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Exodus 13:2. Sanctify unto me all the firstborn. The firstborn having the birthright, were, according to the patriarchal economy, the priests of God. The firstlings of the clean beasts were to be offered in sacrifice, those of the unclean were to be redeemed. Numbers 18:17. The reason assigned for this, at the 15th verse is, because when the Lord slew all the firstborn of Egypt, both man and beast, he reserved the firstborn of the Israelites as peculiarly his own.
Exodus 13:9. A sign upon thy hand. The Jews were in general provided with tephilim, or double phylacteries, made curiously of leather, vellum, &c; four portions of the law and prayers were written on them. On the use of phylacteries, Dr. Lightfoot quotes Rabbi Joshua. “He who will assume the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, let him wash his hands, rehearse the texts, and say his prayers; for this is the complete yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” It is added, and very coarsely, “A man has need to recite his phylacteries every evening, to fright away evil spirits.” Jerus. Berocoth, fol. 2. These teachers were but a blind sort of guides; nevertheless the precept of Moses, to have the law written on gates and houses was certainly wise and good, in times so dark and depraved.
Exodus 13:18. Harnessed. The readings here vary. They went up armed they went up five in a rank they went up in the fifth generation. Some think that they were partially armed. There is nothing improbable in the idea; for in the subsequent part of the history we find them well equipped.
Exodus 13:21. A pillar of cloud. According to the Jews, God never acts except by angels; yet here it is said, the Lord went before them. The cloud shone with light on all the camp of Israel, and ascended in elevation to the clouds. So Psalms 57:10-11. “Thy truth is great unto the clouds. Be thou exalted, oh God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth.” It was therefore a shadow from the excessive heat of the sun. Yet its chief abode was over the tabernacle; when it rested there, the people rested, and when it was taken up, the people moved forward. Exodus 40:36. The cloud was also a defence, the people “rested under the cloud of the Most High.” Psalms 91:1. In a word, it was their guide in the desert, and it never forsook the ark of JEHOVAH’S strength. In all these views the glorious and encouraging cloud of the Lord’s presence was a luminous figure of Christ’s dwelling with his church. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us.” John 1:14. Among the heathen writers, whenever they speak of the apparition of the gods, they generally clothe them with a cloud, or seat them on a rainbow or the Iris. See Numbers 9:15.
Irim de cœlo misit Saturnia Juno. ÆN. 5:606. See Iliad 14:214.
We here find the Lord proceeding with his work, and bringing it to a glorious issue. Having struck the flower of Egypt with death, confounded their wisdom, and shamed their idols, he led forth his ransomed people silently to the desert. And mark now his first care; it was to provide ministers and sacrifices for religion; for no nation can long exist where the civil compact is not founded in the belief of a God, a providence, and a future state, and that belief kept alive in the mind by public and habitual devotion. With this design he selected a priesthood, conformably to the ancient usages among the patriarchs, from the firstborn. Theirs was the right to attend the altar, and they were the hallowed figures of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest for ever unto God. But this had no design to interfere with the liberty of prophesying. God reserved in his own power the right to send a prophet of any tribe to reprove the priest and reform the people. In this view, happy, unspeakably happy, are the christian church, who are all entitled the firstborn. Hebrews 12:23. Who are all kings and priests unto God, to offer up the spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise. Hence those ecclesiastics, who with a view to impose silence on laymen, quote Hebrews 5:4, “No man taketh this honour to himself but he that was called of God, as was Aaron,” are grossly bigoted and mistaken. St. Paul is not speaking of the christian ministry, but drawing the parallel between the priesthood of Aaron and of Christ.
We next see the Lord of hosts leading forth his people by a pillar of cloud and flame. God cannot, it would seem, converse with mortals, unless his glory be veiled. He once appeared to Abraham in the smoke of a burning lamp, and often in a human or angelic figure. In this cloud Israel saw a thousand causes of joy, and of sanctifying fear; for what nation had their God so nigh? What nation had this visible token of his presence and love? And he stayed with them to the end of their journey. This cloud was to Israel a throne of grace and of justice. Their situation was extraordinary: a single disaster might have proved their ruin. Hence the Lord was always at hand to counsel and direct them in all their affairs.
It was their guardian and their guide. They knew not the way, they were unacquainted with their foes, they wanted water, they wanted bread; and God supplied their wants, relieved their cares, or destroyed all their foes. Let us learn of the Israelites to follow the guidance of the cloud. The sacred volume, the principles of equity and prudence, the dictates of a pure conscience will guide us through life, and be accompanied with the cheering light and comforts of the Holy Ghost. And all those, who are thus led by the Spirit, and have these interior and exterior marks of divine favour, are unquestionably the children of God.
This cloud divided the sea, on their leaving Egypt; and divided Jordan, on their entering the promised land. “The waters saw thee, oh God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid. Thy way was in the sea, thy path in the mighty waters, and thy footsteps are not known. Thou leddest thy people like a flock, by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” What has the christian to fear while God is his defence? The flood shall not drown him, his enemies shall be confounded, and the affrighted waters of death shall divide, and afford him a triumphant entrance into his promised rest.
God who concealed himself in the cloud, was nevertheless a jealous God; and having destroyed the enemies of Israel, he afterwards destroyed the Israelites who believed not. With him there is no respect of persons. Let us revere his name, for he is still with his people to the end of the world. He says, alluding to his promised presence, surrounded with angels, “I will create upon every dwellingplace of Mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and a smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for upon all the glory shall be a defence.” Isaiah 4:5.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 13". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26