What do you think about God’s revelation of Himself through His acts of judgment? Does it show us the fruit of a successful anger-management program, where the wrathful God of the Old Testament learns to take deep breaths and count to 10 before He becomes the loving God of the New Testament? Today’s passage combats such faulty notions by showing us that God acts consistently, and His acts of terrible judgment and loving salvation both serve the common purpose of making Himself known, and bringing glory to His name. The theme of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is also threaded through this passage. We might be tempted to jump to theological squabbles about election and free will, but doing so would be to miss the point of the passage. How do we make sense of these issues? Read on to find out more!
(A) God terrible judgment: sovereign over glory-robbing, idolatrous, and hardened hearts (Exo 8:1-9:12)
We're going to cover 5 plagues in this study, and the most effective way of covering so much content is to summarise it in a table.
Here are two helpful guidelines for Bible reading: 1) Look out for patterns (repeated points), 2) Look out for distinctions within the patterns. The table above makes it clear that there is a clear pattern to the plagues, but also distinctive in each plague. Let’s consider their implications.
3 of our plagues involve the personal-covenantal God invoking a judgment-formula on Pharaoh. A specific warning is given, a specific condition is set, and specific instruments are issued for the enacting of judgment. And everything happens according to the details in the judgment-formula! While the other 2 plagues do not include a warning, the same point of application can be made - God’s word is true and effectual. This should not come as a surprise to us, as we read in the very first chapter of the Bible that God speaks things into existence (Gen 1)! We must also bear in mind that many of these conditions involve very specific instructions about time, and actions that generate certain effects - God repeatedly makes clear the time at which the judgment will take place (Exo 8:23, 9:5), and Moses and Aaron’s actions suggest a clear causal effect between the plagues’ occurrence (Exo 8:5, 8:16, 9:8). These actions are also done in the sight of Pharaoh. These things are important for some have tried to explain away the plagues as natural occurrences. The Bible does not allow for this. God is not a glorified-weathermen, and He is directly responsible for the terrible judgment that befalls Egypt. Understanding these attributes of God can be frightening. A God who speaks things into existence and brings about terrible judgment isn’t a God that can be scrutinised, handled, and compartmentalised. And this is the God that we profess to worship! Friends, if you think that this record of the Ten plagues is merely a fanciful Old Testament Bible story for you to quickly scan over, think again. The extent of God’s power and sovereignty as revealed in these acts of judgment call us to reconsider how we behold our God. How do you respond to a God like this?
Whatever the case, our response should definitely not be like that of the magicians’. We learn in Exo 8:7 that the magicians replicate God’s act of judgment “by their secret arts”. This is the 3rd time they’ve tried something like this. But isn’t it a really pathetic response? Instead of making the situation better, the magicians can only make the situation worse. Their secret arts and demonic powers are incapable of reversing the judgment - only God is capable of making things good again (Exo 8:13). This tells us that the cosmic battle between God and Satan isn’t just a dualistic battle between good and evil, where we wait with baited breath to see which side emerges victorious. God’s power clearly trumps that of Satan’s, for all that Satan wields is a counterfeit power. We learn in the following encounters (Exo 8:18, 9:11) that the magicians grow increasingly helpless in response to God’s acts of judgment, till the point where they are incapable of even showing their faces (9:11). This is the second last time they are mentioned in the Bible.
The last time they are referenced is 2 Tim 3:1-9. In this passage, Paul warns Timothy of “times of difficulty” that will come “in the last days”, where many will immerse themselves in various sins and lead others astray. Timothy is called to “avoid such people” as they are alike to the Egyptian magicians “Jannes and Jambres” - “they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all.” There is a specific point of application to be made here: we live in a world plagued by counterfeit gods and counterfeit displays of power. It can be tempting to keep close to such displays of power - sin is always seductive. Such folly doesn’t reveal itself from the get-go. It dresses up in various guises. In the office, it can look like high-flying individuals who succeed at any cost. In the church, it can look like widespread fame and prosperity that is mere built on charisma and pizzazz. But like Jannes and Jambres, these counterfeit powers will be exposed for their folly. Keep away from them!
