Sunday, July 02, 2017

Who is the Lord? (Exodus 5-11)


For many of you, maybe for most, as you were growing up, when you heard the word “God,” you knew exactly what that word – that name – meant. In the American South, until the later part of the 20th Century, as in many Christianized societies, the name “God” only and always represented the all-powerful deity who speaks and acts in the pages of the Bible. In fact, even when I was an atheist, no one ever asked me, “Which God do you not believe in?” No one assumed that I meant that I did not believe in Vishnu or Shiva. It was the God of the Bible whose existence I rejected, and everyone understood that without qualification. Today things are a bit different in America. Today, when someone says the word “God,” we have to be more specific. We live in a society filled with devotees of every known, and a few unknown, deities … just like those who live in many of the world’s cultures today and throughout history.

The Egyptian pantheon was crowded, like the more familiar hierarchies of gods and goddesses in later Greek and Roman cultures. There were deities governing every imaginable facet of life. Even the Pharaoh himself was venerated as the incarnation of one of  the gods, and the son of the most high. So, had Moses come into Pharaoh’s presence and said, “God says, ‘Let My people go’,” Pharaoh may have responded, “Which one? I never said that. Did Horus say that? Osiris? Isis? Which God said this?” And that is why when God gave Moses the message to deliver, it was specific. Our English Bibles do us a disservice here. In Exodus 5:1, when you read, “the Lord,” notice the capital letters there. Don’t ignore that anomaly in the text. Pay attention. Those capital letters are the conventional way that the primary English translations render the divine name of God, YHWH. And to be more specific, He is identified as “the God of Israel.” So, the message Moses has for the one who asserts himself as the incarnation of Horus, the son of Hathor and Amon-Re, is that another deity, YHWH – the one worshiped by the Israelites – has decreed that His people must be set free. And Pharaoh’s response sets the tone for the remainder of the book of Exodus. “Who is YHWH that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know YHWH, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”

Everything that follows this question and statement of Pharaoh is a direct answer to him from heaven. YHWH wants there to be no mistake about His identity, His authority, and His exclusivity. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that His purpose in all that He does in bringing judgment upon Egypt and deliverance for Israel through these plagues is to make sure that Israel, Egypt, and Pharaoh know exactly Who He is! Let’s just do a quick run down:
·         7:5 – The Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.
·         7:17 – By this you shall know that I am YHWH.
·         8:10 – That you may know that there is no one like YHWH our God.
·         8:22 – In order that you may know that I, YHWH, am in the midst of the land.
·         9:14 – So that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.
·         9:16 – In order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth.
·         10:2 – That you may know that I am YHWH.

So, as we survey quickly the account of the plagues unleashed on Egypt preceding the Exodus of the Israelites, we want to observe how God showed Himself to His people, to Egypt and to Pharaoh. What was it that He wanted them to know about Him? Because around the world today there are many who will say to us, “Who is YHWH? Who is Jesus? Why should we care what He says or what He wants us to do?” And we must be prepared to give them an answer, even as we ourselves are drawn into deeper intimacy and experience with this very same God.

I. The Lord is the God Who Acts on Behalf of His People.

Who are God’s people? There are some of course who would suggest that every person is a child of God, and in some sense, that is true. We are all God’s children by creation in the sense that He made us all. But, as even human family relationships illustrate, there is more to a parent-child relationship than just biology and genetics. There is relationship. And so it is spiritually. When the Bible speaks of God’s people, it seldom if ever does so in terms of creation. That’s too broad. The overwhelming emphasis is on relationship – a relationship between God and those people whom He has chosen as His own and redeemed by His grace. But there’s another view which is too narrow. It would suggest that ethnic Israel is God’s people. There are plenty of Bible verses that can be understood that way, and certainly God chose Israel in a unique sense to be His own covenant people. But that covenant always included some who were not ethnic Jews, and never included all who are. And by faith in Jesus Christ, we have been adopted into this family of God’s people (John 1:12). As God’s people, we need to know that our God acts on our behalf in the same ways today. And when He does, the world comes to know who He is as well.  

