Bruce B. Miller
We are in a new series: Exodus: the God you thought you knew. We are exploring and remembering seven anchor stories of our faith in Exodus. In each of them we will come to better understand the God you thought you knew. We discover that the theme of Exodus is redemption. The point of the book is that God saves his people. The central character is not Moses or Israel, but God himself. Exodus is God-centered, as our lives should be.
This chart from the Exodus study guide shows where we are going. The story takes place in three main places. We start in Egypt and move through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. We will learn about God’s power, protection and presence. Today we are diving into our second anchor story: the story of the Ten Plagues. We asked people around McKinney what they know about the ten plagues of Egypt.
While the ten plagues are fascinating, our focus today is not getting to know them, but more importantly, our focus is getting to know the God who enacted them. One of the biggest issues in life is the answer to the question: who is God? How you answer that question dramatically affects your life now on this earth and in eternity.
As we enter our story I invite you put yourself in the shoes of major characters: Pharaoh, Moses, the Israelites and the Egyptians. How did they see God at the start and how does their view of God change? What about you? What do you understand about God right now? How might God open your eyes today to see him more fully? It’s Pharaoh who asks the million dollar question when he protests, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him?” That sounds rude, arrogant. But don’t we ask that same question in our lives? Maybe not in those exact words, but we question if we really need to obey God. Who is he anyway to tell us what to do? Don’t you want to do what you think is best in your life? After all it is your life, right? Maybe.
The point of our story today is that you can know that the God is the Lord who rescues his people by believing his declaration and by seeing his demonstration. Open your Bible to Exodus chapter five. We will be moving through seven chapters, chapters five to eleven. Chapter five raises the central question:
The Question: Who is the LORD? (Chapter 5)
In this chapter notice how the character of God is questioned by Pharaoh, the Israelite foremen and by Moses too. The chapter opens in verse one with Moses’ first attempt to appeal to Pharaoh:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’ ”
Exodus 5:1 Pharaoh sarcastically responds with the central question:
2“Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” Exodus 5:2.
Who would have the audacity to tell Pharaoh what he must do with his people, his slaves? Who the heck is this so-called “Lord”? In defiance Pharaoh says, “No, I don’t know this Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
Throughout the rest of the story we see that God answers Pharaoh’s question in no uncertain terms. He will be forced to acknowledge God’s superiority and he will let Israel go. But this does not happen right away. In fact what first happens upsets Moses and the Israelites. They doubt God. Follow with me in chapter five, verse four.
4 But the king of Egypt said, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!”
Drop to verse seventeen.
17 Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”
Rather than being freed from slavery, their slavery got much worse. The suffering intensified. Moses failed. It did not work. In fact, it seems to have backfired. How do the people respond? They are very discouraged. The Israelite foremen say to Moses,
“May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Exodus 5:21.
What is their view of God here? Ironically they ask God to judge the man that God has sent to deliver them. We often expect God to quickly make everything better, but usually things go from bad to worse before they get better. God tells us to expect opposition in this life, to plan on suffering. It happens often. A Christian does what God calls him to do and it makes things worse! You agree to serve in Promiseland and a kid falls and hurts himself. You blame yourself and feel like the worst volunteer in all of Promiseland. It’s easy to wonder if we did the right thing, and maybe even to wonder if God cares what happens to us.
That’s what Moses wondered. Look at verse twenty-two to see Moses’ frustration.
22 Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? 23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” 5:22-23.
Moses blames God for the trouble that he says God has brought and he blames God for not keeping his promise to rescue his people. Moses doubts God’s character. He has just made things worse. Moses knew Pharaoh would be stubborn, but he did not anticipate that suffering would increase and that the people would turn against him.
How do you handle it when after you pray, after you step up to serve God in some new way, bad things happen? The Apostle Peter says,
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12.
In this fallen world, we face suffering and it often increases when we dare to serve God in new ways, when we agree to confront Pharaoh. We are in a war. It’s easy to trust God in worship services, but when life hits you in the face on Monday, will you still trust him?
