If you've ever seen the movie 'Date Night' you'll be familiar with the game 'What's their story?' The main characters, a husband and wife, are in a restaurant on a long overdue date night, and they look around at the other couples in the restaurant and guess what each of their stories are. Who are they? Why are they there? What are they like? It's a great game that Debs and I have, on occasion, copied with very funny results. Essentially, it's a guessing game though. And it's a game a lot of us (Christian or otherwise) often play when it comes to God. We look on from a distance and we try and guess who he is, what his story is and what he's like – and far from the results of that being funny – they're often rather tragic. Maybe we conclude that he's distant or bad-tempered or uninterested or power hungry or egotistical…or maybe we even question his very existence. But, actually, it's not a game we need to play. The truth is God is a God of revelation… he wants us to know who is and what he is like without having to guess! Hence creation…the Bible…Jesus Christ…all of which are God saying 'there's no need to guess!' The chapters in Exodus we're looking at tonight are among the clearest and most powerful revelations of just who God is – they're infamous! If we have even a little Bible knowledge, the chances are we know about plagues. Maybe from a child's storybook or school RE lessons
Maybe from a movie such as Charlton Heston's 'The 10 Commandments', or the wonderful 'Prince of Egypt' animation or more recently the tragic 'Exodus: God's & Kings' movie starring Christian Bale. Of course, you may not be familiar with this part of the Bible and sadly, this evening we haven't got time to watch God's full movie (so to speak) - we're supposed to cover four chapters today. That's not going to happen, at least not in detail! But I do propose keeping this movie theme! So we're going to look at the trailer. The one God himself produced. Then we'll cut right to the heart of the story and look at one representative scene. Before finally pretending we're walking out the cinema asking that all-important post-movie question – 'what did you make of that?'
1. THE TRAILER – So that you know! (Exodus 7:1-13)
I love a good trailer. I think you can tell I like movies. All good trailers, for films that are part of a franchise or continuing story (e.g. Marvel), do three things. They link back to what has come before, they set the scene for the direction of the new movie and they create huge anticipation to want to see the whole thing. And this is what Exodus 7: 1-13 does with the plagues…
"And the Lord said to Moses, 'See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.'"
Here's the link back. We've seen over the past few weeks that ever since chapter 3 and 4 Pharaoh will not let God's people leave Egypt. In fact, as we saw last time the Lord allows things to get worse and Pharaoh seems stronger than ever as his heart hardens. But this is all part of the plan through which God will make himself more fully known.
"See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet." In other words, this great cosmic battle is about to unfold. God versus Satan played out through their representatives on earth. Moses versus Pharaoh. And God gives his instructions:
"You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But (there's a problem!) I will harden Pharaoh's heart, (tension) and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, (anticipation) Pharaoh will not listen to you."
So we're promised…conflict…and miracles upon miracles. God continues:
"Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them."
And there is the plot and purpose of this movie in a nutshell…God will act …and rescue…and people (both Egyptian and Israelite) will know that Yahweh is the one and only Lord God Almighty. There's more - here's another link back:
"Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them."
Wait, what? "Moses… did what the Lord commanded"?! He hadn't before. Where are his excuses, where is his reluctance, where is his argumentative nature? What's changed?
"Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh."
He'd grown up! The impulsive, argumentative Moses had been replaced a calm, fearless one. One who had a rock steady, unquestioning trust in God. And with that maturity came obedience…
"Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 'When Pharaoh says to you, "Prove yourselves by working a miracle", then you shall say to Aaron, "Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent."' So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs."
Again, at the end of the trailer, we are reminded of the cosmic battle - who is going to come out on top? It's looking good for Moses…But (verse 13) "Still Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said." We need to know more, yes. What is the outcome? Well the outcome is a series of ten plagues. Ten plagues that appear to come in three cycles of increasing severity. A first cycle that includes blood, frogs and gnats – an inconvenience. A second cycle that includes flies, livestock and boils – stakes raised. A third cycle that includes hail, locust and darkness – and sadly death. Before the terrifying final plague. The pressure, the implications, the severity ratcheting up each time. The initial warning shots across the bow giving way to serious acts of judgement, with eternal consequences. So please, do take the time after this evening's service, to go through these chapters and see the story unfold for yourself. Read it quickly. Read it slowly. Look out for these themes, cycles and repeated phrases and experience the drama for yourself – it's quite the ride!
