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REDEMPTION OF THE FIRST-BORN
Exodus 13:14-16. 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. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man, and the first-born of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the first-born of my children I redeem. And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt.
THE works of God deserve to be had in continual remembrance. His interpositions on behalf of our forefathers ought not to be forgotten by us; for we ourselves are greatly affected by them. The whole nation of the Jews at this day, and to the remotest period of time, are deeply interested in the mercy shewn to their ancestors when the Egyptian firstborn were slain. If we reckon that every Israelite had two sons, as well as daughters, (which, considering the care that had been taken to destroy all the male children, may be taken as a fair average,) and one out of those sons had been slain, we may calculate, that not above one third of that nation would ever have come into existence. On account of the distinguished greatness of that deliverance, God appointed that it should be kept in remembrance, by means of a variety of ordinances instituted for that purpose. Some of these institutions were to be annually observed, (as the Passover and the feast of unleavened bread,) and others were designed as daily memorials of it. Such was the redemption of the first-born, mentioned in our text. In consequence of the preservation of the first-born, both of men and beasts, among the Jews, God claimed all their future first-born, both of men and beasts, as his property: the clean beasts were to be sacrificed to him; the unclean were to be exchanged for a lamb, which was to be sacrificed; and the first-born children were to be redeemed at the price of five shekels, which sum was devoted to the service of the sanctuary. This ordinance the Jews, to the latest generations, were bound to observe,
As a memorial of God’s mercy—
In this view, the end of the appointment is repeatedly mentioned in the text. Every time that the redemption-price was paid for the first-born, either of man or beast, it was to be like “a token upon their hands, or a frontlet, or memorial, between their eyes [Note: See.],” to bring this deliverance to their remembrance.
Now the deliverance vouchsafed to us, infinitely exceeds theirs—
[Theirs was great, whether we consider the state from which they were brought (a sore bondage), or the means by which they were delivered (the slaughter of the Egyptian first-born), or the state to which they were raised (the service and enjoyment of God, both in the wilderness and in the land of Canaan). But compare ours in these respects, the guilt and misery from which we are redeemed — — — the death, not of a few enemies, but of God’s only dear Son, by which that redemption is effected — — — and the blessedness to which, both in this world and the next, we are brought forth — — — and all comparison fails: their mercy in comparison of ours is only as the light of a glow-worm to the meridian sun.]
Every thing therefore should serve to bring it to our remembrance—
[God has instituted some things for this express purpose, namely, baptism and the Lord’s supper. But why should not the same improvement be made of other things? Why may not the sight of a first-born, whether of man or beast, suggest the same reflections to our minds, that the redemption of them did to the Jews? Why should not the revolutions of days, months, and years, remind us of the darkness and misery from which we are brought through the bright shining of the Sun of Righteousness? What is a recovery from sickness, but an image of the mercy vouchsafed to our souls? As for the Scriptures, I had almost said that we should literally imitate the mistaken piety of the Jews, who wore certain portions of them as bracelets and frontlets; but, if not, we should have them so much in our hands and before our eyes, that the blessed subject of our redemption by Christ should never be long out of our minds.]
But the redemption of the first-born was to be observed also,
As an acknowledgment of their duty—
God, in addition to the claim which he has over all his creatures as their Maker, has a peculiar claim to those whom he has redeemed. In this view he called upon the Jews, and he calls upon us also,
To consecrate ourselves to him—
[The Jewish first-born of beasts (as has been observed) were sacrificed to God; and his right to the first-born of men was acknowledged by a redemption-price paid for them [Note: Numbers 3:46-47.]. The same price too was paid by all (five shekels, or about twelve shillings), to shew that every man’s soul was of equal value in the sight of God. With us, there are some important points of difference. All of us, whether male or female, and whether first or last in order of nativity, are accounted as the first-born [Note: Hebrews 12:23.]: nor can any price whatever exempt us from a personal consecration of ourselves to the service of the Lord. The Levites were afterwards substituted in the place of the first-born [Note: Numbers 3:44-50.]: but for us no substitute can be admitted. “We are not our own, we are bought with a price,” says the Apostle: from whence his inference is, “Therefore we must glorify God with our body and our spirit, which are his [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.].” And in another place he expresses the same idea in terms still more accommodated to the language of our text; “I beseech you,” says he, “by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service [Note: Romans 12:1.].”]
