"Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will show to you to-day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace."--EXODUS xiv. 13, 14.
Why did God bring the Jews out of Egypt? God Himself told them why. To fulfil the promise which He made to Abraham, their forefather, that of his children He would make a great nation.
Now the Jews in Egypt were not a nation at all. A nation is free, governed by its own laws, one body of people, held together by one fellow feeling, one language, one blood, one religion; as we English are. We are a nation. The Jews were none in Egypt, no more than Negro slaves in America were a nation. They served a people of a different blood, as the Jews did in Egypt. They had no laws of their own; they had no fellow- feeling with each other, which enabled them to make common cause together, and help each other, and free each other.
Selfishness and cowardice make some men slaves. Above all, ungodliness makes men slaves. For when men do not fear and obey God, they are sure to obey their own lusts and passions, and become slaves to them. They become ready to sell themselves soul and body for money, or pleasure, or food. And their fleshly lusts, their animal appetites, keep them down, selfish, divided, greedy, and needy, at the mercy of those who are stronger and cunninger than themselves, just as the Jews were kept down by the strong and cunning Egyptians.
They had slavish hearts in them, and as long as they had, God could not make them into a nation. The Jews had slaves' hearts in them. They were glad enough to get free out of Egypt, to escape from their heavy labour in brick and mortar, from being oppressed, beaten, killed at the will and fancy of the Egyptians, from having their male children thrown into the river as soon as they were born, to keep them from becoming too numerous. They were glad enough, poor wretches, to escape from all their misery and oppression of which we read in the first three chapters of Exodus. But if they could do that, that was all they cared for. They did not want to be made wise, righteous, strong, free-hearted--they did not care about being made into a nation. We read that when by the Red Sea shore (Exodus xiv.), they saw themselves in great danger, the army of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, following close upon them to attack them, they lost heart at once, and were sore afraid, and cried unto Moses, "Is not this the word which we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness."
Cowards and slaves! The thing they feared above all, you see, was death. If they could but keep the miserable life in their miserable bodies, they cared for nothing beyond. They were willing to see their children taken from them and murdered, willing to be beaten, worked like dumb beasts for other men's profit, willing to be idolaters, heathens, worshipping the false gods of Egypt, dumb beasts and stocks and stones, willing to be despised, wretched, helpless slaves--if they could but keep the dear life in them. God knows there are plenty like them now-a-days--plenty who do not care how mean, helpless, wicked, contemptible they are, if they can but get their living by their meanness.
"But a man must live," says some one. How often one hears that made the excuse for all sorts of meanness, dishonesty, grasping tyranny. "A man must live!" Who told you that? It is better to die like a man than to live like a slave, and a wretch, and a sinner. Who told you that, I ask again? Not God's Bible, surely. Not the example of great and good men. If Moses had thought that, do you think he would have gone back from Midian, when he was in safety and comfort, with a wife and home, and children at his knee, and leave all he had on earth to face Pharaoh and the Egyptians, to face danger, perhaps a cruel death in shame and torture, and all to deliver his countrymen out of Egypt? Moses would sooner die like a man helping his countrymen, than live on the fat of the land while they were slaves. And forty years before he had shown the same spirit too, when though he was rich and prosperous, and high in the world, the adopted son of King Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus ii. 11), he disdained to be a slave and to see his countrymen slaves round him. We read how he killed an Egyptian, who was ill-treating one of his brothers, the Jews--and how he then fled out of Egypt into Midian, houseless and friendless, esteeming as St. Paul says, "the reproach of Christ"--that is the affliction and ill-will which came on him for doing right, "better than all the treasures of Egypt" (Heb xi. 24-27).
A man must live? The valiant Tyrolese of old did not say that (more than seventy years ago), when they fought to the last drop of their blood to defend their country against the French invaders. They were not afraid to die for liberty; and therefore they won honour from all honourable men, praise from all whose praise is worth having for ever.
A man must live? The old Greeks and Romans, heathens though they were, were above so mean a speech as that. They used to say, it was the noblest thing that can befall a man to die--not to live in clover, eating and drinking at his ease--to die among the foremost, fighting for wife and child and home.
A man must live? The martyrs of old did not say that, when they endured the prison and the scourge, the sword and the fire, and chose rather to die in torments unspeakable than deny the Lord Jesus who bought them with His blood, rather than do what they knew to be wrong. (Hebrews xi.) They were not afraid of torture and death; but of doing wrong they were unspeakably afraid. They were free, those holy men of old, truly free--free from their own love of ease and cowardice and selfishness, and all that drags a man down and makes a slave of him. They knew that "life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment." What matter if a man gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Their souls were free whatever happened to their bodies--the tormentor could not touch them, because they believed in God, because they did not fear those who could kill the body, and after that had no more that they could do.
And do you not see that a coward can never be free, never be godly, never be like Christ? For by a coward I mean not merely a man who is afraid of pain and trouble. Every one is that more or less. Jesus Himself was afraid when He cried in agony, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." (Luke xxii. 42.) But a coward is a man who is so much afraid that to escape pain and danger, he will do what he ought not--do what he is ashamed of doing--do what lowers him; and therefore our Lord Jesus had perfect courage when He tasted death for all men, and endured the very agony from which He shrank, and while He said, "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass," said also, "Nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done."
The Jews were cowards when they cried, "Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians." While a man is in that pitiful mood he cannot rise, he cannot serve God--for he must remain the slave of his own body, of which he is so mightily careful, the slave of his own fears, the slave of his own love of bodily comfort. Such a man does not dare serve God. He dare not obey God, when obeying God is dangerous and unpleasant. He dare not claim his heavenly birthright, his share in God's Spirit, his share in Christ's kingdom, because that would bring discomfort on him, because he will have to give up the sins he loves, because he will have to endure the insults and ill-will of wicked men. Thus cowards can never be free, for it is only where the Spirit of God is that there is liberty.