In his painful doubt, Moses did the right thing to return to the Lord and bring his complaint straight to the Father. That’s where we need to go with our questions and frustrations. God’s timing almost never matches ours. God’s view of how much hardship we can take rarely coincides with what we think. Moses got his eyes off God and put them on his circumstances. His view of God became distorted and diminished. God will teach Moses, and us, who he really is.
How does God minister to Moses? He does not tell him to cheer up. God does not defend himself. Rather, he reminds Moses of who he is and what he will do. God reveals who he is and shows Moses a bigger picture. This is a transformational moment as God declares who he is. You can know that God is the LORD by believing his declaration: I am the Lord.
The Declaration: I AM the LORD! (Chapter 6)
Turn to chapter six verse one. Listen closely to God’s declaration. A crucial moment occurs with the word, “Now,” and a series of seven divine “I wills.” Please stand for the reading of God’s Word starting in chapter six, verse one.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”
2 God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.
Listen to God’s seven “I will’s.”
6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’ ” 6:1-8
The section begins and ends with the statement: “I am the Lord.” God declares four things: He is the, I AM. He is the covenant-making God of people past. He cares. He hears our groaning. And He will rescue his people. When trouble comes, we need to be reminded that God is still God. First, God is Yahweh which means, as we saw last week, that he is the, I AM WHO I AM. He is the self-existent God. “I am Yahweh or I am the LORD” is repeated a dozen times in Exodus. We need to repeat it to ourselves so we get it and keep it. Secondly, he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom he appeared. He is a personal God. He revealed himself to them as the Lord Almighty, in Hebrew, El Shaddai. He made a covenant with his people that he keeps. Thirdly, God hears the groaning of his people. He cares about them. Fourthly, God will rescue them.
Let’s look again at the seven “I wills” of God.
I will bring you out. I will free you. I will redeem you. I will take you as my own people, I will be your God. I will bring you to the land. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’ ” 6:1-8
God will rescue his people. He will liberate them. These are the seven “I wills” of salvation for Israel from Egypt. Consider how these “I wills” apply to us through Jesus. God will bring us out of slavery to sin. He will free us. He will redeem us with a mighty act of judgment that he accomplished on the cross and will complete at the return of Jesus. He makes us his children by faith. He adopts us into his family. He claims us as his own people. He will bring us into the new heavens and new earth, his Kingdom. We will inherit and rule with him in his kingdom. Jesus is the liberator who “has freed us from our sins by his blood.” Jesus is the Redeemer who paid the costly price of our sin by suffering and dying on the cross. We find freedom by trusting in Jesus Christ, our Deliverer, the, I Am.
Clearly, the focus of God’s message to the Israelites is on who he is, and their assessment of the situation must be based squarely on that immovable fact. The game plan has not changed or been upset. God is still in control and all is fine, even though in the short-term it looks like things are out of control with the demand to make bricks without straw. The beatings are getting worse. But in the face of beatings, never forget who God declares himself to be. Believe God’s declaration, that God is the I Am; that God will keep his promises; that God cares and that God is rescuing us from all evil. Despite all the madness of crazy people, our self-destructive sin, and the attacks of the devil, God is the, I AM and he will prevail.
You can know that God is the Lord by believing his declaration and seeing his demonstration. The LORD rescues his people.
The Demonstration: The LORD rescues his people (Chapter 7-11)
In chapter seven we see a summary preview of that is about to happen. This is one of the great confrontations of history: the reigning human power on earth, Egypt – and particularly its autocratic head, Pharaoh – versus the God who promised to rescue his people from that power and the miseries it had imposed on them. Listen to what God says in chapter seven, verse four:
Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. 5 And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” 7:4-5
The mighty acts of judgment are the ten plagues. God brings ten blows for three basic purposes: first, to judge Egypt; second, to reveal who he is so people will know that he is the LORD; and third, to rescue his people. All ten plagues humiliate the Egyptians and prove Yahweh’s superior power and eventually set Israel free.