To serve him with the best of all that we have—
[The poorest among the Israelites, whose cow had enlarged his little stock, must immediately devote that little acquisition in sacrifice to God. If it were an horse or an ass that had produced him a foal, he must redeem the foal with a lamb, or “break its neck [Note: 3.] ;” God having decreed, that his people shall derive no comfort or advantage from any thing, with which they are unable, or unwilling, to honour him.
Thus are we bound to “honour God with our substance, and with the first-fruits of all our increase.” We must not stay till we have got in our harvest, and then spare to him a pittance out of our abundance; but we must devote to him a portion of what he has already bestowed, and trust him to supply our remaining wants. Strange will it be indeed, if, when “he has not spared his own Son, but delivered him up for us all,” we can grudge him any thing that is in the power of our hands to do.]
Inquire into the nature and ends of God’s ordinances—
[The rites of baptism and the Lord’s supper are very little understood amongst us: whereas, if we would inquire into the reason of these institutions, we should find them lead us immediately to the great work of redemption: in the former of them we are dedicated to Him who has redeemed us from the bondage of corruption; and in the latter, we renew to him, as it were, our baptismal vows, and derive strength from him for the performance of them. In the common ordinances of divine worship we should see the care which God has taken to make known to us the way of salvation, and to display to us the exceeding riches of his grace in Christ Jesus. If we duly considered God’s design in appointing an order of men to minister in his sanctuary, we should not complain that we heard so much of Christ; but rather, we should go up to his house hungering and thirsting after him, as the bread of life and the water of life.
Devote yourselves to the service of your God—
[The names of the first-born, and of them only, “are
written in heaven [Note: Note c.].” If therefore we would partake of the heavenly inheritance, we must regard ourselves as “an holy nation, and a peculiar people.” What the Levites were externally, that must we be in the inward devotion of our souls. We are not loaded, like them, with the observance of many burthensome ceremonies; but the sacrifices of prayer and praise we ought to offer unto God continually; and, in this respect, we are to emulate, as it were, the saints in heaven, who rest not day and night in ascribing glory “to Him who loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood.” We should distinctly consider ourselves as “his purchased possession,” and account it our highest happiness and honour to be in every thing at his disposal [Note: Revelation 14:4. The redeemed are to “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.”].]
Endeavour to instruct others in the great work of redemption—
[On all the different occasions it was appointed, that children should make inquiries into the reasons of the various institutions which they saw [Note: Exodus 12:26; Exodus 13:8, and Joshua 4:6-7.] ; and that such explanations should be given them, as should tend to perpetuate divine knowledge to the remotest generations. Such inquiries we should encourage amongst our children: and we should cheerfully embrace every opportunity that is afforded us, of instructing them in the things belonging to their eternal peace. If such catechetical instructions were given in our different families, to how much greater advantage would the word of life be dispensed! Our hearers then, being habituated to the consideration of divine truths, would enter more easily into the various subjects that are set before them. They would attend both with pleasure and profit, more especially when they were arrived at years of discretion; whereas now, the greater part of our auditories hear as if they heard not, and continue years under the ministry of the Gospel without ever understanding its fundamental truths. Let this attention then be paid by all parents and masters to their respective families; yea, let the ignorant in general, whether children or adults, be the objects of our affectionate regard: and let us all, in our respective spheres, contribute, as we are able, to impart the knowledge of Christ to others, that they also may behold the salvation of God.]
GOD’S CONDESCENSION TO HIS PEOPLE’S WEAKNESS
Exodus 13:17-18. 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: but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea.
