The Presence of God
Introduction: A few years ago I watch a film titled Endurance. It is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to cross the Antarctic. Things went terribly wrong on the journey. Shackleton and his crew attempted to navigate through pack ice that was growing exceedingly heavy. He ordered his men to stop the ship in order to wait for a break in the ice. The temperature dropped and the ice closed around the ship making it impossible to move. The crew lived on that ship for the next ten months.
Eventually, the ship succumbed to crushing grip of the ice. Shackleton ordered that the crew abandon ship. All of the men set out to find safety. They carried very little supplies and dragged along three lifeboats. They eventually came to open water, boarded the lifeboats, and sailed off to find land. It was a perilous journey that stranded them eventually on deserted Elephant Island.
Shackleton took four other crew members and set sail in a lifeboat in an effort to reach the island of South Georgia. They traveled 800 miles through incredibly difficult waters. When they did arrive at South Georgia, they found that the whaling station was on the other side of the island. Shackleton knew he had to move quickly to rescue his men back on Elephant Island in time. So, he took two of the men that made the voyage with him, and they crossed South Georgia Island on foot. It was an island filled with treacherous cliffs which were icy and dangerous. The men were vulnerable to sudden blizzards and hurricane force winds. People who lived on South Georgia considered the journey impossible. Shackleton and his partners crossed in 36 hours.
Shackleton’s diary provides and interesting perspective on the South Georgia Island crossing:
I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains of South Georgia, it seemed to me that there were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘…I had a curious feeling that there was another person with us.’
Transition: Shackleton faced an incredible journey, but felt that he was not alone. I don’t know what he believed about eternal life and the presence of God, but he and at least one of the men with him had the feeling that Another was there in their darkest hour. Exodus 23 closes the final chapter of the Book of the Covenant, the practical fleshing out of the Ten Commandments. But before we leave this chapter, we need to become more aware of God’s presence with us. Our own spiritual journey is fraught with all kinds of danger and darkness. It’s good to know that the Lord is always near and moving into that danger before you. This evening we consider God moving before us and preparing the way in our spiritual journey…
God’s Angel Before You (23.20-26)
Explanation: Immediately, we wonder who is this Angel? What do we find out in the text?
· He was sent by God to go before Israel into Canaan.
· He commanded obedience.
· If He was provoked by Israel, He would not pardon their transgressions.
· The name of God was in Him.
· He was God’s Angel.
This Angel of God becomes the very Presence of God among His people. That the name of God was in Him is an important detail. Names and naming were considered powerful in the ancient world. That God states that He be obeyed as if Israel were obeying God is important as well. All of God’s presence and power were found in the Angel. The Angel is to be trusted to do what God has promised Israel. Moses would later say to God…
15…“If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. 16For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.
The Angel is the Manifestation of God Himself. Recall that it was “the LORD [who] went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night” (Ex 13.21). He came to do the will of the Father. Since no one has seen God at any time, the Angel is a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who is in the bosom of the Father – it is Jesus, the Angel of the LORD, that declares the Father.
Application: The Presence of the Angel in Exodus ought to cause us to focus on Christ. The Lord Jesus is with us always even to the end of the age (Matt 28.20). He will guide us even as He did Israel. Jesus is the Way to our eternal home (cp. Jn 14.6) – a narrow way filled with danger and darkness. But He intercedes on our behalf.
Explanation: The Angel was sent by God to keep Israel in the way and to bring her into the place God had prepared. Israel was to respond to the Angel with awareness of His presence. They had to obey His voice. They were not to provoke Him.
Assuredly, that provocation would come through disobedience. When it did, the Angel would not pardon their transgressions; however, if they followed Him and heard/obeyed His voice, He would be an enemy to their enemies and an adversary to their adversaries. The Angel of God would go before Israel and bring them into the Promised Land; He would cut off all the inhabitants of the Land.
Application: If we obey Jesus, the Father will be pleased. If we refuse, we invite the greater fear of chastening upon our lives. If we separate ourselves from Jesus by choosing sin, we will find no forgiveness or cleansing. Heaven as our eternal destiny may be assured but with the Holy Spirit grieved there is no power, assurance, or hope right now. We must not leave the Presence of God!
Explanation: How was Israel to eradicate the inhabitants of the Promised Land? What was their part in all of this? God states that they were not to bow down to the gods of the Canaanites nor serve them nor do according to their works. Israel was to utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars.
Obedience and service rendered to God by Israel would lead to great blessing. He would bless them with bread, water, the absence of sickness and miscarriage, and long life.
Illustration/Application: Benjamin Franklin once said, “God heals the patient, and the doctor collects the fee.” God blessed Israel with material blessing because He sought to communicate to them that He would not only care for their spiritual concerns but their physical ones as well.
Today, Charismatics advocating the ‘prosperity gospel’ often use this verse and several others in Scripture to prove that it is never God’s will for anyone to be sick. Kenneth Hagin in Redeemed from Poverty, Sickness, and Death wrote, “Don’t ever tell anyone sickness is the will of God for us. It isn’t! Healing and health are the will of God for mankind. If sickness were the will of God, heaven would be filled with sickness and disease” (p. 16).
There is a sense in which Hagin’s argumentation has some merit. God loves us and doesn’t want to see us suffer through sickness and disease. However, He sometimes permits these things and teaches us through them.
Sickness and disease are temporal results of our direct sin or the sin that contaminates society. They also cause us to yearn for Heaven where there is no sickness or disease. They also draw us near to the presence of God when we approach the dark and dangerous fact that we are but vapor.
So, do people who obey God get sick? Are starving people, childless couples, and young people who die early on in life all disobedient? Of course not! This particular situation in the OT called for God to use extraordinary, supernatural means to materially bless His people. He sought to teach them abiding spiritual truths and confirm His presence with them.
