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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 13

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-16


Exodus 13:4. The month Abib.]—The “month of the ear-time, according to tradition the month Nisan in the later Hebrew, corresponding to April” (Fürst).

Exodus 13:16. Token.] The same as “sign” in Exodus 13:9. Frontlets.] “Bands” or “fillets” (Gesenius, Fürst, Davies). Probably explanatory of the more general word “memorial” in Exodus 13:9. It seems equally unwarranted either, on the one hand, to assert that these passages (Exodus 13:9; Exodus 13:16, with Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18), were intended to bear an exclusively metaphorical meaning; or, on the other hand, to make them a warrant for the elaborate phylacterial ceremonialism developed by Hebrew tradition. Why should not injunctions of this nature be left just where Divine wisdom has left them! If they point to external memorials, well: these need not be indiscriminately condemned. But if God has left time, manner, and degree unordained, why should human authority step in and bind what God has left free! Hence, when Kalisch says, “Tradition has made the most extended use of the liberty left to it with regard to the Tefillin by the indistinctness of the text, and has compiled very minute precepts concerning their arrangement and their use,” we admit the fact of the “extended use,” but we altogether demur to the assumed justification of it from “the indistinctness of the text.” The indistinctness of general divine laws, when rightly construed, means the FREEDOM OF THE SUBJECT from any “minute precepts” as to the precise method of obeying. How sad that Christians as well as Hebrews should be so slow to learn this lesson! We are surprised that even Davies (Heb. Lex. under טוטפת) should draw upon Hebrew tradition for his explanation of this Biblical term. We agree with Tregelles, in Gesenius’ Heb. Lex. (Bagster), that “it requires proof that the Jewish phylacteries are here intended by these fillets or bandages.” Those who care to know what the Jewish phylacteries were, how they were worn, what virtues were ascribed to them, and about the best things to be said in their favour, should by all means consult Kalisch’s long and interesting note on this chapter. Above all, let any, disposed to ultra-ritualism, ponder well the woes denounced in Matthew 23:21.



The Israelites are now marching out of Egypt. It was a great exodus, and Moses would not have undertaken the leadership of it but for the consciousness which he had that God was with him. This was the appropriate time to remind the children of Israel of their moral obligation to the Divine Being who had so wonderfully and mercifully delivered them from a condition of degrading slavery. Hence we find in the commencement of this chapter that God spoke through Moses to the emancipated nation, imposing upon them ordinances and duties suitable to their new condition of life. All the deliverances of the soul are associated with religious duties and obligations expressive of gratitude and devotion.

I. That the good are required to sanctify their first-born unto the Lord. “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto Me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is Mine.” Thus it is the duty of the good to separate unto the Lord the first-born, that is to say, the most excellent of their possessions, the most valuable, and that which is viewed with the greatest regard.

1. This sanctification of the first-born was required by the Divine commandment. God told Moses that the Israelites were to sanctify their first-born unto Him. It was not left to their option. It was not the outcome of human device. It was not the unauthorised suggestion of a grateful heart. It was commanded by heaven, otherwise it would never have occurred to man to sanctify his best things to the Lord; and if it had, he would probably have resisted the idea as antagonistic to his temporal welfare. This duty is founded upon the Divine Creatorship, and needed to be clearly and authoritatively revealed, or it would have been misunderstood and neglected. Men do not like religious duties to make demands upon their property; they prefer a cheap religion, and many would rather do without any than sanctify their first-born to the Lord. The Divine command to man is that he give the best of his possessions—territorial, physical, domestic, mental, moral, and spiritual—to the Lord.

2. The sanctification of the first-born was a grateful acknowledgment of the Divine mercy in sparing the first-born from the midnight destruction. The first-born of the Israelites had been mercifully preserved from the stroke of the Destroying Angel, which had inflicted death upon the first-born of Egypt in the silent midnight hour. Hence what more reasonable than that the life that had been thus spared should be separated unto the Lord. God does not arbitrarily and unjustly demand the property of men; He only requires what He has given, and what He has preserved from the grave. And those who refuse to devote their best things to the service of the Lord show that they are insensible to the richest mercy, and therefore to the highest claims. Heaven never asks more than it gives, or more than is consistent with the gratitude of a devout heart to bestow. All its requirements are based upon the bestowment of past mercy.

3. The sanctification of the first-born was to be associated with the deliverance of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt (Exodus 13:15). By the separation of the first-born unto the Lord an Israelite would have many and varied memories awakened within him; he would be reminded of the eventful night on which death visited every Egyptian family, of the departure of his nation from a cruel bondage, and of the wondrous power and providence of God. And even when the multitude that came out from Egypt were dead, in the history of the nation of Israel, the separation of the first-born would always be associated with the idea of national deliverance. And so with the good, the gift of their best things and most excellent property to God is always connected with their soul-deliverances. They are glad to dedicate their first-born to the Lord in remembrance of the hour of their moral freedom. They regard this duty as a memorial of the past.

II. That the good in sanctifying their first-born unto the Lord are not called upon to give up the sole use of their property, but to redeem and to put it to a lawful use. “But all the first-born of My children I redeem.” The Israelites were not required to give up their first-born literally to the Lord, to His service in the Temple. They were to dedicate them to the Lord by sacrifice. And in this we have set forth a sublime truth, namely, that a true sanctification of property does not altogether consist in giving it literally to God, but in using it for Him, and thus, in a higher sense, giving it to Him through the sacrifice of the cross. If men were literally to give their first-born to the Lord, much of the commerce and activity of the world would be interrupted; but by the redemption of the cross the giving consists in the using what we have for the highest moral purposes of life. Who would not desire his first-born to be the Lord’s? God is worthy of the best we can give Him.

