Go Down Moses!


The narrative of the Old Testament under the hand of Moses now has come to the historical events in which Moses himself played the lead role. Clearly, his narrative thus far has emphasized the purpose of God in redeeming people; he has moved from a man (Abraham), to a family (Jacob), and now to a nation (the descendants of the sons of Jacob), which shall be a vehicle for the redemption of all the people of God from every nation (Isaiah 49:6 – “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.”) The Scripture contains no superfluities. Every word and every event is weighted proportionately in the context of the whole, but each thing has its place as a witness to the goodness and faithfulness of God in carrying out the unceasing manifestation of Himself in the wisdom of redemption and judgment. The events involved in this passage and all the following events of the exodus from Egypt serve as an extended illustration of this principle of biblical theology:

“God, the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power, and wisdom, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created; according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy” (Second London Confession, Chapter V, paragraph one).

We will take the narrative in parts by looking at some of its more prominent aspects.


I. One of the most pivotal emphases of the narrative is the development of the character of Moses.

A. His parents saw that he was “good” or “well-proportioned,” or “beautiful.” Perhaps the text indicates that in this child they saw the goodness of God’s covenantal faithfulness reaching a point of specific manifestation. They disobeyed the command of Pharaoh to kill all male babies and hid him. Hebrews 11:23 says that they did this by “faith.” This can only mean that they knew, by some impression from God, that this child would play a part in God’s covenantal promise to Abraham. Faith always is an obedient response to the revelation of divine truth.

B. His growth over three months made it impossible to conceal him; the faith of his mother is seen in her construction of a waterproof basket and placing him in it in the reeds at the shore of Nile. This is a strange way to seek to preserve a child’s life unless she had confidence in the divine purpose for this child.

  1. The place of women in the narrative to this point is quite remarkable. Among the daughters of Israel we find these.
  • The women of Israel were fertile and by their powers of conception multiplied the nation exponentially (1:7).
  • The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, obeyed God rather than Pharaoh in the preservation of the lives of male infants after he had instructed them to kill them at birth. This should resound with conviction for our age concerning the difference between people of faith and those given to mere pagan secularism.
  • The Mother of Moses who conceived him, even at the risk of having the child snatched from her and killed, hid him craftily, protected him in surrendering him to providence, and was given him again to rear in the tender and impressionable years of childhood.
  • Moses’ sister watched him from a distance (2:4) to find out what would happen to him and then acted quickly and wisely in suggesting a Hebrew nurse for the child (2:7).
  1. Among women not of the daughters of Israel we find these.
  • Pharaoh’s daughter allowed the movements of natural affection and the intrinsic wonder at life embedded in God’s image-bearers to motivate her instead of the hatred of the Hebrews enjoined by her father (2:5, 6). The first sounds recorded from Moses are the cries of his infancy before the daughter of Egypt’s king. God used her, without her intending it, to restore the child to his mother and preserve him for the defeat of the forces of Egypt eighty years later.
  • The seven daughters of Lemuel who gave a good report of Moses’s kindness to them (2:16-20)
  • Zipporah, one of these seven daughters, became his wife (2:21, 22) and, with some terror and reluctance kept the covenant of circumcision (4:24-26; cf. Genesis 17:9-14).

C. Moses defended his fellow Israelite by killing an Egyptian – 2:12. This shows that he could be provoked to the point that rage overcame his judgment. As the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (2:10) he could have handled the situation with the real possibility of success without the action of individual vengeance.

D. Moses, on the very next day, sought to reconcile two fighting Israelites – 2:13. The first recorded words we have of a Hebrew to Moses come as a rebuke and a challenge to his authority (2:14).

E. Knowing that his attempt at stealth (2:12) had failed, Moses fled to Midian to avoid being killed by Pharaoh (2:15)

F. While residing in Midian, as the son-in-law of Reuel (also known as Jethro (3:1) and the caretaker of the flock, he observed an astounding event (burning bush) and heard from God concerning his covenantal purpose (3:2-8).

G. He received the commission from God (“I will send you” 3:10) to be the one through whom this promised deliverance would come. To accomplish his eternal purpose God sends those whom he selects and prepares for the task. God sent his Son; God sent the disciples (Matthew 28:19, 20); God sent Paul (Acts 9:15)

H. Moses hesitated to respond to this commission. Among the assurance that God gave Moses was the news that “All the men who were seeking our life are dead” (4:19). Prior to that, however, Moses had several other objections to which God responded with unrelenting clarity.

  1. Who am I, that I should do this? Do I have any power or influence in Pharaoh’s court now forty years removed and under threat of life when I left? God answered, “Well, if it were just you it would not work at all as you have suggested. But the real issue is that I will be with you and will bring you back to this very place” (Exodus 18:5).
  2. What shall I say is your name? – Answer: “I Am Who I am” “The Lord the God of your Fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God, the eternally-existent one and the creator and sustainer of heaven and earth had undertaken to show his glory both now and through eternity in his redemptive work that he was in the process of accomplishing through Moses, in the release of this nation from bondage. A greater than Moses has accomplished a greater redemption (Hebrews 3:1-6; Matthew 17:4, 5; John 1:17; 6:32, 33).
  3. What if they will not believe me and listen to what I say. God gave him signs to do; three of them at this point – His rod, thrown to the ground, transformed into a snake; God made Moses’s hand leprous and then changed it back to normal; if those signs were insufficient, he was to take a cup of water from the Nile, pour it on the ground and the Nile’s water would turn to blood before their eyes. He did all these and it had its proper effect (4:30, 31).
  4. I am not eloquent – God said, “I made the mouth, etc.” (4:10-12); With Moses’s continued resistance, God gave Aaron to be his mouthpiece (4:14, 30).

