“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”
September 6, 2015
Stand in faith rather than fear until you see how God will rescue.
I. Circumstances often lead to well justified fears (Exodus 14:1-12)
II. But in those places, God comes to rescue (Exodus 14:13-14)
There is no good answer, there is no way out. Sometime the circumstances of our lives seem to lead to that conclusion. You have a medical expense so huge you can’t pay it, and if you try you’ll lose your house because you won’t be able to pay your mortgage. You’re in a marriage that is abusive, on top of which your husband has committed adultery. But you have no income of your own and you and the children have no one to turn to, nowhere to go. Or your work demands hour after hour of commute and commitment, deadlines and demands and comparisons to people who have made work their whole focus. But you’ve got a family, a wife who is struggling, children who are straying and who desperately need your time, your input, your help.
What do you do when you’re between a rock and a hard place? Kim Davis, the elected county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky is between the rock of her Christian faith, which says that marriage is between a man and a woman and the hard place of the Supreme Court, which says that her job is to issue a marriage license to all people regardless of gender. She could quit, but for now she has chosen to just stop issuing marriage licenses, preferring to be held in contempt rather than to violate her conscience.
God’s people will sometimes find themselves between a rock and a hard place. It seems like you can’t win, you can’t break even and you’re not allowed to quit the game. These are not comfortable places. They are fearful places. Scripture offers us no shortage of examples. You can bow down to the idol, or you can be thrown in the fire. You can stop praying or you can spend the night with the lions. Any sane person would be scared of the lion’s den, but any godly person would be scared to deny faith in the one true God. In these examples, from the book of Daniel, God strengthened his people to choose that which honored him and defied men, that which threw them into the midst of their fears. Then God sustained and rescued them, to the amazement of their foes.
Scripture offers another kind of example where both alternatives are fearful, and neither one is particularly taking a stand for God. It’s just danger on both sides. That’s the situation the people of Israel found themselves in after they had been allowed to leave Egypt. They found themselves between a rock and a hard place, on the edge of the Red Sea or Reed Sea with no way to go forward and with an army closing in behind. We don’t know exactly where this is, but we know the lesson they learned, a lesson we need to take seriously, that when we are between a rock and a hard place, we are called to stand in faith rather than tremble in fear until we see how God will rescue.
You all know the story, but you may not remember the details. It’s Exodus 14, and we’ll start by reading verses 1-12, where they get into a circumstance that seems to fully justify fear and even terror. Then the Lord said to Moses, 2“Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. 3For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ 4And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” And they did so.
5When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people. They said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” 6So he made his chariot ready and took his army with him, 7and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt. He pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. 9The 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.
10When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. The people of Israel cried out to the Lord. 11They 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? 12Is 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.”
Israel is between a rock and a hard place. I’m not sure where that phrase came from. One mythical possibility is the Greek tale of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a six headed monster that live on a rocky coastline and Charybdis was an ocean monster in the form of a deadly whirlpool. So to come between Scylla and Charybdis was to face two extreme dangers, and you had to choose one. In Homer, Odysseus chooses Scylla and loses six men to the monster.
When I think of a rock and a hard place I remember the famous scene in the first Star Wars movie. The main characters flee into a trash compactor on the Death Star, but then it starts to close. Han Solo tries to it with a steel rod, but to no avail. Luke has trouble contacting C3PO, but the droid eventually recognizes the danger. R2D2 shuts down all the trash compactors on the ship and saves the day. But that image of walls closing in on both sides has become a metaphor in my life of inescapable danger coming from both directions.
After the tenth plague, the death of all the first born among the Egyptians, Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to go free. Exodus 13:18 tells us, “So God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up in orderly ranks out of the land of Egypt.” Moses tells us how God guided Israel in Exodus 13:21, “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give light.”
So the pillar of cloud began to lead them, but the people of Israel soon learned that God’s leading doesn’t always make human sense. In Exodus 14:1 God orders a change of direction which to many of the children of Israel must have at best seemed strange and at worst, risky and dangerous. “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.” Israel was in effect asked to backtrack, to go back the same way they had just come. Their course was to take a direction which in a very short time would place them with the sea on one side, on the other side trackless wilderness with an inescapable barrier of mountains. But they have been led to the place they now stand, not by Moses, not by coincidental wandering, but by God Himself.
F. B. Meyer, a well-known commentator of the early 1900’s says “Often God seems to place His children in positions of profound difficulty, leading them into a wedge from which there is no escape, designing a situation that no human judgment would have permitted. You may be involved in a situation like this at this very hour. It does seem perplexing and mysterious to the last degree, but it is perfectly right. The result will more than justify Him who has brought you there. It is a platform for the display of His almighty grace and power.”