III. That the good are required to connect the sanctification of their first-born with sacrifice. “And all the first-born of man among thy children shalt thou redeem (Exodus 13:14). This redemption was to be by sacrifice. Thus we find that Hannah, presenting Samuel unto the Lord, brought a sacrificial offering with her, that he might be accepted (1 Samuel 1:24). So with the mother of our Lord. That which is born in sin cannot become the Lord’s but by this constitution of mercy, everywhere set forth, and having its fulfilment in Christ. St. Peter contrasts the redemption of the first-born under the law with the redemption which is by Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). If the first-born died there was to be no redemption. Christ seeks our life. He wants no dead thing in His service. Such provision was made for Israel even from infancy; what an encouragement to present our children unto the Lord in early life! But parents need reminding of this duty.

1. Because they are liable to forget the service which past mercy requires of them.

2. Because they are apt to be selfish in the use of their property.

3. Because they are not sufficiently spiritually minded to see God in their prosperity, and therefore forget His claims.

4. Because they do not like to pay the redemption price.

IV. That the good are to teach the right of God to the first-born, to their posterity (Exodus 13:14-15). Children are very inquisitive. They will ask questions, even about religious matters. At such times they should be carefully and solemnly instructed in Divine truth. The family is the best school for the young. These questions must not be evaded. Their true explanation must be given, and in an interesting manner. Children should be brought up to the ordinances of the Lord, and to the obligations of religion. They should early be taught the meaning of self-sacrifice, and the moral grandeur of giving to the Lord. Even the young have their first-born, which they can be taught to give to the Lord; and if they grow up in the spirit of this obligation they will, in after days, impart to it a truer meaning, and give to it a more solemn influence than before they were capable of. LESSONS:

1. That the good must sanctify their best things to the Lord.

2. That this can only be done by the redemption of the cross.

3. That the young must be early taught their obligation to the Lord.


We read that Moses had previously instituted the Passover, and had made known to the people all the duties connected therewith. This repetition was, however, quite necessary. Men are dull students of the Divine requirements; they are very liable to forget the mercies of God, and their consequent duty. They need to be constantly reminded thereof. God bestows great care on the moral instruction of the Church. Let us strive to be more mindful of the ordinances of Jehovah.

I. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed in the times of prosperity. “And it shall be when the Lord shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He sware unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month” (Exodus 13:5). In the wilderness the Israelites could not keep this feast, as they were fed with manna, and had neither leavened nor unleavened bread at their command. But there was a danger lest when they got into the fruitful country they should forget the estate from whence they had come, and therefore Moses, in anticipation of better days for the nation, again enjoins this service as obligatory. The changing fortunes of Israel were to be no impediment to the celebration of the Passover. How many people in meagre temporal circumstances attend well to all the ordinances of the Lord, who in times of prosperity are altogether unmindful of them! They forget God and the mighty deliverance He has wrought for them in the splendour and plenty of their success. Prosperity sometimes leads to atheism. The land flowing with milk and honey ought to lead men nearer to God in thought, ought to render them more grateful to Him, and ought to find them more willing to celebrate the glory of His wondrous name. The sacrament of the Lord should not be neglected in the prosperous days of life. The soul needs Jehovah then as much as heretofore.

II. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed with great sincerity of heart. “Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee in all thy quarters” (Exodus 13:7). And so those who attend to the solemn ordinances of the Lord must do so with sincerity of heart, without reservation or duplicity of motive. They must purge out the hidden corruption of the soul. They must avoid the appearance of evil; no leavened bread must be seen with them. And those who come to the sacramental table of the Lord must be sincere in their desire to be pure, must be reverent in their disposition as they commemorate His death, and they must be truly grateful for their deliverance from the bondage of sin. Their entire life must be in sympathy with the service they are anxious to keep worthily.

III. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed with true intelligence. “And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8-9). The ordinances of the Lord are to be intelligently observed. They are to be thoroughly understood by the Church, in their intellectual and moral significance. It may be to the advantage of some to surround their Church rites with the supposed glory of mystery, but this is more allied to heathenism than to Christianity. Superstition can render but scant worship. The sacraments of Christianity are simple and intelligible; all may understand their import, and ought to do before they venture to observe them. They have interesting associations. They are allied to the most eventful histories and experiences of the soul.

IV. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed with parental solicitude. “And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Exodus 13:14-15). Parents should studiously seek to instruct the young in the rites and ceremonies of their religion, and in the reasons on which they are founded (Psalms 78:5-8). Children should early know the stories of sacred writ, and should be taught their moral significance. The honour of God demands this. The good of the youthful soul requires this. God has appointed the family the moral nursery of the young. LESSONS:—

1. To attend to all the ordinances of the Lord.

2. To attend to them at the most appropriate time.

3. To attend to them in right spirit and temper.


Exodus 13:1-2. In the day of deliverance God judgeth meet to give ordinances to the Church.

Jehovah must Himself be the Author of all ordinances tending to His service.
God by His ministers may make known His ordinances to His Church.
The first-born are God’s proper portion in the world, and He will have them holy.
Sanctify unto Me all the first-born.”

1. A command.
2. A duty.
3. A privilege.
4. A benediction.
5. A prophecy.


It is Mine.” This is the language of God in reference to each one of us. It is Mine:—

I. Because I created it.
II. Because I preserved it.
III. Because I endowed it with everything that makes it valuable.


Exodus 13:3. “And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day.” There are certain days in the history of each one of us which are worthy of pre-eminent remembrance, because they are influential in our history, and will be to our destiny. Such was the case with the Israelites; the day on which they were delivered from Egyptian bondage was memorable.

I. There are days in the history of individuals which ought to be celebrated. As the day of Israel’s freedom would be remembered, so the day of the soul’s freedom from the captivity of Satan should be celebrated. It is well to observe as a joyous festival the day on which the soul found peace with God. The returning of the day should be marked by a return of the first enthusiasm and devotion of the soul.

II. There are days in the history of Churches which ought to be celebrated. There are days in the history of every vigorous Church in which it came out of some bondage, in which it emerged into new life, in which it entered upon some great enterprise, and these are worthy of remembrance. The very commemoration of such times would awaken glad memories and beget new strength.

