Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them . . . coming between the armies of Israel and Egypt (Exodus 14:19-20).
Long walks through the desert are hard and risky. The wilderness route is void of exit ramps and clean rest areas. There’s not much to see; the desert is numbingly dull and redundant. But there’s one thing that can make the most arduous desert journey a glorious venture: the very presence of the living God.
When the Hebrews left Egypt they didn’t simply scurry away in an exuberant escape from oppression and slavery. The Exodus from Egypt was guided; the people were led. “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 . . . neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Exodus 13:21-22).
This pillar was the presence of God, and it was visibly placed at the head of the line. God was showing the way, guiding their steps, giving direction. When you know without a doubt that God is in front of you, you’ll go just about anywhere.
And then the day of trouble came; chariots and horses and battalions kicking up sand and narrowing the barren gap that separated the Hebrews from their would-be captors. The day of trouble came, and the presence of God that had been visibly up front withdrew and moved behind them. There is much the story leaves out at this point. Did the people see and understand what was happening? Perhaps they did. As for us . . . well, that’s a question to ponder for a moment.
We hit the day of trouble and often become painfully aware of God’s absence. God no longer seems to be leading us, we don’t know where to go, we’re not sure what’s next.
Typically, we look for God in front of us. Faith is best exercised as we look forward. So much mystery lies ahead of us, our lives cloaked in a future we don’t yet know. We search for God’s presence in the not-yet-revealed.
But as we strain to see what’s ahead of us and agonize over the presence of God that we used to see but can no longer detect, that very presence remains with us. The presence withdraws from our point of focus and moves behind us. God is working powerfully in the places we’re not looking.
Yes, it’s clear that God formed a buffer between the Egyptians and the Hebrews; God was buying time, giving them a huge head start through the walls of water. But perhaps something else was happening at the same time. Maybe God moved behind them to protect them from their urge to turn back; God moved behind them to teach them that what looks like his absence, his withdrawal, is simply his presence surprising us. Sometimes, before the waters part in front of us, God goes to work behind us.
Ever present God, we are quick to complain of your absence. As we take a few more steps today in our own journey of faith, surprise us with your presence. We thank you for your faithfulness that surrounds us on all sides. Work in the places we tend to overlook. Move in behind us; guard us from the threats of the past. Keep us from turning back. Amen.