The scenes in Egypt during the plagues are one of the darkest moments in all of Scripture. While they end with hope for God’s people, the tragedies that befell the Egyptian people are no laughing matter. Far too often, we trivialize these moments as stories meant for Bible School or VBS and that is a mistake. They are real, catastrophic events that devastated a nation. If we look closely, we’ll see a pattern develop in this story that continues throughout the Bible – God reveals His power; then keeps His promise; and, in the end, delivers His people.¹
Some people find it confusing that the same God who heard the “oppression” of the Israelites dealt out this judgment upon the Egyptians. Many critics of the Bible are quick to point this out and they use that fact to demean God’s character. Whatever we think of them, these scenes deliver several noteworthy messages about God. He executes judgment fairly, He dispenses love equally and He offers salvation to all who will accept it. Unfortunately, many people look at God’s qualities, offerings, and expectations and turn a blind eye. They see Him, but don’t honor Him.
When I think of the Egyptians, I am reminded of Paul’s visit to the Areopagus in Acts 17. As he spoke to the Athenian philosophers, he told them this in verses 24-30:
God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring” Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.
While that passage isn’t inherently about the Egyptians, how similar is it to their attitudes during the enslavement of the Israelites? They were in the presence of God’s people for several hundred years and couldn’t see God in those circumstances. They witnessed the plagues and remained stubborn. They watched, but wouldn’t react. I pray the church of 2018 will teach the hardened world around us about the entirety of God (His wrath, judgment, fairness, and not just His love and compassion) before its too late. One day soon, a great day of judgment will fall upon the entire world. It will bear a striking resemblance to what happened in Egypt all those years ago. God will arrive suddenly and in the blink of an eye, the world will know He exists!
Exodus 5-10 tells the story of Pharaoh’s hard heart and the stubbornness of that ancient leader. While the individual moments caught in this story are worth a great deal of study by themselves, for the sake of time, we combine them here into one graphic account. I must encourage you to never forget the reality of these events. They happened because people trusted in false gods and would not bow to the Only True and Living God. They are a cautionary tale and living proof of Hebrews 10:31 which says, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
In chapter 5, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh for the very first time. They request time to “hold a feast for the Lord in the wilderness,” (5:1), however, Pharaoh does not respond kindly to this request. He says quite frankly, “I do not know the Lord,” in 5:2. Pharaoh’s response “expresses incredulity at the sheer audacity of the challenge to his absolute authority.”² Here, he reveals the hardness of his heart before any of the plagues. He has no experience with the God of Israel and no respect either. To him, the Lord’s demand was absurd.³ Without much provocation, he imposed harsh restrictions upon the Israelite workers. They were to make bricks without straw and their production was not to drop off one single bit (5:4-19). At this moment, Pharaoh is a picture of all totalitarian rulers.4 One detail we shouldn’t overlook is how Moses and Aaron addressed Pharaoh. They said to him in 5:1, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Let my people go.'” When Pharaoh sent his messengers to the Israelites in 5:10, they announced his wishes this way, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will give you no straw.'” I do not believe for one minute that similarity is coincidental.
This difficult task of making bricks without straw and keeping up the quota brought obvious hardship upon the Israelites and they complained to Moses and Aaron in 5:20-21. Moses was rightfully confused and asked God in 5:22-23, “why is it You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh, he has done evil to this people.” With frustration boiling over, Moses accused God of not doing what He had promised.5 In moments like that, I’m encouraged by the words of Galatians 6:9 which says, “let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” While we may seem disappointed in Moses’ complaining, consider the following:
What Moses does not understand is why this particular effect (God’s treatment of the Israelites) had to occur; this episode has only delayed the deliverance. God did not chide Moses for his hard questions. God received them for what they were: complaints at a difficult moment in life. God simply responded by assuring Moses that his purposes were on track. God’s resolve was clear; Israel would be delivered. In fact, Pharaoh himself would send, indeed drive, them out with a mighty hand.6
With patience and grace, God responded to Moses in chapter 6 by encouraging Him and reminding Him of the promises He gave Moses’ forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in 6:2-5. However, He made one distinction with Moses and told him that they (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) never knew Him by His name, “YHWH or I AM or LORD,” in 6:3. That distinction will come into greater significance at Sinai when Moses appears before God on the mountain. At the end of chapter 6, we must not be too hard on Moses. Even though he complained, he made the right choice in taking his problem to God.7
In chapter 7, Moses and Aaron are once again sent to Pharaoh. 2-5 says,
You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
This section defines clearly the responsibilities of Moses and Aaron and the outcome that awaits them. It also causes some hesitation by some readers when they see in 7:3 “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Many people ask the question, did God make this happen and take away Pharaoh’s free will? While the text here attributes the hardening of God’s heart to God, other verses say he hardened it himself (7:13-14; 22-23; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35). So what’s the answer? I really like how one commentator has explained this passage:
Pharaoh made a choice to react negatively to God’s demands. Having demonstrated a hard heart, Pharaoh then became the object of God’s additional hardening. When one hardens his heart and chooses the downward way, God allows – and even turns him over to – his downward slide to perdition.8
At this visit, Aaron was commanded to “cast his staff before Pharaoh,” in 7:9-11. As a show of power, God’s miracle overwhelmed the tricks of the Egyptian wise men (see Second Timothy 3:8) and Aaron’s rod “swallowed up their rods,” that had been thrown down in 7:12.