III. There are days in the history of nations which ought to be celebrated. There are days when the nation came out of stern bondage, when it entered upon an improved civilized life, when a spirit of devotion seemed to possess the national heart; such times ought to be remembered.

Exodus 13:5-7. Future times of God’s mercy must be times for Israel’s duty.

The Canaanites shall be abolished, and Israel shall flourish.
It is well to consider God’s oath to His Church for all good promised.
The Church has a good portion in store.

Exodus 13:8-10. The instruction of children is a duty upon parents.

God commands the celebration of ordinances, and that children shall be instructed in them.
The reasons of Divine ordinances must be understood by parents and children.
Sacramental signs, and memorials of God, He is pleased to give His Church.
God would have His signal memorials at hand, and before the eyes of His people.
The Passover was a true sacramental sign and seal of God’s covenant.
By sacraments rightly used God’s covenant is confirmed on hearts and in profession.
God’s mighty and gracious redemption is a just cause of such memorial.
It is God’s prerogative to make anniversary memorials of His mercies.

Exodus 13:11-13. Jehovah is the beginning and end of His own ordinances.

All that God requires must His people make to pass from them to Him.
God has a property in all creatures, be they ever so unclean.
God has ordered redemption for unclean by putting the clean in their stead.
A price has God set for man’s redemption to gain a Church for the first-born.

The law of the first-born has its truth and accomplishment in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:15).

Exodus 13:14-16. Ancient ordinances may be justly questioned in succeeding ages to know the meaning of them.

Reason is to be given of our religion to such as reasonably demand it.
Redemption mercies are to be recorded and reported as just ground of God’s ordinance.
Oppositions against redemptions are justly declared to make the work glorious, and God’s people obedient.
God’s redeeming mercies ought to work in the Church eternal memorials of Him.



Exodus-Symbolism! Exodus 13:4. This was a new life for Israel. As it had its new scenes, new wants, new duties, and new occupations, so does the “new life” of John

3. The world’s fair and alluring landscape, with its great cities, fruitful fields and gardens, were left behind; while the sandy waste and wild mountain fastnesses of the pilgrim path to the Heavenly Canaan take their place. But they were FREE. When the great patriot and martyr-president of the United States contemplated the liberation of the African slaves in the Southern States, he was met by the argument that by freedom the negroes would lose much worldly comfort and pleasure conferred on them by their masters. His response was brief: “They will be free.” Though Israel lost the vision of fertile vales, of sacred sycamore groves, of richly-laden fruit orchards, &c., they gained their freedom. Liberty was more sweet, more priceless than the splendours and luxuries of Egypt. Christian freedmen prefer the bleak and barren pilgrim-path to the “pleasures of sin; and, like Israel, they look forward to the climax of liberty, that rest which remaineth for the people of God. When the Church has reached the ultima thule of her wilderness-way, then in the Celestial Canaan—

“The jubilant bell
Will ring the knell
Of slavery for ever.”


Verses 17-19



The children of Israel have now passed from the hand of Pharaoh into the immediate care of God, a transition new to them, which they did not understand, and which would be a long, and not always welcome, discipline to them. This discipline commences at once in that they are not to travel the nearest way to Canaan, but the furthest. We observe:—

I. That it is the way of God to bring the good to a place of rest. Canaan had been promised as an inheritance to the Israelites. Thither was the Lord to lead them. And to weary human life, which has been long enslaved by sin, but which has entered into the freedom of the gospel, there is promised a destiny of repose, sweet and sacred. Heaven is the destined resting-place of the soul, and thither it is being conducted by God. This is the design of God, to lead the souls of the good into eternal repose. This is the end of all the discipline of life.

II. That it is the way of God to bring the good away from the things that would be unfriendly to their welfare. “Not through the way of the land of the Philistines.” The Philistines were a warlike people, and would certainly have interrupted the march of Israel to Canaan. And so the Divine Being, in leading the soul to its destined rest, conducts it out of the way of its enemies. The soul is not wilfully to go into peril. Many men have not been led by the way of fortune, or social distinction, because that would have been as the way of the Philistines to them. God selects the life-path of the good. He selects it wisely. He selects it kindly. We often question His providence, but it is because of our ignorance and impatience.

III. That it is often the way of God to bring the good a circuitous route to their destination. “But God led the people about.” Had God so ordained it the Israelites might have reached their destination in five or six days. But the nearest way is not always the best. This is true in commerce. This is true in worship. This is true in moral character. The shortest way to be rich is not always the best; the quickest way to be good is not always the best. Wisdom often calls men to the longest life-route. It is often ordained by heaven that the soul shall go the tedious wilderness journey. Thus is it prepared for Canaan. Thus is it humbled. Thus is it taught to confide in God. This way is not the most pleasant, but it is morally the most profitable. The Israel of God needs the discipline of the long way.

IV. That it is the way of God to bring the good along unwelcome paths. “Through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea.” The children of Israel, had they been consulted, would not have chosen the wilderness as their destined path. They would not have chosen to face the Red Sea. They would, no doubt, have preferred the shorter route. It is well that we have not to be the guides of our own lives, that we have a heavenly Guide. But why did God expose the Israelites to the perils of the wilderness when He was so anxious to shield them from the Philistines? Because the wilderness was a preferable and needful discipline; and because it is impossible to get to Canaan, whichever route is taken, without perplexities. But God is always with the good in their wanderings in the wilderness.

V. That it is the way of God to bring the good into a better and more thorough knowledge of themselves. The children of Israel were not taken to Canaan immediately after their freedom from bondage; they had to pursue a long journey in the desert. And so it is with the young convert, he is not taken to heaven at once, but is conducted through the discipline of life, that his zeal, love, and faith may be tested. The wilderness life will reveal him to himself. The further the good get on in the journey of life, the more and more they see the depravity of their hearts. This is the Divine purpose. Men know little of themselves when they commence the Christian course. They get to know more in the desert. Some Christians are taken to heaven through a long route of pain. They long for home, but the journey is prolonged. It is hard to see the reason of their protracted existence. The Divine purpose is not yet accomplished in them.