2. THE REPRESENTATIVE CHUNK – The Plague of Hail (Exodus 9:13-33)
But to give us a taste now… we're going to review one representative plague. And I've chosen the seventh plague for this. The seventh plague is the plague of hail and it comes at the beginning of the third cycle. It's the longest plague narrative and it signals the beginning of the end for Pharaoh. Let's pick it up in Exodus 9.13.
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'Let my people go, that they may serve me. For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people.'"'"
In other words, 'What you've seen so far,' God says, 'doesn't even come close to what I am capable of. Watch and learn!' Verse 14, "again this time I will send all my plagues on you … so that you may know." Know what? Firstly, he is a
a. Unique God (v.14)
"… so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth."
God Almighty is peerless. No-one comes close. No-one. Not Satan, not Pharaoh, not Kings, not Queens – not even Governments. God is unique. Egypt had set up a whole system of gods for the people to use and Pharaoh himself claimed to be one. The River Nile, the frogs, the cattle – all worshipped in some way - and the Lord exposes these pretend deities and shows that he is greater than anything they could possibly be. They were false gods and it's a folly to trust in false gods. It's foolish to trust in those things that have no power, authority, control or goodness or lasting satisfaction in our lives. And there are many today too aren't there? Heroes we worship: celebrities, pop stars, preachers, internet stars; things: bank accounts, ability, job, sex, drink; ideas: ideologies, philosophies – …things that can never truly satisfy or rescue. And here was a man (Pharaoh) leading a nation in a corporate denial of this unique God. Sound familiar? And friends, it's absolute folly. Do you remember what Pharaoh had said earlier? (Exodus 5:1) "Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go?" Well he's getting a very clear answer. Firstly, he's a unique God, secondly this unique God exercises…
b. Unique Control (v.15)
"For by now I could have put out my hand (implication - I've exercised control and haven't put it our yet) and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now."
Yahweh is in complete, utter and unique control - not the so-called gods of Egypt. Some question that. They argue that these plagues are simply well-timed natural disasters. But according to God's word, that's not possible because God himself was responsible for the timings, the causes, the intensity – these aren't coincidences. Yahweh is in complete, utter and unique control. Of events, of nature, of time, of politics.
That's good to know isn't it - given the current state of British and world politics! It's all being worked out for his purposes – to proclaim his glory. Now we might not be able to see it right now. Just like the Israelites were struggling to see it in captivity. Just like the Egyptians were struggling to see it under the cosh of all these plagues – but the Bible is unequivocal – our unique God is in complete and total control. Furthermore, he can be in that position of control because of his…
c. Unique Power (v.17 & vv.22-25)
Verse 17, "I have raised you up, to show you my power". How in this instance? Through worst hailstorm ever – scan down to verse 22.
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Stretch out your hand towards heaven, so that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt, on man and beast and every plant of the field, in the land of Egypt.' Then Moses stretched out his staff towards heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. And the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt. There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field."
I don't know how many storms you've experienced – but imagine the worse amped to the max. I think back to one that woke me up a few years ago. Our bedroom is at the top of our house and has Velux windows and as I looked out of those windows the view and sounds felt apocalyptic! It was terrifying, I was grateful I was in my house, but I have to be honest I was nervous we might take a direct hit. Sadly, in this display of the Lord's power in Egypt, many did. And they perished. But amidst that power, don't miss the Lord's…
d. Unique Grace (v.19)
…through what he says in verse 19. Before calamity strikes, he provides a way out.
"Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them."
He gives a warning. A warning that some heed and some don't. And these are the Egyptians remember. Some heed and some don't. Friends, in his unending grace, God, through his word, still gives warnings today. Do this…pray, love, respect, steward, look after the vulnerable; don't do that…covet, murder, be unfaithful - it's for our own good. Why? Because God wants us in his fold and, next, under his…
e. Unique Protection (v.26)
"Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail."
Time and again, throughout the plagues, the distinction is made between the judgement on those who ignore him, and the protection for those who listen to him and are his. It seems that Goshen in particular has this plague exclusion zone around it. Because this unique God wants the world to know that those who are his and obey him will be those who are ultimately protected and rescued from the coming destruction. Because, of course, lastly this unique God is also the…
f. Unique Rescuer
No-one else could do it!
"Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the Lord, for there has been enough of God's thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.' Moses said to him, 'As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord's.'"
Only he can do this – he is the only one capable of rescuing. Now of course, Pharaoh changes his mind.
"But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses."
In fact, we find Pharaoh's heart hardened repeatedly throughout this whole episode. You cannot read the account of the plagues without this message coming through loud and clear. No less than 15 times our attention is directed towards the hardness of Pharaoh's heart. Sometimes, as here, he hardens his own heart, but predominantly it is God who hardens Pharaoh's heart. Now we have to be honest here, don't we? It's a bit of a head-scratching moment. Why does a merciful God deliberately harden someone's heart against him? Why? At first glance, it doesn't appear to make sense. Well, we get an answer in verse16.
"But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth."
But that still seems a bit harsh. I mean, surely there are other ways that God could proclaim his name in all the earth?!
Maybe there are – but above all in these cases, we need to remember that there's no such thing as spiritual neutrality. God doesn't take a spiritually neutral person and harden him; God sovereignly allows a spiritual rebellious person to harden himself further. And such things always serve God's purposes. Romans 9:14 says:
"What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy."
And so we see God reveal who he is through the plagues. He is utterly unique – allowing his control, power, grace and protection to be the means of provision for a unique rescue.
Following the success of the Marvel films, all good films now have a crucial post credit scene that everyone in the cinema hangs on for. Our post-credit scene comes at the start of chapter 11. Three cycles of plagues are complete – here comes the final and ultimate one.
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterwards he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely. Speak now in the hearing of the people, that they ask, every man of his neighbour and every woman of her neighbour, for silver and gold jewellery.' And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's servants and in the sight of the people."
There's more to come - do come back next time to see that fulfilled. So, we've seen the preview, we looked at a representative chunk – what's our reaction?
3. THE REACTION – Fear God's Word or Ignore God's Word (Exodus 9:20-21)
What are we supposed to make of the plagues? In closing, allow me to share three things that I loved about this part of God's word.
Firstly, I love the fact that the plagues reveal God's unique nature
Here is the all-powerful God, completely in control, defeating Egypt's pathetic magicians, wise men and supposed gods. There's a wonderful sub-plot too, where at first the magicians appear to keep pace with Moses, then they are unable to before they finally fall victim themselves. And that's a great reminder for us today. When we look at the world and evildoers today, and it appears like they are keeping pace with God, we need to remember that one day they will fall victim to the judgement of God.
Secondly, I love the fact that the plagues reveal God's concern for the whole earth to know him
There's a constant mission focus. So many times when things are explained, they are explained in the context of 'all people' knowing that the Lord is God. He wants the 'whole earth' to know him as their saviour. Can you imagine if there had just been one plague? Frogs, flies – they happen often enough in the natural world. But ten! In increasing severity. At set times and in set places. Small wonder we're still talking about it thousands of years later, thousands of miles away! The reality is that God desires all to be saved.
Lastly, I love the fact that the plagues demand a response
The story isn't told just for our information. It's told so that we would act. Because of his word, because of his dramatic intervening in history – knowing who God is, is no guessing game. Everything we need to know - he has revealed. And so the real issues is how we respond. And just like the Egyptians there is a choice to be made. Let me draw your attention to one final scene from the plague of hail. Exodus 9.20:
"Then whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his slaves and his livestock in the field."
In other words, there is a simple choice between two things:
- Fear the word of the Lord – and be saved
- Ignore the word of the Lord – and be destroyed.
That was the choice then for the Egyptians – it remains the choice for us today too. Because all those who rightly fear God's word, accept Jesus (who is God's word made flesh) and live for him today – will experience him as rescuer in the world to come. But all those who ignore him, and reject Jesus, will experience him as their Judge leading to a terrible eternity without him. At the end of the day, the story of these 10 plagues is preserved for you and I so that we may know just who God is and respond to him rightly. And just like Pharaoh – our response is always a matter of the heart.