But the Jews were not yet fit to be made soldiers of. God would not teach them at once not to be afraid of men. He did not command them to turn again and fight these Egyptians, neither did He lead them into the land of Canaan the strait and short road, through the country of the Philistines, lest they should be discouraged when they saw war.
Now what was God's plan for raising the Jews out of this cowardly, slavish state? First, and above all, to make them trust in Him. While they were fearing the Egyptians, they could never fear Him. While they were fearing the Egyptians, they were ready to do every base thing, to keep their masters in good humour with them. God determined to teach them to fear Him more than they feared the Egyptians. God taught them that He was stronger than the Egyptians, for all their civilisation and learning and armies, chariots and horsemen, swords and spears. He would not let the Jews fight the Egyptians. He told them by the mouth of Moses, "Stand you still, and the Lord shall fight for you," and he commanded Moses to stretch out his rod over the sea. (Exodus xiv.) The Egyptians were stronger than the Jews--they would have cut them to pieces if they had come to a battle. For free civilised men like the Egyptians are always stronger than slaves, like the Jews; they respect themselves more, they hold together better, they have order and discipline, and obedience to their generals, which slaves have not. God intended to teach the Jews that also in His good time. But not yet. They were not fit yet to be made soldiers. They were not even men yet, but miserable slaves. A man is only a true man when he trusts in God, and none but God--when he fears God and nothing but God. And that was the lesson which God had to teach them. That was the lesson which He taught them by bringing them up out of Egypt by signs and wonders, that God was the Lord, God was their deliverer, God was their King--that let them be as weak as they might, He was strong--that if they could not fight the Egyptians God could overwhelm them--that if they could not cross the sea, God could open the sea to let them pass through. If they dreaded the waste howling wilderness of sand, with its pillars of cloud and fire, its stifling winds which burn the life out of man and beast, God could make the sand storms and the fire pillars and the deadly east wind of the desert work for their deliverance. And so He taught them to fear Himself, to trust in Him, to look up to Him as their deliverer whose strength was shown most gloriously when they were weakest and most despairing.
This was the great lesson which God meant to teach the children of Israel, that the root and ground of all other lessons, is that this earth belongs to the Lord alone. That had been what God had been teaching them already, by the plagues of Egypt. The Egyptians worshipped their great river Nile, and thought it was a god, and the Lord turned the Nile water into blood, and showed that He could do what He liked with it. The Egyptians worshipped dumb beasts and insects, and fancied in their folly that they were gods. The Lord sent plagues of frogs and flies and locusts, and took them away again when He liked, to show them that the beasts and creeping things were His also.
The Egyptians worshipped false gods who as they fancied managed the seasons and the weather. God sent them thunder and hail when it pleased Him, and showed the Jews that He, not these false gods of Egypt, ruled the heavens. The Egyptians and many other heathen nations of the earth used to offer their children to false gods. I do not mean by killing them in sacrifice, but by naming them after some idol, and then expecting that the idol would ever afterwards prosper and strengthen them. Thus the kings were called after the sun. Pharaoh means the Sun-king; for they fancied that the sun was a god, and protected their kings one after the other. And God slew all the first-born of Egypt, even the first-born of King Pharaoh on his throne. The Sun-god could not help him. The idols of Egypt could not take care of their worshippers--only the children of the Jews escaped. (Exodus xii.) What a lesson for the Jews! And they needed it; for during the four hundred years that they had been in Egypt they had almost forgotten the one true God, the God of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; at least they thought Him no better than the false gods of Egypt. After all these wondrous proofs of God's almighty power, and His jealousy for His own name, they fell away to idols again and again. They worshipped a golden calf in Horeb (Exodus xxxii.); they turned aside to worship the idols of the nations whom they passed through on their way to Canaan. Idolatry had been rooted in their hearts, and it took many years of severe training and teaching on God's part to drive it out of them--to make them feel that the one God, who made heaven and earth, had delivered them--that they belonged to Him, that they had a share in Him--to make them join with one heart and voice in the glorious song of Moses:
"I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song and he is become my salvation: he is my God and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name. Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone. Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. And in the greatness of thine excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sentest forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble. And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall deliver them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? Thou stretchedst out thy right hand, the earth swallowed them. Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed: thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation. The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina. Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone; till thy people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased. Thou shalt bring them in and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established. The Lord shall reign for ever and ever. For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea." (Exodus xv. 1-19.)
This was God's first lesson to the Jews; the first step towards making them a free nation. For believe me, my friends, the only thought which can make men feel free and strong, the only thought which can keep them from being afraid of each other, afraid of the seasons, and the elements, and the chances and changes of this mortal life, the only thought which can teach them that they are brothers, bound together to help and love each other, in short the only thought which can make men citizens--is the thought that the one God is their Father, and that they are all His children--that they have one God, one religion, one baptism, one Lord and Saviour, who has delivered them, and will deliver them again and again from all their sins and miseries; one God and Father of all, who is in all, and for all, and over all, to whom they all owe equal duty, in whom they all have an equal share.
That lesson God began to teach the Jews by the Red Sea. That lesson God has taught our English forefathers again and again; and that lesson He will teach us, their children, as often as we forget it, by signs and wonders, by chastisements and by mercies, till we all learn to trust in Him and Him only, and know that there is none other name under heaven by which we can be saved from evil in this life or in the life to come, but the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Angel of the Covenant, who led the Jews up out of the land of Egypt.