They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep!, Psa. 107. 23, 24. How true this is! Yet our coward hearts often shrink from those “great waters”. We prefer to carry on our traffic in the shallows, and as a result we fail to see the “works” and “wonders” of our God; for these are only known and seen “in the deep".
It is in the day of trial and difficulty that the soul experiences something of the deep and untold blessedness of being able to count on God. Were all to go on smoothly, this would not be so. It is not as gliding along the surface of a tranquil lake that the reality of the Master’s presence is felt, but actually when the tempest roars, and the waves roll over the ship. The Lord does not hold out to us the prospect of exemption from trial and tribulation, quite the opposite. He tells us that we shall have to meet both the one and the other, but he promises to be with us in them, and this is infinitely better. God’s presence in the trial is much better than exemption from the trial. The sympathy of His heart with us is sweeter far than the power of His hand for us. The Master’s presence with His faithful servants, as they were passing through the furnace, was far better than the display of His power to keep them out of it, Dan. 3. We would frequently desire to be allowed to pass on our way without trial, but this might involve serious loss. The Lord’s presence is never so sweet as in moments of appalling difficulty.
Israel and Pharaoh. This was the case with Israel, as recorded in Exodus 14. They are brought into overwhelming difficulty, and are called upon to do “business in great waters”; they are at ^their wits’ end. Pharaoh, repenting himself of having let them go out of his land, determines to make one desperate attempt to recover them. “And he made ready his chariot, and took his people with him … six hundred chosen chariots … of Egypt, and captains over every one of them … And when Pharaoh drew nigh, … the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord”. Here was a deeply trying scene, one in which human effort could avail nothing. They might as well have tried to put back the ocean’s mighty tide with a straw, as seek to extricate themselves by anything that they could do. The sea was in front of them, and the mountains around them, and all this was permitted and ordered by God. He marked out their position “before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baal-zephon’. Moreover, He permitted Pharaoh to come upon them. And why?-to display Himself in the salvation of His people, and in the total overthrow of their enemies. “To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever: and made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever: but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever”, Psa. 136. 13-15. There is not so much as a single position in all the desert wanderings of God’s redeemed, the boundaries of which are not marked off with studious accuracy by the hand of unerring and infinite love. The special bearings and peculiar influences of each position are carefully arranged. The Pi-hahiroths and the Migdols are all ordered with immediate reference to the moral condition of those whom God is guiding through the windings and labyrinths of the wilderness, and also to the display of His own character.
Unbelief may often suggest the enquiry, Why is it like this? God knows why; and He will, without doubt, reveal the why, whenever the revelation would promote His glory and His people’s good. How often do we feel disposed to question the why and the wherefore of being placed in such-and-such circumstances. How often do we perplex ourselves as to the reason of our being exposed to various trials! How much better to bow our heads in meek subjection, and say, “It is well”, and it shall be well, when God fixes our position for us. We may rest assured that it is a wise and salutary one; and even when we choose wilfully and foolishly a position for ourselves, He can even graciously overrule our folly and cause the influences of our self-chosen circumstances to work for our spiritual benefit. It is when the people of God arc brought into the greatest straits and difficulties, that they are favoured with the finest displays of God’s character and actions. For this reason, He often leads them into a trying position, in order that He may the more markedly show Himself. He could have led Israel through the Red Sea, and far beyond the reach of Pharaoh’s host, before ever the latter had left Egypt. But that would neither have so fully glorified His own name, nor so entirely confounded the enemy, upon whom He designed to “get me honour”, Exod. 14. 17. We also frequently lose sight of this great truth, and the consequence is that our hearts give way in the time of trial. If we could only look upon a difficult crisis as an occasion for bringing out on our behalf the sufficiency of divine grace, it would enable us to preserve the balance of our souls, and to glorify God even in the deepest waters.
We may feel disposed to marvel at Israel’s language on the occasion now before us. We may feel at a loss to account for it; but the more we know of our own evil hearts of unbelief, the more we shall see how like them we are. They would seem to have forgotten the recent display of divine power on their behalf. They had seen the gods of Egypt judged, and the power of Egypt laid prostrate beneath the stroke of God’s hand. They had seen the iron chain of Egyptian bondage broken, and the furnace quenched by the same hand. All these things they had seen, and yet the moment that a dark cloud appeared on their horizon, their confidence gave way, their hearts failed, and they gave utterance to their unbelieving murmurings in the following language: “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? … it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness”, vv. 11-12. Thus is blind unbelief ever sure to err, and scan God’s works in vain.
Unbelief Throughout the Ages. This unbelief is the same in all ages. It led David, in an evil hour, to say, “I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul: there is nothing better for me than that I should speedily escape into the land of the Philistines”, 1 Sam. 27. 1. What was the outcome? Saul fell on mount Gilboa, and the throne of David was established for ever. Again, this unbelief led Elijah the Tishbitc, in a moment of deep depression, to flee for his life from the wrathful threatenings of Jezebel. What happened then? Jezebel was dashed to pieces on the pavement, and Elijah was taken in a chariot of fire to heaven.
So it was with Israel in their very first moment of trial; they really thought that the Lord had taken such pains to deliver them out of Egypt only to let them die in the wilderness. They imagined that they had been preserved by the blood of the paschal lamb, in order that they might be buried in the wilderness. This is the way in which unbelief reasons. It leads us to interpret God in the presence of difficulty, instead of interpreting the difficulty in the presence of God.
Faith gets behind the difficulty and there finds God in all His power, faithfulness and love. It is the believer’s privilege to be in the presence of God, We have been introduced there by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, and nothing should be allowed to take us away. That place we can never lose, because Christ, our Head and Advocate, occupies it on our behalf. But although we cannot lose the place itself, we can very easily lose the enjoyment of it, and also its experience and power. If difficulties come between ourselves and the Lord, we are obviously not enjoying the Lord’s presence, but suffering in the presence of our difficulties. This is like a cloud coming between ourselves and the sun; for a time the cloud robs us of the enjoyment of the beams of the sun. It does not prevent the sun from shining; it only hinders our enjoyment of it. Exactly is it so when we allow trials, sorrows and perplexities to hide from our souls the bright beams of our Father’s countenance, which ever shines with unchanging lustre in the face of Jesus Christ. There is no difficulty too great for our God; the greater the difficulty, the more room for Him to act in His proper character as the God of all power and grace.
No doubt Israel’s position recorded in the opening verses of Exodus 14 was a truly testing one-to flesh and blood perfectly overwhelming. But then the Maker of heaven and earth was there, and they had but to trust Him. Is anything too hard for the Lord?
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