Wait and Hope (Exodus 2).
Did you know that God answers every single prayer? Some may struggle with such a bold assertion, but it’s true. The problem is it’s not always audible, and it’s not always yes. Sometimes it’s no, like a parent denying a request for something unsafe. Sometimes it’s a not yet – we want it now but God knows it will benefit us more later on. Yes, no, or not yet. The real trick is being able to discern which answer we’re getting. We might think the problem is with God not being clear enough, but are we really listening? Or are our heads so full of everything else that we don’t hear the answer? Prayer can be quite frustrating and quite unrewarding when it’s reduced to a machine-gun burst of demands, all fired off so quickly one after another that we never stop to hear the reply to each. Or maybe we only ever want to hear the yeses, so we’re deaf to anything else.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my fair share of nos and not yets. If you have too, then it may be a comfort to know that people in the Bible received plenty of these too. One might almost say that the whole Bible is a case of ‘not yet’, right up till the moment when it becomes ‘yes’ in Jesus. Even then we crossed from one ‘not yet’ to another, escaping the punishment for sin but not its prevalence. That’s another ‘not yet’ that’s still going, and will keep going until Jesus comes again.
The ancient Israelites had their own ‘not yet’. They were slaves in Egypt for a long time, suffering injustice and doing back-breaking labour in harsh conditions. Whatever issues you may have with Ridley Scott’s film Exodus, I think it does a good job of giving a flavour of what life was like for them. I also think that when Exodus 2:23 says, ‘The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God’, that this wasn’t the first time they cried for help. I think they had been praying for a long time. Life was good back in the time of Joseph, but then it deteriorated fast when a new generation of Egyptians came to power and sheer population growth presented real issues (1:8-10).
If the Israelites were actually in Egypt for some 215 years, even if you subtract the duration of Joseph’s life then you’re still left with 150 years or so of brutal captivity. That’s a long time. A long time to hear ‘not yet’. Like black slaves in America before the emancipation of 1868, or medieval serfs dreaming of freedom from obligations to lord and land, a lot of them who prayed for deliverance would have died before seeing those prayers answered. Maybe that helps put our ‘not yet’ prayers in perspective.
I believe this passage at the end of Exodus 2 teaches us two things: firstly that God always hears His people, and secondly, He has just the right timing for the answer. Verse 24 says ‘God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.’ God hears our cries. He knows when we’re in distress. As a father I’ve marvelled at how well-attuned my ears have become to my toddler’s cries, to the point where I can distinguish his cries from those of other toddlers from a whole building away. God’s hearing is way better than mine.
He doesn’t just hear, He also cares. Verse 25 says He ‘was concerned about them’. Not an empty, passing-interest concern, nor even the genuine but powerless concern we experience when watching starving children on the news. No this was compassion with a plan. The word ‘remembered’ in verse 24 doesn’t mean God suddenly sat up with a jolt and thought, ‘oh my goodness, I’d forgotten about them, better do something quick’. He didn’t think up a plan on the spot. No, He’d known all along what He was going to do. Just as God knows our thoughts and words before we think or utter them (Psalm 139), so He knows in advance what we need. In Genesis 15 He even gives Abraham a pretty accurate timeline of events, saying that 400 years will pass before freedom comes. God was just waiting for the right time.
God is never indifferent, never inactive. It might seem like it at times, you may feel like you haven’t heard from Him in a while, but He is ever-watchful and ever-loving. No matter how long the pause or time of waiting, His faithfulness never wavers and His character never changes. The challenge for us is to keep trusting Him even in the periods of waiting.
But for the Israelites the time was now ripe. God’s compassion was about to turn into action. We all have to wait on God’s timing. Moses’ fit of anger and little bit of murder on the side didn’t have any part to play in it, so he had to wait. Just like the Israelites had been waiting. Why 400 years? Genesis 15:16 says ‘the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure’. That refers to the people occupying the Promised Land of Canaan at the time. The Israelites couldn’t move in until they were kicked out. But God was graciously allowing plenty of time for the Canaanites to turn from their sins and plenty of opportunities for them to repent. What we see of God’s judgement on them in the book of Joshua seems pretty extreme, but it’s actually the just desserts of 400 years of sin and evil. Only when they had spurned all their chances to mend their ways did God take action against them. There was a perfect time for the Israelites to move into the Promised Land, even if it meant lingering in Egypt.
I don’t understand why God then allowed their time in Egypt to be quite so oppressive, but maybe their time there taught them to rely on God and to know beyond doubt that He was their saviour. Maybe those years of waiting and suffering taught them valuable lessons and shaped their collective character. Maybe you cannot appreciate freedom until you have tasted slavery. It’s the same for humanity and Jesus. We had to wait for Him to appear so that we would truly understand our need of Him, having had thousands of years to prove beyond doubt that we couldn’t save ourselves. You can’t properly value the freedom of Christ without knowing the bondage of sin first.
God has a plan. In Exodus. Throughout the Bible. And now. He’s in control. He hears our cries, He has concern for us in all our sufferings. We none of us understand why those sufferings go on, why the wars and droughts and injustice and corruption and betrayals keep happening. But one thing I do know: God cares. And He’s in control. Don’t be discouraged when you don’t get an immediate or positive answer to your prayers. Alexandre Dumas rightly said that:
“All human wisdom is contained in these words: Wait and Hope.” (The Count of Monte Cristo)
That’s human wisdom, but it’s also Godly wisdom.
“We wait in hope for the Lord; He is our help and our shield.” (Psalm 33:20)
Our vindication and rescue will be as complete and assured as the Israelites’ was. So wait and hope.
To take away:
Are we more interested in getting what we want than in a relationship with God? What kind of shape is your prayer-life in, and how could you improve it?