Fall 1997

Volume 16, Issue 3

God's Perplexing Ways

by Dr. William Hogan

As the Israelites began their journey out of slavery their hearts were filled with the realization of the greatness and grace of God. They had seen the plagues He had sent on Egypt, which had finally broken Pharaoh's resolve so that he allowed them to leave the country. They had experienced the protection of God from the devastation those plagues caused throughout the rest of the land. Above them they could see the cloud which assured them of God's presence. Their dream of liberty had come true at last, and it was more wonderful, more glorious than they ever could have imagined.

But they had not traveled fifty miles before their rejoicing had turned into whining. Finding themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the approaching Egyptian army, "they were terrified and cried out to the Lord" (14:10). We may marvel at how quick they were to complain, but are we really any different? Have you not responded to some difficulty that blocked your path in the same way? You were puzzled and confused. You could understand what had gone wrong. You complained against God. I would be very surprised if you said you had never experienced anything like that, because His ways are often perplexing, and sometimes very painful.

I had thoughts like that in August of 1995, when our precious daughter, Amy, a pastor's wife* and mother of four young children, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, the most virulent kind of malignant brain tumor. Because of its location, the tumor was inoperable, and the doctors were quite candid that apart from what one of them called "the God-factor," long-term survival was not likely. I could not understand why God would allow a lovely young woman who loved the Lord, who loved being a pastor's wife and a mother, to have a disease which was likely to take her life. But as we walked with her through that perplexing and painful experience, we learned afresh that God's grace truly is sufficient.

At the Red Sea God taught the Israelites some important lessons which they would need to remember repeatedly during the next forty years as they traveled to Canaan. We must learn the same lessons, for our pilgrim pathway like theirs, takes us through a wilderness where we sometimes encounter problems with no apparent solution, and circumstances we are helpless to change. When that happens we are confronted with a decision: will we keep going, faithful to the Lord, with our eyes on Him and on our final destination, or will we surrender to disillusionment and despair?


The first thing we can learn from the Israelites' experience is God's ways may often be perplexing, and sometimes very painful, but they are always purposeful. Whatever happens to the child of God is part of a sovereign plan. Nothing can touch our lives that does not pass through His wise and loving will before it gets to us. Perplexing though our circumstances may sometimes be, we must never forget that it is God Himself who has brought us to that difficult spot.

That was very clear in Israel's case. They were trapped at the Red Sea because of the direct leading of God. Scripture stresses that it was He who laid out every twist and turn of their journey. There were two possible routes out of Egypt. The shorter was simply to go north to the Mediterranean coast and turn right. But the text says that God intentionally avoided that route: "When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter" (13:17). He chose instead the longer and, to the human eye, far less sensible pathway between the desert and the upper reaches of the Red Sea (verse 18): "God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea He led them this way; He did not lead them that way - the main point cannot be missed: they were led by God.

If you trace their route on a map you will discover that they were being led on a zig-zag path. They started moving toward the southeast, to Succoth. Next, "after leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert" (verse 20). Then God instructed them to reverse directions: "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon"' (14:1, 2). There was no possibility of misreading the map or missing a turn, for "by day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people" (13:21- 22). Curious as the route may have seemed, every stop on the itinerary was designated by God.

The Lord explained to Moses His purpose in leading them in that round-about way: "Pharaoh will think, 'The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert."' God's intention was to trick Pharaoh into thinking that the Israelites were lost in the desert and wandering aimlessly, so that he could go after them to bring them back. The ploy worked. Emboldened by the apparent hopelessness of Israel's situation, the Egyptians "pursued the Israelites and overtook them..." (14:9) - and notice where they caught up with them -  "... by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon." They were trapped precisely in the place where, according to verse 2, God had told them to camp. Dangerous as their situation was, they could not say "We are here out of God's hand!"

