Some say that Pharaoh himself did not drown in the Red Sea – only his armies. On the other hand, Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian says “And thus did all these men perish, so that there was not one man left to be a messenger of this calamity to the rest of the Egyptians”(Antiquities of the Jews, 2:16). What does the Word say?
There are several texts which speak to the destruction of the Egyptians, among them Exodus 14:4:
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD. (Exodus 14:4)
This text is prophetic: it was spoken before the event – even before Pharaoh decided to “follow after”, that is, to pursue the departing Israelites. At first sight, this seems to say that Pharaoh himself would be killed along with his armies, and in this way, God would “be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host.” This would be a great proof-text for the drowning of Pharaoh if the word translated as “and” could only mean and. But in both Hebrew and Greek, the common word for and can also mean even. It might be that God is anticipating the honour he will gain from destroying Pharaoh's army. Pharaoh might conceivably, as Kings usually do, take his place on a height away from battle to observe and command. Or he might have led the cavalry into the sea. This cannot be determined with certainty from the text.
A similar uncertainty occurs in Psalm 136:15, which celebrates the victory long after. In our Authorized Version it reads:
To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever: And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever: But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalms 136:13-15)
This might also be read “overthrew Pharaoh, even his host”.
The original account of the event at the Red Sea, written by Moses himself, tells us plainly that not one of the Egyptians who ventured into the sea escaped:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them. (Exodus 14:26-28)
But it does not tell us whether Pharaoh was among them.
There are several verses that mention Pharaoh in the song of Moses, which he composed immediately after the event, found in Exodus 15:1-21:
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:1)
Obviously, this is poetic description: no one was literally thrown into the sea. And “the horse and his rider” may be generic, or rather a personification of the whole Egyptian host. Or it could mean Pharaoh. Who can say for sure? Farther down, we find:
Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone. (Exodus 15:4-5)
But again, no explicit reference to Pharaoh. A little further on:
The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:9-10)
Once again, “the enemy” could be taken as a personal reference to Pharaoh, but it could equally well refer to the Egyptians as a body. Finally, there is Exodus 15:19, which reads:
For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea. (Exodus 15:19)
This might seem to give the answer we seek, but John Gill pours cold water on our hopes with this comment:
“... Meaning not that particular and single horse on which Pharaoh was carried, but all the horses of his that drew in his chariots, and all on which his cavalry was mounted; these all went into the Red sea, following the Israelites thither.”
That's all I could find in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, there is a brief note on the event in the book of Hebrews:
By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29)
But it sheds no light on our query.
The Other Side
There seems to be no single text that unequivocally declares that Pharaoh himself was drowned in the Red Sea. However, it would be over-hasty to dismiss the question on that basis alone. For one thing, there is not a hint anywhere in Scripture that Pharaoh walked away from this debacle, like Yul Brynner in the movie. That would seem odd, if he had indeed escaped with his life, wouldn't it?
For another, Exodus 15:9 may not be worthy of such a quick dismissal as Gill's comment suggests. The great Reformed scholar and Hebraist may have made a mistake here. In his day, it was common to use the word, “horse” in a military context, as a collective noun. That is not quite the same thing as plural: the plural in English is “horses”. One could speak of “a cavalry of five hundred horse”. But could the Hebrew word have the same meaning? That is the crux of the matter. Gill gives us no proof of his contention, and none of the commentaries I consulted agree with him.
Furthermore, his comment is not really coherent. The text reads “For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea”. If the word horse means “all the horses of his that drew in his chariots, and all on which his cavalry was mounted”, then why would he need to say that all his horses went in to the sea with his chariots and his horsemen? Who would ever imagine otherwise? But if it means Pharaoh's personal steed, the sentence makes perfect sense.
The Greek Old Testament, or Septuagint, translated by Hellenistic Jews, before the coming of Christ, renders the word for horse in the singular.
Other Hebrew authorities, such as Keil and Delitzsch in their renowned critical commentary, express no doubt that Pharaoh went personally into the Red Sea, and was destroyed with his army. In their introduction to “the song of Moses”, we read:
“By their glorious deliverance from the slave-house of Egypt, Jehovah had practically exalted the seed of Abraham into His own nation; and in the destruction of Pharaoh and his host, He had glorified Himself as God of the gods and King of the heathen, whom no power on earth could defy with impunity. As the fact of Israel's deliverance from the power of its oppressors is of everlasting importance to the Church of the Lord in its conflict with the ungodly powers of the world, in which the Lord continually overthrows the enemies of His kingdom, as He overthrew Pharaoh and his horsemen in the depths of the sea”
Their comment on 15:19 is explicit:
“In the words “Pharaoh's horse, with his chariots and horsemen,” Pharaoh, riding upon his horse as the leader of the army, is placed at the head of the enemies destroyed by Jehovah.”
