Pharaoh and the plagues (Ex 6:28-7:7)

Liberation Theology was a political and religious movement that peaked in the 1970s. Catholic priests and lay people living under authoritarian regimes in South America worked and prayed for liberation. Liberation from economic exploitation and political oppression. Thankfully the 1980s saw a wave of democratisation across that continent.

The book of Exodus was a source of inspiration for the Liberation Theologians, as it told the story of God setting his people free from slavery in Egypt. As we’ve seen over the last fortnight, the Israelites truly were a people in peril – they were enslaved and experiencing infanticide. Under the leadership of Pharaoh the Egyptians were trampling on the Israelite’s human rights and throwing their new-born babies into the Nile.

Thankfully, the Israelites’ anguished cries had reached the throne of God, and the time had come for him to act. At the burning bush God personally commissioned Moses to confront Pharaoh and demand his people’s liberty. Assisted by his brother Aaron, Moses’ task was to be God’s mouthpiece and an advocate for his people.

Aaron and Moses’ advanced age!

Our passage today tells us that “Moses was 80 and Aaron was 83 when they spoke to Pharaoh”. That is a nice reminder that whatever our age, we are never too old to do good work for God! Even if our physical body is failing, we can still be faithful and fruitful for Christ.

I know of one highly successful church leader in London, for example, who attributes much of his success to the ongoing faithful prayers of an elderly widow. From the privacy of her own home she has prayed for years for his ministry.

Even from our armchair we too can pray for the conversion of our loved ones, we can share our faith with a friend over coffee, we can give financial support to missionaries, we can intercede for the needs of the world. Moses and Aaron are inspiring role models for every octogenarian!

As we follow Moses and Aaron’s adventures in Exodus today, I want us to look particularly at Pharaoh’s hard heart and at the plagues that proved God’s power. And I want us to learn lessons from them for our own walk with God today.

Pharaoh’s hard heart

Today’s Exodus passage begins a narrative that continues for five chapters. Each chapter follows the same basic pattern – Aaron and Moses confront king Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be set free. Each time Pharaoh is warned of an impending plague if he refuses to comply. But each time Pharaoh turns a deaf ear to their request and dreadful consequences follow for his people.

So why is Pharaoh so stubborn? It may be that he didn’t want to lose a very productive slave workforce. Maybe he didn’t want to lose face. But at heart the Bible tells us the problem was with his heart. It was hard. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against God’s word. He refused to believe and accept what Moses and Aaron said. He refused to obey his instructions from God above. He would not let God’s word, God’s agenda, shape his own behaviour.

What’s interesting is that on the first few occasions we’re told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. He chose to close his ears to Moses’ message. But later on the promise of verse 3 today comes true – God himself hardens Pharaoh’s heart. It seems that God gave Pharaoh over to his own inclinations. As one commentator puts it: “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as if to punish his original obstinacy with more obstinacy”.

In our Gospel reading we saw similar hard-heartedness on display by the Pharisees who spoke to Jesus. They stubbornly refused to break the Sabbath, even to do good and save life.

As Christians we too are warned not to harden our hearts. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us not to harden our hearts to God’s voice, to be deaf to God’s words. We should let God speak to us in the Bible and communicate with us in our conscience, and – crucially – be willing to trust and obey him.

People with hard hearts are unwilling to change their behaviour. But we should be willing to change even the habits of a lifetime if they are in conflict with God’s will. We should pray that his Holy Spirit will expose any areas of our life that need to change, and be soft-hearted enough to obey him.

You see, soft-hearted people are pleasing to God. Soft-hearted people aren’t perfect, but they are people who are willing to confess their sins, trust in Christ and change their ways. May we all be such soft-hearted people, not at all like Pharaoh!

Plagues that show God’s power

In verse 3 and 4 God refers to “signs and wonders” he will perform in Egypt. Miracles that would be “mighty acts of judgement” on Pharaoh and his people for their enslavement of the Israelites.

These acts of judgement took the form of nine plagues, including:

  • The Nile turning to blood, then swarms of frogs, gnats and flies.
  • These plagues were followed by the death of cattle and an outbreak of boils.
  • The final three plagues included a hail storm, a plague of locusts and a covering of darkness.

There are several things we should notice about the plagues

Firstly, the plagues show God’s complete control over creation, even insects like gnats and flies are under his command. Pharaoh had armies, chariots and horsemen at his command – they were the weapons at his disposal. But God had all the forces of nature at his hand. Insects, animals, land, river and the sky were all used against Egypt, from all directions. It really was no contest!

Some contemporary scientists see a connection between each of the plagues on Egypt. For example, some think that contamination of the Nile caused its fish to die and frogs to leave the river. On land the frogs died and decayed, causing an outbreak of anthrax which killed cattle and so on and so forth!

Such theories are interesting but rather beside the point. The point is that these plagues were instruments in God’s hands. Each plague was announced to Pharaoh in advance and took place according to God’s timing and providential control – whatever their primary or secondary cause.

Secondly, we see that the plagues increased in intensity. As we progress through the different plagues, there is a build-up in their effect – from initial discomfort, to disease, then danger – and finally, at the Passover (which you will be looking at next week) – the death of the firstborn. The plagues got progressively worse as Pharaoh’s resistance to God persisted – as his heart hardened.

Thirdly and finally, the plagues are a spiritual assault on the gods of Egypt. You see, the ancient Egyptians worshipped a multitude of gods – with each associated with different animals or forces of nature. So, for example:

o The god Osiris was linked with the Nile.
o The god Minevis took the form of a bull,
o While Seth was the god of the land and crops; and Horus was the god of the sun.
o Even Pharaoh himself was regarded as divine by the Egyptians.

So as we work out way through each of the plagues, we see that they were an assault on the alleged power and protection of these Egyptian gods. The plagues were designed to show that these false gods were impotent and inadequate. These specific plagues were sent to show that the gods of Egypt were mere idols compared to the one true God – the God of Israel.

I’m yet to find any worshippers of Osiris, Minevis or Horus here in West Cheshire! But there are plenty of other false gods and idols that are worshipped in our society.

Contemporary idols for many people include their career, their wealth, their popularity, their possessions – you name it. All idols that promise much the same things as the Egyptian gods did – things like power, prosperity, pleasure and security. Today’s idols are hedonism rather than Horus, materialism instead of Minevis.

And just like the ancient idols, contemporary idols also fail to deliver what they promise – they fail to satisfy our deepest needs. Without a relationship with the true and living God, people are destined to remain restless and dissatisfied. There is no true peace and contentment to be found anywhere but in him. As Saint Augustine famously said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Our responsibility as Christians is to point people to the Lord Jesus, to the one person who can satisfy their deepest longings, who can offer true security in life and hope in the face of death.

The acts of judgement God unleashed on Egypt are a salutary warning to our sinful, fallen world. They are a foretaste of the judgement God will one day deliver on unrepentant people from every nation. But wonderfully the New Testament tells us that God is being “patient”. He does not want “anyone to perish” but everyone to come to repentance and faith in Christ (2 Peter 3:7-9).

So our greatest ambition and prayer should be to see our family, friends and neighbours become like the Israelites in Exodus – to become people who know the Lord and have been saved by him. To become people who are no longer idol worshippers or slaves to sin – but free, forgiven, children of God!