VI. That it is the way of God to bring the good into a wise exercise of their own strength. “And the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.” It is somewhat difficult to give the exact interpretation of the term “harnessed,” but it probably intimates that the Israelites were arranged in five grand divisions. They walked in battle array. And so, while it is the way of God to conduct human life to its destination, it is also the duty of man to exercise his own wisdom and strength, so that he may do all to aid the plans of God concerning him. LESSONS:—

1. That God leads men from Egypt to Canaan.

2. That men must give themselves up to the guidance of God.

3. That life is often through a long wilderness.

4. However long the journey, men must trust in God.


The Christian life is a growth, and if assailed by some temptations in its infancy, the consequences might be fatal. He, therefore, who commences and maintains the process of our salvation, gradually accustoms His soldiers and servants to the difficulties of their warfare. Their faith, love, zeal, and self-denial are thus exercised rather than oppressed. The text confirms this consolatory view of the Divine procedure.

I. The circumstances of the Israelites. The deliverance of the chosen tribes was at this moment like the first rays of the morning spread upon the mountains. They had been redeemed from bondage. They were commencing their journey to the promised land, every spirit filled with pleasure. They were confident of their power to endure the trials of the way. The heart-searching God knew their deficiencies; and a variety of circumstances connected with their feeble faith determined Him in wisdom to divert their feet towards Canaan by a devious path.

(1.) The Philistines, who lay between them and the promised inheritance, were a brave and warlike people, against whom the sons of Jacob, numerous as they were, could not hope to succeed in battle. Wisely therefore did the Lord judge that they would shrink from such enemies. Such are the Christian’s foes. They are well practised. Satan has triumphed over man in every age, over the philosophy of Greece, the wisdom of Rome, and the refinement of Britain. And thinkest thou, Christian, that the enemies of thy soul are enfeebled? No! What, then, would be the consequences if God led thee past them to Canaan? Wisely and graciously are you led by the wilderness.

2. The Israelites were disarmed, and therefore utterly unable to cope with the Philistines, who were prepared with every means of defence which a people whose delight was in war could invent. The young believer just escaped from the house of bondage is defenceless. His enemies are armed. He cannot expect to wield the sword of the Spirit with the full energy of one who has been accustomed to fight with it.

3. In thus estimating the goodness of God towards the children of Israel in their need, we must add that their spirits were bowed down by long captivity. The hard bondage in mortar and brick was not the school in which to learn courage. Hence Israel was not fitted to match against the free soldiers of Philistia. The slavery of Satan unfits for conflict with the foes of the soul.

II. The dealing of God towards them. God might have made Israel at peace with the Philistines; or have given them courage to defeat their foes. But this procedure would have comprehended less of moral discipline.

1. He avoided the nearest way to the promised land, and led them by the way of the wilderness. The Israelites would be astonished at the line of march; they would be disposed to murmur. Has not God often contradicted your desires? You ought not to impugn His wisdom. The passenger ignorant of navigation cannot direct the course of the ship. The shipmaster knows the rocks; God knows our path best.

2. The Most High saw fit, not only that His chosen tribes should avoid the shortest way, but that they should pass through the dangers of the Red Sea, and sojourn in the wilderness of Zin. Could this be the result of wisdom. Clouds and darkness are round about Him. It is the exclusive province of unerring wisdom to draw a line between the discipline necessary for our moral good, and that severity of affliction, which might overwhelm us with despondency. We must confide in our heavenly Father.

3. Never then, should it be forgotten, that although the journey of the Israelites was contrary to their expectations, their wishes, and their clouded judgment, it was the safest and the best path to Canaan.—Buddicom’s Christian Exodus.


Exodus 13:17. After the redemption of His Church, God provides for guiding it to rest.

Nearest ways to rest with men are not always approved by God for His people.
God will not put His people upon war or hard trial, until He train them for it.
God’s special care of His Church is to keep it from a retreat to bondage after redemption.
Although that was near.”—

1. Yet it was not a wise way.
2. It was not a safe way.
3. It was not a selected way.

Exodus 13:18. The way of the wilderness:—

1. Rough.
2. Circuitous.
3. Unexpected.
4. Testing.
5. The best.

The way of the wilderness:—

1. Men are divinely led in it.
2. Men must expect difficulties in it.
3. Men will realise many comforts in it.
4. Men may develop patience in it.

God orders salvation to His people as it pleaseth Himself, and for their good.
God in wisdom sometimes translates His Church from the house of bondage to a wilderness.
Wilderness and Red Sea paths are the ways of God’s people here below.

Exodus 13:19. An interesting incident of Israel’s departure from Egypt.

The Israelites did not neglect to take the bones of Joseph with them in their march out of Egyptian bondage. In this we have—

I. The discharge of a sacred trust. “And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 1:24-25). Thus it was the wish of the dying patriarch that his bones should, in the day of Israel’s freedom, be carried in the great procession of emancipated slaves. This wish was regarded. Christianity teaches us to pay some heed to the last requests of departing friends. Many people are heedless of the wishes of the dead, and any promise made to them is speedily forgotten. Not so with Moses, he revered the sainted dead. How many young men are unmindful of the requests of their buried parents?

II. The fulfilment of an ancient prophecy. “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” Good men often turn prophets in their last hours, as though their insight into the plans and purposes of God, which will be given in heaven, commenced on earth. The last few words of life are often more valuable and impressive than all that have preceded. God can kindle the fire of prophecy in the soul of a dying saint, that the sorrowful may be encouraged.

III. The giving of a timely encouragement. When it was announced amongst the Israelites that the bones of Joseph were in their procession they would be inspired and encouraged by the fulfilment of the ancient prophecy, and they would regard this as a pledge of all that was to follow.

