Going in Circles

God must love road trips. He took the Israelites on a 40 year road trip in the desert. You wouldn’t think it should take 40 years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land, even walking, but God doesn’t always travel in a straight line. There are too many lessons He wants to teach us along the way.

Exodus 13:17-18 reads:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert toad toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.

I laughed when I read the first sentence. God didn’t take the shortest route. We Americans tend to put a priority on efficiency, getting things done the fastest way, making the best use of our time. But God never claims to be efficient. Effective, yes. He always accomplishes His goals. It’s just that we don’t always understand the detours He sends us on.

We think we have our lives all planned out. We intend to move directly from point A to point B. But God sees roadblocks and opportunities we, with our limited perspective, miss. We have to let go of our expectations and opinions and trust Him to lead us the best way.

Reread the end of this passage: “The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.” Having just witnessed God decimate the firstborn of Egypt, the Israelites must have thought that they were pretty hot stuff. Why, with God on their side, they were unbeatable! God disagreed. He explains why He led his people in a circuitous route—it was to avoid the warlike Philistines. He knew the Israelites weren’t really ready to face a battle.

Sometimes, we think we’re ready for something—marriage, family, a particular job, a financial obligation—but God thinks we need to grow and mature more first. The Israelites did eventually fight the Philistines. Just not right then.

Exodus 14:1-4 offers another insight into why God might seemingly lead us in circles. God tells them to turn back and retrace their steps. Considering how far they have to go, this makes no sense—at least from a human perspective. Shouldn’t they put as much distance as possible between themselves and an angry Pharaoh?

Again, God explains His reasoning (in Exodus 14:3-4):

Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around in the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.

It’s unlikely the Israelites would voluntarily choose a course of action designed to bait Pharaoh into chasing after them with his army. That was the last thing they wanted—God’s marching orders are leading them directly into danger! Yet God’s priorities aren’t the same as ours. We want comfort and safety. He wants everyone to know Him as Lord.

To the Israelites’ credit, the end of verse 4 tells us that they obeyed God.

Of course, God’s plan worked. The Egyptians pursued the Israelites and trapped them between an army and the waters of the Red Sea. We know how the story ends—God parted the water, the Israelites escaped on dry land, and the entire military force of Egypt was destroyed.

Even more importantly, God received the glory due Him. “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in Him…” (Exodus 14:31).

The Bible is full of examples of God directing His people in ways that seem crazy, or worse. Build an ark? March around Jericho? Dismiss all but 300 men out of your 32,000 -strong army right before a critical battle (Judges 7)? Give a visitor the last bit of food you own (1 Kings 17)?

Let the Savior of the Jews—and the hope of mankind—die on a cross?

Only God knows the end from the beginning. Are we willing to be sidetracked, to spin our wheels, to go in circles with no understanding of why God is leading us this way? Can we trust that His intentions are good, that His plans are perfect? Are we willing to be clueless so He is glorified?

I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages, Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge [yada, to know intimately, as in “Adam knew Eve”)] Him, and He shall direct your paths. (NKJV)

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