CHART from Enns
These ten judgments come in three cycles of three, capped with the 10th culminating judgment. The 1st, 4th, and 7th judgments, at the beginning of each cycle of three, are introduced by the words, “in the morning” (7:15; 8:20; 9:13). The first two plagues in each set were announced to Pharaoh beforehand, whereas the third in each set happened without warning. The plagues built in intensity.
Why would God wait through nine terrible acts of judgment? Why didn’t God just deliver his people in one swift act? Remember the purposes of the acts. God is judging Egypt. He is also mercifully giving them opportunities to repent and obey him. Multiple times God says again and again, “let my people go.” God is revealing who he is with a mounting body of evidence that he has absolute power above all other so-called gods and governments. No one can stand against him. Let’s walk through the three cycles.
In the First Cycle, we see blood, frogs and gnats. The first act is declared in chapter seven verse seventeen: 1 – Blood.
17 This is what the LORD says: By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood.’ ”
Each act of judgment attacked an Egyptian god. Osiris was a god of the earth and vegetation, symbolized by the annual flooding of the Nile. Since the Egyptians believed the Nile was Osiris’ bloodstream it is remarkable that the Nile was turned to blood.
Notice the explicit purpose: “By this you will know that I am the LORD” (v.17). Notice to whom this is addressed. Previously, the announcement “I am the LORD” had been spoken to Moses (6:2, 29), and to the Israelites (6:6-8), but this is spoken to a non-Israelite. In effect, this is an expression of God’s gospel, his good news to the world. He is not just the God of Israel, but of all people.
The second plague is frogs. In the Egyptian pantheon the goddess Heqet had the form of a woman with a frog’s head. From her nostrils, it was believed, came the breath of life that animated the bodies of those created by her husband, the great god Khnum. Therefore frogs were not to be killed. You can find a list of the other correlating Egyptian gods for the other plagues at Bible.org.
Mercifully, God gives Pharaoh the privilege of setting the time for the plague to end so that he can know that God is the Lord, the plague did not stop naturally.
9 Moses said to Pharaoh, “I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs, except for those that remain in the Nile.”
10 “Tomorrow,” Pharaoh said.
Moses replied, “It will be as you say, so that you may know there is no one like the LORD our God.
It happened exactly as God said. Pharaoh has his proof, but he still refuses to believe. This is common. Faced with powerful rational evidence that God exists, people still refuse to believe, and reject the evidence.
The third act involves gnats. At the end of the first cycle we see the beginning of recognition that God is the Lord.
18 But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. And the gnats were on men and animals. 19 The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.”
However, Pharaoh will not listen to his advisors. In the 2nd cycle, we see flies, disease on livestock and boils. The fourth plague is flies. This is the first time there is an explicit differentiation of Israelites from Egyptians. Look at chapter eight, verse twenty-two.
22 “ ‘But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the LORD, am in this land.
Imagine swarms of flies in one place, but none in the next neighborhood. People couldn’t eat without ingesting flies; they couldn’t sleep without flies covering their bodies; they couldn’t work for having to swat flies and; their skin was welted with fly bites.
In response to the flies, Pharaoh asks Moses to pray for him in verse twenty-eight. Now pray for me.” 8:28. Is Pharaoh repenting and turning to God? It may seem so, but his further actions show otherwise.
The fifth act is disease on livestock. This plague too only came on Egyptian livestock. Once again Pharaoh could check out the proof. He did in chapter nine, verse seven.
7 Pharaoh sent men to investigate and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died. Yet his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go. 9:7
He has his proof. God is the Lord. But still he stubbornly resists believing.
The sixth act is boils. At the end of the second cycle the magicians who saw the finger of God at the end of the first cycle, now could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all the Egyptians. 9:11
The 3rd cycle includes hail, locusts and darkness. The seventh act is hail which God says he will bring,
“So you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.
15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. 16 But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth 9:13-16.