Notice that God knew how this would end before it began. Verse 3: Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, “They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in. I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” God says “Here’s the plan. Pharaoh will hear that you are wonder back and forth in the desert and he will think, ‘Now is my chance. They are headed back to Baal-zephon, I’ll trap them and they will not escape.’
God had it all arranged ahead of time, He always does. According to verses 5-8, Pharaoh fell for it. He forgot God’s power and remembered only that he’d let all this cheap labor escape. And by this human reasoning God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he pursued the escapees with his own chariot, 600 elite charioteers, and all the rest of his chariots and horses. So the people were trapped by the sea, hemmed in by the mountains, no escape to the right or left, no escape ahead, and the hammer of Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them.
And they are terrified. Verse 10: “When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly.” Why did the Israelites, who had just witnessed the great power and deliverance of God now become fearful and begin to murmur? I think it’s mostly because up to this point inaction has always been an option. Yeah, they were slaves in Egypt and cried to God, but even after Moses came and rescue beckoned, they could always hold on to the status quo. Slavery wasn’t great, but it was a known, predictable, survivable-for-many option. Now they’re between a rock and a hard place. Neither option, drowning in the sea or facing the Egyptian army, is survivable. So they give in to fear.
They cry out to God, which is good, but then, verse 11, they turned on 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? 12Is 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.” Pastor John Hamby says “Israel was afraid because they had their eyes on the Egyptians and not on the Lord. Fear causes them to distort the truth, to be ruled by doubt rather than by faith. Their statement that it would have been better for them to have served the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness exhibits a remarkably short memory. But then do not we as believers sometimes act as if we regret having stepped out on faith when we see what is involved?” As Sara Groves says in one of my favorite songs “I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt, leaving out what it lacked. The future feels so hard and I want to go back.” That’s how we all feel sometimes.
The Psalmist records in 106 “Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders; They did not remember the multitude of Your mercies, but rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.” Israel had trusted God for their deliverance but not for their circumstances. In the same way David, when under extreme pressure said “I will perish one day at the hands of Saul.” Elijah ran from his opponents and asked to die. If we are Christians, we have trusted him to save us from sin but all too often we do not trust him with our circumstances.
This can happen to anyone. Gladys Aylward, missionary to China, was forced to flee when the Japanese invaded, but she would not leave her work behind. With only one assistant, she led more than a hundred orphans over the mountains toward Free China. But during this harrowing journey, Gladys grappled with despair. After a sleepless night, she faced one morning with no hope of finding safety. A 13-year-old girl in the group reminded her of their much-loved story of Moses and the Israelites at the Red Sea. "But I am not Moses," Gladys cried in desperation. "Of course you aren’t," the girl said, "but Jehovah is still God."
God is still God. We can trust him. There are circumstances that are scary and life situations that put us between a rock and a hard place. Whether it’s a financial bind, or a medical dilemma, or a relationship impasse or ‘too much to do and not enough time to do it,’ or a question of conscience versus culture or conscience versus government, we all get between a rock and a hard place at times. And Moses gives the people of Israel the counsel that God’s people throughout the ages need to hear and heed: Stand in faith rather than trembling in fear until you see how God will rescue. Verses 13 and 14: 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. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”
Every week of this series we’ll see some variation on the command ‘Fear Not!’ Every week of this series we’ll see a different circumstance. This is one of the most extreme. So why not fear? Fear makes sense. Because God is God. Every week of this series we’ll see character qualities and promises of God that make it reasonable not to fear in moments when it is perfectly reasonable to fear.
What do we learn about the Lord in these verses? Primarily that God is a God of salvation, rescue. This is a principle, a consistent character quality of God that is seen from the beginning to the end of the Bible, and a promise of God that will not fail. The very words themselves are a great clue. “Salvation of the Lord,’ in Hebrew is ‘yeshua-Yahweh.’ Do you recognize the first word? It’s Jesus in Hebrew. Our friends who are Jewish believers in Jesus speak to him as Yeshua. It means God saves and we know from Matthew 1 that this is the meaning God assigned when told Joseph to call the Jesus, ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’ Don’t fear because God is a God who saves.
And God is a God who rescues. The word has that shade of meaning. Here Moses discloses a specific rescue plan: “He’ll work for you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you.” This is a promise for a particular situation. God is a God of salvation, but not every rescue is the same. This rescue comes at a major high point in redemptive history, when God was in the middle of intervening in dramatic ways to model salvation and show his power and establish his name and care for his people. This is an awesome and unrepeatable event. God did miracles to get his people across the water, and equal miracles to stop the Egyptians from following.
You haven’t forgotten this, but I’ll remind you what happens next. God says to Moses “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.”
