When being trapped is the key to divine deliverance
Israel’s plight of being hemmed in on all sides by mortal enemies seems a particularly pitiful one. But at the risk of sounding uncompassionate, it’s the best possible place for them to be, as the miracle of the first Passover reminds us.
Having seen their firstborn survive a plague of death through the blood of a lamb daubed on the doorposts of their houses, the way was now open for the Jews to escape slavery in Egypt as Pharaoh finally had his fill of disasters.
Sure, the blood of the lamb was the key to their salvation, but they needed to keep trusting the God of Israel for every step of their path to the Promised Land. The first surprise was that a shortcut was not the best route. That would have taken them through Philistine country, and God didn’t want them to face war so early because it would discourage them. Instead he led them to an area where they were completely trapped, hemmed in by the desert on one side and the sea on the other, with Pharaoh’s troops, having changed their minds about losing their services, now chasing down hard on their tails.
So it is with us. God takes us on a circuitous route in our discipleship for a reason. And when we find ourselves trapped and hemmed in on all sides, we are in Position A for a miracle. The Israelites panicked, but Moses said: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.” (Exodus 14.13)
He goes on: “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (v14)
Last weekend I was due to make what is usually an 80-mile (129 km) round trip to interview a friend in Driffield for a book I’m working on. But I had to come via Hemsworth for a dentist appointment, so that added to the distance. However, my main obstacle was a series of roadworks which meant several big diversions – via Beverley on the way out, and Selby on the way back – so that in the end I clocked up 120 miles (193 km) through every county in Yorkshire (north, south, east and west). We can all get impatient with road delays, but I’m sure God is at work in those too, perhaps teaching us patience for one thing. Perhaps He also wants to show us some lovely new scenery; some magnificent new vistas showcasing his beautiful handiwork (it is God’s own county, after all). As it happened, I went through some lovely villages we used to cover when I was editor at Goole 30 years ago, and yet I never visited them at the time. We relied on local residents to send us their news.
You know, the roadworks may be a short-term problem, but they’re a long-term benefit. God may not want you to go down certain paths, perhaps because they are dangerous or maybe he’s busy smoothing out the highway for you so that, when the time is right, you will be able to drive through unhindered. And a final point: I was over half-an-hour late for my friend, but he had dozed off while waiting in his car, so obviously benefited from a needful and refreshing sleep. Nothing is wasted.
St Paul’s journey of discipleship took him via prison, from where he wrote the most joyful of his epistles, calling on the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always”. I have a friend who has been in prison these past two years (and in my opinion he’s the victim of gross injustice), but in a recent letter he wrote: “I am so blessed!”He was referring to the regular visits he receives, unlike most of his fellow inmates. And in his most recent letter he wrote: “All through the last two years I have been kept safe and well, with a strong realisation that God is in charge of what’s happening, not man, nor me! It’s just the path he’s taking me on, though a very unusual one.”
Positioned for a miracle
God wants us to trust him for every move we make. The fearful Israelites were about to witness one of the greatest miracles of history; indeed, a picture of the coming resurrection of their Messiah Yeshua – and of all who follow him. They were as good as dead; Pharaoh’s forces actually overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon. No wonder they were terrified. But Moses said, “Don’t panic!” And then he said, “Stand firm” (also translated “Stand still”).
True enough, they were trapped; they had nowhere to go. And that is just where God wanted them. He wanted them to “Go to him!” There will never be a situation when a believer has nowhere to go; even if he’s trapped in a war zone or a concentration camp, God is there. Notice that Moses’ instruction is not to retreat or do anything, but to “stand still” and let God do the work. He will bring about the miracle, but not if we interfere by trying to manipulate the situation, for that would be trusting in your own ‘good’ deeds to win God’s favour. In situations like this, don’t touch anything or do anything; just raise your hands to God in prayer, and let him work the miracle. God will fight for you – “you need only to be still”.
How desperately we believers need to learn this lesson about taking our hands off the ’ark of God’s presence’ – remember when Uzzah tried to steady the Ark as it was being taken back to Jerusalem. He was struck down dead. (1 Chronicles 13.9f) We like to help God along with our puny efforts, but he doesn’t need them. He only wants our perfect trust.
Abraham, despite his legendary faith, couldn’t quite believe that God could provide a son through the aged Sarah, so he thought he’d give the Lord a hand by having sex with Hagar. And look what happened! We’re still suffering the consequences through the ongoing Arab-Jewish conflict.
I remember going through a very difficult time in my youth involving marriage, family and future, calling out to the Lord from the beautiful Yorkshire hills where I used to walk, and hearing the still, small voice of God saying: “Stand still, and see the salvation of your God!”
In time the Lord brought me through into verdant green pastures, but His timing is also vital as, over and over again since then, I have experienced the miracle of God’s perfect timing – not a moment too soon, and not a moment too late, as I usually discover afterwards. And I have found that music so often plays a part. I don’t know why that is; perhaps it’s because I so love praising and worshipping God as I go about my business that sometimes the Lord speaks back to me in song.
