The Way of the Wilderness by the Red Sea
Exodus 13:17-21
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines…

The direct road to Canaan lay through the land of the Philistines. God, however, did not lead the people by this way, but round by the Red Sea. "For God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt" (vers. 17). Another reason was that he designed to make his covenant with them, and give them laws, in the solitude of the "mountain of God" (Exodus 3:12).

I. REDEEMED FROM EGYPT, THE PEOPLE ARE NOT PERMITTED TO LINGER ON ITS BORDERS. What snatches of repose are granted, are only meant as a preparation for resumption of the journey on the morrow. Their destination was Canaan. To this they must press forward. A rest of eleven months (at Sinai) will be granted afterwards, meanwhile, on the borders of Egypt, they must pause no longer than is absolutely necessary. At the beginning of the Christian life, delays, pauses, lookings back, are peculiarly dangerous. Egypt is too near. Return to it is too convenient. The pursuer will gain too easy an advantage. There must be no pausing till we are fairly out of the enemy's territory. Succoth to Etham, Etham to Pi-hahiroth (Exodus 14:2).

II. IT RESTS WITH GOD TO DETERMINE THE WAY BY WHICH HIS PEOPLE SHALL BE LED. "When Pharaoh had let the people go, God led them not," etc. (vers. 17).

1. It was the privilege of the Israelites that they had God as their guide. His pillar of cloud and fire went before them (vers. 21, 22). What wiser or safer guide could any one desire?

2. God's guidance was authoritative. Not only were the Israelites not left to pick out the way for themselves, but whither God directed, thither they were bound to go. They were not permitted to take any route they pleased. They were God's people, and must walk by his law.

3. God's guidance was frequently mysterious. They would often be perplexed to understand the reasons of it. A reason seems to have been given here, but otherwise the route chosen must have seemed a very strange one. The believer is often thus led by a way he knows not (Isaiah 42:16).

III. GOD CONSULTS FOR HIS PEOPLE'S GOOD IN THE WAYS BY WHICH HE LEADS THEM. "For God said, peradventure," etc. (ver. 17). Consider here,

1. God's procedure.

(1) He turned the Israelites aside from the road which naturally they would have followed. The way of the land of the Philistines was no doubt the road by which they expected to be led. It was the customary road. It lay straight before them. It was the shortest and most direct. How often does God thus turn us aside in Providence from what might seem to be the natural, as, without a thought to the contrary, it may have been the anticipated course of our lives? The road that lies straight before us is not the one in which we are permitted to walk. Even in Christian work, by what zigzag ways are we sometimes conducted to our ends!

(2) He led the Israelites by a long detour into the wilderness. If the end was to escape the Philistines, God did not allow the Israelites to suppose that he intended to pamper and indulge them. The wilderness was a worse place to travel in than "the way of the land of the Philistines." They would have to encounter many trials. A heavy strain would be put upon their faith. Though exempted from war at the beginning, they had to fight enemies on the way, and ultimately were marched up to the borders of Canaan, to undertake, at another point, the work of invasion. In like manner, the Christian curriculum is not an easy one. Whoever enters upon the Christian journey, expecting to find it all sunshine and roses, is doomed to sorrowful disappointment. The road, under God's guidance, soon takes a turn, which leads into the wilderness of trial.

2. The reasons of God's procedure.

(1) The direct way was at that time an impassable one. The Israelites, just escaped from Egypt, were not in a condition to force their way through the strongly defended territory of the Philistines. The difficulty, it is true, lay in them - in their want of faith, courage, and power of obedience, not in God, whose help was all-sufficient. But practically, the direct road was closed against them. So, in God's merciful guidance of his people, the path is sometimes bent aside, because no other is for the time practicable. Obstacles to their progress, insurmountable by them at that stage of their knowledge and experience, block up the road which seems more direct, and to be allowed to advance in it would be no kindness.

(2) The direct road was fraught with danger for themselves. Their strength and faith were not equal to the opposition they would encounter. It would have proved too much for them. They must be allowed time to gather experience, to throw off the habits of their servitude, to be brought under discipline for war, to acquire steadiness and courage in facing an enemy. Led up against the Philistines in their present undisciplined condition, they would have fled at the first onset, and would have clamoured, even more vehemently than they did in the desert (Exodus 14:12), to be conducted back to Egypt. And does not this in large measure explain the mysterious turnings and windings in our own lives? God, who knows our frame, understands perfectly what degree of severity in temptation we are able to endure, and he mercifully orders our course, so that we may not be tempted above that we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). We pray, "Lead us not into temptation" (Matthew 6:13), and this is one way in which the prayer is answered. Another way is by preventing or restraining the temptation. But where, as in the present case, it is a temptation which, so to speak, belongs essentially to the situation - which we must encounter, if that path is to be travelled at all, then is there no way of avoiding it but by being led in a different road. Especially in the beginning of a Christian course may we expect these sudden turnings of our path. We are not then in a condition to encounter very powerful enemies, to endure very fierce temptations, and by taking us a little way about God shields us from them.

(3) There was a discipline to be gained in the circuitous route by which they were led. God's design, in sparing his people the battle with the Philistines, was not, as we have seen, to indulge and spoil them. The place whither he conducted them was the wilderness, and there he purposed to subject them to a severe moral training. The end of this training was simply to bring them up to the standard which as yet they had not reached, to develop in them the qualities in which they were as yet deficient, to impart to them, in short, that hardihood and strength of character and will which would enable them to cope with Philistines, or any other foes. The end God has in view in our own trials is precisely the same.

IV. OUR WISDOM, UNDER ALL THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF OUR LIVES, IS TO RESIGN OURSELVES TO GOD'S LEADING, BELIEVING IT TO BE ALWAYS THE BEST FOR US. We cannot err in resigning ourselves to the guidance of one omniscient, wise, loving, and supremely good. - J.O.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:

WEB: It happened, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God didn't lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, "Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and they return to Egypt;"

Meaning of Ordinances to be Explained
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