Pharaoh and the Egyptian officials, concluding falsely that the Israelites were lost in the wilderness, thought that the time was right to recapture their former slaves (Ex. 14:1–7). No doubt they were offended by the boldness with which the Israelites had left Egypt (v. 8), the confidence of Israel harming Egypt’s pride. Thus, Pharaoh got his own chariot ready for battle and took “six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt” with him to catch the Israelites (Ex. 14:6–7). We do not know how many chariots actually went out, but many more than six hundred are likely in view. “Chosen chariots” in Exodus 14:7 indicates that Pharaoh took his best chariots but does not necessarily limit his fighting force to that number. Moreover, even a few chariots gave Egypt a decided advantage in battle over the Israelites, who had no experience in battle.
The Egyptian army soon caught up with the Israelites and “overtook” Israel where the nation camped by Pi-hahiroth, by the sea—the Red Sea (Ex. 14:9). The Hebrew term translated as “overtook” is a hunting term, which is appropriate since Egypt was hunting Israel, as it were. On the first reading of verse 10, it seems as if the Israelites suddenly saw the Egyptians right at the gates of the camp, but in reality the Israelites would have been aware of Egypt’s approach before the army got terribly close. Moses would have already told them what was going on (Ex. 14:1–4), and the chariots would have stirred up a cloud of dust that could be visible while the army was still miles away. Despite the advance warning, however, having the Egyptian army close at hand filled the Israelites with fear (Ex. 14:10–12), for as one commentator observes, it is one thing to know in theory that the enemy is coming and another to see them quickly catching up to you.
Israel’s fearful response as noted in their complaint to Moses in verses 11–12 indicates that they lacked a steadfast trust in God to save them. Even though they had seen the Lord do many miracles in liberating them from Egypt (chs. 7–12), they forgot to believe the Lord, and they let their circumstances cloud their thinking. John Calvin comments that this shows us “how far men’s passions will carry them, when fear has extinguished their hopes, and they wait not patiently for God’s aid.” If we are not careful, our troubles can cause us to respond similarly, so let us strive not to let our present ills distract us from the truth that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:31–39).