It gets worse before it gets better. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse for God’s people. They became ‘discouraged’ (6:9). They were unable to look beyond their present difficulties. They needed the Lord’s Word of encouragement – ‘The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I use My power against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of there’ (7:5). Before there was salvation for Israel, there was judgment for Egypt. The judgments upon Egypt (‘the plagues’) were a call to repentance. If there had been a willingness to listen to God’s Word at the beginning, these ‘plagues’ would not have happened. More disobedience meant more ‘plagues’. Each ‘plague’ was a call to repentance as well as a judgment on disobedience. Each ‘plague’ could have been the last – if Pharaoh had said ‘Yes’ to the Lord. Pharaoh said ‘No’, and the ‘plagues’ continued.
Let’s think about the hardening of Pharaoh. Scripture tells us that God Himself said, ‘I will harden Pharaoh’s heart’ (4:21; 7:3). What does this mean? It means that the more Pharaoh heard God’s Word, the harder his heart became. God was saying to Pharaoh – ‘Let My people go’. The effect was quite the opposite. The more Pharaoh heard this Word, the harder his heart became.
This is a Word which must hear. We must receive its message to us. This is speaking about something which happens today. This is Gospel-hardening. The more people hear the gospel, the harder they become. The Gospel does not come to such people as a hard Word. It comes us a Word which speaks of God’s love. It comes as a Word that is designed to lead them to know the love of God. Some people hear the Gospel of God’s love, and they become harder and harder. The more they hear of the free grace of God, the more they retreat into legalistic morality and become hardened against the Gospel. This is a matter of eternal importance. Do not become Gospel-hardened. Let the Gospel break down your hardness.
Gospel-hardening is progressive. The more the Gospel is heard, the harder the Gospel-hardened person becomes. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that Gospel-hardening is not irreversible. The process of Gospel-hardening can be gloriously and marvellously reversed. How is this process of Gospel-hardening to be reversed? There is only way. It is through the Gospel itself which can reverse this process. The Gospel itself shows the way from hardness to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You can be converted. As God’s Word comes to you, in all its seriousness, you are called to decision. You can become more hardened against the Gospel. You can allow the Gospel to break down your hardness. This is the ‘either-or’, presented to us by the Gospel. There is no middle course. Will the preaching of the Gospel make us harder against Christ? Will the preaching of the Gospel lead us to Christ? The Word of God comes to us, in the power of the Spirit, inviting us to come to Christ. We are called to come to Christ. Along with this call to come to Christ, there is also the warning concerning the consequences of refusing Him. The call to receive Christ as Saviour is a matter of the greatest urgency. This is impressed upon us in two very serious passages of Scripture: ‘He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing’ (Proverbs 29:11); ‘Today, when you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts’ (Hebrews 4:7).
Under their Egyptian taskmasters, the people of Israel had to work hard. This hard work was done unwillingly. They did not want to be the slaves of the Egyptians. They hated every minute of the hard work which was forced upon them by the Egyptians. Israel’s constant desire was for freedom from their captivity in Egypt. When we work as servants of Jesus Christ, we are to serve Him with gladness. We are to serve Him with love. We serve the Lord in the knowledge that our true freedom is found when we are captives of Christ: ‘Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free’.
To the outward observer, hard work has similar characteristics, whether it is done by prisoners of war or those who are doing the kind of work they really want to be doing. When, however, we go to the heart of the matter, to the matter of the heart, we find that there is a radical difference between work which is done willingly and work which id done out of love for Jesus. Our attitude towards Jesus Christ is absolutely crucial in the whole of life. What we make of life, with its many different circumstances, is vitally related to our attitude to Jesus Christ. This lesson is emphasized more clearly as we look at Israel’s situation in the fuller context of the work of God. While Israel was working hard for the Egyptians, God was working hard for the Israelites.
The activity of God is seen in the series of connected events known as ‘the plagues’. Outwardly, ‘the plagues’ can be described in a simple and straightforward manner. In 7:14-24, we read of the turning of the Nile to blood. In chapter 8, we read of the plagues of frogs, gnats (or mosquitoes) and flies. Chapter 9 tells us about the death of the Egyptian cattle, the plague of boils and sores and the hailstorms and thunderstorms. This is followed, in chapter 10, by the plague of locusts and the three days’ darkness. The final event in the series is the death of the Egyptian first-born (11:1-12:30).
