This week’s portion is titled Beshallah, meaning “when he sent away” (Exodus 13:17-17). And we are given another study in hard-heartedness (which, from Exodus onwards, is a recurring subject in the Torah). God tells Moses,
“Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.’ Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 14:2-4)
In my post The potter and the clay, I wrote that God hardened Pharaoh in his pursuit of the Israelites to the Red Sea… but this was really only half the picture. The truth is, Pharaoh had a change of heart in himself, yet again, before God hardened him to his final destruction. Exodus 14:5-8 says,
Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people; and they said, “Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” So he made ready his chariot and took his people with him. … And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the children of Israel.
Scripture records that during the saga of the 10 plagues, Pharaoh went back on his word to let Israel go 5 times (during plagues 2, 4, 7, 8 and 9). On two of those occasions, he actually confessed that he had sinned (no. 7 and 8), but it didn’t make any difference; when he broke his word again at the 9th plague, he even threatened Moses with death if he should ever see his face again.
These details paint a tragic portrait of what it means to be chronically hard-hearted. A person who’s in this state will refuse to repent – repent only when things become unbearably difficult – change his mind again the minute pressure is off, no matter how many times he’s been around the same block – forget his lesson almost as soon as it’s over, even after he’s paid an extremely heavy price for his stubbornness… and in the end, he’ll defy all caution, warning and experience to pursue the very thing which he should’ve learned will destroy him, many times over.
This is why I wrote, “God never hardened Pharaoh’s heart against his free will or personal inclinations, but rather in accordance with what they’d consistently been, as a divine judgement on the man’s own perpetually wicked, stubborn decision-making.” When it comes to Egypt’s pursuit of the Israelites, Scripture clearly tells us that God knew Pharaoh would change his mind again. And once he did, He hardened the man’s heart in concert with him to kill him at last. Because Pharaoh refused to learn or retain what God had repeatedly tried to teach him, even after all the suffering he put his own household and nation through – because he courted destruction in his pride and arrogance – he was granted the just fruits of his wishes.
… It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is the context by which God should be understood when the Bible tells us that He executes judgement on the peoples. He waits patiently and offers the opportunity to repent; He’s long-suffering and doesn’t enjoy the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11-15) – but He will judge if repentance isn’t forthcoming, or is insincere. It was so with Canaan, Egypt, and Nineveh (see the prophetic books of Jonah and Nahum), it was so with the wicked kings of Israel (e.g. Ahab and Manasseh), and it will be so again in the latter days, when the Bible prophesies that the figure known as the Antichrist and his followers will be judged.
‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against you, O Gog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. I will turn you around, put hooks into your jaws, and lead you out, with all your army, horses, and horsemen, all splendidly clothed, a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords. …
“In the latter years you will come into the land of those brought back from the sword and gathered from many people on the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate; they were brought out of the nations, and now all of them dwell safely. You will ascend, coming like a storm, covering the land like a cloud, you and all your troops and many peoples with you.”
‘Thus says the Lord God: “On that day it shall come to pass that thoughts will arise in your mind, and you will make an evil plan: You will say, ‘I will go up against a land of unwalled villages; I will go to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates’—to take plunder and to take booty, to stretch out your hand against the waste places that are again inhabited, and against a people gathered from the nations, who have acquired livestock and goods, who dwell in the midst of the land. …
“It will be in the latter days that I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me, when I am hallowed in you, O Gog, before their eyes.”’ (Ezekiel 38:3-12, 16)
The Exodus is a precursor of what will happen again in the end times, when the Antichrist will go through similar motions to those of his Pharaonic predecessor: he will be stubborn, proud, despotic and untrustworthy (Daniel 11:36-39); he will confirm a covenant with the people of God concerning their peace and freedom, then break it (Daniel 9:27, 11:28-32); he will change his mind and gather an army to attack an unsuspecting nation who, like the post-slavery Israel of Egypt, had escaped a long captivity and acquired much livestock and goods; and God says that it will ultimately be His doing – that He’s the One who will be turning Gog’s heart and leading him and his army out to their destruction, so that the nations will, again, know who YHWH is and hallow His name for it.
Of course, we all know how it ended for Pharaoh, and we know how it will be for the Antichrist as well (see my post The promise of His coming: part IV – the day of the Lord for more) – but the people of God should not take this as an occasion to feel secure in themselves, or to look down on others. For right from the beginning at the Red Sea, Israel is recorded as complaining against the very God and prophet who rescued them from the Egyptians. In Numbers 14:22, in fact, God testifies that even though this nation of people had seen His glory and all the signs that He did in Egypt and the wilderness, they still rebelled and refused to listen to Him, testing Him 10 times.
