"Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: '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.' And they did so" (Exo. 14:1-4).
The path the Israelites were taking was not direct (cf. Num. 33:7), and it would have appeared to the Egyptians that they were confused and had made a fatal mistake. The reality was that they were simply following God's lead. Even today, when Christians follow God's directions, some will conclude that we are mixed-up or naive (cf. I Pet. 4:4), not understanding that God's word wisely directs our beliefs, practices, and morality (cf. Prov. 3:5-7).
The course the Israelites were taking emboldened the Egyptians to pursue them. The Egyptians had not yet fully learned the lesson God had prepared for them. They had already suffered so much from the ten plagues. Their land had been devastated and they had lost all their precious firstborn children. God would now humiliate their army for deciding to go after Israel in order to bring them back by force. Pharaoh and his servants believe they made a mistake in setting Israel, their workforce of slaves, free. Pharaoh can do nothing to bring back the deceased firstborn, but he believes he can do something to bring back the slaves who were fleeing inefficiently! His idea, no doubt, is to minimize his losses. Little does he know, however, that chasing after the Israelites will bring even greater suffering to his nation (though he should have realized this from his prior experience with Jehovah's plagues). Indeed, Pharaoh was a hard-hearted man, and as such he prepared his choice chariots and horses and pursued Israel with his captains.
"And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifted their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians marched after them. So they were very afraid, and the children of Israel cried out to the LORD. Then they said to Moses, 'Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, 'Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness'" (Exo. 14:10-12). After ten plagues, Pharaoh had not learned his lesson, and neither had Israel! Their confidence in God crumbles at the sight of Pharaoh's approaching army. So much so that they grumble against Moses for liberating them! How these groanings of disbelief must have grieved the heart of God (cf. Psa. 106:7,8)!
But Moses' faith is not shaken. He speaks words of courage - "Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace" (Exo. 14:13,14). Moses knows God did not deliver the Israelites only to let Pharaoh slay or enslave them again. What did the people have to fear from Pharaoh when God was with them? He would fight for them! God had already provided abundant proof of His power and care for them, yet they show themselves to be forgetful and weak when adversity threatened. Sadly, too many followers of Christ, in times of difficulty, are more like the grumbling Israelites than they are Moses. May we learn from the things written before (cf. Rom. 15:4), knowing that God is in control and will work all things out for ultimate good for those who love Him (cf. Rom. 8:28).
The LORD was about to do something amazing to save the Israelites, but it would all begin with them remaining calm and walking forward by faith. We will continue studying this narrative in our next lesson.