29 By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. – Hebrews 11:29 ESV
After God had destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, including the son of Pharaoh, the Egyptians were ready to show the Israelites the door.
All the Egyptians urged the people of Israel to get out of the land as quickly as possible, for they thought, “We will all die!” – Exodus 12:33 NLT
Not only did they urge them to leave, they literally paid them to do so, just as God had said they would.
And the people of Israel did as Moses had instructed; they asked the Egyptians for clothing and articles of silver and gold. The Lord caused the Egyptians to look favorably on the Israelites, and they gave the Israelites whatever they asked for. So they stripped the Egyptians of their wealth! – Exodus 12:25-26 NLT
And they marched out, more than a million strong, under the leadership of Moses and the direction of God. This is where the story gets interesting. The Israelites are free to go and have their pockets lined with the treasures of the former Egyptian overlords. But watch what God does next.
When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. – Exodus 13:17 NLT
Instead, “God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:18 NLT). In other words, God sent them on the less direct route, and not only that, He eventually had them do a U-turn.
Then the Lord gave these instructions to Moses: “Order the Israelites to turn back and camp by Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea. Camp there along the shore, across from Baal-zephon.” – Exodus 14:1-2 NLT
They were headed right back to where they had started. At this point, the people must have begun to question Moses’ leadership skills or, at the least, his sense of direction. Their sudden about-face and march back toward Egypt would have made no sense. But God provided Moses with the method to His seeming madness.
“Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness!’ And once again I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after you. I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army. After this the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord!’ So the Israelites camped there as they were told.” – Exodus 14:3-4 NLT
God was not done with Pharaoh. This stubborn, egotistical, and self-proclaimed god had dared to do battle with Yahweh and despite all the plagues his people had suffered, his overblown sense of pride would not allow him to admit defeat. So, God had one last surprise for the recalcitrant Pharaoh. God knew that once Pharaoh heard that the Israelites were camped nearby, he would change his mind once again and go on the attack. What happened next was all part of God’s plan.
Pharaoh didn’t disappoint. As soon as news of the Israelites’ circuitous trek reached his ears, he assembled his army, complete with 600 chariots, and went in hot pursuit of his former slaves. Much to his surprise and delight, Pharaoh found the Israelites camped along the banks of the Red Sea. He had them trapped. They had nowhere to run and no way to resist the might of his army. And he wasn’t the only one to recognize the dire nature of the situation.
As Pharaoh approached, the people of Israel looked up and panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them. They cried out to the Lord, and they said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!’” – Exodus 14:10-12 NLT
The newly freed Israelites were not happy. The arrival of Pharaoh’s army had them in a full-blown panic. And yet, the author of Hebrews states, “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land.”
In the Exodus account, these people appear to be anything but faithful. In fact, they don’t seem to display any faith at all – either in God or Moses. They were scared, disillusioned, and confused. This was not what they had been expecting. Everything had looked so promising when they marched out of Egypt with their pockets filled with treasure. The future was bright and their hopes were high. But now they were facing potential annihilation by the Egyptian army.
They were in a bad spot. They were in a jam. Their circumstances could not have been any worse. But remember, God had led them there. This entire scenario was all part of His divinely ordained and predetermined plan. What looked like the beginning of an unmitigated disaster was actually going to be a scene of divine deliverance.
Moses knew something the people didn’t know, so he calmly encouraged them to resist the urge to panic and run.
“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.” – Exodus 14:13-14 ESV)
His words must have sounded like the ravings of a madman. How was Yahweh going to eck out a victory from this lopsided showdown between unarmed former slaves and the chariots of Egypt?
But what they failed to realize was that they had front-row seats to what would be the greatest show on earth. Despite the circumstances surrounding them, they had nothing to fear because God was with them. So, Moses encouraged them to stand their ground. But look closely. He doesn’t give them the choice between fight or flight. Running away would prove pointless. But attempting to go toe-to-toe with the Egyptian army would not bode well either. No, Moses simply told them to fear not and stand firm. They had no other responsibility than to watch God work. And we know the rest of the story.
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. – Exodus 14:21-22 ESV
There are those who say that the people of Israel displayed no faith. The faith to which the author of Hebrews refers must have been that of Moses. After all, it was his faith that got them across the sea. But the Exodus passage makes it clear that “the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:22 ESV).
First of all, they had to heed Moses’ admonition to stop fearing, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord. The temptation to run would have been strong. Fear, doubt, and pessimism would have been natural and normal reactions to such a devastatingly difficult situation.
Yet, each and every one of them had to place their sandals on the ground between those two walls of standing water. They had to take that initial step of faith and walk the path that God had provided. It would have been scary. It would have been intimidating. They would have had doubts along the way, wondering if the walls of water would suddenly crash down, drowning them all. And it would have taken a long time for more than a million people to make that crossing. The ones in the back of the line must have been wondering if they would ever make it across before Pharaoh’s army caught up with them. And yet, “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land.”
Their salvation required that they step out in obedience. They had to walk if they wanted to live. They had to take the path God had provided, in spite of their fears, doubts, and apprehensions.
As we walk on this earth as followers of Christ, we will find ourselves facing difficult and sometimes disillusioning circumstances. God’s path for us is not always easy and doesn’t always make sense. There will be days filled with doubts and fears, second thoughts, and last-minute temptations to stop in our tracks and refuse to walk the path God has placed before us. But in those moments, we must remember the words of Moses, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13 ESV).
That doesn’t mean our fear is sin. It simply means that, at some point, we have to stop fearing and start trusting. We have to remember that God is in control and He has a plan for our lives. The path He lays out before us may seem illogical and even dangerous at times. His solution may appear worse than the problem we’re facing. But we must learn to trust Him and step out in faith.
The people of Israel doubted, but they walked. They feared, but they took the first step. When there had been no way of escape, God provided one. And they took it – in faith – weak and wavering as that faith may have been. And because they walked by faith, they arrived at the other side and were able to watch as God destroyed the enemy they had formerly feared. With their own eyes, they witnessed the salvation of the Lord.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.