Pharaoh’s interactions are also very revealing. From the 2nd to 5th plagues, Pharaoh grows in his understanding that it is truly the God of Israel who is sovereign in His judgment. In the second plague, Pharaoh petitions Moses to intercede for him (Exo 8:8). In the third plague, Pharaoh’s very own magicians tell him that this is “the finger of God.” (Exo 8:19). In the fourth plague, Pharaoh tries to negotiate the terms of release before capitulating to Moses’ demands. And in the fifth plague, Pharaoh himself inquires and learns that the Israelite livestock was protected as foretold. This sweep of events show us why Pharaoh was damned - instead of submitting to God in light of his increased understanding that God was acting in judgment, he hardened his heart time and time again. We might be tempted to turn this process of hardening into a theological argument: if God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, how can Pharaoh be culpable (Exo 9:12)? But jumping into such arguments put one at risk of missing the point. Instead of fixating on the outworking of God’s sovereignty and human culpability (things that the Bible consistently holds to be simultaneously true), we should dwell on the fact that God matches Pharaoh at every instance of judgment. The more Pharaoh resists, reneges, and rebels, the more powerfully God reveals Himself through acts of judgment. Instead of jumping to ask, "how is this logically possible?”, we should be asking “why does God reveal Himself in this way?”.
For each plague, by progressively matching Pharaoh at every instance of Pharaoh’s rebellion, God was showing Pharaoh and all of Egypt that the idols they had placed their trust in were powerless before the One True God. This shows us just how much God hates idolatry. Idolatry leads us to worship created things instead of the creator (Rom 1:21-25), and it is a glory-robbing act. This is something that God detests, for He is the rightful owner of all glory. God even makes it explicitly clear (Ex 7:4-5, 9:16) that Egypt is being judged so that God would be known, and God’s name would be proclaimed throughout all the earth. Friends, I cannot stress how relevant this is for us today. We live in a secular age that mocks temples and their deities, but this secular age is no less prone to the sin of idolatry. Think about the great slew of created things that we have elevated to become ultimate things. Our Singaporean society is so culpable of worshipping “pragmatism”, so much so that we neglect mercy, justice, and the gospel. In our lives, we are so prone to worshipping our self-image, our careers, our families, and even our "theological rightness” - all of which are different guises that pride hides under, through which we elevate ourselves to the center of the universe. Anything that takes away any modicum of glory from God is an idol, and God stands in sovereign judgment over idolatry. If you think you are exempt from this sin, answer this: “What do you think about the most?” Archbishop William Temple once wisely commented that "your religion is what you do with your solitude.” What do you do with your solitude? What do you plan for, fret about, and rejoice in the most? These are hard questions to answer truthfully, but they reveal to us the hidden idols that we have allowed to take centerstage.
Aside from calling us to turn away from idols, we must remember that every instance of judgment that we read of in the Bible prefigures the final judgment to come. Judgment is an icky word that we don’t like thinking about, and we have concocted fabulous ways of pretending it doesn’t exist. We have explained it away in our heads with notions of inherent human greatness - surely God wouldn’t judge great people like us, right? We have explained it away in our hearts with notions of moral relativism - who’s to say who has the right to judge? And we have excised it from our minds by filling up our thoughts with social media and trivialities. But the apostle Peter warns us in 2 Peter 3:8-13 that the day of final judgment will come. Everything perishable will perish. We will all stand before God to give an account of our lives. And without the good news of who Christ is and who we might be in Him, this world stands hopeless and condemned. Friends, have you neglected evangelism and the spiritual wellbeing of the Christians around you? The good news must be proclaimed. The church must strive for holiness. And we must bear in mind the great judgment that is to come.