He acts according to promise for His people. Chapter 6, verse 2, God takes Moses back into Hebrew history and reminds him that He is the one who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He established His covenant with them, promising them possession of the land in which He had chosen for them to dwell. That is not where they were now. Conditions were not consistent with those God had promised in His covenant, and were much harsher. But God says to His people, “I have not forgotten what I have promised.” Chapter 6, verse 5: “I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” So, as He delivers on the promise made in the past, notice the promises that He makes for the future. How many times does He say, “I will,” in verses 6 through 9? “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the LORD.” When you read the Bible and see all that God has promised to you in Christ, you know that you can trust what He says and be certain that He will never forget what He has promised. He will always come through, no matter how things look now. If He has spoken it, He will do it.

He acts for the protection of His people. As the plagues begin to be unleashed on Egypt, God declares to Pharaoh that He will make a distinction between His people and the Egyptians, so that His people will be protected from the destruction that ensues. For example, during the plague of flies in 8:22, God says, “I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of flies will be there.” In the plague of cattle death in Chapter 9, again the distinction is made: “nothing will die that belongs to the sons of Israel” (9:4). In 9:26 we see that the plague of hail did not touch the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived. And in Chapter 11, when God announces the coming of the ultimate plague of the death of the firstborn, He says on that horrific night, “against the sons of Israel a dog will not even bark … that you may understand how the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (11:7).

In all these events, God’s people enjoyed a protection that that those who are not His did not have. Now, this should not be understood to mean that God will always protect His people from bad things happening. That’s not true. But the plagues about which we are reading are not merely “bad things” that happen in the course of life in this fallen world. They are acts of divine judgment. These aren’t “bad things,” these are the “worst things.” Hebrews 10:31 says “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And that is exactly what Pharaoh and the Egyptians have done. But this is the very thing that God’s people are protected against. Romans 8:1 says that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This means that no matter what you might have to face in this world, if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus, you will not face the eternal judgment of God because He has rescued you from that by His grace.

God acts according to promise for His people, and for the protection for His people, and He acts in response to the prayers of His people. In Chapter 8, we find the plague of frogs, which might be comical if it were not so horrific. God brought frogs up from the Nile and they filled the land, filled the houses, including the bedrooms and kitchens, of the Egyptians. And, as if to show that this was no big deal or something, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated the feat. But this merely made matters worse. The last thing Pharaoh needed was more frogs! So Pharaoh says to Moses, “Entreat the Lord that He remove the frogs” (8:8). Pharaoh didn’t deserve that, but Moses prayed for him anyway, and God answered. We read in 8:13 that “the Lord did according to the word of Moses.” That’s remarkable. Throughout the Bible, we are accustomed to reading that a person did according to the word of the Lord. We find it repeatedly in Exodus concerning Moses and Aaron. But here, it is the Lord who acts in accordance to what Moses says. And this is not the only time. In fact the entire Exodus is brought on by the Lord saying, “I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel” (6:5). When Pharaoh pleaded for relief from the plague of flies, Moses prayed, and “the Lord did as Moses asked” (8:31). In Chapter 9, Moses prayed for a reprieve of the plague of hail, and God granted it (9:33), and the same happened in Chapter 10 regarding the plague of locusts.

How much more assurance do we need to know that God answers the prayers of His people? He is willing to act in response to the prayers of Moses for the most undeserving person on earth that time, the Pharaoh of Egypt. How dare we believe that He will not answer us when we call upon Him to carry out His purposes in our lives and in the world?

And we must also mention that when God acts on behalf of His people, He acts to make provision for them. Chapter 11 – the Lord tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to ask their Egyptian neighbors for articles of silver and gold. Now just imagine that. Imagine going to your neighbor and saying, “Hiya. Umm, God says to give me all your silver and gold.” How do you think your neighbor would respond? How would you respond if your neighbor asked this of you? But Exodus 11:3 says that the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Their entire 40 year pilgrimage through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and the construction of the Tabernacle and all of its furnishings was paid for by the divine provision of silver and gold for the Israelites from their neighbors.

