God's Desert Detours
By Stephen S. Friesen
Scripture Reading: Exodus 13:17-22
The above Scripture passage is overshadowed in these chapters by the dramatic stories of the children of Israelís deliverance from Pharaohís domination and of their deliverance through the Red Sea. It is a passage easily overlooked, but it has some important principles by which we Christians can live.
God was here doing something on a magnificent scale. He was delivering His people from the "womb" of Egypt and was bringing them as "babies" into a new country and forming them into a nation. He was going to take an immature people who had been slaves for hundreds of years, and make them His holy people.
God had promised to take His people into Canaan after bringing them out of Egypt. But immediately after the miracle of this entire nation coming out of Egypt, we read: "And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea" (Exodus 13:17-18).
God did not lead them to Canaan by the quickest way, by "the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near." Had they traveled normally, using the easier coastal route, that would have been a three or four weeksí journey. But God was going to take them through the wilderness, or the desert.
Why A Desert Detour?
God tells us here why He did what He did. God said, "Lest the people change their minds when they see war and they return to Egypt." The Philistines were warlike. It wasnít until 500 years later that the children of Israel were ready to fight with them with King David as their leader. But at this time they were in no condition to deal with conflict with the Philistines. They were not ready for battle. They needed to grow up in the desert.
It would have been bad for them to have gone back to Egypt. It was ever a temptation to them when things got hard to want to go back to Egypt and the things that they loved about it. They tried several times to do that. That would have been a blot against Godís Name. The enemy would say, "He brought them out, but He couldnít handle them, so now theyíve come back."
When we come to Christ and start our Christian walk, things may get hard, but donít go back. Donít think it was better before you met Christ. Donít think that the desert experiences are so terrible that it would be better to be how you were before you met Christ. That is not true! It is not better to go back. God is able to bring us out of sin and bondage under His glorious leadership into maturity in Christ and into His Kingdom.
When God takes us through long, difficult, painful, hot desert detours, there are significant reasons. There are all kinds of experiences we could call "the desert." God has things for us to learn from these desert detours. They are for our discipline and training. We will focus here on three things God wants us to learn from desert experiences, although there are more.
Lessons in Trusting God
God wants us to learn first of all to trust Him. We humans sometimes think that the fastest way is the best way. It is not always so. It is as if God says, "Trust Me. The shortest way isnít the best way. I know. Trust Me. I have more to do in your life before you get to Canaan. You are not ready for that." Then God sends us to the desert.
The question for us is, do we trust Godís wisdom? God knows our weaknesses. He knows our tendencies. He knows when we are inclined to turn back to the old things, the sinful things from which we were saved. He wants us to keep moving, to grow, to trust Him. He is the One who leads, the One who sees down the road, who directs. He is in charge; He is sovereign; He knows the future; He knows the present; He knows our needs. He knows what it takes for us to grow. Do we trust Him?
What is the desert like? It is a lonely way. There is no one around. It is a desolate place, a difficult place. Daytime is terribly hot; nighttime is deep-freeze cold. The desert is not a place you want to go. But there are things we canít learn anywhere else.
It is amazing that Godís plan for the children of Israel was a year and a half to reach Canaan. It was about two months from Egypt to Mt. Sinai; eleven months there; and then two months from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh Barnea, where they sent out the spies and prepared to take the land. We know they didnít go in when they were supposed to, but Godís timetable was to use about a year and a half to take the people from Egypt to Canaan. That was not an unreasonable time because what happened during those months was very important.
The first lesson for us is that we have to trust Godís wisdom, His timing, His understanding. We have to remember that for God, the longest way is sometimes the best way.
Learn to Worship God
The second thing that God needed to teach His people in the desert was to learn to worship. How was God going to teach two and one-half million people to worship? When Moses said to Pharaoh, "Let my people go," he gave as the reason that they needed to go and worship God (Exodus 5:1). Why did they need to go to the desert? Why couldnít they worship God in Egypt?
There were several reasons. Egyptian overseers didnít give them time to worship. They required them to work from morning until night, and at night they were exhausted. Some of us are like that today. Is there time in our schedule for worship? We have to make time. We have to take time. It doesnít just happen.
God knows we are not going to grow without time to worship. In the desert we get deeper knowledge of God. It is the place of dedication. It is a place of dependency training. It is a place of discipline in living. It is a place of demonstration of Godís power. It is a place for divine guidance and direction. Donít be afraid if God takes you out to the desert.
When Moses was in the desert before God called him to go back to Egypt, while he was a shepherd for forty years after escaping from Egypt, God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. There God told Moses He would send him to Egypt to deliver His people, and the proof or sign that God would give Moses to show that He was with him was this: "I will be with you: and this shall be the sign unto you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). Moses had an appointment at Sinai with God. They couldnít go directly to Canaan, because of this appointment with God. Why? God wanted them to come back as a people to worship Him first before they went into the land.
