When you are traveling in unfamiliar territory, and you come across a detour, it feels like a tremendous setback. It interrupts your momentum, your schedule, and if you’re like me, your blood pressure. Detours are frustrating, stressful, and burdensome, but detours are often necessary. For example, detours are utilized when dangerous conditions are present. You may be forced to detour because a bridge is washed away or debris is obstructing the roadway. Detours are used when improvements are underway. You may be forced to detour because construction crews are working to repair or build better transportation systems. Detours may interfere with your life, but they typically exist for a reason.
God is not unfamiliar with detours. According to scripture, He has been known to use them for the benefit of His people. In Exodus 13:17-18, we learn that “God did not lead [the Israelites] by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near…but God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.” In other words, God took the Israelites on the scenic route from Egypt to Canaan rather than the direct route. But why did God use such a detour? God used this detour because He knew exactly what His people needed.
God knew that the Israelites had endured tremendous hardship. When Moses and Aaron began negotiating with Pharaoh for the release of God’s people, the immediate consequence was increased workloads for the Israelites. We are told in Exodus 5:6-9 that Pharaoh stopped supplying straw to the Israelites because Moses and Aaron’s presence caused them to “rest from their burdens.” In other words, Pharaoh stopped providing one of the main ingredients for making bricks and forced the Israelites to collect that ingredient themselves. At the same time, Pharoah did not reduce the quota of bricks they were required to make each day. This resulted in an increased burden for the Israelites, which in turn resulted in animosity toward Moses and Aaron for having caused this burden. The work became so difficult that the Israelites accused Moses of putting “a sword in [Pharaoh’s] hand to kill us” (Exodus 5:20), and, as a result, they “did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exodus 6:9).
So, the Israelites were exhausted when this journey began because of the physical and emotional hardship they endured. God knew that it would not take much for their depleted strength and broken spirit to potentially result in a quick retreat. And they proved this to be true because we read about multiple occasions when the Israelites expressed a desire to return home. When they got stuck between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, they complained and said that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt (Exodus 14:11-13). When food became scarce, they complained and said that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt (Exodus 16:3). When they ran out of water, they complained and said that it would have been better if they had never left Egypt (Exodus 17:3).
God knew that they would encounter obstacles which would make them want to turn around, so he chose the route with the least amount of hurdles. Exodus 13:17 says that God was concerned that the people might “change their minds when they see war” and, as a result, want to “return to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17). So God, in His infinite wisdom and abundant mercy, did not allow the burden of war to be placed on these people when they were at their weakest. He loved them enough to protect them from an obstacle that He knew they were not ready to endure. Therefore, He led them on a detour so that war would be delayed and their strength could be restored.
So, although the Israelites believed their journey was too difficult because their enemy was pursuing them and their supplies were depleted, in reality, it was nowhere near as difficult as it could have been had God not provided the detour. Thus, God’s decision to lead Israel on the scenic route revealed how much He loved them. He used that detour to protect them from enduring a burden they were not yet ready to face.
The lesson to be gained from this brief, narrative detail about the exodus is that God knows what His people need. He can see, from His vantage point on the throne in heaven, the big picture that we, from our vantage point down here on earth, cannot see. Because of His vantage point, God will occasionally use detours in our lives to accomplish an objective that we cannot comprehend yet. Joseph endured the detour of enslavement and imprisonment while God prepared him to save his family. David endured the detour of living as a fugitive while God prepared him to become the next King. Elijah endured the detour of isolation while God prepared him to challenge the nation’s idolatry problem. In essence, God used detours in the lives of these heroes as if they were continuing education programs. They received a Ph.D. in trusting God. Solomon summarized their syllabus when he wrote Proverbs 3:5, which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
We may not always understand HOW God operates. We may not always understand WHY God operates. We may not always understand WHEN God operates. But do we need to understand those things? All we need to know is that God loves us unconditionally (Romans 8:35-39), protects us from unbearable temptations (1 Corinthians 10:13), strengthens us in times of weakness (1 Peter 5:10), and never abandons us (Hebrews 13:5-6). On these promises, our faith should rest as we patiently endure His detours.