When we consider other passages of Scripture, we develop a deeper understanding of the ill that befalls us in life. For example, consider our Lord Jesus. He suffered and went to glory along with Job and Joseph before Him. Men meant these things that came upon Job, Joseph, and Jesus for evil, Satan viciously attacked and slandered, and yet God brought good from these trials. However, I find no overt sin in the life of Joseph. I find a righteous man when considering Job. I find the Perfect Man when considering Jesus!
We as a church may or may not receive material blessing from God as promised to Israel in this extraordinary circumstance, but obedience to God still yields great blessing.
Transition: God’s Angel, the Lord Jesus Christ, is always before you. He will never leave you nor forsake you during the dark and dangerous journeys we often face. Now consider…
God’s Fear Before You (23.27-33)
Explanation: How would God defeat such powerful adversaries aligning themselves against Israel? Verse 27 says He would send His fear before Israel and cause confusion among their enemies. The enemies would run, turning their backs on Israel. God would send hornets before them and use these to drive out the inhabitants of the land. What are these hornets?
I take it that these hornets are figurative. Perhaps they refer to the natural enemy of the Canaanites, the Egyptians. Isaiah uses the fly and the bee to serve as symbols of Egypt and Assyria (cf. Isa 7.18). Here, hornet is apt because the fear of God threw Canaan in such confusion and despair, that they could not stand before Israel; they turned their backs toward God’s people because of the stings of alarm which followed fear.
Illustration: I remember pulling off old roofing material only to discover a hornet’s nest underneath the material or in the eaves of the roof. More than once, I riled up a nest of hornets and suffered as a result.
Whenever, we hit a nest with a tear-off shovel, our reaction must have been priceless if people watched from below. We ran and screamed like fearful children. Imagine that! Grown construction men fearful of a little bug. Well, we had good reason!
Application: God’s fear was to be the result of His acts of judgment on the behalf of Israel. The iniquity of the inhabitants of this land was full. As God slowly displaced these inhabitants, rumors and fear would spread through the land putting people to flight. They would be just as frantic as I was with my brothers after disturbing a nest of hornets.
Explanation: How long would it take to drive the Canaanites out? God would do it in a year so that the land would not become desolate and the beasts too numerous. God would drive out the enemy progressively until Israel increased and inherited the land. He would do it little by little (v. 30).
Illustration: Once commentator wrote, “‘Little by little’ does the work of God proceed through the individual soul. ‘Little by little’ do the conquests of the Cross win over the world. ‘Little by little’ is the unfolding purpose of redemption made manifest to men and angels.” – Meyer (pp. 281-82)
Explanation: Joshua did eventually win the war for Israel. It’s just that Israel grew weary of driving out Canaanites little by little. So, they began to ally with them which, in turn, led them into idolatry. This, of course, led to God withdrawing His assistance, and Israel began a cycle of apostasy that is recorded several times in Judges.
Application: Israel working toward the Promised Land little by little provides an analogy of our own journey through life. We are saved, but God wants more for our lives. He wants to fight for us in our own Promised Land so to speak. We are to watch, pray, and believe the Word of God. However, the battle is His in physical and spiritual warfare.
Explanation: When Israel crossed the Jordan, they engaged an intimidating enemy behind Jordan’s thick walls, but God struck terror in the heart of this enemy even before Israel began their march around them. God used the inhabitants of the land to keep it from becoming grown over and filled with wild animals. That means driving out the inhabitants was a process.
Eventually, Israel was to have the land that stretched from the Red Sea to Mediterranean Sea out across the desert to the Euphrates River. Solomon would see that promise fulfilled (1 Ki 4.21), but it took some time.
Application: Our spiritual progress often comes a little at a time. It would be wonderful if we didn’t have to fight against sin each day, but God wants us to learn to depend upon Him so that we learn to persevere throughout our lives. The process of sanctification stretches out between the two points of justification and glorification, teaching us to deny ungodliness and depend upon the grace God offers.
Explanation: The Book of the Covenant began after the giving of the Ten Commandments with the following command: “You shall not make anything to be with Me – gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves” (20.23). It ends with the same command: “You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods” (23.32).
We are saved by grace through faith, but that faith needs to obey. Only the obedient among us will fully have what God has promised for this life (see Heb 3.12-4.14).
o When our hearts become hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, we fail to become partakers of the inheritance.
o All who came out of Egypt were led by Moses and yet God was angry with those who sinned. The disobedient fell dead in the wilderness; only the obedient and believing could enter the Promised Land. Even Moses did not enter.
o Our diligence is demanded by God in order to keep from falling into Israel’s example of disobedience. We cannot pull the wool over the eyes of God. His Word is living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of our hearts. None of us can hide from God; all is naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (see Heb 4.12-13). We must hold fast our confession!
Conclusion: Israel eventually compromised by making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and worshipping their gods. These things became a snare to them just as God warned at the end of our passage.
Israel should have driven them out completely. Impure and wicked people who live around us tend to bring us down to their level a lot more quickly than those who are pure and righteous working to lift us up.
The Canaanites worshiped their gods with immoral, corrupt methods. They even sacrificed children to their gods. The sexual nature of their worship would make us all blush this evening. To allow them to stay in the land was tantamount with Israel’s spiritual degradation.
We must learn from their example this evening. We cannot compromise with sin in our own lives either. What do you need to be rid of tonight? What temptations should you avoid? What keeps you from total obedience to Jesus Christ? If you don’t root them out of your life and keep moving deeper into the Promised Land with the presence of Christ, then you’ll retreat and allow danger and darkness to overwhelm your spiritual walk. Remember that God’s Angel and God’s fear go before you.
Hymn: Pass Me Not! (235)