We don’t like to backtrack, as a general rule. People like to move forward. There is something about the feeling of progress and accomplishment that we love. Life needs to be about going ahead and often we don’t look back. Maybe because where we have been was not so good, or maybe because it was too good and we don’t want the pain of remembering what we’ve left there. Or maybe it’s just the dream of what might be coming up if we could just keep moving. Whatever our reason, we aren’t fond of turning around and revisiting old ground.
Why does it feel like a defeat if we have to go back and retrace steps? Why do we expect to always get it right the first time? Why do we think that once we’ve “been there” a place no longer holds value for us?
The Israelites leaving Egypt are about to learn—and hopefully we will learn with them—that for God, straight lines and continual forward progress isn’t always the way to do things. In fact, as we saw in the last chapter of Exodus, sometimes God leads us in the long way around.
The Israelites have barely made it out of Pharaoh’s gaze in Exodus 14. Their journey has just now begun and already God is calling for a retreat? Already calling for them to turn back?
Then the Lord gave these instructions to Moses: “Order the Israelites to turn back and camp by Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea. Camp there along the shore, across from Baal-zephon. Then Pharaoh will think, `The Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness!’ And once again I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after you. I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army. After this the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord!” So the Israelites camped there as they were told. Exodus 14:1-4
To be fair, it’s not a full retreat. He isn’t cancelling the trip. He’s just calling on them to retrace some steps and camp at a spot he is identifying. Now I don’t know about you, but when I go on a trip the last thing I want to hear right after getting started is that we have to go back. I don’t want to stop at all, but turn back? Please no!
God is gracious enough to give an explanation. He doesn’t always do that, but here he does and he explains that Pharaoh is once again going to change his mind and come after them. So God wants them by the sea where he can display his glory—and protect them in the process.
Had they not turned back and been by the sea they would not have had the experience of passing through the sea on dry ground. Had they not turned back and retraced their steps they would not have been where God wanted them in order to display his glory through them.
Sometimes in order to go forward we must go back.
I wonder how often I am so bent on pressing forward to something new that I miss what God has. There is such a predisposition we have to moving on to the next thing that sometimes we can fail to see that the next thing was also the last thing. Sometimes we have to retrace our steps.
This weekend my family is moving to a new home. For us this is a new thing, but it’s also a retracing of steps. We are moving out of the suburbs and into the heart of the city we have grown to love. We’ve never lived in the heart of this city before, but we know what it is to live in the city. We’ve been here before. The landscape is somewhat different here and the culture and the geography, but it’s still the city. For us, it’s a retracing of steps to places we’ve been before. Things we have lived and people groups we have known.
Two years ago had you asked I would have said, “No, we did that before and we loved it, but it’s not where we are now, it’s not something we can do again.” And yet here we are, retracing steps. Going forward and yet also turning back. Sometimes in order to go forward we have to go back. It’s the way of God. Turning back is sometimes in the plan right from the beginning.