You and I cannot say that either. No Christian can ever say that! We have no visible cloud, but Scripture assures us that His providence orders our lives. Wherever we find ourselves, we are there by His providence. Whatever predicament we face is part of His sovereign plan. In everything, though we often cannot understand it, a divine purpose exists. His ways are often perplexing, and sometimes they can be very painful, but I can assure you of this: He has not made a mistake. He knows what He is doing, and we must rest in the assurance that He does all things well. His ways are always purposeful even though that purpose may be hidden from us.


The often perplexing, sometimes painful, always purposeful, ways of God are moderated by His goodness - that's the second lesson that emerges from Israel's Red Sea experience. There is comfort in the reason God gave for avoiding the coastal road: "If they face war they might change their minds and return to Egypt" (13:17b). The road through Philistine country was guarded by strong Egyptian border fortifications. If they had taken that route, they would have had to fight, and God knew those newly-released slaves were not prepared for battle. His guidance took their limitation into account.

The same is true in the way He leads us. In I Corinthians 10 the apostle Paul reflects on the Exodus experience as an example for the Christian. In that context he makes this statement (verse 13): "God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted [or tested] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." He knows exactly how much strain our faith can take, and though He may often push it to the limit, He always guides us away from situations where that critical limit will be exceeded. So whenever your path takes an unexpected and unwanted turn, let the story of the Exodus reassure you of this: the route has been carefully assessed by Him, moderated by His goodness, and tempered to your limitations. Genuine faith, therefore, will survive. He will make sure of that


The third lesson this passage is at pains to underscore for us is that the ways of God - perplexing and painful though they may be - are designed to magnify His glory. That idea is expressed more than once in the Exodus account. For instance, when God tells Moses that His leading is meant to trick Pharaoh into pursuing the Israelites, He explains what He intends to do there at the Red Sea, and He states His motivation: "I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord" (14:4). To glorify Himself is, of course, God's ultimate motivation in all His providence.

He brought glory to Himself there at the Red Sea by way of a mighty miracle. Moses lifted his rod, and God sent a strong east wind which blew all night, driving back the waters and drying up the riverbed, so that the Israelites walked to freedom on dry wound. Then, when the Egyptians tried to follow, He released the pent-up waters and the entire Egyptian army was drowned.

Sometimes God glorifies Himself by delivering us from our problems just as miraculously as He did those Israelites. He turned Joseph from a prisoner to Prime Minister; He turned David from a shepherd into a king; He turned the walls of Jericho into a pile of rubble. And most glorious of all, He turned a cross into a throne. No situation in which God is active is hopeless.

But I would be less than candid if I did not add that sometimes He does not part the sea. That is, sometimes the problem does disappear; sometimes the outcome is apparent defeat, with no release. Yet, even then God is at work to glorify Himself. He does it by being with us and sustaining us in such a way that even in apparent defeat our spirit remains victorious. Sometimes God gets greater glory through enabling us to endure difficulty triumphantly than in removing it.

The sea did not part for Amy. Almost one year from the date of her diagnosis, while cradled in her husband's arms, she slipped quietly into the presence of her Savior. It was on a Sunday morning (her favorite day of the week), just a few minutes past 11 a.m. (her favorite hour). She worshiped with the angels that day. We did not get the miracle we prayed for; but Amy's desire has been, and is still being, granted, that whether in life or in death, God would be glorified.

Several months ago I received a telephone call from a woman in another state. When she identified herself I recognized her as a fellow-subscriber to "Braintmr" an electronic research and support mailing list. There are over 900 subscribers in more than thirty-five countries, all of whom have some special interest in brain tumors - patients, care givers, physicians, nurses, research scientists, etc. The caller explained that she had been sitting at her computer for an hour trying to compose a message to me, but could not adequately express what she was feeling, so she had tracked down my telephone number. She said, "I just wanted to tell you that your daughter has changed my life."