So I conclude that Pharaoh's own horse, as distinguished from the horses of his cavalry, “went in with them”, and was with them inundated by the mighty waters:
For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea. (Exodus
This seems to me decisive of the question, for why would his horse go in without him?And what would be the point in marking the death of Pharaoh's horse if Pharaoh himself escaped? The song begins with these words ”I will sing unto the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea”(15:1). This seems to be also the refrain of the song (see 15:21). While the term, “the horse and his rider” can and should be understood generically, it surely does not exclude the most important horse and rider (or driver) of them all – the one who commanded them!
Pharaoh himself had his own personal chariot (v.6), and so may not have been riding on a horse. When the Scripture says that “the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea”, it might have been the horse that drew his chariot. Heavy chariots, with more than one occupant, require two or more horses to draw, or else speed is sacrificed, so it is likely that Pharaoh drove his own light chariot. But in view of the trouble the Egyptians had with their chariots on this occasion, it is possible that Pharaoh abandoned his chariot and continued his hot pursuit riding his horse just before the end.
It follows that the other verses we have considered, which did not give us the certainty we sought, should be understood in accord with this conclusion. And should not be understood as even in these texts, and “the Egyptians” must include the King of Egypt.
Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh's bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand: And the LORD shewed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes: (Deuteronomy 6:21-22)
Thou shalt not be afraid of them: but shalt well remember what the LORD thy God did unto Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt; (Deuteronomy 7:18)
The Ethical Argument
But there is another reason why I think Pharaoh was drowned with his troops. It has to do with his character and his acts. This was not the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph”, who instigated the oppression of the Hebrews, who first commanded the midwives to murder the Hebrew boys at the birthing-stool (Exodus 1:15-16), and then, when that failed, charged all his subjects to throw them into the Nile whenever they found them (Exodus 1:22). That monster was already dead when Moses returned to Egypt. It was another Pharaoh, who inherited the totalitarian slave-state that Egypt had become; who ratified the inhuman “Hebrew policy” of his predecessor, and augmented it by cruelties of his own (Exodus 5:7-19). Think what it meant to the Hebrews, humiliated and crushed already, to be told that they were shirking! And that from now on, they would have to somehow provide their own straw, without diminishing the full tally of bricks!
We do not know how many Hebrew children were thus sacrificed; but we do know that this means of suppressing the population also failed, through the super-abundant fertility with which God blessed his people, the persevering faithfulness of the midwives who feared God; and probably the reluctance of ordinary Egyptians to obey such a wicked law. (For how could the children of Israel have continued to multiply at such a rate throughout the oppression, if it had been rigorously enforced?) But there is no doubt that much innocent blood was shed by the Egyptian tyrants and their people.
The first of the Ten Plagues was the turning of the waters of the Nile into blood. The last judgment of God upon Egypt was the drowning of Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea. Both miracles recall the drowning of innocent Hebrew baby boys by the Egyptians. The celebratory song of Moses uses the expressions, “the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1) and “Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea (15:4); which are not literally true. But these are not just arbitrary poetic exaggerations; they are expressions designed to remind us that Pharaoh had caused the Egyptians to “throw” or “cast” the Hebrew babies into the river to drown them (Exodus 1:22).
God was not just fighting a war against Egypt: He was avenging the blood of innocents. It was not enough that Pharaoh's nation and army be destroyed. The principal living offender must pay with his life for a crime so great. Would it be right to punish the servants and spare the master? How fitting, rather, that he at whose word so many were drowned should be drowned himself – indeed, that he should first be made so mad with impotent rage that he should, in effect, drown himself!
This should cause us to reflect upon the enormity and heinousness of America's sin of abortion. What judgments are reserved for us, a nation that has probably murdered a thousand times more innocent babies than Egypt ever did? God's vengeance, reserved for us, must be terrible indeed!
Howard Douglas King
May 17, 2015