IV. The bestowal of an appropriate honour on an illustrious ancestor. Joseph was an illustrious ancestor, and was worthy of the regard thus paid to his remains. The dead bones of some men are worthy of more respect than the entire lives of many who are living, and who are esteemed great in the world.



Christian-Obedience! Exodus 13:17. Bunyan places the “Slough of Despond” between Christian’s slavery and Christian’s soldiery. While in Egypt, the Israelites were slaves; so soon as they escaped from Egypt, they became soldiers. The Christian life is a warfare, and there is no discharge in this war. Once enlisted, Israel’s hosts must march under the banner of the Captain of their Salvation. And so is it with the sinner saved through grace. He is bound to follow the emblazoned heraldry of the “Pillar of the Truth,” whose folds wave in the breezes of the Spirit. Like the soldier, who dies in harness, all his armour buckled on and his powers gathered up for a last encounter, the Christian is prepared to fight to the last. His Pharaoh can follow him to the brink of the river, but no farther. Therefore he obeys—

“I have no plan! My will in meekness bowed,
I trust the sign that will not let me stray.”

The Right Way! Exodus 13:18. Two centuries ago, a gallant knight was commissioned to conduct a noble lady from the Royal Court to a southern province in France. Not long after he had set out on his journey, they put up at a quiet hostelry, where the lady and her maid of honour found private apartments. During the course of the evening, an unknown friend warned the cavalier not to take the shorter and best road next morning, but to select the longer and more rough way, on account of an ambushment which had been formed. Thanking his kind monitor, he next morning proceeded by the winding and difficult route. Much shaken by the stumbling of the horses, the lady and her attendant vented their displeasure upon the knight for preferring the worst and longest way; but when they arrived after tedious and exhausting struggles at their destination, and learned what a narrow escape they had had from the jaws of death, they acknowledged the prudence and perception, the foresight and faithfulness, of their leader. The Church of God may think the short way to eternal perfection the best; but when she knows as she also is known, then will her song be on the borders of the jaspar-sardine sea, Just and true are Thy ways, O King of Saints!—

“Thou must pass through this tangled, dreary wild,
If thou wouldst reach the city undefiled, Thy peaceful home above.”

Home-Longings! Exodus 13:18. Imagine some poor, shipwrecked mariner cast ashore upon a lonely island in mid-ocean. The climate of the island may be perpetual summer—the flowers may blossom and fruits ripen through all the year—the forests may be full of singing birds, with bright plumage, flashing like meteors in the shadows of the tropical glades—the air may be daily loaded with sweet perfumes, wafted by the balmy breezes—the skies may be genial, and the whole year one continued season of growth and bloom; but will that castaway sailor be satisfied? Alone, the seeming paradise will be a prison. He will long for his distant home beyond the melancholy main. Night and morning he will climb the rocky height, and scan the wide, watery horizon for some friendly ship. And at last, when the white sail is seen, it looks to him as the white wing of an angel flying to his rescue. So ought Israel to have felt in Egypt! And so ought Israel’s host to have welcomed the “Ship of Providence” sent to convey them across the Arabian Sandy Sea to their home in Canaan! But man is thus cast away by his own folly, and to him the ship of Salvation is sent to bear him across the stormy sea of life to the land of rest, the home of the soul.

“Dreams cannot picture a land so fair—
Sorrow and death may not enter there.”


Verses 20-22


Exodus 13:21. A pillar of cloud] Most interesting is it to trace the Scripture allusions to this pillar. How completely the Hebrew camp was controlled in its movements by it may be seen in Numbers 9:15-23; Numbers 10:33-36 : hints as to its form may be found in its name and in Psalms 105:39, and 1 Corinthians 10:1 (cf. Isaiah 4:5): that God spoke from it is directly affirmed in Psalms 99:7, and may be more fully seen in chap, Exodus 40:34-38 (where, however, observe the definite article, הענן, the [well known, familiar] cloud,” the cloud of guidance which had gone before them hitherto). (Leviticus 1:1; Numbers 1:1,) &c. Some have thought there were two pillars, one of cloud and the other of fire; but, judging simply from a comparison of the various passages, we are led to conceive of the whole matter thus:—That within the outer shrine of cloud was placed the central symbol of glory more immediately betokening the Divine Presence; that in the darkness of night, this inner glory shone forth through the cloud as fire, visible from afar; that, when the tabernacle was completed, the cloud rested above it, and the glory entered within it, and ultimately took up its abode beneath the outspread wings of the cherubim; and that when the camp was to move forward, and the tabernacle therefore needed to be taken down, the glory resumed its original place of enshrinement within the cloud. In this manner, too, Exodus 14:19-20, may be quite simply understood.



The children of Israel have now left Egypt, and are boardering on the edge of the wilderness. They have left Succoth, the place of booths. They are now commencing the hardships of their journey. The young convert has soon to encounter the stern realities of the Christian life, and strangely different are they from those anticipated. But in all wanderings he has a Divine Guide.

I. That the good are divinely led in the wanderings of life. “And the Lord went before them.” The cloud here named was the symbol of the Divine Presence (Exodus 16:10). In the New Testament, clouds are often spoken of in reference to Christ (Acts 1:9; Revelation 1:7).

1. The Israelites were not left to guide themselves in the wanderings of the desert. If they had they would have been lost in the wilderness. When men are freed from the bondage of sin it is eminently needful that they should be led by the same hand which has wrought their freedom. They can no more lead than free themselves. The good are dependent upon God in every circumstance of their life, both in Egypt and in the wilderness. They are led by Him through the wilderness of affliction and woe. They are led by Him in the pillar of His Providence, by the pillar of His Book, and by the pillar of His sacraments and ordinances. The good are not left to the guidance of reason or impulse, if they were they would often go astray; they are led by an unerring Guide. They have a Divine companionship in all their travels. Hence they are safe, and ought to be trustful and cheerful at all times.

