The construction of a grand cathedral cannot continue long without adding much extraneous scaffolding. This scaffolding for a time obscures to the casual observer the beauty and essence of the emerging structure, but the removal of the scaffolding reveals both the majestic and formidable result, and, by implication, the usefulness and even necessity of the scaffolding in the interim.
No one is ready for usefulness in our world without training. We train our minds and bodies in artificial environments called schools. While most of the nations roamed around without training, God took Israel into his school. The schoolmaster was rigorous, but was preparing Israel for the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:23-25), when we are no longer under the schoolmaster.
God himself compares what he did at the time of the exodus to what a mother eagle does with her children (Ex. 19:4). In Deut. 33:11-12 he says: “As an eagle stirs up her nest, flutters over her young, spreads abroad her wings, takes them, bears them on her wings, so the LORD alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him.” God was training Israel to have a special role in the world. But that training involved a lot of discipline, but before that deliverance.
II. The God Who Frees
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob showed himself in a new way in the Exodus. The whole experience of enslavement appeared contrary to God’s promises and plan as per the covenant made with Abraham. Yet, it was God’s plan (Gen. 15:13-16), and as such the experience of bondage would become the occasion for a majestic and profound epoch of glorious self-revelation. It would picture and celebrate God’s saving work in the three foci of bondage, pilgrimage, and heritage.
The opening of Exodus pictures all the elements of the Abrahamic covenant under strain: The people were out of the land of promise (Ex. 1:1-7); they were not a blessing to the nations, but in servitude to the nations (Ex. 1:18-24); and instead of the seed prospering, it is threatened by Pharoah: Ex. 1:22-24.
All this affliction evokes a cry (Ex. 2:23a), but faith directs the cry (Ex. 2:23b). There is not only the faith of the midwives, who feared God, but Amram and Jochebed (cf. Acts 7; Heb. 11:23), and the faith of Moses (cf. Acts 7; Heb. 11:24), who refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. All chose to suffer affliction with God’s people and esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than all earthly treasures.
Tied together with this deliverance is the self-revelation of the Lord. From the calling of Moses on (Ex. 3:1-22), God makes clear that what will happen will reveal His character as the faithful Deliverer, the exclusive Sovereign, who tolerates no equal, but will free the needy when they cry. The self-revelation of God, however, is not just in the escape from bondage, but also at in the provisions and instructions at Horeb, and finally in the tabernacle, which basically follows the flow of the book of Exodus.
III. A Kingdom of Priests
God delivered Israel that they would be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Ex. 19:1-6). The events at Mount Horeb were NOT a republication of the covenant of works. It was an unfolding of the covenant of grace, a particular economy indeed, with lots of rigor and strictures, but God showed his grace in, with, and under the the covenant. The people were redeemed in order to serve God as He enabled them to do. The covenant of works does not permit any pardon for sin, and the covenant made of Horeb was full of that.
It’s true that to people who are not truly saved, they treat the covenant of grace as a covenant of works. The human mind is so used to earning its way into favor with God, that it does this even with revelations of the covenant of grace. And the commandments of God, which reveal His character, as not essentially different in the covenant of grace compared to the covenant of works. In both God does not want us to worship other gods, or worship him in any other way than He requires, or take His name in vain, and so on. That has not changed at all. What has changed is that God enables us to keep these commandments from our heart through His grace which binds us to Himself.
What happened in the wilderness was that the lordship of God made sin appear for what it is. It provoked a lot rebellion, because many of the people did not have faith. Wherever people don’t have faith, they resist God’s Lordship, no matter how gracious the Lord is.
XLIX. Thirdly, We are not, however, to imagine, that the doctrine of the covenant of works was repeated, in order to set up again such a covenant with the Israelites, in which they were to seek for righteousness and salvation. For we have already proved, book i. chap. ix. sect. 20. that this could not possibly be renewed in that manner with a sinner, on account of the justice and truth of God, and the nature of the covenant of works, which admits of no pardon of sin. See also Hornbeck, Theol. Pract., tom. ii. p. 10. Besides, if the Israelites were taught to seek salvation by the works of the law, then the law had been contrary to the promise made to the fathers many ages before. But now says the apostle, Gal. 3:17: “The covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.” The Israelites were, therefore, thus put in mind of the covenant of works, in order to convince them of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to show them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to Christ. And so their being thus brought to a remembrance of the covenant of works tended to promote the covenant of grace.[footnote]Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 188.[/footnote]
IV. Who Tests Whom?
There is a word that stands out about the whole wilderness wanderings: “to prove”. On the one hand God tested or proved Israel to reveal what was in them and to lead them on in obedience and strength, to ready them for Canaan. It’s like what a father does to see if his son or daughter is ready for something. God tested them (Deut. 4:32) by first of all by taking them through a detour and not a straight line to the promised land (Ex. 13:17). He also tested them with lack and difficulties (Deut. 8:2,3,15). God tested them with the report of the giants (Num. 13:30-33).
However, like many children, they turned the tests around and tested God. God says that they provoked him ten times (Num. 14:22). See the following:
- At the Red Sea: “were there no graves in Egypt” (Ex. 14:11-12)
2. Marah: Deut. 9:7: “they found bitter water and murmured against Moses” (Ex. 15:24)
3. Wilderness of Sin (Num. 33:10); “ye have brought us into this wilderness to kill us; would we had died by the fleshpots of Egypt” (Ex. 16:2-3; Ps. 78:18)
Idem. They attempt to save manna till the morning (Ex. 16:20)
Idem: They attempt to find manna on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:27-28)
4. Rephidim: “Therefore the people did chide with Moses, and said: Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD?” (Ex. 17:2). (cf. Deut. 6:16).
5. Horeb: When they made the golden calf, and the Lord threatened to consume them (Ex. 32)
6. At Taberah: they murmured, and the fire of the Lord consumed the uttermost parts of the camp (Num. 11:1)
7. Kibbroth Hattaavah: They despised the manna and fell a-lusting after the onions and garlic of Egypt (Num. 11:4-34). A plague killed many
8. Kadesh: “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!” (Num. 14:2). “Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me” (Num. 14:29).
9. Other Provocations
a. Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, Abiram: Num. 16: Earth Opened
People complain: “Ye have killed the people of the LORD” (Num. 16:41): Plague – Aaron’s Rod (Num. 17)
b. Kadesh: The people chode with Moses, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! (Num. 20:2) – Moses’ disobedience: refused entrance into promised land.
c. Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea: “and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way” (Num. 21:4ff.) Fiery Serpents
d. Shittim: Shittim: “and the people began to commit spiritual adultery with Moab” (Num. 25:1): Plague
God tests us for our good, but we test God for our evil. The question of the Exodus is essentially: Who is this God that I should obey Him? (Ex. 5:2). This is what we learn from the wilderness wanderings:
1. The sinfulness of sin. Sin pretends that God is subject to us, not we to God.
2. The importance of faith. So many did not enter in the rest that God had prepared, because of unbelief. Faith helps us to believe God and trust him and pass the tests he gives us, gaining strength in the process.
3. The overwhelming character of grace. The training period of Israel revealed a lot of sin in the hearts of the people, as Paul later says: “The law entered that sin might abound.” However, as He goes on to say: “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20-21).