These passages remind us that God is sovereign in His terrible judgment over glory-robbing, idolatrous, and hardened hearts. And we know that God truly hates the sin that is idolatry because He has always acted consistently in meting out judgment on idolaters. Beyond that, we also know that God truly hates idolatry in the purest sense of the word. He doesn’t not merely hate it in a purely impassioned way, but He also hates it in the sense that He is diametrically opposed to it by nature. We know this because more than 1000 years after His judgment on Egypt, God condescended to human flesh and bear the full weight of judgment for idolaters like you and me. When sin is unveiled and its judgment issued, every Christian must turn to the Cross, and acknowledge both the joy and the gravity of knowing that it was our sin that held Him there - where God’s wrath was satisfied.
(B) God’s astounding love: covenant-bound redemption for an undeserving people (Exo 8:22-24, 9:4-7)
Thankfully, God does not only enact terrible judgment, but also redeems in astounding love. We read in Exo 8:22-24 and Exo 9:4-7 that God literally “set redemption” (Exo 8:23) between His people and Pharaoh’s people. This language moves God’s actions beyond protection, and into salvation. In His sovereign protection, God reveals the love that He has for His people which eventually culminates in their rescue from Egypt.
But why is this love astounding? First, we remember that the land of Goshen was the land that Jacob and his family settled in (Gen 47:1-12). This point us back to the covenant that God made with Jacob and Jacob’s forefathers - revealing how God is one who is true to His covenantal promise. This isn’t a new idea for us, as we learnt earlier that God’s remembrance of His covenant moved Him to action (Ex 2:24, Deut 7:6-8). This is astounding because it reveals that God did not save and choose Israel for any inherent good of their own, but because of His covenantal promise (Deut 7:6-8). Instead of opting to elect a people who were strong and numerous, God chose to weakest of the lot, that His glory might be made prominent. The same is true for us today - if you are in Christ, you were saved not on any merit of your own (Eph 2:8-9). Is this a shocking idea to you? The Bible states it clearly. We are saved not because we are intrinsically better, but because God is loving and merciful. This should shape the manner in which you relate to God and to other people. Because we have been saved by grace, God owes us nothing, and we owe Him everything. Because we have been saved by grace, we have no pedestal to elevate ourselves on, and we must conduct ourselves in a humility that reflects the message of the gospel.
This is astounding because it God saves His people so that they might worship Him (Exo 8:1, 20, 9:1). Has it ever occurred to you that you were saved not that you could be happy, contented, comfortable, or autonomous? Rather, you were saved so that you might turn away from worshipping false gods, and worship the one true God. What is your attitude towards worship today? Friends, worship must not be restricted to Sunday mornings and Christian gatherings. You were saved for a purpose. Worship!
There is another passage in the Bible that speaks to God’s loving protection over His people in the midst of a world that stands under His judgment. John 17:14-19 record some of Jesus’ last words, as He looked to God in prayer. In these verses, Jesus prays not that His disciples be taken out of the world, but that they be kept from the evil one. He prays that they be sanctified in the truth, and the basis on which He prays these things is His consecration (v19). And there has been no greater display of God’s astounding love than in the way that Jesus consecrated Himself, for He walked the lonely road to the Cross, and hung there - despised, rejected, and abandoned. And that wasn’t even the worst part! The most excruciating moments of Jesus’ consecration were moments that you and I will never fully understand, for they were the moments that He bore the weight of God’s terrible judgment against sin on our behalf.
My Christians friends, you were saved to worship. Christ consecrated Himself that you would be sanctified. There is one simple question at hand here: “how have you been thinking about your sanctification?” So often we lack the intentionality and the resolve to be serious about sanctification. Look to Christ! See His astounding love, and remember the terrible price that He paid. The church must strive for its holiness, and we must be intentional about our sanctification.
If you aren’t a Christian, you have been incredibly gracious in listening to all of this talk about judgment. But I will not apologise for all of this talk about judgment for two reasons. First, the Bible speaks clearly and plainly about it. Second, and most importantly, it is incredibly difficult to fully grasp the love of Christ without knowing the judgment that you were saved from. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, His message to you today is not “believe, or be judged”, but “believe, for I have been judged.” Flee from vain idolatry, place your faith in Him, and therein know an astounding love.