1. The Israelites were led by a visible guide. The pillar of cloud and fire was visible to the whole camp of Israel. What a huge phenomenon it must have been, thus to be within view of such a multitude. Christ the Guide of the soul has appeared to men. His Divine glory was wrapped in the cloud of human nature, else none could have endured the splendour of His appearing. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He was seen by men, women, and by little children. He sought to guide their feet into right paths. But He is no longer seen by the bodily eye. He has entered within the veil. He is now only visible to the inner eye of the soul. Faith brings Him near to us, and His guidance is as real and reliable as ever. The leadings of the Unseen are more in harmony with the spiritual dispensation under which we live, and tax the nobler energies of the soul.

2. The Israelites were led by a competent guide. The pillar of cloud and of fire was sure to pursue the right way, so that the children of Israel would not be lost in the desert. It would protect them from the shining of the sun and from the scorching of the wind. It would give them the illumination they needed in their journeyings at night. Hence it was indeed a competent guide. The good have a Guide, quite as competent, who knows the best way in which they should travel, so as to culture them for their future inheritance and to enhance the glory of God. They are often brought into perplexing circumstances, but the hand which leads is always able to provide deliverance from enemies, and from hunger and thirst. The good are also protected by the canopy of Divine love, which is carefully spread over their lives (Isaiah 4:5-6; Psalms 121:5). They have Divine illumination in the night time, as they must travel day and night to the promised land. They may truly say in reference to their life journey, “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me (Psalms 23:4).

3. The Israelites were led by a faithful guide. The Israelites were always conducted in paths which were ultimately best for their true welfare, even though they were at the time unwelcome. The pillar of cloud and of fire never left them while they were in the wilderness. And so the Divine Guide of the Christian life is faithful to the moral interests of those whom He leads. He yields not to their murmurings, He bears long with their rebellion, He remembers His covenant, though often His anger is kindled. But notwithstanding the wayward conduct of the good the Divine Leadership is still permitted to them (Psalms 48:14). God will not leave His Church. He loves it. He has redeemed it. There is none other to help it. He will guide it to the end, till the Church militant comes to the Church triumphant.

II. That the good are often divinely led during the wanderings of life into varied and unexpected paths. “The edge of the wilderness.” The Israelites would no doubt be greatly perplexed and astonished at the way in which they were being led to the land of promise. They would know it to be circuitous. They would see it to be dangerous. They had made no provision for it. Their food was nearly exhausted. What were they doing? Where were they going? Their circumstances were getting more critical every hour. They were obliged to look only to the pillar of cloud and of fire. Hence we see—

1. That God sometimes leads His people contrary to their expectation. No doubt the children on Israel had indulged glowing expectations of the freedom that was to be theirs, and of all its consequent privileges. But how greatly were they mistaken. And young Christians often form very erroneous notions of what their subsequent life will be; they little expect, in the glow of their first experience, that a great wilderness is stretched out before them.

2. That God sometimes leads His people contrary to the dictates of their reason. If the best men of Israel had been consulted as to the path they were to take to Canaan, not one of them, not even Moses, would have selected that divinely chosen. The good are often led in ways that they know not, and which they consider to be contrary to the reason able line of march, but faith in the Lord is the highest reason, and this they must continually exercise.

3. That God always leads His people into those paths which shall yield the most sacred and safe discipline to them. The wilderness journey was a way of severe discipline to the children of Israel, whereas the shorter route would have been a discipline beyond their present strength to endure. God was considerate to them. But the discipline of a freed life advances in severity with the journey. First there is the discipline of the tents, then of the edge o the wilderness, and then of the Red Sea, each manifesting anew the power and love of God. If the way were not rough and perplexing there would have been no pillar of cloud and of fire, there would have been no manna, there would have been no Horeb. The sorrow of life is permeated with the love of God, and hence relieved of its severity, and made a benediction to those who are prayerful and patient under it. If we are Christians, we must follow the cloud, though sometimes with weary step, yet with obedient heart.

III. That the method of the Divine Leadership is adapted to the changing circumstances of the good. “By day in a pillar of cloud, by night in a pillar of fire.” The life of the good has its alternations of day and night, and consequently needs that the guidance of heaven shall be peculiarly adapted thereto. When the right is dark then the Divine Leadership is as a fire, can be readily seen, is sublimely majestic, and gives evidence of solicitous care for those who are in need of it. There are times in the history of the soul when the Bible is all aflame to it, and when it shines with a lustre hitherto concealed. Hence the Divine guidance is adapted to the special need of life. In the dark night of sorrow how many promises have passed, in majestic grandeur, through the heavens of the soul with warming and consoling influence. God does not guide the good in the day time of prosperity and then leave them in the hour of grief: He says to them, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” “At eventide there shall be light.” But sometimes the light is at the back of the Christian soul, and cannot well be seen, but he may be always sure that it is somewhere near him, even in the darkest providence, even though it may be hard to find (Exodus 14:20).

IV. That the Divine Leadership should not be mistaken in association with the ordinary agencies of life. No Israelite would mistake the ordinary cloud for the pillar of cloud divinely given. He would distinctly recognise, and without the slightest difficulty, the cloud he was to follow. If he went the wrong path it would be through wilful neglect. And no really good man need mistake the fancied voice of conscience for the voice of God, the two are distinct phenomena, and may be readily recognised apart. He may always know the cloud he is to follow. The principles and precepts of a true life are clearly revealed, are before each heart, and only the foolish will go astray. The truth is always known from the natural inventions of men, by the fire it gives forth to the soul in trouble. The clouds of earth are minus the fire. They cannot give light. They lack the Divine glory. Fire is an emblem of God.

V. That the Divine Leadership is solicitous to lead the good to the promised and peaceful destiny. The pillar of cloud and fire was given to lead the children of Israel to Canaan. And it is for this purpose that God now guides His people, not to lead them into the secrets of human learning, not to lead them into the wealth of commerce, but into the eternal rest of the soul; and how welcome will it be after the fatigue of the wilderness life.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah!