If we zoom out and explore the rest of chapter 7 all the way to chapter 10, we get a birds-eye-view of the first nine plagues. The Hebrew words used for the word plague mean a “blow” or a “strike” or “signs.” This underlines their twofold nature, they are proofs of God’s activity and exhibitions of the nature of that activity.9
(1) Starting at 7:14, we see the scene when water is turned to blood. God commanded Moses to go to Pharaoh and order him to “let my people go” in 7:16. Once again, we see that Pharaoh’s “magicians with their enchantments” produce something similar and Pharaoh’s heart grew even more stubborn in 7:22. I’m particularly moved by the choice of words in 7:23 which says, “Pharaoh’s heart was not moved by this.” Stubborn, unrepentant, egocentric hearts run from the wisdom of God. They see the obvious and make excuses. They are full of pride, arrogance, and self-assurance. Proverbs 16:18-19 says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”
(2) In 8:1-15, we see the second plague occur in Egypt. God overwhelmed the Egyptians with frogs. In fact, the word used in 8:2 “smite” comes from the Hebrew word nagap that sometimes refers to a blow that causes serious injury or even death. In a pattern that began here, Pharaoh plead for them to be taken away (8:8), God relented (8:12), and Pharaoh backtracked on his promise to let the Israelites go (8:15). Outside of this story and verses calling back to it (see Psalm 78:45; 105:30), frogs are not mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament.
(3) In 8:16-19, lice were sent as the third plague. The meaning of the word “lice” is purely speculative. Some suggestions other than lice are “gnats, fleas, sandflies, or even mosquitos.10 In this instance, Pharaoh’s advisors warned him saying this is the finger of God,” in 8:19, but he would not listen. This expression is used elsewhere in Psalm 8:3 in connection to God’s creation of our world and Exodus 31:18 in connection with the writing of the Ten Commandments. We should be encouraged by his advisors and their flirtation with common sense but troubled that Pharaoh once again would not listen.
(4) In 8:20-32, God sent “swarms of flies” upon Egypt as the fourth plague. In 8:22, we have the first mention of preferential treatment for Israel as the text says, “in that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, in which my people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there, in order that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land.” Not only does that verse mention the preferential treatment it also provides a deliberate justification for why God chose to act that way.11 The mention of Goshen should ring a bell to all Bible students familiar with Joseph’s story. In Genesis 45:10, Joseph told his brothers that land would be there home. Following these events, Pharaoh’s heart was still “hardened and he would not let them go,” according to 8:32.
(5) In 9:1-7, the fifth plague was the death of Egyptian livestock. The word “all” in 9:6 should not be taken in an absolute sense. It is more likely referring to such a large portion that what remained was nothing by comparison.12
(6) In 9:8-12, the sixth plague was sent to the people of Egypt in the form of boils and sores. Not just the people, but the animals left alive following the fifth plague also suffered this fate. As we have grown accustomed to in this story, Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go (9:12). At this point, I’m honestly at a loss for words when it comes to the Pharaoh’s stubbornness. How much pain, tragedy, and loss must his people suffer before he says “enough is enough?”
(7) In 9:13-35, God sent “thunder, hail, and fire (that) darted to the ground” according to 9:23. Even though Pharaoh and Egypt were warned of this, many of his people left their servants and remaining livestock in the fields while others “feared the word of the Lord,” according to 9:20-21. While storms of severe magnitude are common in that area, the violence of this storm was unique.13 I hope you see the steely resolve of some Egyptians beginning to fade in the sight of God’s wonders. In a pattern that rears it’s ugly head once more, again Pharaoh backtracked on his promise as his heart was “hard” and he would not let them leave (9:35).
(8) The eighth plague God sent was locusts according to 10:1-20. They devoured “every herb of the land and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left. So there remained nothing green on the trees or on the plants throughout the land of Egypt,” according to 10:15. The sheer devastation had to have been overwhelming at this point. One can’t help but notice how the prophets Joel (see 1:1-7) and Amos (see 7:1-3) used locust swarms as a picture of God’s judgment.14
(9) The ninth plague was complete darkness across the land for three days according to 10:21-29. Once again we see Pharaoh’s heart hardened. This time, however, Pharaoh threatened Moses with death in 10:28. It seems that he has finally reached his point of no return. I can’t help but wonder how much pressure was coming from the advisors in his palace?
Unfortunately, these moments have been minimized due to their sheer audacity. They seem to be impossible. They seem to be moments drawn from someone’s excessive imagination, however; they are real, definable moments in history when God showed His might and power over the created world. Do not overlook these instances of divine judgment. Learn why they came to the Egyptians and avoid them with all your might. We must learn from these stories that those who stand in God’s way, mock His abilities, or disregard His warnings have learned many lessons they could not forget.
¹ Tony Merida, Exalting Jesus in Exodus, (Nashville, TN: Holman Resources, 2014), p. 71.
² R. Alan Cole, Exodus, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 87
³ Coy D. Roper, Exodus, (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2008), 84.
4 Cole, Exodus, 88.
5 Roper, Exodus, 91.
6 Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 88.
7 Roper, Exodus, 110.
8 Roper, Exodus, 116. For a brief moment, I ask you to also consider Isaiah 46:12, where God says to the Israelites, “Listen to Me, you stubborn-hearted, who are far from righteousness.” God spoke then to the Israelites that rejected Him. Those contemporaries of Isaiah were stubborn (just like Pharaoh) and that stubbornness drove them away from the truth of God’s prophet.
9 Cole, Exodus, 96.
10 Cole, Exodus, 99.
11 Cole, Exodus, 101.
12 Wilbur Fields, Exploring Exodus, (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1976), 201-202.
13 Cole, Exodus, 104.
14 Cole, Exodus, 106.
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.