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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 6/30/96
Moses demands that Pharaoh let the people go, and in response Pharaoh orders the taskmasters to cease giving the people straw for the bricks they are making. Now they must find their own straw, but they must still produce the same quota of bricks. So the Israelites say to Moses and Aaron, "May the Lord look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh's sight . . . to put a sword in their hand to kill us." Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord, why hast thou brought harm to this people? Why didst thou ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he has done harm to this people; and thou hast not delivered them at all." Then the Lord said to Moses, "Now you shall see what I shall do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he shall let them go, and under compulsion he shall drive them out of his land."
Have you ever, with the best of intentions, tried to help someone and only succeeded in making the situation worse? Once when we were poor students we needed a brake job on our car and didn't have the money for it. A friend who was a mechanic said, "Just buy the parts and I'll do the labor for nothing." Sounded good. But as I was bringing it home, coming down the driveway, I hit the brake pedal and it went straight to the floor with no effect. The car was stopped by the back wall of the carport, which moved several inches back from its original position in the process. Imagine how bad Bill must have felt! He probably felt like Moses did in this passage--only for Moses it was even worse.
Why does God allow such things to happen? If as we have said in this series it is always better to obey God, how could God allow that obedience to backfire? Here we have an example where we can actually see the reasons. Those reasons will teach us something in themselves and also give us faith for those times when we can't see the reasons and are tempted to pray like Moses: "Why did you ever send me?" In this case, there is a reason why God worked this way directed to each of four individuals or groups: Moses, Pharaoh, Israel, and the world.
For Moses, this initial disappointment was surely a testing of this faith. He had wanted to deliver the people 40 years ago, but obviously was not ready. He had spent 40 years on the back side of the desert outgrowing that youthful impetuosity and learning humility. Now he had been chosen and sent by God himself. So is he ready now? He must have thought so! But God knew better. After one little setback, Moses is ready to bail out. How quickly Moses begins to doubt the plan and God's ability to execute it! In verse 23 his tone is almost accusing. "You haven't delivered this people at all!"
So the Lord just lets him get it out of his system. And then the answer in 6:1 is most intriguing. There is no answer! There is no discussion of the past, no justification of God's actions in the present. Just, "OK, here's what we are going to do next." And Moses is thereby presented with a choice: will he continue to follow or turn back? Moses has to swallow his objections and his pride and just obey. Verse 23 makes plain that it was an exercise of faith that he needed.
I think part of Moses' problem was that after all the promises he had made, he ended up looking pretty foolish. If the victory had come too easily, it would have been easy for Moses to get the credit for it. Now it will be clear that only God himself can bring deliverance.
For Pharaoh, this was one step in the process of being shown to be without excuse. I think that is ultimately what is behind the seemingly inadequate or even deceptive request in 5:3. The people did not just want to take a three days journey to sacrifice; they wanted to leave and never come back! But the purpose of this request was not to deceive Pharaoh because God had already predicted that he would refuse it. The point is that the initial request was a very reasonable one in the context of ancient Near-Eastern religion. You were supposed to accommodate the demands of other people's gods. To refuse this request shows that Pharaoh has no fear of God at all--and that is the point.
Before God judges Pharaoh, the full iniquity of his heart must be drawn out and made plain for all to see. That is what testing is for: not to create character but to reveal it. If you jostle a cup, what's going to spill out of it? Whatever was inside. People often excuse their actions by saying, "I was under pressure" or "I didn't have time to think." But that is the whole point! If anger and bitterness comes out in such a moment, before one has time to think, to edit, that pretty much proves that anger and bitterness are what is on the inside. You're not going to get milk out of a cup that's full of lemonade! So here God gives Pharaoh a little shove, and look what comes out: contempt, cruelty, unreasonableness, rebellion. They came out because they were there. And the world needs to see this if God's eventual judgment of him is to demonstrate his justice and grace.
Did Israel need this testing too? After 400 years of waiting? Well, Moses and the elders did not at this point know what we and God do know: their whole subsequent history of complaining and murmuring, their preference for leaks and garlic, their readiness to worship a golden calf, their cowardice at Kadesh Barnea. How many times on the road would they be ready to chose a new leader and head back to Egypt? This moment might have seemed cruel and unnecessary to them at the time, but God knew they would not really be ready to leave until things got much worse. He must make it plain, render it crystal clear, that leaving was no mistake. There was no making it clear enough so that this stiff-necked people would not rebel later. But He must at least make it clear enough so that the Faithful Remnant could see that the majority were without excuse.
This is the place in history at which God had ordained to grant the fullest revelation of his glory before the coming of Christ. He always reveals his glory by salvation and by judgment. Therefore the opposing forced must be arrayed in their maximum clarity. He must not defeat a paper tiger. And so the fullness of evil in Pharaoh's heart had to be brought out so that God's goodness and grace would shine by contrast, so that the justice of his judgment as well as the graciousness of his redemption should be apparent to all. Is this worth a few extra days of frustration with bricks? You'd better believe it!
We've all had these moments of frustration. We see the church growing, but only in forms that are doctrinally unsound; we see needed mission or educational work going undone or remaining half done only for lack of funding. And we cry out, "Lord, don't you WANT your work to prosper? Don't you WANT your kingdom to come?" Why are we making bricks without straw? And the answer comes back: "Now you will see what I will do!" Maybe not as soon as we would like to see it. But all things are working together for good (Rom. 8:28). It doesn't say that all things are good. It doesn't say we will see the good even in our lifetime. But it does say that God is working all things toward an end that is good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Israel's frustration with their taskmasters was certainly not good in the short run. But we can see that in the long run it was necessary for the good God was bringing them. And so it will be for us, even when we cannot see it yet.
Are we willing to pay the price for a greater revelation of God's glory? Or are we like Israel, ready to give up or even go back to Egypt when things don't work out the way we think they should? Because we have the whole Bible, we know how things worked out for Israel. So hang in there, and suffer awhile if need be, for God is working all things together for good for us too.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams