Formations 03.01.2020: Keep Still

Nicolas Poussin, The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-27, 31

With the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army at their backs, Moses tell the Israelites, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today…. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exod 14:13-14).

When a crisis comes, the last thing we want to do is keep still. Our first instinct is to do something—anything, even if it’s the wrong thing. If we didn’t do something, we might have to admit that the outcome is out of our hands, that some things are simply beyond our control.

But Moses didn’t call for abject passivity in the face of a crisis. As William Johnstone explains (see the Reference Shelf below), the command “keep still” might also be translated “take no offensive action” or “be in a state of expectant quiet waiting.” That might be a little more acceptable, but it’s still hard to do.

But on this first Sunday in Lent, I’m drawn to the idea of being “in a state of expectant waiting.” During Lent, we dwell on the teachings of Jesus. What does it mean to follow him, to be his disciple? And obviously, that involves things we do. But it also involves things we can only receive because we couldn’t do them if we tried.

What could the Israelites do to rescue themselves from slavery? What could we do to rescue ourselves from sin?

Sometimes, we just need to keep still and let God work.


• In a crisis, do you usually rush to do something or become paralyzed to inaction? Why do you think this is?
• How do you decide what is within your sphere of control and what is not?
• How can the idea of grace give us permission to “keep still”?

Reference Shelf

A Cosmic Victory

Outside the traditions of Israel’s deliverance at the sea, yam sup refers to the Red Sea or one of its gulfs (certainly 1 Kgs 9:26; probably Exod 10:19; Num 14:25; 21:4; 33:10-11; Deut 1:40; 2:1; Jer 49:21; perhaps Judg 11:16). Furthermore, certain of the texts in the Exodus tradition do not place the deliverance at the yam sup but rather at “the sea” (Exod 14:2, 21), while Num 33:8, 10-11 distinguish between the sea through which Israel passed and the yam sup. The only early text which places Israel’s deliverance at the yam sup is Exod 15:4, and all other texts in the Exodus tradition which so locate the event are dependent upon it.

Therefore, the use of yam sup in Exod 15:4 has been interpreted as “sea of extinction” or in some other way to indicate the primal significance of the miracle at the sea. Interpreters who so argue point to the three parallel expressions used in the Song of the Sea (i.e., Exod 15:1-18): sea (yam), floods (tehomoth), and depths (mesoloth). Each of these words is used elsewhere in Hebrew literature with reference to cosmic, primeval realities which Israel’s God overwhelms. Also, the word sup may be so construed and even seems to be attested with this meaning (Jonah 2:5 [H6]). The use of yam sup in Exod 15:4 thus witnesses to Israel’s redemption as a creation act.

John Keating Wiles, “Red Sea/Reed Sea,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 738–39.

Participants in the Action of God

The people’s complaint to Moses…is now not a cry for help, at least not on the surface level, but a virulent accusation. Facing seemingly certain death at the hands of the pursuing Egyptians, they begin with a vivid, sarcastic rhetorical question: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” … The Israelites continue by questioning the whole point of the exodus: “What is this…that you have done to us, bringing us out…of Egypt?” Recrimination follows (v. 12): they have known all along, they say, that the desert pilgrimage would end in fatal disaster, perhaps as much through privation as through Egyptian reprisal. The words they claim with the accuracy of hindsight to have said, “Let us alone and let us be slaves to [NRSV “serve” rather masks the key term] the Egyptians, for it is better for us to be slaves to the Egyptians than to die in the desert,” have no actual parallel in the preceding narrative. The nearest equivalent is the complaint of the Israelite supervisors in 5:21. Present terror blots out both memory of past Egyptian atrocities (1:8–3:7, 9) and hope of future blessings that YHWH offers (3:8).

Moses’ message is in two parts: first, commands to Israel, “stand firm…, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today” (v. 13a); second, the reason for these commands, introduced by the conjunction “for” (vv. 13b-14). The message, especially in its traditional translation, “stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD” (KJV), may give too passive and pietistic an impression that v. 14 seemingly confirms: “YHWH will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” But the intensive reflexive of the verb ysb (v. 13a) means to present oneself ready for action (see on 2:4), in this case “to go forward” (v. 15b). The verb… in the phrase, “you have only to keep still” (v.14b), has a variety of senses of which the most likely here is “to take no offensive action” (Gen 34:5) or “to be in a state of expectant quiet waiting” (Gen 24:21). Moses here instructs Israel in the nature of the wars of YHWH (see 13:17-18). The war of liberation belongs exclusively to YHWH, who will open the way through the Sea and destroy the Egyptians. But Israel goes up “in battle formation” ready to enter into, and then hold securely, what YHWH has already achieved for them…. For the actual confrontation with the Egyptians, Israel will have to do nothing but stand firm. Thus, the subjects in vv. 14a and 14b open their respective sentences in pointed contrast: “YHWH on the one hand”; “you on the other.” The witnessing of YHWH’s salvation…is the prelude to responsive action by Israel: they become full participants in the action of God.

William Johnstone, Exodus 1–19, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014), 279–81.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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