Please understand me, God is not saying that you should expect others to give you whatever you ask for. The Israelites could have never thought of the idea of asking their neighbors for silver and gold. They didn’t even know why it would be needed. But what God is making known to us about Himself here is that He knows our needs long before we know of them, and He will act to meet those needs in ways that we could not expect or imagine. You can trust that because, He is the God who acts on behalf of His people.

II. The Lord is the God who is sovereign over all creation.

I am not a handyman in any sense of the word, but there are times that I see a job that needs doing at the house, and think to myself, “I bet I could fix that.” And then I start thinking it through. I don’t have the tools, I don’t have the skills or know-how, I don’t have the materials. But, when God has a job to do in the universe, He does not have this problem. He does not have any problems. And that is because He is sovereign. He is the unaided maker and unrivaled ruler of all creation, and therefore has the unlimited authority to marshal every element of the universe for the furtherance of His purposes. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Exodus and the plagues that preceded it.

We observe in the biblical account how God is sovereign over time. Past, present, and future are all ever present before Him and all march to the beat of His will. Therefore, He alone is able to foretell the end from the beginning of any matter. In Isaiah 46:10, He will say of Himself, “I am God and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning.” In Exodus 6:1, He says authoritatively concerning Pharaoh, “he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.” This is not an educated guess or speculation. This is certain knowledge of a future unknown to everyone but God. But His sovereignty over time also means that He operates by His own timetable, which He sets for His own purposes. Chapter 9, verse 5 – “The Lord set a definite time, saying, ‘Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land,” speaking of the plague of cattle death. Prior to the final plague, He says, “About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die” (11:4-5).

We find Him not only sovereign over time, but sovereign over nature. With the possible exception of the first and last plagues, the other eight all involve His use of natural phenomena for supernatural purposes. Frogs, gnats, flies, cattle, dust, bacteria, hail, locusts, and even the light of the sun all operate according to His command and purpose.

Now, how could one possibly think of defying or outmaneuvering one who can call upon every living thing and every element of the universe to do His bidding? And yet we have all tried, therefore we must not be surprised that Pharaoh did as well. Notice God’s message to Pharaoh in 9:13-17. “Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go.” The unsettling reality that Pharaoh will discover is that God is sovereign even over every human being, including himself. Though Pharaoh may believe that he is a god with matchless authority, he will learn that there is a King above all kings who raises men up and brings them down, who moves upon their hearts according to His will, and who uses those who worship Him and those who rebel against Him alike to accomplish His purpose and show forth His glory.

We are introduced to a somewhat troubling expression in 7:3. God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” It seems to indicate that God will make it so that Pharaoh is actually unable to repent, believe, or obey the Lord. This causes many to object, because it flies in the face of the cherished notion of so-called “free will.” If God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, does Pharaoh no longer have the freedom to choose to respond to the Lord as he pleases? And if he does not have freedom, can he be morally culpable and accountable for his actions and attitude? After all, would it not then be God’s fault that Pharaoh responds as he does? These are all important questions, but a careful reading of the text helps to ease the tension. The phrase in 7:3 does not indicate that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart; only that He would do it eventually. So what takes place between this statement and the actual divine hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?

In 7:13, we read that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen.” This does not say whether Pharaoh hardened his own heart, or if the Lord hardened it. It just describes his spiritual condition at that moment. In fact in verse 14, the Lord attributes his hardness to Pharaoh’s own stubbornness. Again in 7:22, we read that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” and again no cause is stated. But we find Pharaoh in a state of spiritual indifference at this point. He “did not listen” and “he went into his house with no concern.” In Chapter 8, we see what appears to be the beginning of a softening of Pharaoh’s heart. In the midst of the plague of frogs, he asks Moses to pray for relief, and promises to let the people go. Verse 15 says, however, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them.” So who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Pharaoh did.

