Last Sunday we were celebrating the 20th century's Great Escape. For that was the 75th anniversary of an escape by 76 brave allied prisoners of War nearing the end of World War II on 24th March 1944. It was from Stalag Luft III by building underground tunnels. Sadly only three got back home to the UK out of the 76 prisoners that actually escaped. For 23 were captured and imprisoned again, while Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 50. Tonight, however, we will be focusing on the celebration of The Great Rescue as our series is called – not an escape by men but a great rescue by God. So what is the story so far?
Well, God's people – the people of Israel – were enslaved in Egypt, to where they had migrated centuries earlier. And because of their population growth, they had suffered state enforced infanticide. Moses, their leader, having survived as an infant by a clever subterfuge, when aged 40 had to go into exile for 40 years. But he then, aged 80, was called by God to lead his people out of Egypt and to their promised land.
However, a new Pharaoh on the throne still refused to grant any of Moses requests. And that was even after nine, as we call them, plagues. But then the tenth plague with its warning was terrifyingly effective. All the first-born in the land were to die in one night. That is, unless they were in an Israelite dwelling with door-posts and lintels smeared with the blood of an unblemished year-old lamb. So because people had ignored or defied the Lord …
"… at midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt … and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house were someone was not dead" (Exodus 12.29-30).
Then Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave to go to their promised land after being settled 430 years in Egypt (Exodus 12.40)! But then when they were already on the move Pharaoh and his servants changed their minds – having lost this huge work-force of cheap labour. So we've now reached the actual "rescue". And, tonight, especially, we've reached Moses' and the people of Israel's response to that rescue.
So now for the immediate facts just past. Pharaoh had marshalled his army of thousands of men who had gone in pursuit of all these thousands of Hebrews who were naturally terrified. For they seemed trapped between mountains, water and desert. So they were angry with Moses for having got them, as they saw it, into this mess. But Moses was confident (Exodus 14.14):
"The Lord will fight for you, you only have to be silent."
By now it was night time. So Moses stretched out his hand and the sea [scholars still disagree over which stretch of water that was … the sea … ] was driven back "by a strong east wind" (Exodus 14.21). These thousands of Israelites could now pass over the dry bed of the sea. Then in the morning, when the Israelites were safely on the other side, Moses stretched out his hand again. And the waters returned, the pursuing great Egyptian army was submerged, and the soldiers, yes, drowned. So as the sun rose, they saw clearly what had happened and they realized that they had miraculously escaped and were now free. And it wasn't a myth. It had really happened.
I remember the end of the Second World War. That really happened. I was in my primary school in Stanmore, North London. I have a photo of us all in our quadrangle at long tables having jelly and sandwiches (that, by the way, was a treat for we had food rationing in those days). But even the relief we felt at the ending of the Second World War would have been nothing like the relief that that vast array of 1000s felt, at last safe from the army of Pharaoh which was now literally non-existent. They were jubilant beyond words. And that euphoria gave rise to an amazing song of celebration in which Moses led the people of Israel.
And as you read and think about the words of this song you can see Moses was celebrating at least four fundamental characteristics of his and our God. These are so fundamental that we need to keep them constantly in mind and celebrated ourselves. And they are first, the Glory of God; secondly, the Justice of God; thirdly, the Involvement of God; and, fourthly, the Uniqueness of God, as you can see from the outline on the back of your service sheets.
1. The Glory of God
Look at verses 1-2:
"Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,
'I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.'"
So Moses sang (verse 1): "I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously."
What is triumphant "glory"? Literally, the main Old Testament word for glory [not used here, its another word] means "weight". But it comes to mean a range of things such as worth, wealth, splendour, reputation - and this triumphant rescue was glorious. And all of that (plus more) is what the word translated "glory" means by the time of the New Testament. With God it comes to sum up his reality and even his presence. So that is embodied in Jesus himself of whom the Apostle John could say:
"We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1.14).
But how does all this apply to you and me? Well, when, by his Holy Spirit, we experience some glorious victory in our own lives, we should respond as Moses did, by first of praising and thanking God. And, of course, we should be praising God and giving him the glory for our salvation through Christ's triumphant victory at the Cross and then for his Resurrection. But also the small triumphs and the ordinary things of life as well need our thanks. As Paul says (1 Corinthians 10.31):
"whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."
One of the most famous of the Reformation Catechisms begins like this: Question: "what is the chief end of man?" Answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." That means your goal in life is to live by, and really believe, that promise in Hebrews 11.6:
"Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."
He wants all to be well. And, because you believe that, you are able to live with any hard lessons God allows you to go through, because you know they will be for your ultimate good and joy and his glory. So first there was celebration of, and for, God's glory through this great triumph.
2. There was the celebration for the Justice of God
Look at verse 3 - 7:
"The Lord is a man of war;
the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble."
Perhaps you are saying, "How can a great and good God be a man of war and 'consume' the Egyptians 'like stubble'?"
Well, first, we must remember that God's revelation is progressive as well as cumulative. In the Old Testament God was teaching his people and then the world about his justice and judgment. But the New Testament dawns with the start of a new age of grace. So, Elijah may have called down fire on the Samaritans. But Jesus says, "No!" to his disciples wanting to do the same. The Old Testament might advocate stoning an adulteress. But Jesus says to an adulteress, not, "It's OK; you've been true to yourself." No! He says, "I forgive you, [nevertheless] go and sin no more." However, this day of grace does not last forever. When Christ returns a second time there will be judgment. And Christ will judge, and to some he will say, "depart from me". And hell will be a far worse penalty than Pharaoh and his army experienced.
