Exodus 23(20–33)


We’ve seen how the Lord delivered his people from their captivity in Egypt by sending the plagues and then by leading the people through the Red Sea on the dry land and by destroying their enemies afterwards. And we’ve seen how the Lord has been leading them through the wilderness. And along the way, he’s provided them with all that they need including water to drink and manna from heaven; and he’s protected them from their enemies who threatened to destroy them. And we’ve seen how the Lord brought them to Mount Sinai.

And at Mount Sinai, the Lord came down to meet the people and to speak to them and to make a covenant with them. And in that covenant, the Lord — who has rescued them from their captivity — promised that he will treat them as his treasured possession; and the people promised that they would do all that the Lord commands. And what does the Lord command? Well, first he revealed to them the Ten Commandments, that summary of his moral law, to show them how they ought to live as his people and how they ought to love him with all the heart and soul and mind and strength and love their neighbour as themselves. And in the chapters which follow, the Lord goes on to elaborate on the terms of the covenant which also includes civil laws — which we were reading the last time — and ceremonial laws. And I’ve explained how the civil laws where to guide them as a nation at that time; and the ceremonial laws — all the laws about how to worship the Lord and what sacrifices to offer to him — where given to point them to Christ who would offer himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice to take away our sins for ever.

And I’ve explained before how this covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai is just another version or administration of the one covenant of grace. In the one covenant of grace the Lord promises to deliver his people from our sin and misery by his Son, Jesus Christ. And, in fact, everything we’ve been reading so far in the book of Exodus is all connected to that covenant of grace in one way or another, because the way the Lord delivered his people from their captivity in Egypt points forward to how he delivers us from our sin and misery by his Son; and the way the people passed through the Red Sea and left behind their old life of slavery to begin a new life of freedom points forward to how, through faith in Christ, we pass from our old life of condemnation and wrath to begin a new life life of freedom in Christ; and the way the Lord was leading his people through the wilderness towards the Promised Land of Israel points forward to how he leads his people today towards the Promised Land of the new heaven and the new earth.

Through all the events of the Exodus, and through the covenant which he made with his people at Mount Sinai, the Lord was revealing the gospel of Jesus Christ and how the Lord God delivers his people in every generation from our sin and misery and gives us eternal life by his Son.

The setting for today’s passage is still at Mount Sinai. And it can be divided into two parts. Firstly, in verses 20 to 23 he promises that his angel will lead the way to the Promised Land. Secondly, in verses 24 to 33 he makes clear that — when they come into the Promised Land — they’re to worship him alone. So, let’s look at these two sections now.

Verses 20 to 23

Look with me at verse 20 where the Lord promised to send an angel ahead of them in order to guard them and in order to guide them. So, he would be there to protect them from their enemies. In fact, we’ve already seen this. Back in chapter 14, when the people had come to the Red Sea and the Egyptians were chasing after them, we read how the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of them, moved from being in front of them to being behind them. And along with the pillar of cloud, this angel stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians; and he was there with them in order to protect and guard the Israelites from their enemies. Think of parents who might stand in front of their child in order to protect the child from danger; well, that’s what the angel of God was doing back in chapter 14. And now, in chapter 23, the Lord promised the people that this angel will be with them constantly in order to protect them. In fact, later on, in Numbers 22, and in the story of Balaam who was hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel, we read how the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam’s way and stopped him from cursing the people. And so, there’s another occasion when this angel protected the Lord’s people as the Lord promised he would.

But the angel would not only protect them, he would also lead them. According to the Lord in verse 20, he will go ahead of them to bring them to the place the Lord had prepared for them, which is the Promised Land of Canaan. So, he’s going to be their guide, showing them the way, so that they would not get lost, or wander off in the wrong direction, but would come at last to the right place.

Of course, in order to benefit from the angel’s presence, they needed to do what he said. What’s the use in having a guard, if you won’t listen to him when he wants to advise you about your safety? And what’s the use in having a guide, if you will not listen to his directions? And so, in verses 21 and 22, the Lord warns the people about the importance of paying attention and listening to the angel. If they rebel against him, he won’t forgive them; presumably that means he won’t help them when their enemies attack them. But if they listen to the angel, then they can be sure that the Lord will be on their side when they face their enemies so that the Lord will be an enemy to their enemies and will oppose those who oppose them.

And in verse 23, the Lord reiterates his promise to the people that the angel will go ahead of them and will bring them into the Promised Land; and all their enemies, who are living on the land, will be wiped out.

So, who is this angel? Well, it’s significant that the Lord says in verse 21 that his Name is in the angel. In other words, he’s saying that he’s willing to identify himself with this angel, so that to have the angel with them is virtually the same as having the Lord himself with them. And so, when the Lord tells the Israelites that his angel will go ahead of them, he’s really saying to them that he will go ahead of them. The Lord himself will lead them, by his angel, and will guard them from their enemies and will guide them along the way.

