LCN Article
What Could Turn You Back?

March / April 2021

Wallace G. Smith

The pull of spiritual Egypt is more powerful than many believe.

The Spring Holy Days often prompt us to meditate on the exodus of ancient Israel from Egypt, and for good cause. 

On the last Day of Unleavened Bread, the Israelites found themselves on the side of the Red Sea opposite the land of their suffering and slavery. God, having miraculously parted the waters and guided them through under Moses’ leadership, brought them out of Egypt in victory. As they stood victorious beside the water, singing joyfully and praising their Creator, the bodies and war horses of their oppressors washed up dead on the shore behind them. The sorrows of Egypt’s slavery, cruelty, and death were past, and the land of promise, “flowing with milk and honey,” was before them. They only needed to keep on walking forward. 

Yet, on the doorstep of the Promised Land, God records in His word the cry of their lips: “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4). 

It might seem unfathomable that any of them could want to go back to Egypt—back to the land where they lacked even the strength to prevent their oppressors from throwing their newborn sons into the river to die. 

Unfathomable—but it happened just the same. And it can happen to us. Sin, like Egypt, is cruel to us—yet, as Passover teaches, God the Father and Jesus Christ were willing to pay the ultimate price to free us from it. And “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). As did Israel, we stand on the other side of our own Red Sea, free to march forward to a “Promised Land” so much more glorious than the one offered to ancient Israel. 

But how many begin that journey, freed by Christ, only to choose to go back—to return to spiritual Egypt? Far too many. Sadly, the pulls of spiritual Egypt are strong, and many of those whom God calls find themselves caught up again in the carnal mindsets, sinful practices, and ruinous entanglements of the “course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2). 

How does that happen? This is an important question, since if it has happened to others it can happen to us. So, what could possibly turn us back? What forces—what pulls, influences, or circumstances—could cause any of us to turn our back on God’s promises and gaze longingly once again on any of the things from which Christ freed us? 

Let’s examine three powerful reasons why some turn back to Egypt. 

Loss of Vision 

In order to keep moving forward to our own “Promised Land,” we must have vision. It takes vision to perceive the invisible God intervening in the affairs of the world around us, working within the Church, guiding the Church’s human leadership, and making Himself visible through His laws and Way of life. It takes vision to keep the future Millennial reign of Christ—and the eternity beyond that Millennium—first in our minds and hearts, when the present world around us tries to demand so much more of our attention. It takes clear vision to see this world for what it really is, and to stay close to God, not being fooled by the pleasing and attractive “front” the world places before our eyes. 

Moses is a good example for us. As tempting and pleasurable as his life in Egypt was, he still chose to suffer with his people—God’s people. In doing so, “he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). Moses’ vision let him see the Eternal God behind the temporary world around him. Yet, for a brief time, even Moses’ vision of God was compromised by his irritation with the Israelites’ constant complaining, causing him to err and to miss out on entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:10–12). 

We, too, may find the strength and clarity of our vision waxing and waning, depending on our circumstances. Yet we must strive to be on a trend of growth of vision. As we mature in faith, we must strive to let God show us the truth about this world, the wonders of tomorrow’s world, and His own reality more and more fully. Why? Because a loss of vision can be devastating—the path back to Egypt begins with a vision that is warped, corrupted, or lost. 

Loss of vision turned Paul’s companion Demas back to the world and back to spiritual Egypt. Demas must have endured many difficulties while working with Paul. Wherever Paul and his companions traveled, trouble was often there waiting for them! Yet, although he mentions Demas positively in two of his letters—in Colossians 4:14 and in Philemon 24, where he is described as a “fellow laborer”—Paul later writes to Timothy that “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). Demas failed to recognize that when we put our focus on “this present world” and close our eyes to its corrupt and impermanent nature, we lose sight of the future world God is bringing and the future life He will manifest in us. 

This problem is as old as the Israelites. After crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites sang the “Song of Moses.” As the dead armies of the Egyptians were washing up on the shore behind them, they looked ahead to the land of promise awaiting them, singing that “all the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away” and God would plant His people “in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which You have made for Your own dwelling” (Exodus 15:15–17). At least for a moment, the Israelites had a clear vision of God’s ability to protect and provide for them in a new land. 

Sadly, as they came closer to that land, their vision quickly faded, and growling stomachs began to obscure their view. “Who will give us meat to eat?” they cried. “We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:4–5). Memories of the slavemaster’s whip and the wholesale killing of their children gave way to a hunger for Egypt’s culinary delights. Instead of thanking God for the manna, they cursed it as insufficient (v. 6), failing to remember that it was meant only for the journey—it was the land to which they were headed that had so much more in store, such as abundant milk, honey, grain, wine, livestock, and oil (Deuteronomy 11:9–15). 

Losing their vision of God as their provider, they also lost sight of Him as their protector. On the very doorstep of the Promised Land, the Israelites who once sang that the land’s inhabitants would “melt away” before God were suddenly filled with fear: 

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1–4). 

Having lost their vision of the Promised Land and corrupted their vision of their past life in captivity, Israel longed to turn back to Egypt. 

