“Tell Ol’ Pharaoh, ‘Let My People Go!’”
The Sovereign Prerogative of God
These chapters constitute one of the most simply told, but unsurpassably dramatic and riveting narratives in all of literature, with the exception of the gospel narratives of the crucifixion. A child can understand the language and the events. The transcendent purpose of God, however, cannot be measured; we can never grasp the fulness of its dimensions. Nor do we have the capacity to perceive the depths of his infinite holiness and righteousness of which these judgments are expressions. Each of us lives with remaining sinful propensities and in an environment that rests under the impending judgment of God. Moment to moment we are kept by his purely gratuitous lovingkindness given us through Christ for the sake of demonstrating his glory. The narrative of these historic events shows us a bit of the dynamic interplay between stability in this world and the prerogative of God to interrupt it with massive devastation at any moment and by any means. We are insensitive to the criminality and deep culpability of our sin and correspondingly placid about the transcendent holiness and commensurately just anger of God. Events such as the universal flood in the days of Noah and the plagues unleashed against the entire culture and population of Egypt would not startle us or give us pause if we conceived rightly of these things.
I. The First request and increased labor – Chapter 5
A. The first request was made without threats.
- They only asked to go into the wilderness three days’ journey with all their families and possessions to make sacrifice to the Lord. Whether this was designed to deceive Pharaoh is not said. As we see, in the end, Pharaoh would not honor even this and his pursuit of them made their complete evacuation and escape necessary.
- Pharaoh acted haughtily at the request, expressing his disdain for any claim that Moses and Aaron had about “The Lord.” Note that the nomenclature is “God of Israel, . . . God of the Hebrews, . . . the Lord our God.” This terminology does not indicate any perceived limitation in the power of God or of his sole right to honor as God from all peoples. It shows his prerogatives in claiming a people for his own possession, a people peculiar to the Lord (Titus 2:13, 14).
B. Pharaoh increased the burden on the people by maintaining the quota of bricks but making them gather their own straw for the bricks (5-14). Such a requirement shows the wickedness of pure vindictive oppression. There is no advantage to anyone in this added measure of labor but only a show of power and arrogance on the part of Pharaoh. Though all of us at any time are, in ourselves, subject to manifestations of God’s displeasure, we are led to see the intense degree to which Pharaoh’s hardness had led him into arrogance, oppressiveness, cruelty, searing of conscience, and refusal to “retain God in his knowledge” (Romans 1:28).
C. The foremen of the work request an audience with Pharaoh and come away discouraged. Their request to Pharaoh was reasonable, and his response merely intensified his irrational cruelty. As would happen many times in the future, they turn their frustration and anger to Moses and Aaron (15-21).
D. Moses takes the case to God (22, 23). The pressure of the increased toil for the Israelites and the anger and fear of the foremen made Moses forget what God had told him about Pharaoh. There would be no immediate delivery but resistance until God took the first-born of Pharaoh from him (4:21-23).
II. Who is the Lord and who are the people? – Chapter 6
A. God, in assurance to Moses, again identifies himself in detail. (6:1-8)
- The Lord pledged to bring Pharaoh to his knees and so to overwhelm him that he virtually will drive the people out of the land.
- He again identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They knew him as the Almighty and also as the Lord (Genesis 15:6-8; 21:2, 24; 28:13). That name was given in light of promises contained in the covenant; now, however, that actual efficacy of his redemptive covenant would be enacted. With them, the name was given but it stood forth as a potentiality and promise; now, the actual powerful manifestation of covenantal faithfulness as the almighty, self-existent, covenant-making, covenant-keeping God, the sole ruler of heaven and earth acting on behalf of a particular chosen people would come to pass.
- With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the covenant was established and they dwelt in the land promised. Now, out of bondage and from the hand of oppression, the Lord will deliver their descendants. While he redeems that people, the sons of Jacob, he will show judgment on the other, the Egyptians. He will restore to them the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they will see his mighty works in active role as the Lord.
B. The families of the Israelites in the tribes of Reuben, the firstborn who corrupted his father’s bed (Genesis 49:4), Simeon and Levi, ruthless killers (Genesis 49:5-7) are identified. This is an astounding biblical theme, that the God who identifies himself in such terms will also point with such particularity to the people for whom he is intervening in redemption. Those whose lives should be forfeited for their crimes are redeemed. The apostle Paul pointed to himself as the worst of sinners so that “Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
C. The task of Moses again is set forth (26-30). Moses and Aaron in particular, as sons of a marriage between a man (Amram) and his aunt (Jochebed), and as sons of Levi will continue their confrontation with Pharaoh and lead the people to freedom.
