We begin part 2 of our series in Exodus under the theme of "Mighty to Save". In our previous study, we read about Moses, the man God chose to carry out His promises to deliver His people. Moses was no hero, but he was weak and fearful.
When we pick up in chapter 7, we enter the part of the narrative that many of us are familiar with -- the 10 plagues. The plagues are a dramatic and powerful telling of judgment. The greatest challenge for us is see the text as it says and not read into it the movies and popular culture's retelling. How do we read this passage with the weight that it deserves? We think of miracles as myths and this passage as something like Aesop’s fables. We have lost the gravity of understanding these plagues and therefore we struggle to understand Exo 7:14. The plagues are judgment and if so, does it match the crime? What is it that Pharaoh has done that Egypt must be struck in this way and completely crushed? Through these works of God we are to know Him and know Him better. Have you read the plagues in this way before?
(A) The first plague and the heart (Exo 7:14-16)
All stories and dramas have a conflict that sets up the entire narrative. So it is with Exodus, and it is important to know who wants what and how they oppose each other. This is really important to understand in order to get the meaning of Exodus. There are 3 key characters here, and each wants a different thing:
- The LORD: God is referred to by His covenantal name (c.f. Exo 3) and this is not the usual name for God (Elohim)/ Lord (Adonai). This is the name He has with His covenant people. When it appears, the writer is activating the promises of God. This God wants His people to go i.e. God wants change. God wanted His people to prosper. God is also Moses’ source (commission), strength (power) and sustenance (promises).
- Pharaoh: Pharaoh the great ruler of Egypt wants satus quo. Pharaoh wanted to keep the slaves as they are, and to keep their numbers low and to keep his power secure. As a result, his heart is hardened.
- Moses: The man God prepared to be the Saviour of Israel from Egypt. We see that in chapters 1-6 where we read of Moses being saved as a child, prepared in the palace and raised up in the wilderness to be God’s instrument. This Moses is the deliverer rejected by defiant Pharaoh and faithless Israel.
Thus we see clearly the conflict. God wanted His people to prosper and multiply (c.f. Gen 12,17), but Pharaoh stood opposed to His plans. Just like what we've read in Mark 1, when a new King comes, He demands change. This is the problem and conflict here! Pharaoh was threatened by the command and changes that God’s presence demands.
In Exo 7:15, God gives Moses an instruction with a series of 3 instructions -- "go” and “stand”, “take your staff”, “say to Him”. God also told Moses to be at a specific place when Pharaoh was parading and showing off his glory. He was to also bring along his staff, not for Pharaoh's sake but for him. This staff was the staff that turned into a serpent (Exo 7:15). This was a reassurance to Moses who was scared and fearful, and by bringing along the staff, Moses could be reminded of God's presence and power. Despite Moses’ fears, he can go ahead not in his own strength, but with the strength and promises of the LORD. Moses’ words were also specific and this is the judgment formula (Exo 7:16). At this point, Moses wasn’t really calling Pharaoh to repentance. Rather, it sounds more like a judicial condemnation because Pharaoh has disobeyed thus far. Everything that follows now is a result of that.
Notice also how the writer draws attention to Pharaoh's heart. In the Bible, the word "heart" ("leb") refers to the inner man, mind, will, heart. The Bible speaks of the heart as the seat of the inner man. It is not only about what you feel but it is also about what you think and what you think about what you want. This passage shows us that Pharaoh’s inner man was resolutely set against God. He did not want what God wanted. The first plague tells us that the reason for his judgment is because of his heart. Like Pharaoh, we too want life carved out neatly so we can have our own space and God only occupies a small space. But this is now how God sees and not what God demands. He wants our whole person.
As we see how God judges the heart, we need to see that God will also judge our hearts. He has an opinion about what we think and feel, even when we think no one knows. What is in your heart? What if God has brought a person into our lives to speak God’s word into a specific part of our life? How will you react? Will we thank them and respond in repentance and faith? Or will we try to justify ourselves? We read of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened but we need to ask ourselves the same question too. Are we excited, passionate and eager to obey God? Or do we think of God as a consultant with inputs, but ultimately it’s up to us to decide what to implement?
(B) The first plague and knowing God (Exo 7:17-21)
From Exo 7:17, we learn that God desires to be known, not just in grace and mercy but also in judgment. His grand purpose is clear from here. He wants to reveal Himself.
In Hab 2;14, we read of the knowledge of God that will cover the sea. What does this mean? We read of this again in Isa 11:9, where it talks about heaven. Both passages describe a grand cosmic plan. God’s ultimate plan is for the earth to be full and saturated with the knowledge of God. This is the same timbre of the Great Commission. Matt 28:19-20 tells us about what we are to do to achieve this outcome. In other words, Matt gives us the strategy to achieve the outcome. We are to make followers of all the nations by teaching them to obey everything God has commanded. God’s intention is for the nations to know and obey Him and in doing so, the knowledge of God covers the waters and the seas. This is the same idea in Exodus.
Therefore, the subsequent verses in Exo 7:17-21 reflect this grand purpose. God said that He will do a series of things, and each item reflects a certain character of God.
- Turn the Nile into blood (Exo 7:17-18)
This makes the Nile deathly, stinking and unusable for water and life, and this would greatly impact the people of Egypt who depended on the Nile to survive. What we see here is God's sovereignty over the Nile (life and death) as what gives them life (water) into death (blood). Nothing is left unaffected and everything that is alive will be affected. What Pharaoh thought gave him life and security for the nation, God took away and destroyed in a minute. Everything can fall apart so easily. God is showing fearsome, terrible power, but also a resolve to oppose this man’s spiritual rebellion. God is a God that will not tolerate rebellion, and will not stop Himself for pouring out judgment on the man who sets Himself against God.
- All the waters of Egypt, not just in the Nile was turned into blood (Exo 7:19)
God is being very specific here – rivers, canals, ponds, pools, pools of water, vessels. Every trough for animals, every cup, every vase would be turned into blood. This is a truly miraculous act. God is sovereign over all water. God is not just in charge of the Nile. Ps 24:1 tells us that everything under heaven is God’s. Sometimes as Christians we learn so much skill in our spiritual life that we think we can manage God. We tell God that certain times of our lives are His. We tell Him that Sundays are His and maybe Saturdays but the rest of our lives seem to be ours. But God’s control is not just restricted to the Nile, and His control also extends to the things in troughs and cups. God isn't just in charge of nature, but also has a hold on their lives. So it is with us too.
- Moses was to do it in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants (Exo 7:20, c.f. Eze 29:3-5)
This was to be a public declaration of God’s condemnation against one man for all to see. God is not just Israel’s God – He addresses Egypt and its divine leader. Does this scare you that God will bring us to shame if it is necessary? He can expose our idolatry regardless of who we are.
- Everything happened just as God said it would (Exo 7:21)
This is part of the Old Testament pattern where there is detailed description and things happened as he said. It seems very tedious to read but the point is that everything that God says happened, right down to the fine details. Things didn't happen vaguely. God’s is a powerful, speaking God. What He says will come true, therefore, we are to look again and again to His Word. He means what He says because that's why He says it! We will do well to pay attention to His Words,
revealed in this book because in it are life and power!
Is this your God? Do you know Him this way? If you’ve been a Christian for more than 3 years, have you been growing? To the young, working people in our midst, we think that we have left behind our schooling days. We are fixed on building a career for
ourselves and many of us have left growth behind. We are all about doing, but have stopped growing. But if you’ve stopped growing, it means that you are in the process of dying. Do you think of your colleagues not as people, but as people to manage? Can you even say that God is in your workplace? Many of us have stopped trying to know God. For the students, many of us are trying to know things and chase grades. We put effort into gaining information but many of us have stopped growing in our knowledge of God. Somewhere in the church, we have stopped desiring to know God. We chase skills and Bible reading skills but Jer 9:23-24 reminds us that our only boast should be in knowing God. John 17:3 tells us that eternal life is to know God. Do you know Him?
(C) The first plague and beyond (Exo 7:22-25)
How did the Egyptians react? The magicians attempted to replicate the miracle (Exo 7:22a), just like what they tried to do in Exo 7:12 earlier on. They attempted to show that
they can do the same, and this kind of sorcery is not uncommon in the ancient world. Often, the things that God does can be imitated or counterfeited. The same outcome could be observed but a different source of power is at play.
Pharaoh's heart remained hardened (Exo 7:22b-23). He looked at what God did, saw
that his magicians could do something similar, and turned and returned to his own house. He isolated himself from the men who came to confront him. Pharaoh does what sinners always do. They hear, turn and resume life. It doesn’t change anything. Does this describe you today, or whenever you come to God's Word? It could be during your quiet time or even on Sundays. How you respond to God's Word says something about your heart.
By this point, the rest of Egypt know the reality of what has happened because their
lives have been affected too (Exo 7:24). They suffer because of what Pharaoh decided not to do and try to find new sources of water.
As we wrap up this study, we can consider what this passage tells us about a hardened heart. The rest of the plagues will repeat the idea of Pharaoh's heart hardening but even from this passage, we can see some marks of a hardened heart.
A hardened heart:
- Is made decision by decision under God’s sovereignty (c.f. Exo 7:3-4)
- Disobeys God’s commands (Exo 7:14)
- Receives God’s judgment (Exo 7:15)
- Justifies itself (Exo 7:22a)
- Refuses to change (Exo 7:22b)
- Does not listen to God and His messengers (Exo 7:22c c.f. Rom 2:5)
- Does not surprise a sovereign God (Exo 7:22d)
- Resumes its routines (Exo 7:23)
- Hurts others
- Has two options: more hardness or humility (Exo 7:24 c.f. Ps 95:6-8, Heb 3:7-15, Ps 51:17)
Exo 7 reminds us that a hard heart doesn’t happen overnight, but is a gradual process of disobeying a God who speaks. This is a warning for us too. Every time we go to church, hear God’s Word, we are being confronted by God’s Word. If we don’t respond in faith and shuts off our hearts to what God says is in our lives, we are hardening our hearts. God can let our hearts harden under His sovereignty. You can’t have a hardened heart unless God’s Word comes to you.
Exo 7 also shows us that how we respond is important. A hard heart rejects the invasion of God in our lives, and disobedience is clinging on to the status quo, instead of wanting what God wants, which is obedience. A hardened heart tries to reason and justify things by looking for all the reasons why God's truths don’t apply or why this charge is not relevant.Obedience in the common, everyday things of life is simply hearing God’s Word in a particular area and trusting in Him to follow through. If you are a Bible study leader, don’t be surprised when people don't respond in Bible study. Left to ourselves, we won't! This is also why we encourage us all not to just attend this study every Wednesday but also to talk to one another and share with each other what God has revealed to you. This is also why we encourage everyone to be a part of a local church because we need each other to fight a hard heart. We need each other to help us see what God is saying when we can’t see that for ourselves. How can you do it if you have no Christian friends? How can you do it if you put up walls? How can you do it if you don’t mingle and let someone else know what us going on in your life?
How will you respond to this passage today?