Do we, too, when our vision falters, begin to long to turn back? As we walk the path God asks of us, do new hardships tempt us to forget what our old lives were like without Him? Are our busy modern lives so cluttered that we cannot see past the clutter and picture the coming Kingdom of God and the glorious purpose God is working out in our lives? Or have we simply lost sight of God Himself—unaware of the work He is doing within us to cultivate the character, mercy, and love of His own Son, unable to see how He is creating inside our hearts a glory He will one day reveal on the outside?  

If we are not careful, elements of our carnal nature and unconverted past may begin to appear more attractive and appealing than before, until—sooner than we ever could have imagined—we find ourselves walking back to Egypt. 

Pride and Ambition 

Another powerful influence that turns many back to their own spiritual Egypt is the same force that turned the archangel Lucifer against his Creator: pride. 

Personal pride and ambition can make it very difficult for us to walk in the direction God seeks to lead us. God’s path for us may lead through many warm and welcoming places as well as some callous and cold. Yet, regardless of the terrain, it is a path that must be walked in humility. Personal pride and selfish ambition can turn people aside more quickly and completely than any other test of faith. 

Just as physical forces pull in specific directions, sinful pride tends to pull us toward the opposite of where God would have us go. Its pull was strong enough to corrupt one of God’s greatest angels, who worked in the very presence of his Creator. As Paul warned, pride can bring upon us “the same condemnation as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6), and selfish ambition is the opposite of the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:3–5). 

Israel had its share of the prideful and ambitious, who were ready to lead the people of Israel off the path God had shown them. Yet it is easy to overlook just how “normal” such individuals might have seemed to us, and how much esteem we might have felt for them if we had been there. Consider what happened when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram confronted Moses, alongside “two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:1–2). That description, “men of renown,” is important. These were respected men, held in high esteem by the people of Israel. 

Perhaps it was that esteem and appreciation of their personal qualities that corrupted them from the path, as Satan’s own sense of himself did to him (Ezekiel 28:17). 

Challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron, these men confronted the pair—not by saying that they were turning away from God, but that they had every bit as much right to lead God’s people on His behalf. “You take too much upon yourselves,” they said, “for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3). 

This is important to recognize, because the road back to Egypt does not always look like the road back to Egypt. These men spoke of God. They spoke of the holiness of the people and of God’s presence among them. And they cast Moses and Aaron as the prideful ones who dared to take a place they claimed God had given to others. But Moses’ admonition to them was plain: 

Then Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (vv. 8–10). 

Moses acknowledged that these men had been called by God to be leaders among His people and to serve in a special way. Yet he also spelled out the nature of their sin: In their eyes, such blessed positions of leadership and service were apparently “a small thing,” and they coveted more, even the whole priesthood. Their complaint superficially sounded like a concern for the things of God, yet God saw it for what it was—sinful pride and selfish ambition. 

Filled with ambition, Korah and his co-insurrectionists saw Moses and Aaron as obstacles between them and their own personal goals and desires. As a result, they could no longer see the Eternal Sovereign who had appointed those men and stood behind them. The rebels claimed to be standing against Moses, accusing him of “acting like a prince over us” (v. 13). In fact, however, as Moses told them, “you and all your company are gathered together against the Lord” (v. 11). 

So distorted by pride were the minds of these men that they began to describe Egypt, not the Promised Land, as the land “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 16:13). Had they been allowed to lead Israel as they desired, how long would it have been before a return to Egypt made its way to their agenda? 

The New Testament Church had its share of prideful characters as well. The Apostle John wrote of Diotrephes, who loved having a preeminent position, yet who spoke against John with “malicious words,” causing division (3 John 9–10). John would have been very aged at the time, and even today we see “young Turks” arise from time to time who esteem their new ideas and ambition above any potential weight of wisdom that the “old guard” might provide. Filled with the zeal of the young and self-satisfied, pride prevents them from seeing that one may be both 100 percent zealous and convicted and 100 percent wrong (cf. Romans 10:2). 

Our “Jeremiah 17:9 hearts” will seek to convince us that our goals are noble and our purposes selfless—but acts of selfish pride and ambition usually feel that way to the prideful and ambitious. And they always lead in the same direction: back to spiritual Egypt. At all scales, large and small—whether positions of great power and influence or the simplest acts of service to another human being—we must be wary of exalting ourselves. Rather, to stay on the path to our reward, the Apostle Peter urges humility as a necessary ingredient, reminding the young to submit to the older and all to submit to each other, emphasizing that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). 

Hurt and Resentment 

If the devil has favored any tool more than all others in his effort to turn members of the Church of God back toward Egypt, that tool is likely personal offense. This may well have spurred one of the most famous historical accounts recorded in the Bible. Most of us are familiar with King David’s adulterous affair with the wife of Uriah, one of his faithful mighty men. David’s sordid affair with Bathsheba caused him to arrange Uriah’s death in battle—which he clearly hoped would be seen as an accident—so that he could quickly marry Bathsheba himself and his child she carried might not serve as evidence of his sin. Scripture tells us simply, yet ominously, that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27). 2 Samuel 12 then details the resolution of the matter—which included the tragic death of the child and God’s use of the prophet Nathan to help David find repentance. 