III. The Second Request and the beginnings of the display of power – Chapter 7:1-13
A. Verses 1, 2 – Jehovah reasserts his purpose through Moses and Aaron.
- He has condescended to Moses’s lack of confidence and given him Aaron as a “prophet,” one who tells forth what he is told to say. Despite Moses’s reticence, the Lord told him, “I make you as God to Pharaoh.” One who speaks the word of God does not do so out of confidence in his natural talents nor does he speak out of any reservoir of personal perceptions or philosophical expertise. Who has any intrinsic right to speak of eternal life or eternal judgment, the narrow way of life through Christ alone and the broad way of death through all other religions and philosophies, the universal necessity of repentance from sin and faith in the atoning work and intercession of Christ? These are revealed things and they make known to us the blessings freely given by God. If we do not have the word of God, then we should keep our mouths shut, for we know nothing.
- God alone makes his word effectual for life or the harbinger of death. The word to Pharaoh only will increase his resistance, multiply his sin, and serve as the avenue for the “great judgments” of the plagues. The more determined that Pharaoh has become not to release the people, the greater will be the phenomenon of release when it happens.
B. This first display of power was without any harm to man or beast. Apparently this work came in response to Pharaoh’s challenge (9).
- God had demonstrated earlier that the rod would be a symbol of his presence and of his sovereign rule over all things. For a piece of wood to become a living thing at the mere will of God showed that all things, even those that are purely material depend for their existence and the nature of their existence on the immediate power of God, who sustains them by the same power by which they were created. The rod [staff] was used in plagues 1, 2, 3, 7, 8. Nothing is said about it in the others.
- The staff, thrown down in front of Pharaoh, became a serpent as it had with Moses in the wilderness. The magicians were able to do the same thing, according to the text, by means of “secret arts.” Perhaps some practice of charming serpents into a catatonic state was involved. Though the Magician duplicated in appearance this event, the serpent of Aaron and Moses swallowed the serpents of the magicians. In the first two plagues, the magicians duplicated in some way what Moses had done with his staff. What they were not able to do, however, was put a stop to the plague. Their magic simply exacerbated the problem.
- The response of Pharaoh to this was as God had said. His heart remained in opposition to the God of Israel and was, thus, hardened even more.
IV. Nine Plagues and a hardened heart – 7:14-10:29.
A. The Plague of blood challenged the Nile as the giver of life. Rather, when the blessing God does not sustain it, it becomes an embodiment of death—blood loosed from any life sustaining functioning in the body. It is as if the blood of Hebrew babes cast into the river has surfaced to plague the entire land, remove the sweetness of its water for drink, and ruin the life-giving power of water for crops. “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened . . . and he went into his house with no concern even for this” (7:22, 23).
B. Chapter 8 records the plagues of the frogs, gnats, and flies.
- When the magicians duplicated the frog plague (to what extent it is not said) Pharaoh realized that they did not have any true power over the frogs and asked for Moses and Aaron to “Entreat the Lord that He remove the frogs.” He also consented to the request for a time for sacrifice to the Lord. When the frogs were gone he hardened his heart.
- Gnats and flies followed. The magician could no longer duplicate the plagues and consented that “this is the finger of God” (8:19). The disgusting, repulsive, disruptive, and destructive presence of these pests in quick succession finally brought consent from Pharaoh for the people to “sacrifice to your God within the land.” This was not consistent with the demand. When Moses set forth the conditions in an unrelenting manner, the Pharaoh consented for them to go the wilderness and asked them to make supplication for him.” Moses warned Pharaoh not to deal deceitfully, but when the flies were gone, “Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also.”
C. Chapter nine records pestilence among all livestock, the plague of boils, the plague of hail mixed with rain, lightning, and thunder.
- The death of the livestock included many of every kind of livestock—“Horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks.” A miraculous distinction was made between the livestock of the Egyptians and those of the Israelites. In fact, Pharaoh checked to see if this particular word of Moses actually was true (9:4, 7), in order to know if this was merely a coincidental natural occurrence or if it happened just as Moses had said. As is frequently the case (not without exception), the word all means that many of all sorts are included. Verse 19-22 make it clear that some of the livestock remained, but that they too were endangered by the hail. Pharaoh saw that the plague indeed was from the Lord, but he made no overture to release the people, “but the heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (7).
- The plague of the boils came as a specific judgment for the tyranny of Pharaoh in making the people continue their quota of brick without straw. The ashes came from a kiln in which bricks were fired. Moses and Aaron took handfuls and went before Pharaoh, and Moses threw them into the air in his sight. Boils came on all the people, with special mention being made of the magicians (11) to show their utter helplessness before the Lord. Again, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” according to the word he had given Moses. This plague was followed by a stern warning that more plagues were on the way and that, had God desired, he could have cut off the entirety of Egypt from the face of the earth. As it is, they remain to be the subjects of the demonstration of his power and the consequent proclamation of his name throughout the earth.
