Along with working back through the Gospels right now, I have also gone back to re-read Exodus. In some of the extra-biblical reading that I’m doing the role that the Passover and Hebrew exodus from Egypt plays in the symbolism of Jesus’ ministry, even to the point of shaping His decision-making process to be certain that He was hearkening back to the original redemption.
The narrative portion of Exodus is incredibly interesting. It’s a high impact, “live action” kind of story where there is danger and peril around almost every corner. There are, on the surface, very specific roles with Pharaoh and Moses as the antagonist and protagonist respectively. But then there is the underlying reality that this is actually a matter of good and evil. God is working in, to be quite honest, strange ways and with a bizarre sense of timing throughout this account. One thing, though, that is impossible to miss is the way that God’s methods all demand that the reader of this story credit every bit of power, authority, and destiny to Him and Him alone. There is not one solitary moment where we can begin to drift into ridiculous romanticizing about how much fortitude the Hebrews had, or how clever they were, or anything else of that sort. No, if the Exodus account proclaims any one thing it is that God is sovereignly in control of all things in this world.
As I was reading more in this account earlier this morning I found it curious the reaction the Hebrew people had to the results of the Red Sea incident. Terrified, certainly, by the oncoming army of Egypt – 600 chariot wheels created a thunderous approach toward the unarmed, battle un-trained descendants of Abraham – there was no assurance of how this was all going to end. The people had already lamented over their fate as Egypt had set out after them, and now, though one of the largest miracles, with regard to physical scale, the world would ever see was taking place right before their eyes there surely would have been fear. The death of all the first-born children hadn’t abated Egypt’s rage, how could the prospect of getting a little wet do anything about it?
But, as we all know, the Egyptians were destroyed in the violent crashing weight of the walls of water as they collapsed back into place. This account of the Red Sea crossing and subsequent liberation is, in theological imagery, the picture of baptism. We go under the water and come back out having symbolically been freed from the clutches of the enemies of our heart.
It was the response of the people that caught my attention this morning. First we see that there was no ambiguity:
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.
And then we see their response to this amazing liberation:
Israel saw the great power of the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.
Now, I know that in our Westernized wrinkle of Christianity we have defined the Bible’s idea of the “fear of the Lord” in a very specific way. In fact, we have basically re-written that expression so that it reads the “respect of the Lord”. And to be sure, I understand where that comes from. I know that John makes the declaration that perfect love runs fear out of the picture, but the reality cannot be overlooked that another timeless message of the Bible identifies the “fear of the Lord” as the beginning of wisdom. So, like several other ideas in the Scriptures, taking a single-verse viewpoint leads not to truth but to reductionism.
What seemed important to me this morning was the very next verse in the text in Exodus, which just happened to be the first verse of the next chapter. You see the exact same Hebrew word that is used to tell us that the people “feared” the Lord, is also used in that same chapter to describe their “fear” of Pharaoh’s army. There is no difference in the author’s language. The word does mean “to stand in awe”, but it also means (and is translated far more often) “to be afraid”. So, if the emotion is the same, if the gut-reaction is described in the same way – both seeing Pharaoh’s chariots and seeing God’s devastation of that mighty army – then how do we know the difference between “bad” fear and “good” fear? Obviously the Bible, when taken in its entirety, indicates that there are both.
As I said, the next verse is crucial:
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang…
The fear of Egypt caused the people to lament and cry out in emotional anguish, certain of their imminent demise. But the fear of the Lord, the rescuer and redeemer of their families and their future caused them to strike up the band and dance and sing and lift their hands in adoration.
Please remember, I don’t believe that the “feeling” of fear in that moment of celebration was much different from the “feeling” of fear when the Egyptians were bearing down on them on the other side of the sea. So how does the same emotion, the same feeling, the same awe evoke such diametrically opposite responses?
I believe that the simple principle emerges here that the issue is who you fear, not that you fear. Who you fear has everything to do with how you react. If the one that you fear has oppressed you, has beaten you, has enslaved you, and has done everything possible to use you then fear will result in weeping and paralysis. But, if the One you fear has liberated you, has loved you, has suffered long with you, has been faithful to you, and has cared for your freedom then fear will make you sing.
I see this in David, as he wrote song after song in the wilderness confusion, crying out as a hunted man; I see it in Jesus as He, knowing the dreadful destiny that was soon coming, led His disciples in a song on His last night before the Cross; I see this in Paul and Silas, who in the Philippian jail, and certainly with emotions that were challenging, sang in the darkest of night.
Fear, to a certain extent, is our reaction to moments that are out of our control; moments that have grown larger than us. Our minds and bodies respond in certain ways to the pregnancy of those moments, and to the assassin that we call “the unknown”. Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus all knew these moments, they experienced them, and they sang because in each of those situations they were sure of two things: the terror-inducing power of God and the infinite love that same God had for them.
Maybe, despite a thousands of books and tens of thousands of sermons, we don’t need to avoid fear. Maybe, in the midnight hour, fear is not our enemy. Maybe, and you are welcome to disagree, fear is the gift that God gives to His children. Not so that we become paralyzed at the thought of what might happen, but so that we will – regardless of the most terrible unknown – sing at the thought of the love of the One whose voice causes every lesser fear to kneel and slink away.
It seems then that fear is not the chief issue here, but the source of your fear. For it is the source of your fear that will determine how you respond to that fear, and your response will be the evidence of how well you know that source…or Source.
So, friends, be afraid…but sing because you are.