So Moses did – stopped praying, started doing. He stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. 22So the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” Someone has calculated that in order to get the whole of the Israeli population across in one night this path through the waters needed to be at least a half a mile wide.
Before the Israelites were even all the way across, the Egyptian army entered the dry seabed. But they didn’t have easy going. The Lord looked at them from the pillar of fire and cloud and threw them forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get out of here: the Lord is fighting for them.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” And that’s what happened, and of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.
So God kept his promise; he fought for them and rescued them. The principle we can take from this is that if God makes a promise like this he will keep it. But, for us, in our circumstances, between our rocks and our hard places without such a specific promise, this may not be the way rescue happens.
I love Hebrews 11, especially because it points us at a hope beyond this world in which we are strangers and exiles, and in which we have not received all the things promised. We look forward to a better world, a better country, a city not made by human hands, a homeland. But even in the context of that far country Hebrews 11 tells many stories of people who God rescued from their human predicaments, from a rock and a hard place, by miracles. He uses the example we’ve been looking at. “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.” And on and on. But eventually, and this is what I love most, the writer gets overwhelmed by this list of all the people who trusted God for rescue, and he just starts naming names. And listen to what happens – you’ve heard this before – listen for what happens in the middle of this list.
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David, Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received back their dead by resurrection.
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, 38of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.
Not every rescue plays out in our human circumstances. Sometime the rock and the hard place squeeze together, and one of the bad things we fear happens. Does that mean God is faithless? No. Because God’s salvation is not primarily about our human circumstances. God’s salvation is about our rescue from sin and eternal death, our forgiveness and renewal and the gift of eternal life in relationship with God. That forgiveness, that renewal, the beginning of that eternal life, and that life lived in the presence of God all happen now, despite our circumstances. They happen as the fulfillment of the promises of God.
A few months ago ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians. They chose to do it, not on the shore of the Red Sea, but on the shore of the Mediterranean. I’m sure at least some of those believers were crying out to God for deliverance, there between the rock and the hard place. And we know rescue didn’t come. But God is a God of salvation. Brian Matson, a commentator I like, memorialized the 21 martyrs with words and with an absolutely incredible song that I had not heard before. This video is not graphic, but it is very moving.
“Two thousand years ago the Lord Jesus gave a vision to the Apostle John. It was a Revelation, an unveiling of the heavenly realities behind our earthly struggles. And he records for us a detail that is nothing less than a sure comforting promise. ‘I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the Word of God. John saw them there. The 21 are among their number. This is the promise of the Gospel of Jesus, a promise that overcomes even brutal death. Even though we lose it all, we will not be lost. We will not be lost.
“We’ve watched the house fall, right before our eyes. We have seen countless children die. We have wept tears at - the end of dreams. No one is free here from suffering. But the life we gain through Christ cannot be taken. Even though we lose it all, we’ll not be lost. We’ll not be lost. Behold, this love of God has ransomed us. He’s ransomed us. Even though.”
“We’ve been the lepers outside the gate. We were the poor man without a name. The unfaithful woman falling at His feet. I am the unloveable and He came for me. His arms are fastened firmly round us now.
“Even though we lose it all, we’ll not be lost. We’ll not be lost. Behold, this love of God has ransomed us. He’s ransomed us. Even though.
“We had nothing when He found us. We had nothing to recommend us. His grace is like an ocean. His gifts are overflowing. He will care for those who know Him. His promises are certain. We will not walk alone.
“Even though we lose it all, we’ll not be lost. We’ll not be lost. Behold, this love of God has ransomed us. He’s ransomed us. Even though.
God does not always come between the rock and the hard place. But even though we lose it all, we will not be lost. Behold this love of God has ransomed us.
Let me close by pointing you at the four commands of verses 13 and 14, , commands that I think we’ve just seen explicitly fulfilled.. First, fear not. God is a God of rescue. God has already rescued, made you his own by the sacrifice of Jesus. He will never leave or forsake you, no matter how hard your circumstances. Fear not. Second, stand firm. When tragedy closes in on us, our confidence is not in ourselves, but in the one who has already rescued. Stand firm, and third, see the salvation of our God. The seeing is a command. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. See him, see his salvation, and even the most tragic things of earth fade before the eternal reality of his promises and the eternity he is even now preparing for us.
Don’t fear, stand firm, see the eternal salvation that he has given, and be silent. I think that could be paraphrased ‘don’t panic.’ God hasn’t panicked, he’s still the God of rescue, and it brings glory to his name when we when we stand, on our knees, and fight the battle with the spiritual weapons of prayer and trust. You can stand in faith rather than trembling in fear because you’ve seen how God will rescue.