Actually, “resolution” is too strong a word, for the effect of David’s sin rippled through his life and the history of Israel. We see this in the rebellion of David’s son Absalom. The terrible tale of Absalom, his sister Tamar, and his half-brother Amnon reveals enough bitterness that we can imagine the role it might play in Absalom’s later coup.  

And there is another subtle detail to be found in the account. It is hard not to notice Ahithophel’s personal level of involvement—not only advising Absalom to sleep with all of his father’s concubines to show the depth of his division with David (2 Samuel 16:21–22), but also asking to personally lead men to strike the king down while he is “weak and weary” (2 Samuel 17:1–3). Some speculate that Ahithophel’s betrayal spurred Psalm 55, in which a heartbroken David laments the treachery of one who was “not an enemy” but a “companion” who had taken “sweet counsel” together with him and walked with him among God’s people in worship (vv. 12–14). 

What could have turned one of David’s most trusted allies 180 degrees, such that he would try to destroy David’s name among the people and personally seek his death? One hint comes in a perhaps-unexpected place. In one of the lists of David’s mighty men, we read of “Eliam, the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite” (2 Samuel 23:34). And when we read of the lineage of Bathsheba, we read that she was “the daughter of Eliam” (2 Samuel 11:3). These are the only mentions of an Eliam in the Bible, and they imply that Ahithophel was Bathsheba’s grandfather. 

Is it conceivable that seeing a man, even a close friend, use his position and privilege to upend your granddaughter’s life—committing adultery with her, getting her pregnant, having her husband killed to cover it up, and most likely tainting her image in the eyes of the people—could tempt you to become hurt, bitter, and resentful? So it was with Ahithophel. Unchecked bitterness is able to rot even the most solid of loyalties and turn the hearts of even the wisest and most perceptive. 

Offense can only gain power over us when we let it do so—but, when it does, its power is strong indeed. With its gradual but persistent nudges, it can even change the direction of those we might think untouchable and unmovable. Even Aaron and Miriam, so close to Moses and direct witnesses to God’s working through their brother, were not immune. Taking offense at Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman—a marriage the historian Josephus suggests was a remnant of the prophet’s life in Egypt—the pair cast aside their firsthand view of Moses’ unique authority and spoke against him, declaring, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:1–2). In response, the Eternal thundered to them a reminder of His special relationship with Moses—how He worked with Moses in a way He did not work with anyone else—and asked, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” (v. 8). He then struck Miriam with leprosy, promising at Moses’ request to restore her after she had spent a week outside the assembly (vv. 13–15). 

Bitterness and resentment color our view of things—and, before we know it, they are all we know. God inspired Paul to warn us against letting angry feelings grow unchecked within us, admonishing us not to allow our anger to linger until it drags us into a sinful state of mind and gives place in our lives to the devil himself (Ephesians 4:26–27). “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice,” he continues, telling us, instead, to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (vv. 31–32). 

Feeling wrongfully hurt or attacked is a burden, but it is a burden Christ Himself knows well. Yet His response was not to grow in bitterness and resentment—not to give the devil a place in His heart, to steer Him in directions He would not want to go—but rather, He, “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). Knowing that God’s judgment of Him was true was all He needed to bear the burdens of the wrongs He experienced, understanding that God would work them out in His own time and for the larger good They sought together. 

The alternative is allowing a “root bearing bitterness” to begin growing deep in our heart—a root the Bible associates with one “whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:18) and with becoming spiritually defiled (Hebrews 12:15). 

Bitter hearts do not seek the Kingdom. They long to settle grievances, to right wrongs done to them, and to settle scores. Those longings may seem humanly reasonable, but they pull their owners back toward Egypt, where such pursuits are allowed and even encouraged. We often hold on to bitterness and resentment out of a carnal hope to exact some sort of price from those who hurt us—but, in the end, we pay a much larger price ourselves. 

Which Way Do We Want to Go? 

Like Israel, we stand on the shores of our own Red Sea. God has made it possible for us to move forward, and He has shown us the incomparable land waiting for us at the end of the journey. We’ve tasted it, and the Days of Unleavened Bread encourage us to reflect on the goodness of it. Those days remind us that we must work with God to make our lives the vessels of better things and to ensure they increasingly reflect the characteristics of the world in which we wish to spend eternal life, not the death-stained world we’ve left behind. 

Yet Egypt remains on the other side of our Red Sea, calling out to us—striving to pull us back into all we left. And the devil is patient. He gains great satisfaction whether we begin our journey back by merely dipping our toes into the water and then wading in a few steps at a time, or by diving with gusto to swim among the corpses. The spiritual pharaoh of that land of bondage cares not. Merely knowing that we have chosen his direction is enough for him. 

But let us not give him that satisfaction. With our Egypt fully behind us, let us move forward, resisting and overcoming the forces that would draw us back. Our Savior and the Holy Spirit are there to give us all the help we could ever need, and if we will endure—continuing to place one foot in front of the other—we will soon find ourselves not only on the other side of the Red Sea, but on the other side of the Jordan River as well.