And where is the Lord guiding them? Well, according to verse 20, he’s taking them to ‘the place I have prepared’. Think back for a moment to the Lord’s promise to Abraham. Do you remember? He promised Abraham a people: his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore, too many to count. But the Lord also promised Abraham a place: his descendants would possess the Promised Land; and that’s what the Lord is referring to here. And, of course, when the people come into the place the Lord promised to give them, they would enjoy the presence of the Lord with them in their midst.

We’ve seen how the Lord kept his promise regarding the people, because at the beginning of the book of Exodus we read how the Israelites had been fruitful and had multiplied greatly and have become exceedingly numerous so that the land of Egypt was full of them. And do you remember? The Pharaoh tried to stop them from multiplying by making them work harder and harder. But still they multiplied. And then he tried to kill their babies. But still they multiplied. Nothing the Pharaoh could do could stop the Lord from doing what he promised which was to make Abraham’s descendants become a great and mighty nation. So, the Lord kept his promise about a people.

What about his promise about a place? Well, the problem at the beginning of Exodus was that the people were in the wrong place. Instead of being in the Promised Land of Canaan, they were in the land of Egypt as slaves. And so, throughout the book of Exodus the Lord has been working to bring his people to the right place. So first, they needed to be released from Egypt. Then they needed to be brought safely through the wilderness. And on the other side of the wilderness was the place the Lord had prepared for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden, where they would enjoy the presence of the Lord with them. And so, having brought them out of Egypt, the Lord met his people at Mount Sinai and promised that he would guard them and lead them to the right place.

The Gospel

We’ve been seeing all along how through all of these events the Lord has been revealing the good news of the gospel and all that he will do for us by his Son. And it’s the same here as well, because the Lord’s promise to his people in verse 20 about leading them to the place he has prepared for them is very similar to the words of the Lord Jesus in John 14. John 14 is a passage I often read when I’m visiting people in nursing homes, because in John 14, the Lord Jesus refers to his Father’s house: he was talking about heaven. And he said that in his Father’s house — in heaven — there are many rooms. And so, when I’m walking through the nursing home, down the corridor, with room after room after room, it makes me think of John 14 and our Father’s house in heaven with all its room: room enough for all who believe. And the Lord Jesus explained to his disciples that he was about to leave them and leave the world, because he had to go to his Father’s house. He was talking about how, after his death and resurrection, he would ascend to heaven. And in John 14 the Lord said:

In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may be where I am.

Just as the Lord promised the Israelites that he had prepared a place for them, so the Lord Jesus promises us that he has a place prepared us. And just as the Lord promised the Israelites that he would lead them to the place, so the Lord Jesus Christ promises that he will come again one day and will take us to the place he has prepared for us.

But then, just as the Israelites needed to pay attention to the angel, so we need to pay attention to the Lord Jesus, because he’s the only one who can lead us there. If we do not pay attention to him, or if we do not listen to what he says about our salvation, then there is no hope for us, because we have rebelled against the only Saviour of the world. But if we listen to him, and do all that he says, then, while we go on living on the earth, he will guard us against the Devil and all his wicked schemes; and then one day, he will bring us into the place he has prepared for us in the new heaven and the new earth. God told the Israelites to listen to the angel who would lead them to the Promised Land; and he commands us to listen to his Son, and to follow him, because he will lead us to the Promised Land of Eternal Life.

Verses 24 to 33

So, that’s the lesson we learn from the first section today: just as the Lord sent his angel to lead the Israelites, so he has sent us the Lord Jesus Christ to lead us to the place he has prepared for us, which is Promised Land of Eternal Life. But let’s move on to the second section, from verse 24 to verse 33. And the point here is that, when they come into the Promised Land, they’re to worship the Lord alone.

Look at verse 24. In the previous verse, the Lord mentioned the names of some of the nations living in the Promised Land at that time. And in verse 24, the Lord commanded his people not to bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. So, when you come into the land, and come across these people, and see how they worship, don’t follow their example and don’t do what they do. Instead of bowing down to their gods, which are only idols which can do nothing, worship the Lord your God. That’s in verse 25.

And to motivate them to worship him alone, the Lord promised to bless them. So, he will bless them with regard to what they eat and drink; and he will bless them with good health; and he will bless them with many offspring; and he will bless them with a long and full life. So, if they remain faithful to him, he will bless them abundantly.

And if they remain faithful to him, then he will curse their enemies. That’s the point of verse 27 where he promised to send ‘my terror’ ahead of them to throw into confusion every nation they encounter. Though Israel was not a mighty nation, and though their men were not skilled soldiers, nevertheless their enemies will turn and flee from them, because the Lord will terrify their enemies. And in verse 28 he promised to send the hornet ahead of them to drive out the Hivites and Canaanites and Hittites. Well, that shouldn’t surprise us because this is the same God who sent frogs and gnats and flies and locusts on the Egyptians.