- The plague of hail with all of its accompanying terrors and destruction brought from Pharaoh a desperate plea for release from the plague, a promise to let them go as requested, and a confession, “I have sinned this time; the Lord is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.” Moses promised to ask the Lord to remove the hail, thunder, rain, and lightning, but also said, “But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.” Again, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.
D. Chapter ten records the plague of the locusts and the plague of darkness. Pharaoh continued to seek a way of bargaining with Moses to avoid the plagues but not yield to the demand.
- After the threat of the locust plague, Pharaoh’s servants plead with him to consent to Moses’s demand to avoid further devastation. Pharaoh sent for Moses, sought to cut a bargain without complete capitulation to the requirements announced by the Lord. Moses’s refusal to bargain angered Pharaoh and he drove them out. The terror of the locust plague defies description—everything was covered with them and even the sun was darkened by their abundance in the air.
- The intensity of destruction and the suffocating effect of their presence made Pharaoh “hurriedly” call for Moses and even use the words a second time, “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you” (10:16). He asked for forgiveness and for removal of “this death from me.” Moses so supplicated the Lord; the locusts were blown away and “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:19, 20).
- The ninth plague was a double miracle of utter darkness enveloping the Egyptians while light was present for the sons of Israel.
- Pharaoh again called for Moses and agreed to let the people go worship, but only according to his specifications.
- Moses again maintained the full requirements of God for the release of the people, the entire population including all children, along with all livestock for the variety of sacrifices that God might require.
- Again, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” and he uttered an absolute prohibition against Moses ever coming into his presence again. Moses consented to the decree, and said, with the dark clouds of a final judgment impending, “You are right; I shall never see your face again!” (10:29).
- Increased intensity of pressure from plagues and increased desperation on the part of Pharaoh, only bought in the end a more hardened state of rebellion and hateful interaction with the spokesmen of Yahweh.
V. Reflections on this Event
A. When God calls us to worship, he stipulates the manner in which we come before him and he does not bargain with us according to our convenience or wisdom. We must not bring “will-worship” before God, but obedient and joyful conformity to his revelation.
B. Men in sin always try to bargain a way out of the full requirements of God’s just demands. They will call into question the justice and kindness of God before they suspect the integrity of their own hearts.
C. When brought to a clear view of the inescapable consequences of sin, sinners desire for sin’s consequences to be removed, but without a submission of soul and heart to the Lord God. Many times the mere words we place in the mouths of people in evangelistic situations encourage this surface understanding of repentance and faith. We encourage a quick way to avoid hell without a deep sense of God’s holiness and justice as rightly set forth against us and with empty perceptions of trust in his mercies in Christ and the bowing of the heart in worship.
D. God has an absolute right over all his creatures as their maker with the absolute prerogative to design them and set their course in providence as he sees fit in manifesting in the end his abundant power, justice, wisdom, and goodness (Revelation 4:11). Indeed, “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
E. This pre-emptive sovereign right involved in creation, however, is not abstracted from the wholeness and simplicity of God as engaging in all his ad extra decrees out of the fullness of all his identifiable attributes. What he does in power he does at the same time in justice and goodness. What he purports by conditional request, he executes according to a wise absolute decree. When he speaks a command knowing that it will be ignored and disobeyed, he utters, nevertheless, in absolute truth.
F. We must learn to speak human responsibility, not in terms of its “balance” with God’s sovereignty, but in terms of its integration as an element of all of God’s work into its just and fitting place under the perfect intent of God. Balance implies an equality of weight in each side of the scale; this is not at all the case.
- We are not after a balance between the Creator and the created, the Infinite and the finite, the Immutable and the shifting, the Eternal and the temporal, the Intrinsically Glorious and the derivatively reflective, the indivisible wholeness of Infinite Perfection and the distributively received scales of being.
- We must learn to perceive of every part of the created order as having an integrity of function in and of itself, operating as a discreet element of creation, according to God’s intention and consistent with his “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Each thing operates according to its own nature, the whole of all that God spoke into existence, being integrated as a sum of these various aspects of creation into the original decreed purpose.
- This purpose is the just and good intention, God’s natural, intrinsic, and infinitely right impulse, to manifest his glory. He does this eternally in Himself—ad intra—as the triune God without increase or diminution ever-flowing in the fellowship of the three persons in an eternal expression of pure love and joy (John 17:5, 24). He will make this manifestation in ever-increasing measure, never exhausted, throughout eternity upon the created things, both rational and non-rational. This might be in the glory of goodness expressed in joy, love, ever-abounding mercy, ever-increasing grace, or in the glory of goodness expressed in just anger, omnipotent retribution, unflagging wrath proportioned exactly according to degrees of perversion and increase of hateful rebellion even in eternity.
- There is never a hint in the text that such sovereign designs from God impede or diminish the necessity or the responsible freedom of worshipful posture toward God. When Pharaoh is punished along with all Egypt, it is just retribution for their idolatry and inhumane treatment of Israel.