When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and He pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to 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.” And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.
Chapter 14 may be the most entertaining chapter of Exodus. Pharaoh "let the people go" after experiencing ten-plagues-too-many. Even then, he wasn't entirely convinced of his decision. Deciding to go back on his agreement with Moses, he gathered his army and sought to bring the Jews back to Egypt.
For the recently freed Jews, seeing the Egyptians coming after them in full battle array must have been horrifying. So much so that the text says the Israelites "cried out to the Lord" (14:10). They had some flippant words for Moses as well. "Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (14:11) Considering Moses had single-handedly negotiated their release from Pharaoh’s brick factory, it is pretty shocking the Israelites were complaining at all. Just to be clear, the Israelites would rather be Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt than die in the desert following God (14:12).
After hearing their complaints, Moses bravely tells the groaning Israelites to watch and wait for God. For "He will fight for you while you keep silent" (14:14). In other words, while the Israelites sit on their hands in the sands of Egypt, God will do the heavy lifting. Immediately after, Moses gives a powerful charge to the Israelites. Though it is not mentioned in the text, it can be inferred Moses then prayed to God, probably in desperation. Then, something surprising happens. God says to Moses, "Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” (14:15).
The Egyptians are coming. Moses takes time to encourage God’s people. Says a quick prayer. Then, incredulously, God breaks in and says “Hey, uh, Moses, stop praying and get on with it already!” God taught Moses an amazing lesson that day, and indirectly teaches us the same as we read.
What is the lesson?
God had done so much already for the Jews to be free even before the miraculous sea-splitting episode. Why would He not do the same when Pharaoh changed his mind? Did Moses and the Israelites really think that the God who had turned the Nile to blood, who instantly killed all Egyptian first-borns, needed a reminder to finish the job of rescuing them from Pharaoh's army? The answer is "yes!" A resounding “yes!” To be fair, their prayers and doubts are not much different from those of many believers in today’s Christian culture.
We ask Him to forgive sins long confessed. We ask Him to bless us as if He hasn't already. We ask Him to make us like Jesus though in His eyes we are. We ask Him to be with us as if He wasn’t seated on our very souls. We ask Him to guide our lives despite His loving providence. I imagine God in heaven, patiently saying to a lot of our prayers, "I am answering your requests as your prayers rise to me. Keep going!”
I do not mean to dismiss sincere prayers to God. Moses was honestly seeking God's help when he saw Pharaoh's army coming. The problem was, he was asking God to do what God had said He would accomplish. He was praying for something that God was in the midst of doing. And for this, God rebuked him.
Then, God ordered Moses to stay behind. Why? So Moses could do something important? He tells him to stand there, with hands lifted. For what? To magically split the seas? No, to witness. Verse 21 says, “Moses stretched out his hand...the Lord drove the sea back.” God strangely tells Moses to hold up his staff. This Hebrew word מַטֶּה can also mean branch or rod. Not surprisingly, it brings the connotation of “tree”. Let’s not stretch this too far, but Moses’ wooden walking stick was instrumental in almost all of the miracles in Egypt. Go back and look.
Whether or not the writer of Exodus had a clue about the connection, I see Moses, unknowingly, holding the cross of Christ over his head, on the mountaintop, watching his God perform what was probably the craziest miracle anyone had ever seen. Moses held high his staff as the water-walls were held aside. Today, in our prayers and life, we are to hold high Christ’s tree, those blessed beams that held fast the hands and feet of our Savior atop of the mountain called “Skull-Place”. God calls us today, to witness His work, with arms lifted high in praise. He has already acted and continues to act on our behalf, as we run “through on dry ground” to salvation.
It is the full realization of such passages in Exodus that can lead Paul to make the connection to his own call-to-arms in the New Testament. Paul says in Philippians 3:13, "Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”.
Paul is saying the same thing God told Moses. All who follow God need not think, stress, ruminate, dwell, or focus on that which God has already dealt with. Sin, regret, failures; those things are over. “It is finished" (John 19:30)! In the same breath we must remind ourselves, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in me will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).
If this passage in Exodus is how God really feels about prayer, maybe our prayers should be different? Perhaps, it should be a time more concerned with gratitude, and praise, for what God has done (and will do), for who He is, a time of cross-lifting, instead of praying for Him to do things He has already done, is doing, and promises to do.
Deuteronomy 34:10 says "Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, who the Lord knew face-to-face." If Moses can get his prayers wrong, we shouldn't be surprised if we do as well from time to time. But this verse is no longer true, you see. A prophet greater than Moses has come. Next time you find yourself praying for things that have already been promised or completed, remember that great prophet, hands nailed wide on wood, watching God work the craziest miracle anyone had ever seen: True Salvation. He has called us to run through the divided curtain to the throne room of the same God whom Moses witnessed divide those walls of water. Trust He will do what He says He will do. Pray in gratitude that He has acted and is now acting on your behalf. And, of course, “Move forward!”