IN whatever light we view God, whether as a God of power or of love, we are constrained to say, “Who is like unto thee, O Lord!” Behold the issue of his contest with the haughty Pharaoh: the very instant that the full time is arrived, the time predicted four hundred and thirty years before, the proud monarch not only consents to the departure of Israel, but urges them to go with all possible expedition; and the whole land of Egypt is become so anxious for their departure, that every person is glad to give his most valuable raiment, together with his jewels or vessels, of silver or of gold, to any Israelitish woman that asks them of him [Note: Exodus 3:21-22; Exodus 11:2-3; Exodus 12:35-36. The Israelites did not borrow them with any promise of returning them; but asked for them, and required them: and the people, partly through fear, and partly through a temporary willingness to compensate for the injuries they had sustained, hastily gave them whatever they desired.]. Yet, though thrust out by the inhabitants, the Israelites do not go out as by night, but, in an orderly manner, “harnessed,” that is, arranged as an army, in five different divisions [Note: The marginal reading in the Bible says, five in a rank: but this, allowing three feet between each rank, and two thousand ranks in a mile, would make the van and rear to be sixty miles apart: for there were no less than six hundred thousand men, besides women and children.] ; yea in a triumphant manner also, laden with the spoils of their vanquished enemies: “nor was there one feeble person among their tribes;” not one was left behind; nor was one single person unfit to undertake the journey. Thus was the power of Jehovah magnified in the completest victory that can possibly be imagined; a victory, not over their arms merely, but over their proud, obstinate, rebellious hearts.
But we are no less called to admire the kindness of God to his people, than his power over his enemies. He knew, that his people were dispirited through their long and cruel bondage; and that, if he led them the near way to Canaan through the land of the Philistines, (which was at most only a journey of eight or ten days [Note: Genesis 43:2; Genesis 43:10.],) they would be intimidated by the hostile appearance of the Philistines, and be ready to return to Egypt, rather than enter on a warfare for which they were unprepared. He therefore condescended to their weakness, and led them another way. This may appear an unimportant circumstance in this astonishing history; but we think it will afford us some useful hints, while we call your attention to the following observations:
As long as we are in this world, successive trials must be expected—
[The trials of the Israelites did not cease when they came out of Egypt: whichever way they had proceeded, they would have met with difficulties. Thus it is with those who are redeemed from spiritual bondage: they come not into a state of rest, but of conflict. The fluctuating state of the world cannot but place many difficulties in their way — — — And Satan, even if he knew that he could not finally prevail against them, would not cease to harass them to the utmost of his power — — — And their own hearts, if they had no other enemy to encounter, would afford them many occasions for labour and sorrow — — — To every person that is desirous of reaching the promised land, this life is a state of warfare: and if he would gain the victory, he must “put on the whole armour of God,” and “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” and “fight the good fight of faith.”]
For these conflicts God fits his people: but,
Whatever deliverances we may have experienced in past times, we are ever liable to faint under future trials—
[One would have thought that persons who had so recently seen the irresistible power of Jehovah engaged for them, would not have feared any enemies they might be called to encounter. But God knew that the appearance of new difficulties would soon efface from their minds the remembrance of past deliverances. How just his estimate of them was, appeared, as soon as ever they knew that they were pursued by the Egyptian armies. They instantly murmured against Moses and against God for bringing them out of Egypt; and regretted that they had ever left the land of their captivity [Note: Exodus 14:11-12; Exodus 16:3.]. And when they had actually reached the borders of the promised land, so terrified were they at the report of their spies respecting the stature of the Canaanites, and the strength of their fortresses, that they proposed even there to appoint a captain over them, to conduct them back again to the land of Egypt [Note: Numbers 14:2-4.]. This principle of unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, that even the most eminent saints have yielded to its influence under severe trials: David, notwithstanding God had promised him the throne of Israel, thought he should one day perish by the hands of Saul [Note: 1 Samuel 27:1.] ; Elijah, who had so boldly withstood Ahab, fled from his post through fear of Jezebel [Note: 1 Kings 19:1-3.] ; and the Apostles, who had seen on numberless occasions the almighty power of Jesus, expected nothing but death, even while He was in the vessel together with them [Note: Mark 4:38.]. No wonder then if we find “our spirits fail” in seasons of extraordinary difficulty or danger. Indeed, who amongst us is so firm, that he can enter into a cloud, and not be afraid [Note: Luke 9:34.] ? Who, when a cloud is ready to burst over his head, can say at all times, “I know whom I have believed, and that He is able to keep that which I have committed to him [Note: 2 Timothy 1:12.],” and will overrule these troubles for my eternal good [Note: Romans 8:28.] ? Under great temptations more especially, and under the hidings of God’s face, it is not uncommon for truly upright persons to doubt, whether they shall ever get safe to Canaan; and almost to regret, that they have ever turned their backs on Egypt.]
