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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/23/1996

Exodus 4:18-31

From Midian to Egypt

Then Moses departed and returned to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, "Please let me go that I may return to my brethren who are in Egypt and see if they are still alive." And Jethro said to Moses, "Go in peace." . . . And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn . . . but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your firstborn.'" Now it came about at the lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and threw it at Moses' feet, and said, "You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me." So He let him alone. . . . Now the Lord said to Aaron, "Go to meet Moses in the wilderness." So he went and met him . . . . Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the sons of Israel. And Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses. He then performed the signs in the sight of the people. So the people believed. . . .


We have learned a number of important lessons from the Book of Exodus already. We have seen that there are more parallels with the work of Christ in the New Testament here than in any other OT book. We have seen that God is sovereign, but that He respects the reality of his creation and the responsibility of his creatures, so that there are no cheap and easy solutions to the relationship between that sovereignty and human freedom or to the problem of evil. We have seen that when He does send deliverance, He does it in the form of a man. We have seen that this deliverance always involves a new revelation of Himself. We have seen that when He sends you, it is always better to obey. Today we see four more such lessons: one about God and his sovereignty, one about the People of God, one about redemption, and one about serving God.


Before Moses even gets to Egypt, God has already announced his plans to harden Pharaoh's heart (v. 21). What is this? Is Pharaoh then just a puppet? What has happened to the principle that God respects the responsibility of his creatures? If Pharaoh never had any real choice, it all seems very meaningless.

Well, clearly God's sovereignty is being clearly enunciated here. But that leaves open the question of how it relates to or interacts with the human will. In order to get some insight into that question, we need to jump ahead and examine the usage of this verb "harden" as the story plays out. We will see that a very interesting pattern emerges.

In 7:13, right after Moses' staff had become a serpent and eaten the staves of the Egyptian wizards which had previously become serpents, Moses writes that "Pharaoh's heart was hardened." The same thing occurs after the first plague that turned the Nile to blood in 7:22. Then in 8:15 after the second plague (frogs), Pharaoh hardened his heart. In 8:19 with the gnats, we go back to the statement simply that his heart was hard. In 8:32 with the insects, again Pharaoh hardens his heart. In 9:7 after the pestilence, it was hard. Then in 9:12 after the boils, for the first time the Lord hardens his heart. In 9:34 after the hail, Pharaoh first repents, then hardens his own heart (though 10:1, looking back, says that God did it). In 10:20 with the locusts, Pharaoh first repents and then the Lord hardens his heart. This becomes the language from then on--in 10:27 (the darkness), 11:10 (between the darkness and the death angel), and in 14:8 (after the death of the Egyptian firstborn), it the Lord who hardens Pharaoh's heart.

What we see here is a definite pattern, which moves, not simply or neatly, but gradually and inexorably, through three clear stages. At first we simply have the statement that "Pharaoh's heart was hard." In other words, he was a naturally stubborn and bull-headed person, simply acting out of his natural tendencies but without necessarily making a conscious decision. Then increasingly we see that "Pharaoh hardens his heart"--the evidence against him is mounting, even his own counselors are saying that Egypt should bow to the Israelites' God, but he makes a deliberate and conscious decision, a definite act of his own will, to harden his own heart. Only at the end of the process--and even then after a couple opportunities for Pharaoh to finally get the point--does the language shift to what had been prophesied in 4:21, and God himself begins to harden Pharaoh's heart. It's as if He says, "You have a hard heart? Better soften it. You want to harden your heart? Not a good idea. You insist on hardening your heart? OK, I'll help you!"

Theologians call what happens here the Doctrine of Judicial Hardening. It is the most fearful judgment that can befall any human being. There comes a point, after we have rejected God's grace and mercy one time too often, that He sovereignly decides to confirm us in our rebellion so that there is no longer any place for repentance, yea though we seek it with tears. To have the God of infinite mercy and eternal patience finally say to one of us, "OK, I've had it with you. If a hard heart is really what you want, that's what you're going to get. I hope you like it!" What could be more horrible than that? But God hardens Pharaoh's heart only after he has made a concerted effort, repeatedly and in the face of many warnings, to harden it himself. Here in chapter 4 God already knows what is going to happen, has already incorporated it into his sovereign plan, and so says simply that He will harden Pharaoh's heart. But when this sovereign and foreordained plan actually happens, there is a strange cooperation that takes place between God's plan and Pharaoh's own will. This does not explain the mystery of the relationship between sovereignty and freedom--it only deepens it. But it shows us that both are at work, and that God's sovereignty does not simply over-ride the human will, as if Pharaoh really wanted to repent but God would not let him. And it also shows us the need to respond to God's grace and mercy while it is still being offered. To harden your own heart is the most dangerous thing you can do.


God says of Israel that they are his son, his firstborn. What does this mean? It cannot be a literal statement, for chronologically Israel was not the first tribe to come into existence, nor was Abraham the first person to have faith in God. Abraham's descendants were therefore God's firstborn not literally but by adoption or election. So God relates to Israel as a father to his firstborn son. How was the firstborn son different from the other children? He received a double portion of the inheritance because it was his responsibility to carry on the family name. So being the firstborn is about inheritance and lineage. The same kind of language is applied to the Church in the New Testament (Rom. 8:17-18). Israel's inheritance was to be the Law and the Land. The Church's inheritance is to share God's glory even as Christ does (Rom. 8:17)! For Egypt, it made the final plague poignantly appropriate: "You won't release my firstborn? Then I'll take yours!" Firstborn for firstborn. And this leads to the next point.


The price of Israel's release was the firstborn of Egypt. But first, the price of their survival was an unblemished lamb substituted for their own firstborn when the Angel of Death passed over them. Forever after they would remember this, because every firstborn of every womb became sacred to the Lord (Ex. 13:2, 12-15). In the case of a clean animal, it was sacrificed; in the case of their own sons, it had to be redeemed. Firstborn for firstborn. It was a profound mystery enough just in the Old Testament, but more was coming. For Christ is God's true and literal Firstborn, indeed his only begotten Son. God gave his Firstborn for us so that He can treat us as his Firstborn. Redemption is and was nothing less than that, for the power of Christ's sacrifice reached all the way back into time to redeem Israel as well. Firstborn for firstborn. It was already there in embryonic form in Passover.


As Moses was on his way to finally begin his mission, God met him on the way and tried to kill him. Why? Apparently because his own firstborn, Eleazar, had never been circumcised. Perhaps Zipporah had not seen the point and Moses had never pressed it. She certainly recognized what the problem was! Why is it such a big issue now? What is the relation between circumcision and deliverance from Egypt? There isn't any--except that disobedience disrupts the perfect fellowship with God that is required for Him to work through us as He intended to work through Moses. So Moses and his family had to face the necessity of total consecration. He had to take God's covenant seriously in order to be the recipient, or the bearer, of its blessings. What stands between you and that total consecration?


The fact that if you choose to continue hardening your heart, God may confirm you in that hardening, should make us fear to harden our hearts. The fact that He gave his Firstborn to make us his firstborn and give us his glory should make us grieve at the thought of that hardening and desire total consecration to Him above all else. May his Word have its effect in us today.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 05/26/2003