When I tread the verge of Jordan,

Pilgrim through this barren land;

Bid my anxious fears subside,

I am weak, but Thou art mighty;

Death of death, and hell’s destruction,

Hold me with Thy powerful hand.

Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

Bread of heaven!

Songs of praises

Feed me now and evermore!

I will ever give to thee!


I. As the pillar of cloud was given to guide and comfort, so the Bible is designed to lead the thought and console the sorrow of man. The cloud-pillar was given to guide the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness, and to comfort them in all their exigencies. To this end it was admirably adapted. So the Bible is designed to guide the mind into all the rich heritage of heavenly truth, and without it man would be lost in the wide waste of error. It is also intended to console the human heart in all the troubled moods of life, when its joys grow dim, when it is rendered lonely by bereavement, and when it comes to death. At such times the Bible is our chief consolation, it enables us to sorrow in hope, it shows us One who is the Resurrection and the Life.

II. As the pillar combined both cloud and fire, so the Bible unites illumination and mystery. The Israelites saw the cloud, but it concealed more than it revealed. God dwelt in that cloud. He dwelleth in light which no man can approach. Yet there was light in the cloud. And thus it seemed to combine natural and miraculous phenomena. Thus is it with the Bible. There is mystery in it which the finest genius cannot attain, which angelic intelligence cannot interpret, and which eternity may not simplify. Deity dwells in the volume, and we expect that clouds and darkness will be round about Him. This is the God-ward side to the revelation. But there is fire in the book, which illumines the doctrines and morality of the Christian life. This is the man-ward side of the revelation. The Book was inspired by God, and was about God, here is the supernatural; it was written by man and was about man, here is the natural.

III. As the pillar of cloud aided the outgoing of Israel from bondage to rest, so the Bible is the best help man can have in walking through this life to the next. What could the Israelites have done in the wilderness without the pillar of cloud and fire? they would never have reached Canaan. And man without the inspired Word of God would be in utter ignorance and danger. Moral freedom would be a mockery to him, for there would be nothing to take the direction or culture of his emancipated energies. They walk the best in the wilderness of life who pay the most heed to the Word of God (Psalms 119:105) LESSONS:—

1. Be thankful for the Bible.

2. Follow the directions of the Bible.

3. Seek the consolation of the Bible.


Exodus 13:20. God’s redemptive work is progressive, from state to state.

Whenever God brings His people in the way of redemption, they are encamped.
The encamped Church:—

1. Christ is Captain.
2. The battle before it in the wilderness.
3. Slavery left behind.
4. Secure.
5. Progressive.
6. Finally triumphant.

At Etham:—

1. We know not the sorrow of the future.
2. We know not the wondrous events of the future.
3. We know not our sins of the future.
4. On the edge of the wilderness we are on the verge of a great mystery.

Exodus 13:21-22. Visible signs will God give of His presence with His Church.

Signs do not comprehend God, but represent Him graciously to His Church.
The pillar of cloud and fire is a standing memorial of God’s care over His Church.
Day and night Providence equally takes care of the good of God’s people.
Guidance, protection comfort, and sanctification are in the use of God’s signals.
Israel’s cloud and fire are eminently distinct from those of the world.
Neither the hottest day nor the darkest night shall stop the redemption of the Church.
God is not mutable in His purpose and work of grace to His redeemed people.
The pillar:—

1. The same in substance, so is Christ.
2. Firm and solid, yields not to the storm.
3. All could see it, all can see Christ.
4. It was upraised, the life of the good must be upward.
5. It never failed.
6. The boundless grace of Jesus.
7. Whom do you follow?

The Divine Guide:—

1. Acquainted with the way.
2. Accessible.
3. Friendly.
4. Willing.
5. Safe.
6. Continuous.
7. Supreme.

Some can guide through the difficulties of the day, but they cannot guide through the dangers of the night; but here is One to whom the night is as the day, “To go by day and by night.” What if He awake thee to travel through the night! what if the cloud move when the world is asleep, or when enemies, as the army of Pharaoh, are behind and in pursuit! Thou hast a light, and that light is darkness to them: they cannot come nigh thee all the night. It is a sweet view of the condition of the Church in all these seasons of trial, when she cannot sleep and rest for her enemies, but is awake to the midnight march, or the midnight watch. There is a light within the camp, the light of heaven, the fire of the Lord flaming over every tent. And the light that guides is the light that comforts. Who minds travelling in the night that can see his way? And who should fear following the shining of the Lord?—(W. Seaton.)

The pillar is taken away, the cloud is no more by day, nor the fire by night, yet is there light in the Church, a directing light, a comforting light, a protecting light—day-light and night-light. And serene the night, and cheerful the day, that has this light.—(W. Seaton.)



Fire-Pillar! Exodus 13:20-21. The speaker’s Commentary gives an inscription of the ancient empire of Egypt, in which the general is compared to a flame streaming in advance of his army. On a well-known papyrus, the commander of an expedition is called a flame in the darkness at the head of his soldiers. Burning lights were carried before the armies of Egypt and other ancient nations on the march to battle. The march of Alexander the Great—in his burning, eagle-like swoop eastward—was preceded by an altar of silver, on which flamed “the sacred and eternal fire;” and by huge torches raised on lofty poles, the fire of which was visible by night, and the smoke by day. The Divine Fire-Pillar eclipsed the gleam and glow of these masses of light; while it announced to Pharaoh that Israel was God’s army. Its appearance—more especially when a moved from the front to the rear—was a challenge of defiance to Pharaoh, as well as an admonition not to contend with Jehovah. When God arouses a people to defend their rights with the Fire-Pillar of the Holy Bible, there is little fear of the result. The Vaudois of the Valleys fought under the shelter and guidance of this divine pillar; and their foes were discomfited. So—

“Mine enemies behold it,—so with fears
They pause, and hesitate to venture on.”