Not that we shall be really and finally deserted: for,
God, in condescension to his people’s weakness, proportions their trials to their strength—
[What he did to the Israelites on this occasion, he did to the Christian Church in its infancy: the Apostles were screened from persecution till “they had received more power from on high:” and, for a considerable time after the day of Pentecost, they alone were noticed by the ruling powers: opposition, till the death of Stephen, was limited almost exclusively to them; and very little affected the Church at large. In the experience of individuals, the tender mercy of God is often very conspicuous at this day. Whilst they are yet young and feeble, he is pleased to screen them from that fierce opposition, which, at a more advanced period, they will have to encounter: and oftentimes their very corruptions appear to be almost extinct, when, in fact, they are only dormant: their joys also in the Lord are made to abound in such a manner, that they are ready to think they shall never more be called to conflict with sin or sorrow. These are mercies to them from the Lord, to strengthen their resolution, and animate their exertions. God is graciously pleased to hide from them at the present the trials which they will hereafter sustain, well knowing that they would be too much discouraged by a sight of them, and perhaps be tempted to despair. “He does not put new wine into old bottles,” but only into vessels capable of enduring the expansive efforts of fermentation [Note: Mark 2:22.]. He will not overdrive the lambs, lest they die of fatigue [Note: Genesis 33:13-14.]. In the mean time he expressly assures us, that he will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able, but will, with the temptation, also make a way to escape, that we may be able to bear it [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:13.] ; “and that as our day of temptation is, so shall also our strength be [Note: Deuteronomy 33:25.].”]
On these truths we would ground a word of exhortation—
Fear nothing in the way of duty—
[Had the Israelites considered what God had already done for them, they would not have been afraid of any armies that could be brought against them: for, could not the angel that destroyed the Egyptian first-born destroy them also? And what have we to fear when once we are enlisted under the banners of Christ? Is not “the Captain of our salvation” at hand to fight for us [Note: Joshua 5:14.] ? and “if He be for us, who can be against us [Note: Romans 8:31.] ?” Let us not then be afraid, even though earth and hell should combine against us: “let us not cry, A confederacy, a confederacy, or fear like other people; but sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself; and let him be our fear, and let him be our dread [Note: Isaiah 8:12-13.].” “The waves of the sea may rage horribly; but He that sitteth on high is mightier [Note: Psalms 93:3-4.]:” “therefore we should not fear, though the earth were removed, and the mountains cast into the depths of the sea [Note: Psalms 46:2-3.].” It is a fixed unalterable truth, sanctioned and confirmed by the experience of millions, that “none can harm us, if we be followers of that which is good [Note: 1 Peter 3:13.].” If we be weak as “worms,” yet shall we “thresh the mountains,” and make them as the dust of the summer threshing-floor [Note: Isaiah 41:10-16.].]