Again in 8:19, there is the simple statement that his heart was hardened, with no reference to cause, but in verse 32, we find again that Pharaoh hardened his own heart once more. In 9:7, again there is the statement that his heart was hardened with no cause, but in verse 12, for the first time we read, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” But this hardening was not permanent or final, for we see him soften once more, pleading with Moses to pray for relief from the hail. But once more, 9:34, “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart.” And it is from this point forward, in 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, and 11:10, that the condition is permanent – the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

So, is it God’s fault that Pharaoh’s heart was hard? Did God overpower Pharaoh’s will and force him to do things he would have otherwise not done? By no means. What this cycle of repetition indicates to us is that by his own sinful attitudes and actions, Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his own heart, until the Lord closed the window of opportunity for repentance to him, and made his hardened condition permanent. At any point prior to the final time when Pharaoh hardened his own heart, he could have turned to the Lord in repentance and faith. He could have been saved from the worst of the judgments. But the Lord knew the end from the beginning, and knew that no matter how many plagues Pharaoh experienced, he would never turn to the Lord in sincere repentance and faith. Therefore, the Lord sovereignly determined that Pharaoh’s opportunities for repentance had come to an end. This is why we are repeatedly warned in Scripture, “If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psa 95:7-8; Heb 3:7-8, 15; 4:7). You never know when that moment will come when the Lord will cause the concrete you pour into your own spiritual heart to set and harden irreversibly. You never know when you may have turned away from Him for the last time and forever forsaken your window of grace to return to Him in faith and repentance.

He is sovereign over all creation. Pharaoh, Egypt, and Israel alike all had to learn that and so must we! Time moves according to His marching orders. All nature is sustained in existence that it might do His bidding at the speaking of His Word. And even every human life is held in the palm of His all-powerful hand, that He might accomplish His purposes with or without our cooperation. The Sovereign God of the universe has the authority to act as He pleases in the midst of all that He has created; and all that He does is good, furthering His purpose and His glory in the world.

So the Lord is showing Himself by these plagues as the God who acts on behalf of His people and the God who is sovereign over all creation. Now finally, He shows us that …

III. The Lord is the God who alone is God.

The existence of YHWH, or any other deity for that matter, is not contingent upon our belief, the sincerity of our belief, or the vehemence of our denial. If Osiris or Amon-Re do not exist, then all the belief that Pharaoh and the Egyptians can muster will not summon them into existence. And on the flip side, if YHWH exists, then no one can deny Him out of existence. This was one of the alarming realities with which I had to grapple as I came to faith in Christ. I had the sudden realization that my denial of God’s existence had not made Him go away! And YHWH sets out to demonstrate to Israel that He is the living God in whom they can trust, all the while demonstrating to Pharaoh and Egypt that their multitude of deities are nothing more than figments of their depraved and idolatrous imaginations. When He finishes His work, there will be no doubt that He alone is God.

Prior to the first plague there is a spiritual showdown in the court of Pharaoh, as Aaron’s staff is miraculously transformed into a serpent. The serpent was a symbol of Pharaoh’s power. Look at the headpiece of any Egyptian sarcophagus and you will likely find a symbol of a cobra or other snake emblazoned upon it. And to demonstrate the power of Egypt’s deities, Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate the feat, causing their own staffs to turn into serpents as well. There are various explanations for this – perhaps it was a parlor trick, as some Eastern snake charmers today can still dazzle a crowd by pinching the neck of a snake in just the right spot to cause its body to become as rigid as a staff. We cannot rule out the possibility that Satan, the great deceiver, enabled these staffs to be transformed into serpents. All idolatry is fueled at some level and to some degree by demonic power. But in order to demonstrate that YHWH alone is God, the Bible says simply and without explanation or commentary, “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” The power of God Almighty devoured the impotent idols of Egypt.