I went through the Biblical text from Exodus to Numbers, and identified these as the 10 occasions:
- At the Red Sea because of the looming Egyptian army (Exodus 14:10-12)
- At the waters of Marah, when they thirsted and the water was bitter (Exodus 15:22-24)
- In the wilderness of Sin, when they hungered for bread and meat (Exodus 16:2-3)
- When they disobeyed Moses and left manna overnight (Exodus 16:16-20)
- When they went out to collect manna on the Sabbath, after being emphatically told not to (Exodus 16:23-29)
- At Rephidim, or the waters of Massah and Meribah, because they thirsted (Exodus 17:1-7)
- At Sinai in the matter of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-8)
- At Tav’eira, when they complained for no specific reason (Numbers 11:1-3)
- At Qivroth Hata’ava, because they were sick of eating manna (Numbers 11:4-10)
- At Qadesh in the wilderness of Paran, when they refused to enter and take the Promised Land because of the 10 spies’ evil report (Numbers 13:32-14:11)
As you can see, Israel began questioning and slandering God almost as soon as their freedom was secured, the minute Pharaoh appeared on the horizon – despite the fact they’d witnessed His awesome power and favouring of them during the 10 plagues – and they did it again a mere 3 days after they saw Him part the Red Sea and destroy the Egyptian army with it, at Marah. They tested Him a total of 6 times before they even reached Mount Sinai (which only took 3 months), and for a 7th at the very foot of Sinai itself!
This is why the Scriptures caution us about being hard-hearted, because the fact is, hard-heartedness is not a failing unique to any given segment of the human population, or to non-believers. It’s common to all humanity because it is a manifestation of the very sin nature itself – the refusal to listen to God, to learn what He wants to teach us, or to take to heart all the past experiences in which He’s spoken and dealt with us, both good and bad.
Hard-heartedness is born of the willful forgetfulness of unbelief and pride, and it will be the downfall of any person who allows it room in their being. This is why the Bible repeatedly exhorts:
“Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion,
As in the day of trial in the wilderness,
When your fathers tested Me;
They tried Me, though they saw My work.” (Psalm 95:8-9)
… Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end… (Hebrews 3:12-14)
The fact is, when God delivers us from bondage, there’s going to be a period of testing and hardship where the challenge for us as believers is to remember the One who’s delivered us: who He is, what He’s capable of, why He’s saved us, and how we are to respond to Him when things get difficult on our journey toward the plans He has for us. This is necessary because when we come out of our former lives as slaves of sin both conscious and unconscious, and as subjects of un-renewed minds, we have to begin shedding our old ways of looking at things… of speaking and feeling and thinking and acting, so we can become better conformed to the new creations and new people we’re supposed to be in Him.
This, by definition, is a tough process where it’s easy to think that God simply wants us to suffer and be defeated by our struggles… but the truth is, He knows what He’s doing. When God began leading the Israelites out of Egypt, He determined their course:
Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, “Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up in orderly ranks out of the land of Egypt. …
And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people. (Exodus 13:17-18, 21-22)
God knew that the longer path, though more difficult, would ultimately be easier on the Israelites because of the condition of their hearts. He knew that they could better withstand, after the hardships and burdens of slavery, the testing of certain forms of deprivation and exhaustion rather than outright war. Moreover, He went with them in a way that clearly demonstrated the closeness and faithful protectiveness of His presence, so that they would always know where they were going, and that He was with them, no matter how long the journey took.
… In short, we may not get the breaks we want when we’re making our way through the wilderness (the Israelites certainly didn’t), but God will give us the breaks that matter – He’s not going to promise comfort and ease in the desert or smooth everything out, but He will enable and sustain us.
Everything else… is grist to the mill of character-building and faith-stretching.
And while I realise that this isn’t what a lot of us want to hear, the truth is, when you think about what the Israelites were delivered from and where they were finally headed, it puts the things that transpired in the middle in perspective: you can see that it was a far better thing that they were doing, than they had ever done, both for themselves and their children; it was a far better rest that they were going to, than they had ever known; and the sufferings which they endured in that interim were not worthy to be compared to the glory of the destiny that ultimately awaited them. … That’s the bottomline.
To finish, here’s a response from CMI to a letter about the purpose of explaining Biblical miracles, with discussion on the parting of the Red Sea:
Next week, we look at Israel’s arrival at Sinai. Blessed week, all~