Commit yourselves to the divine guidance and direction—
[God is the same now that he was in the days of old. What he did for Israel in a visible and external manner, he will do invisibly and internally for his Church at this time. Only “acknowledge him in all your ways, and he will direct your paths [Note: Proverbs 3:6.].” We say not that he will guide you by visions, or voices, or revelations; but he will by his word and Spirit: in reference to them we may say, “You shall hear a voice behind you, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand or turn to the left [Note: Isaiah 30:21.].” If your situation be painful at the present, or even contrary to what you have expected, do not hastily conclude that God has forsaken you. The way in which the Israelites were led was circuitous; but it was “the right way [Note: Psalms 107:7.].” Commit yourselves then to Him, and he shall accomplish for you that which shall ultimately be best for you [Note: Psalms 37:5.]. “He will lead you by a way that you know not; He will make darkness light before you, and crooked things straight. These things will he do unto you, and not forsake you [Note: Isaiah 42:16.].” He will guide you by his counsel; “even to hoar hairs he will carry you [Note: Isaiah 46:4.] ;” and after that “receive you to glory [Note: Psalms 73:24.].”]
THE PILLAR, AND THE CLOUD
Exodus 13:21-22. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night. He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.
IN reading the Holy Scriptures, we cannot but be struck with the suitableness and seasonableness of the divine interpositions. It might be thought indeed that the Israelites at their departure out of Egypt, amounting to six hundred thousand fighting men, without one single invalid amongst them, would be irresistible: but if we consider, that they were without discipline, without arms, without stores either of clothing or provision, and without any knowledge of the way through “a great and terrible wilderness,” and without any possibility of obtaining even so much as bread or water for their sustenance, we shall see, that they needed only to be left to themselves, and they must all quickly perish in the wilderness. But in the hour of need, God came down in a pillar of a cloud by day and of fire by night to guide them in their way, and never left them till they arrived at the promised land. This mercy, and the continuance of it, are the two points to which at present we would call your attention.
The mercy vouchsafed to them—
[Never was there any thing like it from the foundation of the world. God had revealed himself to several in dreams and visions, and under the appearances of men and angels: but never in a visible stationary form, like that before us. By this cloud he guided them in the way. Without such a direction they could not have found their way through that trackless desert: but by it they proceeded without fear of erring: and all their motions were regulated by it, whether by day or night [Note: Numbers 9:15-23.].
By this cloud also they were protected. Though this use of the cloud is not noticed in the text, it is in other passages [Note: Numbers 10:34; Num 14:14 and especially Psalms 105:39.]. In that hot sandy desert, it would have been impossible for them to prosecute their journey under the rays of the meridian sun: indeed even without journeying, they could scarcely have endured the intense heat to which they would have been exposed. God therefore graciously protected them by the refreshing shadow of that cloud. And to this the prophet evidently alludes, when describing the superior privileges of the Christian Church [Note: Isaiah 4:5-6.] ]
[This cloud was, in the first place, a symbol of God’s presence. After the Israelites had offended God in worshipping the molten calf, God threatened to leave them, and to commit the care of them to an angel: and on that occasion the cloud removed from the camp, in token that he was about to depart from them [Note: Exodus 33:2-3; Exodus 33:7; Exodus 33:9.]. And afterwards, when, in the same spirit of rebellion, they were going up against the Canaanites without the pillar and the cloud, Moses said to them, “Go not up, for the Lord is not among you [Note: Numbers 14:42.].”
This cloud was also a seal of his covenant. Though the covenant, afterwards made on Horeb, was not yet formally declared, yet it was considered as existing, not only because God had actually now taken the Israelites under his protection, but because he had, four hundred years before, engaged to Abraham, that his posterity should be parties in the covenant already made with him. It is true, that circumcision was the rite, by which all the descendants of Abraham were to be initiated into the bond of that covenant; but still this was a (temporary) seal of that relationship, which now existed between God and them: and therefore the Apostle compares it with baptism, by which we are admitted into the Christian covenant; and declares that they were “baptized unto Moses in that cloud,” as we are “baptized by water unto Christ [Note: If we suppose that the cloud occasionally distilled, as it were, a dew upon them, it would be a striking illustration of the sprinkling of water in the rite of baptism. But on this we lay no stress.].”