Secondly, we must remember that the very first thing God revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden was that he is a God of Judgement. And his rule of law began before the Fall with one law and one punishment - Genesis 2.16-17 says:
"The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.'"
Thirdly, God's law is right and his judgement is just. For God's judgments are not arbitrary or spiteful, but a just payment for evil done. And how important that is! When there is no such justice, and as with God tempered with mercy, it is fearful. For example, when there is no awareness of just retribution in punishment but only deterrence, you can have hanging for sheep stealing. And when punishment is only for reformation, you can have people locked up in mental institutions for minor crimes for years.
Fourthly, remember God says (Ezekiel 33.11):
"I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live."
So a famous Jewish Rabbi, Johanan, said: "When the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the angels in heaven were about to break into songs of jubilation. But the Holy One silenced them with the words, 'My creatures are perishing, and you are ready to sing!'"
And, fifthly, Pharaoh had been given nine chances to "turn from his way" but he refused to let Moses and the people go. And after he responded positively to the tenth chance, he recanted. So for him it was like going down a motorway with warning signs. If you have hazard signs at I mile, 500 yards, 250 yards, then a red stop light that you drive through at 90 mph, don't be surprised if you land up in a coffin. That is what happened to Pharaoh and his advisors. So Moses is celebrating the justice of God.
3. There was celebration of the Involvement of God.
Technically theologians call this the "Providence" of God. Look at verse 8:
"At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up;
the floods stood up in a pile;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.'
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters."
"At the blast of your nostrils" is obviously poetic and referring to the wind. But it means, also and vitally, that these tides weren't just a matter of meteorology or oceanography. No! For God was providentially at work, too. Let me explain – or let Jim Packer explain:
"If creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of the same energy. By it the Creator, according to his own will, keeps all creatures in being, involves himself in all events, and directs all things to their appointed end … God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his perfect rule is absolute."
So in verse 10 you have a clear enough statement of God's direct involvement in what was happening to the water on this critical night. But when thinking about God's involvement, keep this in mind. God's providential overruling doesn't mean people's free choice has been threatened, or, as in this incident, there have not been natural causes at work, or even Satan. Or people may do bad things, but God uses their actions for good. This was the case with Joseph at the start of the exile in Egypt. As reported in Genesis 50.20, Joseph said to his brothers:
"You meant evil against me [by selling me as a slave], but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive [from starving] as they are today."
And in his Pentecost sermon Peter said, Acts 2.23:
"This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you [the crowds at Pentecost] crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men."
So God's working alongside and through nature and human wills, does not have to violate the natural order or human freedom. As we've seen in this series, some of the plagues were natural events: the timing was the miracle. But sometimes there is a divine new creative work – a miracle; and sometimes there is probably both as on this Exodus night – the natural order and a creative work of God. However it is analysed, God's providential working is good news. So you want to join with Moses in celebrating it. It means that Christian believers in 2019 are not in the grip of irrational chance or fate. For God in the person of his Son, our Lord Jesus, is involved in our world and is in control. His last words to his disciples were that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him and he is with us; so we can be confident of that great truth in Romans 8.28:
"We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
No wonder Moses celebrated God's involvement.
4. He celebrated the Uniqueness of God
Why? At least, first, our God is unique in his holiness. Look at verse 11:
"Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them."
This song of Moses has evidence of having been composed in the aftermath of the events it describes. And it contains the first instance of the word "holiness" in the Bible. So what does "holiness" mean? Answer - all that sets God apart from us mere men and women. It speaks of his transcendent greatness and his moral perfection. It speaks of all God's characteristics that cause Habakkuk 1.13 to say: "You … are of purer eyes than to see evil." Hence the need for his judgement. Secondly, God is unique in his love. Look at verse 13:
"You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
The peoples have heard; they tremble;
pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
till your people, O Lord, pass by,
till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
The Lord will reign for ever and ever."
But what really is God's love? Moses later was to receive a wonderful definition of that love as reported in Exodus 34.6-7:
"The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin …"
So as God is slow to anger, his just wrath for sin must be a last resort. And his love is inclusive of thousands upon thousands. But so many stop at that point. For the verse goes on …
"… but who [the Lord] will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."
How can both halves of that definition of love be true? The answer, of course, is in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. For Christ has now, in your place, paid the debt which God requires for your self-chosen sin. And by his Resurrection, if you trust him, he is with you to the end of the age.
Who needs to come to terms with God's love tonight, through the Cross of Christ and his Resurrection? And by his Holy Spirit he can then guide you and strengthen you to help make this a more holy and loving world. In the same way, God was guiding and protecting those Israelites to their promised land, back then, as Moses celebrated at the end of his song.
So, to conclude - Moses' song presents a simple choice: will we go Pharaoh's way of self, sin and misery, or Moses' way of God's glory, triumph and joy? If Moses' way, how we need to thank God for his glory, his justice, his involvement (in our world and lives) and his unique holiness and love.