There was a time when I was struggling over issues concerning production of an evangelistic tabloid I started called New Life. As I anxiously mulled over the problems while driving to our offices, words of the famous Andrew Lloyd-Webber song Memory – “I must think of a new life, and I mustn’t give in…” – came over the car’s audio-cassette and soothed my soul in a way I shall never forget.
On another occasion I was writing of my experiences in Israel for my book, Peace in Jerusalem, when I recalled the encouragement I felt as I passed a man singing the Leonard Cohen hit Hallelujah on the pavement of Zion Square. And at that precise moment, classic singer Katherine Jenkins struck up on my CD player with the very same song! I had forgotten it was on that album.
A third example of this occurred more recently during another turbulent time. I was writing an article entitled Bread of Heaven for a website I had joined (Scriggler.com), and not really sure I was doing the right thing. But as I was in the process of actually writing the words ‘bread of heaven’ a Welsh male voice choir echoed those very words with the chorus of the well-known hymn Guide me O thou great Jehovah – ‘Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me now and evermore!’
I was ecstatic. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and that’s just it. You know that it’s God when you haven’t manipulated anything, and it’s so very encouraging. So wait for it, as the Lord urged the prophet Habakkuk when he was seeking to know why the wicked prospered. The hymn just mentioned is particularly apt in our discussion about God guiding us to the Promised Land, and includes the line “I am weak, but thou art mighty, hold me with thy powerful hand…”
Yet even after He has taken us across the Red Sea as on dry land, and we have watched our pursuing enemies drown as the waters sweep over them, the journey to Canaan is not a quick one. Yes, they could have got there much sooner, but it took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And that wasn’t a mistake either, for it was there that they learnt to trust in the God who provides manna from heaven and water from the Rock, and even then, that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3).
I’ve followed the Lord now for nearly 44 years, and I can assure you that nothing, and no experience, is wasted if you are determined to be where God wants you.
The frightened Israelites were hemmed in on all sides, but the sea opened up when they obeyed Moses’ words to “stand still” and see the salvation of their God. The shackles of slavery were finally broken, and the joy of freedom was powerfully extolled in the songs of Moses and Miriam: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted… Who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.” (Exodus 15.1, 11, 13) That same joy and freedom can be ours too.
The crossing of the Red Sea is a picture of the death and resurrection of Christ, and indeed a precursor of the baptism rite as believers identify with their Messiah’s death and suffering by total immersion in water before being raised up (by the baptiser) to new life, a physical symbol of what has happened in the spiritual realm. Of course only the God-ordained miracle of a wall of water making way for the Israelites to cross prevented their total immersion, and when they landed safely on the other side, it was as if they had been raised from the dead.
St Paul writes of believers “having been buried with him (Christ) in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2.12) He also talks of their Jewish forefathers “being baptised into Moses” in an obvious reference to the Red Sea crossing. (1 Corinthians 10.2)
Still hemmed in on all sides
And yet Israel is now in the Promised Land, where they should be safe and sound. But they are still hemmed in on all sides! The Jewish longing for what often seems the elusive hope of an eternal place of refuge has been beautifully expressed by some of their great modern composers and lyricists. I think of the “yellow brick road” leading to the magical castle of the Wizard of Oz, for which Over the Rainbow1 was such a hit, the breaking down of prejudice in South Pacific encapsulated in the song You’ve got to be taught to hate, and West Side Story’s “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us… peace and quiet and open air, wait for us somewhere… we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving, somewhere.”2
Yet even in Israel the Jews are once again trapped, with nowhere to go, but God. “Then fly to His side (to borrow the lyrics from South Pacific’s Some Enchanted Evening) and make Him your own, or all through your life you will dream all alone!”
The lamb slaughtered for the enslaved Jews is now fulfilled by the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12.2)
Joy in the midst of pain and suffering has become a hallmark of the Jew (and the Christian for that matter), who in the past has escaped from the chains of slavery to freedom of worship and victory over enemies.
But there is a greater escape at hand. And the pathway through the current sea of trouble has already been opened up by Yeshua HaMashiach, who has paid for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and was raised from the dead as the first-fruits of all who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15.20, 23)
The miracle of the Passover works both ways – positively for those who put their trust in the blood of the Lamb, but those who despise the One God has sent to be our Saviour are destined to ultimate disaster and defeat.
My wife and I recently enjoyed a wonderful meal at one of England’s oldest coaching inns, the Lion Hotel in Buckden, Cambridgeshire. Built in 1492, it was once known (I’m not sure why, but I can guess) as the Lion and the Lamb. That sounds like a description of Yeshua, the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Lamb of God. He is the King of the Universe, not to be messed with, but also the innocent, suffering servant, slain for the sins of the world. If, metaphorically speaking, we place the mark of his blood on our hearts and receive Him into our lives, we will be saved for all eternity as we enter into the joy of his kingdom.
Yes, we are living in dark days, and worse still may lie ahead, but the best is yet to come.
- Over the Rainbow was the most famous of the Wizard of Oz songs composed, with Yip Harburg, by Harold Arlen. The lyrics for the 1939 hit, sung by Judy Garland, speak of a place “somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I’ve heard of, once in a lullabye; somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
- Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the scores for both South Pacific and West Side Story.