It was, moreover, an emblem of yet richer mercies. We cannot suppose that, under that typical dispensation, so important a circumstance as this was destitute of any spiritual meaning. Indeed it is manifest from a fore-cited passage [Note: Isaiah 4:5-6.], that it was expressly designed to typify the guidance and protection which the Church of Christ should enjoy even to the remotest ages, through the influences of the Holy Spirit.]
We cannot fail of observing, that Moses, in recording this mercy, lays great stress on,
The continuance of it—
The cloud abode with them during the whole time of their sojourning in the wilderness. What a glorious view does this give us of our God! and how are we constrained to admire,
His inexhaustible patience—
[Truly the Israelites were “a rebellious and stiff-necked people.” Nor could either mercies or judgments ever produce on them any thing more than a mere transient effect. Every fresh trial called forth the same murmuring discontented spirit. On some occasions they seemed almost to have exhausted the patience of God himself. But God is slow to anger, though provoked every day: and if they had been less deserving of his wrath, we should never have known (unless perhaps by our own experience) how far the patience of God could extend. If it had not been ascertained by such an undeniable fact, we could not have conceived it possible for God himself to have “borne their manners in the wilderness during the long space of forty years [Note: See this expatiated upon in a most feeling manner, Nehemiah 9:16-19.].”]
His unbounded kindness—
[In reading this history, one is astonished to find, that God attended to that people, as if there had been no other creatures in the universe. He was incessantly occupied (if we may so speak) about their matters. He carried them through the wilderness, as a man would carry his infant son [Note: Deuteronomy 1:31.]. His conduct towards them is beautifully compared with that of the eagle, teaching its young to fly, and darting under them, when filling, to bear them up again to their nest on her expanded wings [Note: Deuteronomy 32:11-12.]. But it is thus that God yet watches over his redeemed people [Note: Isaiah 46:3-4; Isaiah 27:4.]. “Lo, I am with you alway,” says he, “even to the end of the world [Note: Matthew 28:20.].”]
His inviolable fidelity—
[It was from a regard to the promise which he had made to Abraham, and from a concern for his own honour, that God would not cast them off. He did indeed punish them oftentimes: but yet he continued to the last to acknowledge them as his people: “Thou wast a God that forgavest them,” says the Psalmist, “though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions [Note: Psalms 99:8.].” What a striking proof does this give us, that “God hateth putting away,” and that “he will not cast off his people, because it hath pleased him to make us his people.” “Faithful is He that hath called us, who also will do it,” that is, will “finish in us the work he has begun,” and “perfect that which concerneth us.”]
We may learn from hence,
What reason we have for gratitude—
[Let any one who has been brought out of spiritual bondage, and led forward towards the heavenly Canaan, examine attentively his own experience: let him see by what particular means he has been brought to enjoy the guidance and protection of God, and to advance in safety through this dreary wilderness; and he shall see as plain marks of a superintending and all-directing Providence, as are to be found in the history before us: yea, he may see too as wonderful exhibitions of God’s patience, kindness, and faithfulness. Let every such person then adore and magnify his God. We all feel how suitable such a frame of mind was for the cloud-directed Israelites: let us all seek to feel and manifest it in our own case.]
What grounds we have for faith—
[Has Jesus Christ come into the world to lessen the privileges of his people? Has he not rather extended and enlarged them? In the external manifestations of God’s presence we are inferior to the Jews; but we have, what more than counterbalances that loss, the internal and spiritual communications of his grace. Yes, our God will, by his Spirit, “guide us into all truth,” and lead us in the way wherein we should go. By the same Spirit also will he protect us from the burning heat of persecution and temptation, and from the assaults of all our spiritual enemies. Of this we may be assured: for he has said, that “he will keep his sheep, and give unto them eternal life; and that none shall ever pluck them out of his hands.”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Exodus 13". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany