“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.” – Exodus 13:17
The distance from northern Egypt, where the Israelites had been dwelling, to Jerusalem, which was to be their future capital, was about two hundred miles by the direct route, whereas the distance by the route they actually traversed was not less than four times as great. The way by the seacoast, which led through the land of the Philistines, was near, but the way through the desert was far; and not only was it far but it was through almost foodless and waterless country. Yet the Lord led the Israelites by that long and difficult way.
The Christian Church has long recognized that the journey from Egypt to Canaan is a type of our preparation for heaven. They think of Egypt as picturing the state of life into which we are born, the love of sensual, selfish, and worldly things; the journey in the wilderness has been dimly seen to be the type of trials which are met with, the crossing of the Jordan the passage from the natural to the spiritual, and the entrance into Canaan the reward and rest of heaven. There is much that is true and helpful in this interpretation, but it overlooks the fact that some of Israel’s hardest battles were fought after they crossed the Jordan, and that it was not until the time of Solomon that the country had rest from war.
The idea still prevails that the source of evil lies in the natural body, and that when we pass from this world, all the causes of evil will be left behind. But we should realize, as the Gospels state, that from within, out of the heart of man proceed those things which produce unrest and unhappiness. Even when we enter the other life, however faithfully our work here has been done, there will remain much that needs to be changed, for we do not fully overcome the self-life while we are in this world. So there will be searchings of heart and childlike humiliation that the deeper evils may be recognized and rejected, that we may be brought ever nearer and nearer to the Source of light and love, peace, and power. This is one of the meanings of the battles in Canaan.
Moses was the law-giver. He led Israel from Egypt to the borders of the Holy Land. As we keep the commandments, we are led into our Holy Land. “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”
Many – perhaps most of us – do not in this world go further than to the entrance of the Holy Land. We keep the commandments, and strive faithfully to teach them to our children, that they may be prepared for the nearer presence of the Lord, which will enable them to assail the lofty strongholds of self-love and their giant defenders.
The life that leads to heaven is not a hard life, but it is not lived without effort. We have to want heaven and to seek it if we are to attain it. One reason why we are placed in this natural world first is that there must be a basis on which heavenly life can rest. Heaven is an intense reality; it must be built upon real experience. Life in this world, with its experiences, trials, and temptations, if rightly met, will furnish what nothing else can, an immovable foundation on which the spiritual structure of character can be built and stand fast forever. This truth of the need of a material and fixed foundation resting on our earthly experiences is implied in what the Lord said about building the house upon a rock.
Most of us have to be led by the round-about journey, the desert route, the crooked way. Now we go toward the promised land, now we turn away – like Israel. Sometimes we hunger and thirst, sometimes we rebel, sometimes we rejoice and sing praises. This is the secret of all the trials that come to us after we have resolved to follow our Master. It is the pruning of the vine that its roots may strike deeper and that it may bring forth more and better fruit. It is the proving of our faith after we have attained it.
“God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near.” Philistia was on the direct road from Egypt to Canaan. We are told that the Philistine nation represents faith alone, faith without works. Faith without works involves a state of mind which looks forward to a heaven attained without trial or labor. It means a religion composed of sentiment, imagination, excitement, something outside of real life, anything which obviates the need of endurance, suffering, practical faith, or labor.
We recall that Peter said to his Master, who had told him that he could not follow Him then but that he might follow Him afterwards, “Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.” He thought so; but what was the fact? The cock did not crow that night until he had thrice denied his Lord. When Peter expressed such devotion, he was dwelling in an imaginary heaven, a heaven of sentiment or feeling, with no supporting earthly basis of experience and obedience. “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.” Peter felt at that time a zeal, a courage, a devotion which seemed strong enough for any emergency, but he did not realize that it was a state of mind which was liable to pass away for want of a solid basis of obedience. It was a very lofty sentimental state – those last hours preceding Gethsemane, when in the upper room the Lord told His disciples all that they could bear to hear about His kingdom. Then and there did He, in a sense, open heaven to them. Yet they must descend again into the valley of the shadow of death. Peter’s state of devotion was a Philistine state, a faith-alone state. He wanted to go up by the near way. He wanted to follow Jesus then and perish with Him, if need be. But how rudely was the spell dissolved when, at the taunting voice of the servants, he denied the Lord, his high resolve vanishing away like the baseless fabric of a dream! He felt the power of his own unsubdued evils, the giants, the sons of Anak, and was appalled. Just so Israel turned back after the adverse report of the spies.
This journey from Egypt to the Holy Land everyone is called to undertake. The Lord says to each one of us, “Follow thou me.” It is easy to be moved by some powerful enthusiasm of the moment. Regeneration indeed begins in lofty states of sentiment, but those states must be materialized.
The interior states of love which we feel outside of obedience are not anchored. They are ours to look at, but not ours in possession. They are almost as unsubstantial as dreams. Real heavens must rest on solid earths. Hence we are born in a world of space and time, that the foundations of our spiritual houses may be laid upon the rock of obedience. And until this service of obedience becomes willing, cheerful service, we are simply “getting ready” to follow the Master. This probably is the case with most of us.
Opposed to all enthusiasms and sentimentalisms, as well as to all mere intellectual scaling of heaven’s walls – to all endeavors to climb up some other way – is this story of the wilderness journey, teaching us of the necessity of a humble, patient, literal daily life of obedience and usefulness in the world.
The Lord always guides us to our Canaan by the shortest route, but He can never lead us through the land of the Philistines, that is, through faith alone, nor by any way which does not involve bringing our evils to light and overcoming them. In no other way can we ever learn to trust in the Lord so that He may enable us to overcome the secret and interior evils of our own hearts, and may abide in us and bless us forever.
We need to think of this when afflictions come, when our enthusiasms and visions fade, when there is a dead level of life that must be passed through. And not only should we think of it; we should apply the remedy, by making a heaven where we are. Sometimes, when strength fails, we wonder, “Why am I kept here?” As Israel had to wander until every one among them who had grown up in Egypt had died, so must it often be with us. The hopes and desires which have developed through our natural preoccupation with external appearances and worldly success must die before there can be found in us a real trust in our Heavenly Father, in which He can abide and lead us forth into everlasting habitations.