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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 07/14/96
In Moses' second encounter with Pharaoh, Aaron turns his staff into a serpent. The Egyptian sorcerers duplicate this feat, but Aaron's staff eats their serpents up. Yet Pharaoh's heart is hardened. So Moses turns the water of the Nile into blood, all the fish die, the Nile stinks, and the people have to dig around it for drinking water. "By this you shall know that I am the Lord" (v. 17). The Egyptian sorcerers once again duplicate the feat (though they cannot reverse it), and Pharaoh's heart continues to be hard. Seven days pass.
We are reading one of the more familiar parts of the Bible today. But it is more than just an edifying story in which the good guys (Moses, Aaron, Jahweh) win and the bad guys (Pharaoh, the Magicians, Satan) lose. Because it is Jahweh, the God who is what he is, at work, there are principles to be learned from the way that this transcendently self-consistent God operates. Some are obvious: that he is a God of grace, a God of justice, longsuffering but not delaying his wrath forever, etc. Others may require a deeper look, but they are just as true and perhaps even just as fascinating.
The most basic of the principles we see illustrated here, and the one from which the others flow, is that GOD WORKS TO MAKE HIMSELF KNOWN IN THE WORLD. Whether he is saving or judging or maintaining nature through providence, all these activities will be done in such a way as to advance that larger agenda. We see this here in v. 3, where God announces his intention to harden Pharaoh's heart in order that he may "multiply his signs and wonders in the land of Egypt." Why? In v. 5, so that the Egyptians will know that he is the Lord when he stretches out his hand in judgment on them and deliverance for Israel. And in v. 17 we get what will become a refrain, as God comments on the first plague, "By this you shall know that I am the Lord."
The NT has its own way of making the same point. In Eph. 3:8-11, Paul's preaching of grace to the Gentiles was so that "the manifold wisdom of God might be make known through the Church," which is done to carry out his eternal purpose. Hebrews begins by talking about God speaking though his Son, who is "the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his nature." And in Phil. 2:10-11, this is all leading to the time when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that this Jesus, the exact representation of God's nature, is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Jesus will make him known to the whole world and beyond. For Man himself was made to make this making known possible:
Here's the marvel: that the self-contained And all-sufficient triple Unity Which for untold eternities had reigned Complete in his own pure simplicity Should will unnecessary worlds to be. And yet his mind was steel, his purpose flint. He struck off sparks of flaming ecstasy And called the stars by name. The thing he meant? To make his glory visible. He sent Forth pulsing space-time-matter-energy Which danced in pirouettes as on it went. Just one thing more was needed: eyes to see And skin to feel and mind to comprehend. He called it Adam, and there made an end. (DTW)
It follows from this, in the second place, that JUDGMENT IS NOT JUST PUNISHMENT; like everything else God does, IT IS ALSO REVELATORY. Ir. reveals his Holiness, his Justice, his Hatred of Sin, his Opposition to Oppression, his Wrath against the Unrepentant. All these attributes judgment of course manifests directly. But his judgments themselves also indirectly reveal another side of him: his Love for his People, his Compassion for the Victims of oppression and evil. As we work our way through the ten plagues, we will see all these attributes of God made known in both the substance and the style of his judgments.
A third principle is that, because it is revelatory, JUDGMENT OFTEN TAKES THE FORM OF AN ATTACK ON THE FALSE GODS OF THOSE JUDGED. The demonstration that Jahweh is the Lord includes the demonstration that those gods are not. And because the judgments reveal both his Justice and his Mercy, his Wrath and his Grace, they constitute such an attack precisely as an opportunity for repentance. It is an uncomfortable thing to have one's false hopes ripped out from under one, but this is a merciful discomfort, necessary to get across the idea that one needs to forsake and repudiate them and turn to the true God. The judgment becomes simply punitive in the long run only when this message and opportunity are rejected.
The fourth and final principle we will look at today is that JUDGMENT MAY INCREASE IN SEVERITY UNTIL IT ISSUES EITHER IN REPENTANCE OR DESTRUCTION. The last of the ten plagues, the Angel of Death, is saved for last for a reason.
These principles are illustrated in all the ten plagues, and that illustration begins here. We see them manifested in the experience of the major players in this drama and in other biblical and historical examples as well.
In the case of Egypt, we can see these truths being brought home first of all by the staves. The Sorcerers or Magicians represent Egyptian religion in general. Did they really reproduce Moses and Aaron's miracle of turning sticks into snakes? Maybe not. By some reports, the Egyptian fakirs had trained serpents to go rigid like sticks--so they were more turning serpents into staves than vice versa. Either way, when Aaron's staff in its serpent phase swallowed theirs up, it was the clearest possible proof that Moses' God was superior to theirs. To ignore such a demonstration would be to render oneself without excuse. Jahweh is being revealed as superior to the Egyptian gods in power as well as in commitment to his People. Note also the principle of escalating severity. This first demonstration does not hurt anyone (with the possible exception of the Magicians' egos, which needed to get the point anyway!). But it was rejected, so now instead of relatively benign Signs we get increasingly severe Plagues.
The first of those plagues goes right to the heart of Egyptian life and religion by attacking the Nile River. The Nile itself was in a sense the strongest of all the Egyptian gods, responsible for life and fertility. In v. 15, Moses was to meet Pharaoh in the morning as he was going to the water. What modern readers may not know is that Pharaoh was going there to perform ritual worship to guarantee the Nile's continuing favor to Egypt as the source of life for her whole agricultural economy. In this context, the first plague seems even more pointed. Now, the Nile in Egypt has a natural "red tide" cause by silt washing down from Ethiopia. That is a beneficial phenomenon; it does not normally kill the fish, and it contributes greatly to the fertility of the Nile valley. So God is quite pointedly turning the anticipated blessing of the Nile into a curse. The source of life becomes the source of death (at least for the fish). The symbolism is especially potent, for blood was associated with death for ancient people more closely than it is for us. So where does the life-giving quality of the Nile really come from? On whose pleasure does it really depend? Hmmm.
Once we see these principles in action here, we cannot escape them throughout not only the rest of Scripture but in history as well. Israel worshipped, essentially, not God so much as the idea of being his privileged people. Therefore, their judgment was the loss of the Land, the primary mark of his favor, and the Temple, the primary mark of his special presence with them. The Nazis worshiped the German nation, the Aryan race, the Fatherland. Until they got it out of their system, their nation was not only conquered but divided so that it ceased even to be a united people. The American generation of the Roaring Twenties worshipped pleasure and lived for hedonism and materialism, as declared by their two anthems, "In the Money" and "Ain't We Got Fun." Precisely those things were taken away from them in the Great Depression of the Thirties. Judgment, by taking the form of an attack on the false gods we worship, is revelatory. But like Pharaoh we are hard of heart and do not want to get the message.
What are the false gods that our generation worships? That we do? Be prepared to have that false comfort ripped away. If you respond in repentance, it will be God's severe mercy leading to your salvation; if in hardness and rebellion, it will be the precursor of his wrath leading to your eternal destruction. But why wait for this process to begin? Turn from all other hopes and comforts to him even now, benefiting from the experience of Israel and of Egypt which was written for our instruction. Is Exodus contemporary? Maybe too much so for comfort! For the false comfort of false gods, anyway. But that may be a comforting thought indeed.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams