As we return to the story in Exodus, we find the people of God learning to follow and obey this God who had just delivered them from slavery to the Egyptians. They used to be oppressed, beaten, discouraged, and hopeless, but all of that had changed. The people were finally leaving and heading out on a journey to find the land of promise. And they are beginning a challenging journey, the journey where they would learn to trust and follow the Lord.
We pick up the story in Exodus chapter 13, verse 17.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” (The normal route from Egypt to Canaan would have led them along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the direct route. However that route has been well documented as a well fortified military road. They would have faced multiple garrisons of Egyptian troops along the way out of Egypt.) 18So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. (The Hebrew is literally the “sea of rushes” and we will save the discussion of the exact location of this body of water for later.) The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle. (A poor translations. A better translation would be “in battle formation” for it speaks more of how they traveled and not that they had weapons with them.)
19Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (This is a direct quote from Genesis 50.25)
20After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. 21By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
1Then the LORD said to Moses, 2“Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. (The place names in the story are very specific, but scholars have still not been able to identify them with any certainty. Pi Hahiroth is most likely the mouth of a river or canal, Migdol was possibly an Egyptian fortified town. What can be certain is that the direction of the journey was generally southeastern. And, it definitely look like the group didn’t know where they were going.) 3Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ 4And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this. (Exodus 13.17-14.14, my notes in italics.)
The story is more than just another transitional piece, it is the story that explains how the people of God followed the God who had delivered them out of bondage and into the Promised Land. They would go to certain places and do certain things, many of which will be inexplicable, all because they were convinced that God led them to be there or to do that.
I read the story with great envy because they had a visible manifestation of God to follow: a pillar of cloud to follow during the day time and a pillar of fire to guide them at night. All they had to do was to look out of their tent every morning and the answer to their questions were clear. If the cloud was moving, then they better start packing their things. If the cloud was staying still, then they could go rest for one more day. If they ever woke up with horrible thoughts that the Lord Had abandoned them, they could look out their tent and see the awesome pillar of fie and know that God was with them. They never had to study a map or form a committee to know which way to go, they just followed the cloud. How easy their life must have been.
But their story is really not that much different than ours. Here we have a people who have been delivered by a God who has done nothing other than demonstrate that He is powerful and wonderful things, but He is not your grandfather’s god. He’s unpredictable, His timing is poor, His ideas are unconventional to say the least, and He never seems to listen to our opinion.
Perhaps we can learn something from this story about the challenges of following the Lord in faith.
The Lord Knows Exactly Where He is Leading Us, But…
The first thing I see in this story is that the Lord knows exactly where He is leading us. When He first met Moses at the burning bush, He told Moses the exact plan:
I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Exodus 3.8)
Of course, we read that verse and can’t even pronounce the last four or five words much less know how to find it on a map. But, of course, we assume that Moses knew exactly where he was talking about, but that might be quite an assumption. Moses might have learned world geography while growing up in Pharaoh’s house, and he might have learned about those people groups while living in the land of Midian working for Jethro, but it seems to me highly unlikely that the common slaves of Egypt were educated in world geography or in the people groups of the middle east.
You see, while the Lord knows exactly where He is leading us, He doesn’t seem all that concerned with sharing that information with us. We all know the wonderful promise of Jeremiah 29.11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This has always been a great source of hope because it reminds us that God has created us with a future and a hope. But notice what the verse does not say is “I will tell you the plans I have for you.”
No, what seems to be God’s method of operation is to show to us the next step but to keep the big picture under wraps, kind of a divine secret. He knows where He is leading us, but He reveals the “step by step” instead of the final location.
The Lord Knows the Best Route to Get to His Chosen Destination
But this just brings me to the second thing I see about the Lord’s leadership, and that is that while He knows the exact place where He is taking us, He also knows the best route to get there. The faith challenge is that the route that the Lord thinks is best is not always that obvious to us.
Take the Exodus route. At first, God’s choice seems very wise and compassionate. He is not going to take them through the Philistine country because it is a highly traveled route complete with multiple Egyptian military outposts. It would have certainly led them to war, and though they were marching in military formation (men in front, women and children in the middle, etc.), they were certainly not equipped or trained to face an Egyptian fortified army. So, graciously, God leads them another way. So far so good.
But look at the route that God does lead them to. Even though we are not quite sure about some of the place names, a couple of things are clear. First, their route appeared to Pharaoh to be a route of confusion. In other words, their path did not make sense to Pharaoh. It was not the most direct route, it was not the route he would have chosen, it was not the safest route, it must not have been the quickest route, it was a “chicken with its head cut off” route. Pharaoh will hear of their path and think, “They are in utter confusion.”
The second thing we see if that this route led them to be hemmed in by the sea. Wherever Etham, Pi Hahiroth, Migdol, and Baal Zephon were, it is obvious that God was leading them to a very poorly chosen position. They were hemmed in, they were closed up, they were backed into a cornered. They had no escape route. They were sitting ducks.
So, go back to our first truth: God knows exactly where He is taking us, though He is not forthcoming with the exact end location. But, He is faithful to give us step by step instructions. But, some of those step by step instructions lead us to places that have the appearance of confusion and poorly selected positions. Why does God choose to lead us in such ridiculous ways? We do find some basic principles in this story.
We are not mature enough for some faith challenges
First, God leads us away from the obvious paths because we are not mature enough to deal with the issues that those paths are going to challenge us with. He could not lead them by the Philistine country because they were not mature enough to deal with having to fight a war. But look, they were marching in military formation which to me makes it look like they thought they were preparing for war. They may have even been so confident in God and in His mighty hand that they were prepared to take on the world. “Bring it on! We are in military formation!”
But God knew. “You may think you’re ready, but you are not. I can’t take you the obvious and direct route. You are not mature enough yet.”
Some routes mature our faith more than others
Which leads us to our second point. If we are not mature enough for the most obvious paths, then it only makes sense that God will lead us in directions that will serve to mature our faith. In other words, God is going to put intentionally put us into positions that will mature our faith. As the saying goes, “Smooth seas do not skillful sailors make.” If God is going to mature our faith, then He has to stretch our faith, He has to challenge our faith, He has to put us into a position where it is tough to trust Him.
So, what God is saying to us is this. “I know the plans I have for you. Wonderful plans. To get you there, I am going to lead you to a place that is difficult so you can grow in your faith. Isn’t that wonderful?” And our usual response is, “No. Just take me to the easy place.”
Some routes bring more glory to God than others
Here’s the third point: some routes bring more glory to God than others. Look back at the story, why does the Lord lead them to a route that looks confused and to one that hems them in? “I will gain more glory for Myself,” said the Lord. Literally, it says, “I will be made heavy, I will be honored, I will gain glory for Myself before Pharaoh.” God can make Himself known to Pharaoh and the Egyptians more by hemming the Israelites in by the sea.
Now, don’t miss this. We know the rest of the story. We know all about the crossing of the Red Sea. We know all about the parting of the waters and the crossing on dry land. But does God tell the people about it at this time? No. He simply leads them to a place of confusion and to a place where they are hemmed in by the sea telling them that this is a situation where I will reveal myself in a mighty way. Sometimes you will hear preachers refer to this as “God room.” God room is the room in our lives where God has to work, the idea being that we need to leave God room in our lives to that He can do His thing. God is asking for some room to reveal His power and to show His stuff. All of that sounds well and good, but it is very difficult to rest in a place where there is lots of God room.
The Lord Is Present To Lead And To Guide
One more thing we see in this story about following the Lord is that the Lord is very present to lead and to guide us on the journey. Again, we look upon the incident with great envy because they had the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night to see and to follow.
What exactly is this pillar? Read the story again. “By day, the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exodus 13.21). What is the pillar? It is the presence of the Lord.
It is easy to be envious of the Hebrews. They had burning bushes, pillars of fire, and awesome clouds that covered mountains all to demonstrate the presence of God. But let us no forget, while all of those things were neat and all, they were all outsiders looking in. Only Moses was at the burning bush. Only Moses ascended to the mountain of God and received the tablet written by the Lord’s finger. Only Moses could enter the tent of meeting when the cloud of God’s presence hovered over it. The people never personally experienced the presence of God.
And in that way, the new covenant is so much better. The guiding presence of God is no longer a pillar of fire that we watch in the distance, a presence that is only accessible to some great spiritual leader but not to the masses. No, now the guiding presence of God is the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches us that when we are born again, when we become followers of God, when we become new creations in Christ, the Holy Spirit of God enters our lives. And what does the Holy Spirit of God do within our lives?
Jesus told us in John chapter 16 that the Holy Spirit will “guide us into all truth” (16.13) and will “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (16.8). What do those statements mean? To me, they mean that the indwelling Spirit of God will guide us into truth, will convict us of what is sinful (outside of the will of God), and will lead us into righteousness (that which is inside the will of God). The real joy of the Christian life is that each one of us can know the presence of God in their life and follow His guidance.
