God decides which way to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He has a destination, but He also has a bigger purpose. He wants the Israelites to be His people and He wants to dwell among them. They need to be set apart. They can’t live among the Egyptians.
God knows that if they head to the Philistines they will turn back to Egypt. He knows they would seek security in Egypt rather than face war, even with God on their side.
He takes them another way, to the Red Sea. Did you ever think that the closing of the Red Sea, the water crashing back down, was also an act of cutting off the Israelite’s return route?
This all reminds me of the parable of the sower. God shares Himself with us. He freely gives His word. The enemy tries to snatch it away or choke it out any way he can. Returning to Egypt is like those who receive the word with joy, but as soon as persecutions come turn back. They were in it for themselves, not out of a recognition of who God is.
The Israelites wanted deliverance more than they wanted God. They followed Him for the benefit of release from their labors. As soon as there is some hardship, they do want to turn back to Egypt, just as God had known was in their hearts.
He did all He could to keep them following Him, to keep them from turning back. He did everything apart from taking away free will or taking them out of the world.
He even equipped them for battle. They were equipped for battle. He could have led them to war with the Philistines. He had prepared them. But He knew they wouldn’t trust how He had prepared them, and He wasn’t willing to let them go back because it would have been to their harm.
Do you see how God has arranged your life to try to keep you following Him? Do you see how He’s equipped you for every good work and every battle?
Have you seen Him allow doors to close to keep you from turning back? Does He open paths you hadn’t seen before you? Do you run from battles, or have you ever recognized going through the battle might be the quickest way to the Promised Land?