God is in charge. He is revealing his great power. His purposes are bigger than just Egypt and bigger than just the 15th century BC. God is showing who he is to the world and throughout the rest of history. This is global and trans-historical.
With this plague God mercifully gave people an option:
19 Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’ ”
20 Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. 21 But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field. 9:19-21
Actions have consequences. This was a small preview of the ultimate choice: trust and obey God for life or reject him and you will die. At this point Pharaoh appears to repent. In chapter nine, verse twenty-seven, we read,
27 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.”
Is he sincere? Look closely at his reason: for we have had enough thunder and hail. Pharaoh just wants the pain to stop. He is not really repenting of his sin. He is just upset about the consequence of the hail. How do you handle your sin? Are you repenting, really turning from your sin, or merely sorry you got caught and have some painful consequence?
The eighth act is locusts. In the context of this plague God gives another purpose of the ten acts. Look at chapter ten, verse two:
2 that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD.” Exodus 10:2
God is doing this so we will tell and re-tell the great story to our children and grandchildren; they will understand who God really is and how important it is to trust and obey him. The exodus is not just any old story; it is the story that shaped the Israelites into the people of God. It is the story of salvation. It explains who they are: the people of God, delivered from slavery. It explains who God is: the Lord, the God of all power and glory. It explains where they came from: out of Egypt. It tells them where they are going; into the land of promise.
The ninth act is darkness. A plague of darkness attacks the Egyptian solar deity, Re, a common sun god throughout Egypt’s history. Darkness is language from creation when God made light. Centuries in the future, when Christ dies, darkness will cover the earth. At the end of the ninth plague Pharaoh makes an ironic statement:
28 Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” 29 “Just as you say,” Moses replied, “I will never appear before you again.” Exodus10:28-29
In fact, Pharaoh’s son will die and he will send Israel out of Egypt for good. The 10th and final act is the death of the firstborn. In the next message we will look more deeply at this final act. With this last act, God delivers Israel from Egypt.
The point of this story is that you can know that the God is the Lord who rescues his people by believing his declaration and by seeing his demonstration in his ten acts. So what is the implication of knowing that God is the Lord? From this passage we see one “Don’t” and one “Do.”
Since God is the Lord who rescues his people, don’t refuse to harden your heart against the Lord; don’t refuse to listen. Instead do obey and tell others that he is the Lord who rescues his people. Some people struggle with the fact that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Did he have a choice? Your Study Guide provides an in-depth explanation and reference to an excellent article. In short both are true: Pharaoh hardens his heart and God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. God hardens those who harden themselves. Further hardening is a judgment for those who refuse to submit to God. After you resist God for long enough, your heart gets harder so that it becomes harder and harder to escape your slavery to sin. God gave Pharaoh many chances, but with each rejection he progressively hardened his heart and God judged him with more hardening.
So today, do not refuse to listen to God. Do not harden your heart. Do not be Pharaoh. God will get your attention and he will have his way. In the beginning of the story Pharaoh protested, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? In the end he learned that God is the Lord and he let Israel go, but he refused to believe himself.
One day God will judge the entire earth with judgments similar to the ten acts we have studied, but much worse. They are described in the book of Revelation where you will see echoes to Exodus. Will you harden your heart or will you obey him and tell others that God is the Lord who rescues his people?
The point of this amazing story is about God, period. We need to be reminded of who he is and what he does. God exceeds our understanding and yet he reveals himself so what we can see who he is, and that vision puts all of life in perspective. God is more powerful than we have ever imagined. He is the, I AM. He makes promises and keeps them. He cares and He rescues his people. Exodus is a God-centered book with a God-centered message that teaches us to have God-centered life. Whatever problems we have, whatever difficulties we face, the most important thing is to know who God is. How has God opened your eyes to see who he is?
When a relationship is broken and cannot be mended, he says, “I am the LORD.” When nothing seems to go right, and it is not certain how things will ever work out – even then he says, “I am the LORD.” Know that God is the LORD who rescues his people.