Pillar-Guidance! Exodus 13:21. When Leech the painter was a boy, he was placed at a boarding-school where he had to spend his vacations, as well as his schooldays. His mother pined to see her boy, but the rules of the school precluded her from gratifying this desire. She therefore hired an upper room in one of the houses overlooking the playground. Here she watched her little boy. He did not know that any one was looking down upon him; but that eye followed him wherever he moved. Within the cloudy canopy was the omniscient eye of Israel’s ever-watchful God. True, as law remarks, the eye of nature sees not a moving or a halting mass; but, nevertheless, the eye of faith can realize the Divine watchfulness, can trace the unseen hand of heavenly guidance, and can read the monitions of loving faithfulness. When thou goest, says Solomon, it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest, it shall keep thee; when thou wakest, it shall talk with thee: for the commandment is a lamp, and the law is light. The Light of Scripture is the Light of Life. It is the hand of Christ; aye, it is the heart of Christ.

“Welcome alike, when on mine eyelids beat
Red scorching rays, or fades the evening light.”

Cloud-Shade! Exodus 13:21. So long as Israel remained in Egypt, Nature furnished them with cool shadows. It is true that there were no groves of patrician trees or fresh plantations, such as make up the beauty and richness of an English landscape; but still, its scenes were adorned with tamarisks and palms, which are to the Egyptian what the bread fruit-trees are for the Polynesian. Even on the border land of the desert there bloomed bright, sweet gardens of jessamine and orange. In the beautiful valleys myriads of roses burdened the air with fragrance. So that as long as Israel continued in Egypt there was abundance of natural shade. But no sooner did they enter upon the sandy barrenness than God gave them supernatural shades in the pillar of cloud by day. M’Cheyne, referring to Isaiah 25:5, affords some idea of the importance of this cloud in sandy deserts, where little or no vegetation existed, so that the sunbeams glance along the level waste of the wilderness, scorching hands and faces. He says that about mid-day, when the heat was very oppressive, a small cloud, scarcely observable by the eye, passed over the disc of the burning sun. Immediately the intense heat abated, a gentle breeze sprang up, and the travellers were refreshed. So God wards His pilgrim church from the scorching rays of the sandy desert of sin, in fulfilment of His promise in Psalms 121:6,

“He is a shadow from the noontide heat,
Although a burning fire in gloom of night.”

Night and Day! Exodus 13:22. Samuel Rutherford quaintly remarks that as night and shadow are good for flowers, and moonlight and dews are better than continual sun, so Christ’s absence is of special use. It has some nourishing virtue in it, and giveth up sap to humility. It furnishes a fair occasion for faith to put forth her hand, and lay hold on what it does not see. And yet God was not absent during the night, for the column shone as a flaming fire. So Christ is never really absent from the true Israel of His Church. True, the night often recurs to them as to the typical Israel; but such night is good. When its mantle wraps the “spiritual life,” the Pillar is clad in robes of fire, and a glory is seen which before was invisible. When gloom oppresses the believer on his pilgrim way, then unwonted glories illumine the road. The smiling face of Jesus glows from out the deep and darkling shadows, speaking silently, yet forcibly: Fear not, for I am with thee.

“The gleaming token from afar appears,
To show God’s pilgrims are not left alone.”

Bible-Guidance! Exodus 13:21. A traveller relates that he embarked on a steamer one beautiful evening, but towards morning a dense fog enveloped them. No observations could be made, and the vessel was directed by the compass alone. They were lost in the fog on a dangerous coast, and dared not proceed except by the guidance of the compass. In an hour they heard a fog-bell, knew whereabouts they were, and soon safely reached the desired haven. What the compass was to the mariners the pillar of fire was designed to be to Israel—to direct them in the right way. And such is the Word of God. It is my compass, my pillar of fire, which guides me safely to the haven of rest.

“I have no choice! The pillar of the cloud
Precedes me, hour by hour, to mark my way.”

Desert-Shadows! Exodus 13:22. Three travellers in Egypt decided to reach the Holy Land by traversing the sand-wastes which separate them one from the other. Day by day the heat increased its oppressiveness. The hillocks of sand—between which they slowly moved at the usual pace of the camel—reflected the sun’s rays upon them until their faces glowed, as if they were beside a burning, fiery furnace. Here and there were tufts of verdant plants and stunted shrubs, but too small to afford a shadow from the heat. How great a blessing the pillar of the cloud must have been! Towering over the camp, it cast a delightful shadow upon the sand, over over which they moved. The true Israel—wandering in the wilderness of the world—are similarly circumstanced. They have nothing to relieve the burning beams of the sun save the cloud of shadow which the Word of God casts. And it is associated with the assurances that in the Promised Land of Rev. chaps. 21 and 22, there shall be no hunger, thirst, or burning sun; but green shady pastures and living fountains of waters—

“Shaded on either side by trees of life
Which yielded in unwearying interchange
Their ripe vicissitude of monthly fruits.”


Pillar-Stability! Exodus 13:22. Whether at sea or on land, the vast phenomena of water or sand columns are unstable. The cloudy sea or sand masses bend quickly before a driving breath; or the storm beats on them, and they vanish. A vivid account of such water-pillar instability is given in “The Young Castaways;” while a similar illustration of the transitory character of the desert sand-columns is supplied by the author of “The Tropical World.” In the burning deserts of Peru, when a strong wind blows, huge sand-spouts rise to a height of one hundred feet, advance whirling through the expansive waste, encompass the laggard traveller over these solitudes, and overweighted at the summit totter and fall from top to base. All earthly pillar-shadows or shields, guides or guards, are uncertain and unstable; but the Divine Pillar of Truth mocks the lash of desert-hurricane or water-floods. Amidst the uproar and upheaval of elements, it smiles immovable; for against it; the gates of hell cannot prevail. No assaults can shake this magnificent column of salvation, so that as ancient Israel, God’s true people may trust in the Lord Jehovah, for in Him is everlasting strength, and He is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever—

“E’en in the wilderness, He gives sweet sense
Of sure protection, when by dangers press’d.”

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Exodus 13". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/exodus-13.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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