When God spoke to Moses from the “burning bush” at Sinai he told him, “I have come down to rescue Israel from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8). After some resistance and some adventures along the way, Moses went to Egypt and shared God’s message and miraculous signs with the people there, “And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped” (Exodus 4:31). A few days later, the Israelites who had believed and worshiped were disillusioned and frightened and angry. Egypt’s king had rejected Moses and God’s message and had made the work load of the enslaved Hebrews more difficult and demanding than ever. Moses’s own reaction was a complaint to God, asserting that “you have not rescued your people at all” (Exodus 5:23).
God had said, “I have come down to rescue Israel.” Some weeks later when things seemed to be worse instead of better, Moses cried, “you have not rescued your people at all.” Perhaps Moses, and the people to whom he had delivered the Lord’s message, had not quite heard the part where God warned them,
“I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exodus 3:19-20).
Or God’s statement that “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). God had specifically foretold the plagues on Egypt, from the water of the Nile turning to blood all the way to the death of the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 4:9, 22-23).
The people who had heard Moses repeat God’s message were shocked when they didn’t have prompt relief and dismayed at Pharaoh’s cruel response. When Moses complained that God had “not rescued” his people “at all,” they seemed to be suffering the disappointment that comes from selective listening. They embraced the part of the message they liked, “God will rescue us,” and overlooked the part that spelled out challenges and struggles and processes. They did not understand the extent or cost of God’s promised rescue. They didn’t perceive what was at stake for themselves and for Egypt, and eventually for the redemption of humanity.
Several months after the distressing process of rescue began, Israel did travel to the vicinity of Sinai as God had promised. There Moses told the story of the confrontations with Pharaoh, and the plagues, and Passover, and all the rest, to his father-in-law Jethro.
“Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. He said, ‘Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh’” (Exodus 18:9-10).
When the drama had played out, Jethro could see “all the good” in the course God had followed. God said he would rescue them, then Moses had wondered why God hadn’t rescued them at all, and finally months later Jethro joyfully praised God for rescuing them, just as he said he would. God always planned a complete rescue, a new beginning for his people, a new life in a new land with a new covenant, and all of that required many changes, not only in Egypt but also in the people of Israel themselves. They needed to see what happened to Egypt, needed to experience both the kindness and severity of God, needed to appreciate the cost of their deliverance, and needed to become a cohesive chosen nation obedient to God.
Sometimes, Christians still struggle with selective listening in reading the promises of God’s deliverance. Christ’s redemptive work in our behalf is often described as a rescue, from “the kingdom of darkness” (Colossians 1:13), and from “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), and from “the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Sometimes God’s promise to provide a “way of escape” from temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13) is over simplified, to the idea that God will make things easy for his children. However, the way of escape provided by God may call for enduring hardship, or going through terrific trials, perhaps even facing death. We might see things get worse (as it seems to us) before they get better, and we may not even understand what “better” is. Sometimes we fret as Moses did, thinking that God hasn’t rescued us at all. But God has told us in advance that sometimes freedom comes through perilous journeys and his rescue isn’t a brief respite, but complete deliverance.
In 2 Peter 2:6-9, we have a lesson from the Genesis account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) when the only survivors of the fiery holocaust were a man named Lot and his two young daughters. It is evident in the story that Lot wasn’t eager to lose all that he lost in the abrupt destruction of the city he had lived in for many years. He lost wealth and home and friends and family, even his own wife. Yet Peter summarized those events which no doubt seemed terrifying and tragic to Lot with the phrase, God “rescued righteous Lot” (2 Peter 2:7). Peter insists that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly” (2 Peter 2:9).
Sometimes like Moses and Israel in Egypt, or like Lot in Sodom, our desire for rescue may be too limited. Yet God intends to “save to the uttermost” those who come to him (Hebrews 7:25). He doesn’t propose a little redemption, not some little bit of improvement in our circumstances, or behavior, and nothing as trivial as a life of ease. As Peter also taught, fiery trials are not “strange” for the children of God and should not be viewed as failures. Rather, distress can be a necessary part of the journey toward joy in Christ, bringing us into his glory when our rescue is completed (1 Peter 4:12-13), a rescue that God knows best how to accomplish.