A.)
(J. Parker, D. D.)
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