By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. (Heb. 11:29)
There is something magical about the sea. Everyone is drawn to it. Few places in all creation besides the sea so embody the turbulent and foreboding threat of the natural order while at the same time having the ability to create an atmosphere of rest, relaxation, and tranquility. The same sea can be calm and glassy on one day and storm-tossed on the next. It paradoxically teems with life, and yet on blustery days it is the cause of countless deaths. People are often rescued from the sea, while many flock to it to escape the storms of everyday life. Countless books and movies have been based on the sea, and for those who love it the way I do, there is no more soothing place under the sun. There truly is something magical about the sea.
The sea also has a special place in the stories of the Bible. Seas provide the setting of numerous biblical episodes. In the sea, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and finally came to his senses (Jonah 1:7–2:10). Jesus walked on a sea in the middle of the storm and uttered those transcendentally calming words: “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). Yet, while the sea serves as the stage of much of the Bible’s drama of redemption, we often fail to see one of the things that it is usually used for: as the stage for the judgment of God over His enemies and as a way to display His power to save His people.
In Exodus 14, we find Israel in one of her most dire moments of crisis. The Egyptians are hot on their trail, fueled with deep grief and even deeper anger. Their grief derives from the fact that in the immediately preceding episode, God brought a climactic and horrific judgment on the inhabitants of the land of Egypt with the death of the firstborn on the first Passover. Egypt worshipped many gods, and none of them had been able to stand up to the God of Israel—the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Pharaoh may have enjoyed the status of a demigod in the eyes of the Egyptians, but he proved to be little more than a toppled pawn against Jehovah-raffa (a name for the God of Israel meaning “The LORD is our Banner”). The death of Egypt’s firstborn—including the firstborn of Pharaoh himself—had finally broken Pharaoh’s will. He relented from his chokehold on the people of Israel that night and let them go in haste. But as the night turned to morning, Pharaoh’s grief turned to white-hot anger. He would pursue the Israelites in order to kill them. He might not see his son again, but he could at least assuage his grief with the momentary satisfaction of revenge—or so he thought.
The Egyptians pursued the Israelites all the way up to the Red (or Reed) Sea. One can only imagine how their hearts must have sunk when they turned to look behind them. Dust would have risen up over Pharaoh’s army as their horses and chariots carried their armed soldiers like a mile-wide stampede. How could Israel stand against such an army? Israel had no warriors. This was not a generation who had been trained in the art of war. They may have plundered the Egyptians on the way out, but that would in no way have prepared them to meet the Egyptians in war. Women, children, and the elderly were in their midst. They moved “low and slow,” to use a militaristic term—an easy target for a well-trained army that did not miss. What is more, while the Egyptians hotly pursued the Israelites from behind, in front of them was a sea. It stood before them like a wall. Israel was unprepared to cross such a body of water, let alone to do so in haste.
Here we should pause and ask some pastoral questions about the scene before us: Who set this stage? Who is in control of the details of Israel’s story at this point, the Israelites or God? Who brought them into Egypt four hundred years earlier to preserve their lives in the midst of an imminent famine? Who raised Joseph to second in Egypt to be a father and protector for His people? Who caused them to grow numerically from a small host to a company more innumerable than the sand on the seashore? Who defeated Egypt and all their gods falsely so-called? Who is the God of the sea?
Exodus 14:11–12 records a remarkable profession of anti-faith by the people of Israel. They ask Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” It is hard to imagine a more rebellious slap in God’s face than this. After all that He had done to show Himself faithful and strong, it is heartbreaking to hear what the people of God said to Moses. And yet we should ask ourselves honestly, Would we have done any different? We all crumble at weak moments, and sadly, we have all had seasons of doubt in which, no matter how many times God has shown Himself faithful, we still doubt His faithfulness. The storms of this life often toss us to and fro, and though He never abandons us, we often lose sight of the God of the storm in the midst of the sea.
“But God . . .” Those are always wonderful words. God, who set this stage, had a plan for this conflict. Once more, Israel would “stand still and watch” as God performed yet another mighty act of redemption on the stage of world history. God parted the sea. In what is arguably one of the most amazing miracles recorded in Scripture, God caused the waters of the Red Sea to stand up on either side, creating a passage for safe journey through the midst of the sea. And Israel would walk through as on dry ground. Not even mud would stick to their shoes as they passed through the bottom of the sea, for God had dried the water up. Though this is often overlooked as an incidental detail, it is actually quite important. Bodies of water (and water itself) are often symbolic of God’s judgment in Scripture. That is certainly the case here. Israel was led to the Red Sea not by accident but by the sovereign hand of a gracious God who intended to set yet another stage on which He would display His glory in the context of redemptive judgment. And so He did. The Israelites passed through the water of judgment on dry ground, but when the Egyptians attempted to do the same, the two walls of water came swiftly upon them and swallowed them up (every one of them) in a tempestuous gulp of divine judgment.
This event ought to make us think of our baptism and the promises that lie behind it, for two reasons. First, Scripture elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 10:1–2) refers to the Red Sea event as a baptism. Second, nearing the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus said that He had yet another baptism to undergo, and how distressed He was until it was fulfilled (Luke 12:50). He was referring to His death at the cross. Jesus, our great King and Savior, had to be buried in death for us. The floodwaters of God’s judgment had to sweep over Him so that we might pass safely through those waters in the day of judgment. The absence of the sea in the book of Revelation (Rev. 21:1), as has been noted by many, is a figurative way of saying that the very place of judgment seen in Scripture (the sea) has now become a thing of the past. Those who are in Christ shall safely traverse those eschatological (end times) waters and rest safely on the on the other side because Jesus Christ is our great Redeemer who has undergone judgment in our place.
The sea is indeed a beautiful sight, especially when the waters are still and tranquil. Thanks be to our God—the God of the storm—who leads us not simply to those waters (even if they appear threatening), but also through them triumphantly in Jesus Christ.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on faith and was originally published on March 13, 2020. Previous Post.