More plagues meant more opportunities for repentance. God was calling upon Pharaoh to change his mind. He needed to change his mind about God. He needed to change his mind about the people of God. The call for repentance was ignored. Pharaoh put on a show of repentance (9:27-28; 10:16-17). He didn’t really mean it. He was a man of unbelief (9:35). God confirmed him in his unbelief (10:20).
The inner meaning of ‘the plagues’ is quite different for the believer and the unbeliever. For unbelieving Egypt, ‘the plagues’ are God’s pronouncement of judgment. For God’s believing people, ‘the plagues’ are a part of His way of showing to them His salvation.
The same set of circumstances can produce hardness of heart in the unbeliever while leading the believer on to greater faith.
The first nine ‘plagues’ provide the build-up to and the backcloth for the most powerful of all ‘the plagues’ – the death of the Egyptian first-born. The final ‘plague’ – the death of the Egyptian firstborn – marked the end of the road for Pharaoh – ‘the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ (11:10). God was saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ God was going to bring His people out of Egypt – with or without Pharaoh’s permission. There were good things happening – ‘the Lord made the Egyptians kind to the people. And Moses was highly respected by Pharaoh’s officials and all the Egyptians’ (11:33). This, however, did not change the fact that Pharaoh was resisting God. This resistance did not hinder God’s great plan of salvation.
In this tenth and final ‘plague’, the issues of salvation and judgment become absolutely clear. In this ‘plague’, we see the radical difference between the believer who is saved by the powerful love of God and the unbeliever upon whom the judgment of God is decisively pronounced. For unbelieving Egypt, there was the death of the first-born. For God’s believing people, there was the Passover. As we think together of God’s activity in salvation and judgment, we must relate both salvation and judgment to the love of God. Salvation speaks to us of the wonderful thing God has done, is doing and will do for His believing people whom He loves with an everlasting love. Judgment speaks to us of the seriousness of man’s rejection of the love of God. Those who repeatedly reject the love of God deliberately place themselves under the judgment of God. The ten ‘plagues’ speak to us of God’s judgment. They also speak to us of the God of love who longs for sinners to return to Him. The very fact that there are ten ‘plagues’, rather than a single decisive judgment, serves to underline the love of God. Each of the ‘plagues’ came as the invitation of God’s love, inviting Pharaoh to turn from his sin. Each ‘plague’ came as a call to Pharaoh to obey the Lord. Time and time again, the invitation of God’s love- so freely given by the Lord – was rejected.
The Word of God says to us, ‘Don’t be like Pharaoh. Don’t reject the love of God.’ The Word of God points us unmistakably to the Lord Jesus Christ who shed His blood for our sins. The heart of the message of the Gospel is contained in the words of 12:13 – ‘when I see the blood, I will pass over you’. This text contains a clear prophetic reference to the death of Jesus Christ for sinners. We can come to understand the significance of Jesus’ death for us by looking at what happened on the night of the Passover. On the Passover night, the angel of death passed over, in mercy, only those households over whose doors the blood had been sprinkled. This merciful ‘passing over’ had nothing to do with the character or the works of those in the houses. It had everything to do with the blood under which they had taken refuge: ‘When I see the blood, I will pass over you.’ The angel of death was not instructed to check out the character-traits or the religious observance of those in the houses. The angel of death was to look for the blood on the doors: ‘When I see the blood I will pass over you.’ The only criterion for ‘passing over’ was the blood. It was not the blood and something else. It was not a matter of ‘Look for the blood and then take a peep through the window to see what’s going on inside’. There was no peeping needed. There was no peeping allowed. The blood was the all-important factor – ‘When I see the blood I will pass over you.’
The same principle is true today. We are put right with God on the basis of Christ’s death for us. Believing that Christ shed His blood for my sins, I am forgiven by God and declared to be righteous in His sight – ‘My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.’