In every plague that followed this serpentine spectacle, God was swallowing up the idols of Egypt, proving His unique authority over all of these false gods. When the Nile was turned to blood, God was pronouncing the defeat of Hapi, Isis, and Khnum, the gods of the Nile. They bled out under the judgment of God. When frogs overcame the land, YHWH showed Himself as victorious over Heqet, the frog-headed goddess of Egypt. When the dust became gnats (or some other flying, biting insect), God was pronouncing the death of Set, the Egyptian god of the desert. In the plague of flies, rendered in Hebrew simply as swarms, God showed Himself the victor over Khepri, the Egyptian god depicted as a scarab beetle. When the livestock were killed (perhaps by a plague of anthrax), God rendered Hathor, Apis, and Mnevis (all of whom were depicted as cows or bulls) defeated and impotent. When the people broke out in boils, God was showing that their faith in Sekhmet and Isis, the healing goddesses, was futile. When the hail and locusts came and destroyed the crops, YHWH showed Himself to be all-powerful over the nonexistent deities, Osiris and Seth, protectors of the crops. When “a darkness that can be felt” swept over the land, the great sun-god Horus, of whom Pharaoh was deemed an incarnation, was pronounced dead and defeated. And when the plague of the firstborn came, killing even the son of Pharaoh, God was proving that no human being may lay claim to the glory that belongs only to Him, and all the deities of fertility, reproduction and childbirth, could not be rallied against the power of the One True God.

Because YHWH is alone God, He is therefore worthy of complete obedience from all humanity. Moses and Aaron were not to be excused from obedience because of their advancing ages – 80 and 83 respectively. Israel was not to be excused from obedience because of the harshness of their circumstances. They had to comply with all the words of the Lord as were spoken to them through Moses. The Egyptians were not immune to the command of obedience because of their ignorance of YHWH, nor was Pharaoh exempt as though he could abide in his own authority and power. At various points, Pharaoh attempted to render partial obedience to the Lord. He made four attempts to compromise with Moses. He offered them the opportunity to stay in the land and worship their God (8:25). He offered them a chance to leave the land, but not very far (8:28). He offered the men the freedom to go if they would leave the women and children behind (10:8-11). And he offered them the freedom to go without their livestock (10:24). But God was not in the business of bargaining with Pharaoh. The command was clear: Let My people go! And anything other than complete and uncompromising obedience was subject to judgment. Partial obedience is total disobedience, and God does not accept plea-bargains.

And because the Lord alone is God, He is the one to whom every person must ultimately give account. Because we are all sinners, every single one of us is as morally guilty before the Lord as Pharaoh was. But in His grace, God has made available to us the offer of repentance and redemption. If we will but turn to Him by faith in the sincerity of our hearts, we can be saved! Pharaoh attempted at various points to render unto God an artificial repentance, but the Lord could see through it and would not accept it. Ultimately Pharaoh’s hardened heart was divinely fixed and his opportunity for repentance expired. And he had no further consequence but to face the unmitigated wrath and judgment of a holy God. He experienced the full force of all these plagues, and then some. And when he died, a hell of eternal torment awaited him.

When we consider this in light of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, the picture of our redemption becomes all the more clear. Each of us, like Pharaoh, is guilty of idolatry, and stubborn, hard-hearted, sinfulness. We stand deserving of the full outpouring of the inescapable plague of God’s wrathful judgment. But this sovereign God has acted on behalf of the people of His own gracious choosing, and stepped into time in the person of Jesus Christ. He has received in Himself all the plague of judgment that we deserve. When the death of the firstborn occurred, God spared Israel’s firstborn sons from the judgment. But on the day when Jesus was nailed to the cross of Calvary, God did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him over for us all (Rom 8:32). Christ died for our sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5:21). Christ bore the plague of judgment for us, that our redemption and deliverance could be fully accomplished in Him, that we may have our Exodus from this sin-enslaved world. If today you hear His voice beckoning you to repentance, to faith, to obedience, do not harden your hearts.

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