Before we become involved in Godís work, first and foremost we need to come before God and to learn who He really is, how awesome and holy and powerful He is, and we need to learn to worship God before we go where He wants us to go. Donít go to "Canaan" before you learn to worship. Donít get involved; donít get too busy. It is a temptation for pastors and anyone in Christian ministry. We start working and donít take time to quiet ourselves before God and worship Him. God says, I want you to come to this spot and worship Me. You have a divine appointment. Before we can do anything for God we need to know God, to fear God, to love God, to worship God.
I made a list of all the things that happened in those eleven months at Sinai. While they were encamped before the mountain of Sinai, much took place. Thereís no comparison of how they looked at the end when compared to how they were when they arrived.
What happened while they were encamped before the mountain of Sinai? There was a tremendous display of Godís glory and power. God descended on the mountain and gave them the Ten Commandments; He revealed all the laws that He wanted them to live by. He gave the directions for the dwelling of God, the Tabernacle, and the services of the Priesthood and the worship of God. The children of Israel then broke the law, but they made a covenant with God there. They erected the Tabernacle. Godís glory filled it there. They got instructions on setting the Tabernacle up and taking it down and transporting it; they learned who carried what and in what order to go. They took a census there. They learned to camp by tribes, how to enter the land, and other such instructions. It took them eleven months to learn to worship God.
We need to focus on God without distraction. We need to learn His power, His laws; we need to become accustomed to His presence, to learn to put our heart and soul into worship. There is no effective service without genuine worship.
Learn To Follow God
God wants us not only to trust Him and to worship Him, but God wants us to learn to follow Him. Deuteronomy, chapter 1, says, "The Lord your God who goes before you, will Himself fight on your behalf, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as a man carries his son, in all the way in which you have walked until you came to this place" (vv. 30-31). It is a beautiful image. When God knows you are too tired to walk, Heíll pick you up and carry you. That is what God did for His own children.
The next verse says, "But for all this, you did not trust the Lord your God who goes before you on your way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night and in cloud by day, to show you the way in which you should go." God is teaching them not only to trust Him but to follow Him.
God wants us to learn to follow Him in the desert. There are no roads, no maps, no signs, nothing. How do we know where to go? In Exodus 13:21, it says, "The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night." Sometimes they traveled through the night, all night. Wherever the cloud went in daytime, they went. Wherever the pillar of fire went at night, they went. It is practice: "Follow My guidance."
In Numbers, chapter 9, it gives more detail about how it worked. "The cloud covered the Tabernacle; and in the evening it was like an appearance of fire over the Tabernacle until morning" (v.15). "Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp" (v. 17). At the command of the Lord, the sons of Israel would set out, and at the command of the Lord, they would camp. As long as the cloud remained over the Tabernacle they remained camped. When the cloud went, they went. When the cloud stopped, they stopped. If sometimes the cloud remained a few days over the Tabernacle at the command of the Lord, they remained camped. Verse 21 says if the cloud remained from evening until morning, when the cloud was lifted in the morning, they would move. God was teaching them to follow His guidance.
Are you learning that guidance? Are you willing to move when God says, "Move"? It is flexibility training. God decides when itís time to move. In Numbers chapter 33, there are given 41 places to which they went.
The question is, are you on your own journey going somewhere, thinking you know where youíre headed, or are you seriously following God? It may be somewhat unsettling. But God says, "I want you to learn to follow Me." You may say, if I had a cloud and fire, Iíd follow. Thatís so clear. But now Iím in kind of a muddle. I donít know what Godís doing in my life. I donít know where Iím supposed to go and when Iím supposed to move. How does God guide today?
Godís Word is a light to our feet, and a lamp to our path (Psalm 119:105). God gives us principles to live by. We also know that as the fire symbolized Godís presence, we have His presence even more intimately connected with us. The Holy Spirit moves in us. We can learn to listen to Him. The Spirit living in us guides us, speaks to us (not audibly of course), gives us Godís thoughts as we immerse ourselves in His Word, and then we have access into Godís Throne Room through the Blood of Christ. God says, Anytime, come. Iíll show you what I want you to do. How does He tell us? You have to get to know Him. You know when Heís nudging and moving you.
Do you like desert detours, the long way around? God has a purpose for taking us through difficult and painful times. Itís to help us grow, to help us learn to trust Him. Itís to show us His awesome nature, and to teach us to worship. Itís to give us practice in following His guidance really closely. When He moves, go! God knows the experiences we need to make us grow into maturity in Christ.
We can be thankful God gives us times in the hot desert when we can be quiet, when God miraculously supplies all our needs and takes care of us and reveals Himself to us. It is a special time. We dare not get discouraged when things donít go as we think they should. God is the Master. He does what He knows is best. We can submit and commit our lives to Him.
Used by permission of Stephen S. Friesen, Education Pastor at Grace Community Church, Newton, Kansas.