When I read the above verses this week, it seemed obvious that God was trying to spare His people from facing war the moment they left Egypt in their new-found freedom. But when I read those same verses in Hebrew, something puzzled me. The word for “comfort” jumped out at me, but I didn’t remember reading that word in the English translation. Here’s what it seems to me that the original is saying. We’ll call it the EAV or Erin’s Amateur Version:
…and God didn’t comfort them by taking them the way of the land of the Philistines that was nearby because He said, “Lest when the people are comforted, then in seeing war, they turn back towards Egypt.” And God endorsed for the people the way through the wilderness and the Red Sea; and armed, they went up, the children of Israel, from the land of Egypt.Exodus 13:17b-18
It’s obvious in both languages that the Lord does not want the people to return to Egypt. But it’s not war that He’s ultimately trying to steer them clear of. After all, they left Egypt armed for battle; the passage makes a point of that. It’s the “comfort” He’s trying to avoid! He needs to prepare them for battle first, in the wilderness and the facing of the Red Sea. There will be battle both ways, no matter what. But if it’s too easy and comforting from the get-go, the battle will end up driving them back to Egypt. The people needed to first learn that God is their comfort!
Sometimes the route to our spiritual freedom can seem rough and steep, and we wish God would pave it plainly. But perhaps there are lessons He wants to teach us too. If things were smooth sailing at the start, we would likely hightail it back to old habits and familiar chains at the first sign of trouble. The roundabout, wilderness road prepares us for battle because it prepares us to depend on Him. The impossible Red Sea and the barren desert thrust us “with violence upon the breast of God” as Charlotte Mason put it in one of her poems. It’s a poem about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, and it brings out the idea that the story might make some people resentful if Jesus didn’t do the same for them or for a loved one. But a truly Christian heart, humbled before the Lord, can’t read the story with that attitude.
Not thus the tale moves Christian heart, grown meek: No longer battered by the wild sea of life ‘Gainst horrid senseless crags that break us quite, But, thrust with violence upon the breast of God, Why, if He will, we suffer, die, or live; ...if, loving us, He purge With pain or sanctify through sorrow; “Yea, though He slay me, will I trust in Him!”
Whether the pain is emotional or physical, you can bet the enemy of your soul would like nothing more than to use it to distract or worry you and cause you fear. But it’s always best to embrace pain in order to move through it instead of fighting against it. We can lay ourselves before God, trusting that He has a good and loving purpose. When we stop kicking like a rebellious colt and allow the Lord to “gentle” us, we find every struggle in life is not a senseless battering but an invitation to a deeper intimacy with Him.
There’s a story told of Thomas Aquinas that reveals the desire of his heart and makes me think he had learned this lesson well. As the story goes, he was kneeling in a quiet church in Naples one day when a voice spoke to him from the crucifix hanging above him. It commended him for his writings and offered him his choice of a reward from among all the things in the world. Now if there was ever a man of God who believed in “things” and the existence and enjoyment of the physical reality, it was Aquinas. G. K. Chesterton puts it into perspective this way:
The point is that for him, when the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and to the west, to the ends of the earth and the very extremes of existence. They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures. That is the blazing background of multitudinous Being that gives the particular strength, and even a sort of surprise, to the answer of St. Thomas.from St. Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton
And what was his answer? Perhaps you’ve guessed. He finally lifted his head and said, “I will have Thyself.” Only You, Lord! What about you? What would you choose? Like the Israelites, have you been learning through your own wilderness wanderings that God is your true treasure? All comfort, strength, joy, love, wisdom, purpose, is found in Him. Lean into His breast today and learn with me, with the saints of old, with all of God’s pilgrims on this path to freedom, that He is our all in all!