I. Moses asked for release from his responsibility with Jethro to return to Egypt. On the journey, God brought something calamitous on Moses (4:24), because his son was not circumcised. The result of the event was the circumcision and Moses’s sending of Zipporah and his two sons back to Jethro (Exodus 18:1-6).

J. Moses went, met Aaron and did all that God told him to do and the elders (29) of the people believed him and worshiped God.


II. Acts of the Pharaoh – There is no positive statement about Pharaoh at all. He is seen as the quintessential embodiment of pagan cruelty and unbelief.

A. He paid no attention to the history of the Hebrew relation with Egypt but was bent on oppression from the beginning of his reign (1:8-10). He put them to hard labor as slaves with hard taskmasters over them (1:10-14).

B. He commanded midwives to murder male children – 1:16

C. He commanded his people to murder male children – 1:22

D. He tried to kill Moses – 2:14

E. He died – 2:23. This legacy of resolute hardness and cruelty he bequeathed to his successor.

F. God said about the presently reigning Pharaoh, “The king of Egypt will not let you go, except under compulsion” (3:20). God also said, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (4:21). For what reason would God need to harden Pharaoh’s heart if by temperament, and by spiritual hardness, he would taunt the God of Moses?

  1. Though the unregenerate can be brought to believe only by irresistible grace, they can be convinced to take certain actions for their own temporal well-being that seem prudent and safe by both argument and circumstance. Also they may respond to some situations with common human affections, remnants of the natural image of God in them, as Pharaoh’s daughter did toward the baby Moses.
  2. In verses 21-23, God tells Moses why he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will refuse to let the people go under the earlier circumstances that normally would have persuaded any rational and prudent being. God will require Egypt’s first-born for the treatment in Egypt of His “first-born.”
  3. God, therefore, will harden Pharaoh’s heart against argument, irrefutable manifestation of power and dominion, common sense consent for the sake of safety and well-being, in order to bring him all the way to the point of the plague of the death angel.


III. How the narrative reflects the purpose and Providence of God.

A. We find God pursuing the revelation/promise that he had made to Abraham around 400 years before.

  1. God had cut a covenant with Abraham in the form of the death of five animals three of which were cut in half (Genesis 15:12-14). “Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.” Look at 3:22.
  2. When Abraham obediently manifest his faith in the promises of God through Isaac (Hebrews 11:17-19) in his willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:15-18) God said, “Your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” God is pursuing the fulfillment of this revelation to Abraham.
  3. The enslavement and suffering of the sons of Israel was no accident or misstep in the purpose of God but falling out exactly as God had determined.

B. The children of Jacob all settled safely in Egypt (Exodus 1:1-7).

C. God gave to them a tremendous multiplication of the family until they became a great nation within the nation of Egypt [1:9] “more and mightier than we.”

D. The enslavement and hardship of the Israelites was in the purpose of God; without that he could not show his glory in rescuing them; he could not say to the Pharaoh of the exodus, “for this cause I raised you up” (Exodus 9:16; Romans 9:17).

E. God oversaw the birth and protection of Moses through the daughter of the Pharaoh (2:5-9).

F. The preparation and call of Moses was in the wisdom of God’s eternal counsels. He knew the court of Egypt and he knew the ways of the wilderness. He had a sense of protection of the weak.

G. God, the Lord, Yahweh, the Great I AM, told Moses clearly that this action was in covenantal faithfulness to the groanings of his people as he had foretold to Abraham (2:24 – “So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” See also 3:7; 4:31.

H. God told Moses all that will happen when he goes to Egypt to ask for the release of the Israelites (Exodus 3:15-22), including the death of the first-born (4:23).


IV. Reflections

A. The narrative shows the operations of divine sovereignty in faithful execution of his covenantal arrangements and the way in which he integrates human personality, fear, hardness, mental perceptions, sinfulness, and overall responsibility into his design.

B. The narrative shows that redemption involves a brutal confrontation with evil on the part of those who would pursue God’s redemptive purpose. Nothing less than the taking of the first-born would finally bring the release of the captives. This will be seen even more clearly in lessons to follow. The horror involved in this release must not be lost on us when we consider the work of Christ for our salvation.

C. God will prepare us for the tasks to which he calls us. The external manifestations of power and the miraculous appearances of divine glory were reserved for Moses in this pivotal event, but with just as much certainty God will give us, through his covenantal faithfulness, all we need to do his will in our callings (Hebrews 13:20, 21; Philippians 2:12, 13).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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