Learning to Keep in Step with the Spirit
Of course, it is much more challenging to learn how to “keep in step with the Spirit” (which is how Paul describes it in Galatians 5.25) than it is to learn how to watch of pillar of fire move in the night. Listening to the Spirit’s voice is a faith development process.
And it is possible to either not hear the Spirit’s voice or to mishear it. Now why is that possible? Because we have an enemy the Devil who is trying to deceive you. He is the father of lies who wants to steal from you the abundant life that Jesus has come to give to you. So, in learning to follow the Spirit’s voice we have to learn how to identify and rebuke the lies of the Enemy, too.
Are there any guidelines to this or is it just a free for all that can result in crazy stories of “God Told Me To”?
Suggestion #1: Be Still and Pray
We are often guilty of throwing out the simple “just pray about it” advice to people who are in trouble. What we fail to communicate is that praying about it is a horribly difficult spiritual exercise.
Jesus gave us a model for how to discern the will of God. He often withdrew, even from the disciples, went to a solitary place and prayed. For long periods of time. We all say that we are praying about our decisions, but the real question is not whether or not you are praying about it but whether or not you are giving God time to answer you. If we get ourselves still and away from distractions and give Him, then He can speak to us. They keys are solitude, time, and stillness.
Suggestion #2: Read the Word Daily
If you want to learn how to follow the promptings of the Spirit, then you need to read the Word of God on a regular basis. I know we are guilty of throwing this suggestion at people, “Read the Book” as if they will find First Opinions 4.19, “Thus sayeth Lord, ‘Thou shalt take the promotion in Phoenix but ask for a salary increase.’”
Several things happens with the regular reading of the Word of God. The first thing that happens is that the full counsel of God begins to penetrate and saturate your thinking and your perspective on life. The regular reading means that you will constantly washed over with the wisdom of God. It also means that you will be exposed to portions of the Scriptures that you probably have never read. If you will follow the lectionary or a read the Bible through in 3 years plan, you will read portions of the Bible that you have never read. You will see the full counsel of God. Finally, it also means that you are giving God an opportunity to speak to you on a regular basis through His Word. You have a regular time when you sit down with the Word of God and listen to the Spirit of God speak through the written Word. If you want to keep in step with the Spirit, this is a crucial step.
Suggestion #3: Learn from the Exodus Story
What I mean by this is don’t discount the Spirit when the Spirit prompts you to do things that are counter intuitive, or things that go against your better judgment. I do think these are the exceptions to the rule and God gave us good minds for a reason, but don’t dismiss the possibility that the Spirit of God might be leading you in a path that looks confusing or convoluted. The Spirit might lead you to a place where you will be hemmed in by the sea so that He can reveal Himself to you in a new and powerful way. The Spirit might take you to a place just to develop your faith. Don’t dismiss these out of hand because they don’t make sense to you.
Suggestion #4: Share the Journey with Mature Christian Friends
This is one area where Baptists have not been very good at. We emphasize a “personal Savior” and it is true that we each must make a personal response of faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, our faith in Christ is lived out in community, too.
One of the first crisis in the early church was how to handle the Gentiles that were getting saved. The question was whether or not they had to become Jews in order to become Christians. In arriving at their decision, the apostles make this statement, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15.28). In other words, it wasn’t just the matter of one person withdrawing in prayer and coming back with an answer. Instead, the whole group was seeking the leadership of the Spirit. Now this is obvious when it comes to making group decisions, but the same principle can apply to the individual life decisions that we make.
Get some wise counsel from other mature Christian friends. For this to work, you must open up your life to them so that they can know the whole story. I can’t just answer the question “Should I take this job” without knowing all of the details in your life. If you withhold certain details, then my counsel will be less than wise. So, it is imperative that we have relationships with other Christians where we can tell them the story of our journey and get their advice. And, of course, we should choose these counselors wisely. This is why it is important that one of the things we do as a church is to provide community building opportunities.
So, what can we learn today about following a God, about living our lives based upon the basic idea of “God told me so”?
The Lord knows exactly where He is taking us, but He only gives us the next steps.
The Lord knows the best route to get us to His chosen destination, but that will often appear to be in confusion and lead you to a dead end. Often He leads us in ways that take into account our maturity. Often He leads us into paths so that He can mature our faith. Often He leads us into paths so that He can reveal Himself to us more.
The Lord is present to lead and to guide us through the indwelling Spirit of God. We learn to keep in step with the Spirit by being still in His presence in prayer, by regularly reading the full counsel of God’s Word, by being open to the crazy plans of God but by guarding ourselves from error by sharing our journey with a close, Christian friend.