Faith Heroes: Israel

By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days” (Heb 11:29-30).[1]  

The primary objective of the epistle to the Hebrews is to stress the importance of faith. In the first ten chapters, the writer has emphasised through a series of exhortations, warnings and Old Testament illustrations that “the just shall live by faith” (Heb 10:38). To support the argument, several portions are devoted to the solemn perils of unbelief, for there is no place for drawing back or turning away.  They must press on in faith. The purpose of chapter 11 is to aid believers in this pursuit.

The chapter commences with a statement on what faith does: it gives present assurance of “things hoped for,” it makes real “things not seen,” and it explains the origin and existence of things “prepared by the word of God” (Heb 11:1-3 NASB). The chapter concludes where faith ends: “in dens and caves of the earth” (11:38; cf. 2Co 5:7). In between is a catalogue of several examples who lived by the kind of faith emphasised throughout the epistle. Once again, the writer points us to the Lord Jesus Christ, only this time as the glorious exemplar of living by faith – “the author and finisher of faith” (12:2).

As we consider our subject verses, an important point needs to be kept in mind. Hebrews 11 wasn’t written merely to convince us of the faithfulness of certain Old Testament saints, although that may result from musing on the likes of certain notable examples. Rather, the chapter serves to illustrate what faith in God produces, what God can accomplish through the faith of His people, and what victories can arise from the incomprehensible power and unchanging faithfulness of God to His word when believed and acted upon by faith. This is seen in the expression “for by [faith] men of old times had witness borne to them” (11:2; cf. 11:39 Montgomery). The words “witness borne to them” is from the Greek martureo, which can otherwise be rendered “to bear witness to” or “to testify” to some thing or event or truth (Luk 4:22; Joh 1:34; 12:17). In chapter 11, the one thing they all could “bear witness to” is that faith in God and His word can accomplish anything (Joh 11:40).  Keeping this in mind will save us from entering into fruitless discussions on why the likes of Joshua and Caleb are absent and why people like Jacob, Barak and Samson are listed (who, from the respective passages in OT Scripture, seemed to manifest little faith or no faith at all).

When we reach verse 29, we turn from the first list of named individuals (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses) to a nation (Israel) simply described as “they.”  We turn from saints who individually proved God’s unstinting faithfulness over a period of about 2,500 years to a nation who collectively bore witness to His unchanging faithfulness over 40 years.  Verses 29 and 30 are like two bookends enclosing the dismal tale of ancient Israel of whom it is said, “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways” (Psa 95:10; cf. Heb 3:7-11).

Using this period of Israel’s history (named “the day of temptation in the wilderness”) as an illustration, the Holy Spirit speaks against the peril of “departing from the living God” through unbelief (Heb 3:7-4:16). As Paul once wrote, “these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition” (1Co 10:11) – and for good reason. But here, the writer passes over that entire scene of failure and points to two tremendous victories wrought by God through faith. The record of these victories is intended to show how the Israelites proved God’s promises upon the basis of faith, despite their many failures. They, and we, are to learn from this experience and appropriate, by faith, the reality of His promises here and now. Scripture is not merely history.  Rather, the “word of God is living” (Heb 4:12 JND), and faith in it is the means by which we obtain assurance of “things hoped for” and the “evidence of things not seen.”

The thrilling record of events summarised in verse 29 is found in Exodus 14:13-31. At the point of no return, where the sea was before them and the pillar of cloud “stood behind them” and “came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel” (14:19-20), Moses speaks in faith: “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (v13). Stepping out in faith, “the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left” (v29). As many as three million people walked on dry land (see 12:37).

As to the depth of the sea they passed through, Exodus 15:8 says, “The floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.” Isaiah 51:10 speaks about “the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over.”  Indeed, God brought Israel “out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand” (Exo 32:11; see also Deu 5:15; 6:21; 7:8,19; 9:26; 26:8; Dan 9:15). Not only could they testify that God did exactly as He promised (Exo 3:8,17), the Israelites of old were conscious that He also “led them through” (Psa 106:9). Of this thought Isaiah says, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (43:2).

The events of verse 30 are recorded in Joshua 6. Jericho was a fortified city, doubtless because of the fear that came upon the people of Jericho when they heard what the Lord had done for the Israelites forty years earlier (Jos 2:10). These walls were no obstacle for the omnipotence of God, for the Lord said to Joshua, “I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour” (Jos 6:2). As with the crossing of the Red Sea, the conquest of Jericho must be “by faith.” It was God who parted the Red Sea, and it would be God who would bring down the walls of Jericho. Such victories cannot be wrought “by might, nor by power” (Zec 4:6). Rather, they can only be wrought by faith – exercised in obedience to His word.

The Lord said to circle the city with men of war in procession over seven days, with seven priests going before with the ark, blowing seven trumpets of rams’ horns. Just as “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness” (1Co 1:18), so too must this have seemed completely foolish. But that act of faith wrought “the power of God,” for “the wall fell down flat” (Jos 6:20). Was this recorded for our learning? Most assuredly, for “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2Co 10:3-5).

To what could ancient Israel testify? It was by faith that “they passed through the Red sea as by dry land.” It was by faith that “the walls of Jericho came down.” It is only by faith that they, and we, can know and enjoy the victory of God in our lives.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.