A little background first.
This chapter describes the last plague—the plague to end all of them—the death of the firstborn of animals and humans. The ritual needed to prepare for this disaster—and to prevent it from impacting the Hebrews—is described in detail. There is the selection of the lamb, its preparation, the instructions to the people to be indoors when the angel of death passes over, the need to paint the doorposts with blood so that “…when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (vs. 13)
As promised, the angel of death passed over Egypt at midnight. The Lord watched over his people, keeping His promise, “When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down” (vs. 23).
This was enough for Pharaoh. Now he urged Moses and the Israelites to go—and go quickly. They did, not even adding yeast to the next day’s bread waiting in their kneading troughs (vs. 34, 39) in their haste to go before Pharaoh changed his mind again, or decided to wipe them out on account of this last offense.
Of course the symbolism of this “pass over” drives us to the cross, illustrating what Christ did, and will do for us. The destroyer will not touch us because we, as believers, are covered by the blood He shed on Calvary.
But what struck me is a word that appears in the final instruction that Moses was given just at the end of the chapter. “Because the Lord kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honour the Lord for the generations to come” (vs. 42).
The Passover continues to be an important observance for orthodox Jews to this day. I don’t know if they keep “vigil” as part of their observance, but the word caught my eye. It suggests that every year, in celebration of the night the destroyer passed over Egypt and did not touch any of the Hebrews because of the blood of the lamb on the doorpost—the night God Himself kept vigil to make sure that none of them were touched—the Jews held what we used to call a “watchnight service.” They watched, waited, remembered, celebrated, kept vigil until midnight as part of their observance of the greatest moment in their history.
We used to celebrate the “watchnight service” in our churches as December 31st rolled into January 1st. I don’t know how the tradition started. It’s not a bad one, but perhaps it is misplaced. Perhaps it is on Good Friday that we, as redeemed believers saved from the touch of the destroyer because of the blood of Jesus Christ, ought to be keeping vigil in celebration of the greatest day in our history.
The tendency is to limit our Good Friday observance to an hour so as not to inconvenience anyone, or to ignore it altogether. But perhaps we need to learn a lesson from the Hebrews of ancient days. If they were to keep vigil to remember how God saved them from physical death, how much more should we keep vigil to remember how Christ has saved us from eternal death and has given us new live at the cost of His.