And so, the Lord promised blessings on his people if they remain faithful to him; and curses on his enemies who disobey him every day. And, of course, in the beginning of the book of Joshua, we’ve seen how the Lord did what he promised, because the terror of the Lord had fallen on the people of Jericho. Do you remember? And as a result, they were terrified when the Israelites camped outside the city. And think how easily the Israelites were able to take the city; all they had to do was blow their trumpets, and the Lord made the walls of the city collapse.

Back in Exodus 23, the Lord was encouraging his people to remain faithful to him and to worship him alone. Worship me, he said, and I will bless you and I will destroy your enemies who do not worship me.

And, of course, the Lord is very wise, isn’t he? He’s very wise. In verse 29 he makes clear that he won’t drive out their enemies in a single year. He won’t do it all at once; he’ll take his time. Why was that? What reason did he have for going slowly? Well, he explains in the rest of verse 29 and into 30: if he drove them out in a single year, the land would become desolate with no one to work it; and the wild animals would multiple without anyone there to control their population. You see, the Israelites weren’t ready to take over the land and farm it and oversee it. Even though they had multiplied and become exceedingly numerous, there still weren’t enough of them to fill the Promised Land which was so spacious, so vast, with field after field after field for them to look after. So, the Lord would let the other nations live on the land, to cultivate it until the Israelites became more numerous.

And in verses 31 to 33, the Lord reminded them of how spacious the land was: reaching from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines — which is another name for the Mediterranean — and from the desert to the River Euphrates. And then he reiterated his promise to drive out their enemies. And then he warned them not to make a covenant with them or with their gods. They had made a covenant with the Lord; and so they had promised to be faithful to him alone. So, don’t be unfaithful to the Lord and don’t make any arrangements with the nations or their gods. And finally, in verse 33, the Lord explained why it was so necessary to drive the nations away. You see, if the nations were allowed to remain in the land, then they would lead the Israelites astray, because the Israelites would be tempted to bow down to and to worship their gods which were only idols.

We would be wise to pay attention to the Lord’s warning, because while we go on living on the earth, we’re continually tempted to become like the people around us who do not worship the Lord; and we’re tempted to believe what they believe and to give up our faith in the one, true and living God. And so, we ought to pay attention to the Lord’s warning and make sure we resist the temptation and to do everything we can so that we remain faithful to the Lord throughout our lives.

Of course, whereas the Israelites were soldiers who were commanded by the Lord to resist their enemies by destroying them in battle, the Apostle Paul makes clear in Ephesians 6 that our struggle today is not against flesh and blood; we’re not to fight people. Instead our struggle today is a spiritual one, and we’re to stand firm against the Devil and all his wicked schemes as he tries to destroy our faith and as he tries to get us to stop worshipping the Lord.

The Gospel

We would be wise to pay attention to the Lord’s warning and to watch out lest we fall into the Devil’s snare and are lured away from the truth faith. However, the fact that the Lord had to warn the Israelites about these things, and about the evil influence of the nations, demonstrates that the Promised Land of Canaan was not the true Promised Land. Yes, it was a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden, where they were able to live and enjoy the presence of the Lord in their midst. So, it was a good land.

Nevertheless, although it was a good land, it wasn’t the true Promised Land. It was fine for the time being, but it wasn’t enough. It would do for now, but it wasn’t really what the Lord had in mind for them. You see, when they were living in Canaan, they still had to face the other nations who often led them astray. And, if you know your biblical history, you’ll know how the Israelites were often unfaithful and disobedient, and instead of worshipping the Lord their God, they bowed down and worshipped a whole succession of false gods. The land of Canaan was a land flowing with milk and honey, but while they went on living in the land, the people continued to sin against the Lord. And, of course, eventually, because of their unfaithfulness, they were driven out of the land and they could no longer enjoy it.

No, the Promised Land of Canaan was not the true Promised Land, because it was still a place of temptation and struggle and it was a place they could lose. But, you see, the Lord had something better in store for the Israelites; and he has something better in store for us, because the Promised Land of Canaan was only a pale copy of the true Promised Land which the Lord has prepared for us, and to which we will one day come, if we remain faithful and if we persevere in the faith. The Promised Land of Canaan was only a pale copy of the new heaven and the new earth, where God will dwell with his people: people who have been made perfect and have been glorified so that we will never sin again. And those who enter the true Promised Land will never be asked to leave it, because the Lord has promised that in the place he has prepared for us there will be perfect peace and rest for ever and for ever.

And so, as we read about the Israelites, looking forward to coming into the Promised Land of Canaan, we can rejoice and give thanks to the Lord, because we know that he has something even better in store for us. And so, we should rejoice and give thanks to him. And while we go on living on the earth, we should ensure that we remain faithful to the Lord and worship him alone, so that will will not fall away, but will continue along that narrow path that leads eventually to the presence of God.