I asked her to explain. She reminded me of a message I had posted to the list some weeks earlier in which I quoted Amy as saying that she viewed her tumor as something God had "entrusted" to her for His purpose, and that she was confident that whatever happened He would use it for good. The caller said, "When I read what Amy said it struck me that if God has a purpose for a brain tumor, there must be some purpose to my life. I have renewed my commitment to Christ and have become actively involved in my church."

On another occasion a young father sent out to the Braintmr list a description of the funeral of his eight-year old daughter. It was so full of joy and hope that I was moved to tears, and I sent him a message to tell him how meaningful it was. He wrote back to say that though he had been raised in the church he had long ago given up believing in God. But a few months before his daughter died he had looked at Amy's Memorial Web Site** and had read all the material there. As a result, his faith in God had been restored and he had committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior "That was the miracle," he said, "which has carried me through my own loss and grief."

If space permitted I could tell of others whose lives have been touched by Amy's story - a nurse who has become a Christian, a minister who claims that Amy's unwavering faith inspired him to endure the loss of his daughter and even to preach at her funeral, and so on. Truly, the Lord has used Amy's experience to glorify Himself.


I will merely capsulize the final lesson like this: the ways of God, though sometimes perplexing and painful, lead ultimately to a place of praise. Having crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites paused on the other side of the sea to sing the praises of God for their deliverance (Exodus 15). They sang of God's deliverance and of their destination. Praise should be our response whenever we recognize God's mighty work on our behalf.

What I particularly want you to notice about the hymn they sang, however; is that it didn't last. It was merely a rest on the way to continued hardship and difficulty. Following the record of that hymn, with scarcely a pause for breath, the story continues: "Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the wilderness of Shur.   For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter" (15:22). From the amazing experience of their Red Sea deliverance, they quickly found themselves confronted with another crisis. For the next forty years that would be the pattern. God would lead them from one difficulty into another; each time demonstrating what He is able to do for those who will trust in Him.

That’s the way the Christian life is, too. When we get past today's trial, there will be another tomorrow. We will see God's hand at work again and again, delivering, strengthening, guiding and blessing, as the path of our pilgrimage unfolds. Each time we experience victory and deliverance, we will sing out our gratitude, only to be plunged before long into still another test.

But praise God, there is coming a day when He will bring us to a place where the singing never stops! As later generations of poets and prophets reflected on this Exodus story they saw in the rout of Pharaoh's army a picture of God's final conquest over evil. And that song which the Israelites sang in Exodus 15 became the source of much of their imagery in depicting that final victory.

For that reason Exodus 15 is closely connected to Revelation 15. There the apostle John writes that he sees the redeemed in heaven standing by a sea, not the Red Sea but a crystal sea. He describes them as having been victorious, not over Pharaoh but over Antichrist. And he hears them singing "... the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb!" (Revelation 15:3). They are singing about God's great victory for His people, a victory pictured in the deliverance led by Moses, and accomplished in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. One day all who trust in Him will join the unending chorus.

Until that day, let us remember that we have something worth singing about here and now - a God who, through Jesus Christ, has delivered us from sin and guilt and judgment; a God who is in control of every detail of our lives and is able to intervene in our lives, if it will glorify Him to do so; a God whose ways may sometimes be perplexing and very painful, but whose sustaining grace is always sufficient; a God whom we can trust, whether or not the waters part.


* Amy was married to Rev. Ed Hartman, pastor of the First Presbyterian church of Kosciusko, Mississippi. The Fall 1996 issue of the RTS Reformed Quarterly contained the story of Amy and Ed and their church.

**The Amy Hogan Hartman Web Site was constructed by David Larson, the husband of our older daughter, Marion. It can be viewed at http:/members.aol.com/sunsport/amy.

Dr. William Hogan is Professor of Homiletics at RTS/Jackson. A former area director for Campus Crusade, Hogan was founder and Senior Pastor of the Church of the Savior in Wayne, Pennsylvania, from 1972-1988. Before coming to RTS, he was involved in church planting efforts in Pennsylvania.

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 3
Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.


Last updated 8-5-99.