That you may know that I am the Lord

Exodus 6:28-10:29

25 February 2007

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service

[Readings are Exodus 6:28-7:7 and 9:13-10:2] If you have a Bible, please keep it handy, because we'll need them later.


I should start by warning you that the complete text that I've been given to preach on this morning is 124 verses long. Now, in the last sermon I preached I achieved a speed of one verse every four minutes. At that rate it's going to take us over eight hours to get through it all. I hope you brought a packed lunch. And a pillow.

However, I'm keen to see the football this afternoon, so we'd better try something else. Is that OK? I don't want you to feel short-changed.

What I plan to do is give a brief overview — a bird's eye view — of the nine plagues and then come back to look in more detail at the introductory passage that was read earlier. From there we'll draw out the big themes by looking at the three big characters: Moses, Pharaoh and God. We're going to miss a huge amount of detail, but I hope we'll get the big ideas.


Now, I'm not particularly a boxing fan, but I have noticed that the account of the plagues we have here is structured a bit like a boxing match.

First, we have something like the pre-fight press conference, and then we have nine rounds — or ten if we count next week's — of slugging it out.

The big question, of course, is going to win? Obviously, the fight is totally one-sided.

In one corner is Pharaoh. He is ruler of a mighty nation. The Egyptian empire is at its height. I don't know if you've ever been to Egypt; I went there a few years ago and saw some of the buildings built at around the time of these events, and frankly they are breath-taking. This was no backward, peasant-filled country; this was a mighty civilisation. And Pharaoh is its head. But more than that: Pharaoh is no mere earthly king, he himself is regarded as truly divine; one of the gods. And there are plenty of gods at work protecting Egypt and keeping her from harm. Who would dare to stand up against them?

Well, in the other corner we have two old gits with a stick. Moses and Aaron are both in their eighties. They come from a nation of slaves. And even these slaves have rejected their leadership! Ones got a speech impediment, and they have a God nobody has even heard of. And they've only got one God! How pathetic is that?

That's pretty much how it must have seemed to Pharaoh, at least to start with, but actually, there's never any doubt as we read the story who's going to win. The real question is, how's he going to do it?

So back to the boxing match. First the pre-fight press conference in chapter 7 verses 8-13. Pharaoh challenges them to "prove yourselves by working a miracle" so Aaron performs the miracle given to Moses at Mount Sinai: he throws down his stick, and it turns into a serpent. Interestingly, the Egyptians are not completely powerless — they can do something similar, — presumably by the devil's power. But that power is shown to be limited: Aaron's serpent swallowed up all of theirs. Despite this Pharaoh's heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.ref

This encounter sets the pattern for the following encounters when the action moves to a larger arena, involving the whole of the land and people of Egypt. There are ten rounds which follow, the first nine of which we're looking at today. And there is some structure to these nine rounds. The way God speaks to Moses shows that they are deliberately organised into three groups of three, leaving the tenth and last plague to stand on its own.

As we go through the plagues there is a progression in their severity and power. At first the plagues are severe irritations, but don't really threaten the nation's prosperity. The Nile is turned to blood; a plague of frogs infests the land and then a plague of gnats.

We see a touch of humour here, because we are told that the Egyptian magicians could replicate the first two plagues, and in doing so just made them worse: D'oh! But they couldn't get rid of the effects as Moses could, and by the third plague they had given up even trying to replicate it, which is probably just as well for the Egyptians. They were the first to recognise God's hand at work, but Pharaoh hardened his heart.

The next cycle begins with a plague of flies. Actually, I once suffered a minor plague of flies myself. A friend and I moved into some extremely nasty student accommodation, and after a week or so dozens and dozens of house flies all hatched out and started circling around the rooms. It was really gross. Do you want to know how we dealt with them? In a stroke of genius, my housemate suggested using a hoover to suck them out of the air. It was brilliant! So there's a tip for dealing with your next plague of flies: use a hoover.

Anyway, there were no hoovers in Egypt, and these flies were unlikely to be anything as harmless as house flies: they could well have been mosquitoes or another kind of biting or stinging insect. This plague was followed by the death of livestock and a plague of boils. Now the plagues are becoming more than a nuisance.

In this cycle we are told that God is making a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Of the flies he says I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this landref, and of the livestock he says the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die.ref Remember these because we'll come back to them later.

The final cycle is devastating: a plague of hail followed by a plague of locusts to utterly destroy the land. And then the worst plague yet: darkness. To you and me three days darkness might be a minor inconvenience; to a nation who worshipped the Sun with all their might it is devastating. This is a plague that strikes at their very souls.

At the end of today's text we're left with a cliff-hanger ending. Pharaoh is down but, unbelievably, not yet out. After this ninth plague we're told once again that the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he was not willing to let them go.ref ...To be continued in the next exciting instalment...

What, then, are we to make of all this? I want to explore that by looking back to the introductory passage that was read earlier, so please turn back with me to the end of chapter 6. Very briefly we'll look at the roles of the three key players in this account: Moses, Pharaoh and God. In particular, I want to look at Moses' lips, Pharaoh's heart and God's hand.

Moses' lips

Number 1: Moses' faltering lips. Why would Pharaoh listen to Moses?

Look at the end of chapter 6. Moses said to the Lord, Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?ref

Once again Moses brings up the matter of his inability to speak. Remember his argument with God in chapter four O Lord, I have never been eloquent... I am slow of speech and tongueref, O Lord, please send someone else to do it.ref.

But God will have none of it and tells Moses I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country.ref

Just as Pharaoh was considered divine, and would have had prophets to speak for him; in the same way God gives Moses a prophet to show that he is speaking with all the authority of God.

Moses is not to worry about how he speaks, because he is speaking on God's authority. Those who speak for God speak as God.

After this point we never hear another complaint from Moses on this matter. Throughout the account of the plagues, he and Aaron are utterly faithful in what they say and what they do. We're told Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them.ref They confronted Pharaoh time and time again, although it could easily have meant death for them.

At last Moses is convinced that what he has to say is worth listening to, because it comes with the authority of God.

Is what you have to say worth listening to?

I'll tell you something: If you talk about Jesus more it will be.

Does that frighten you? Well, it frightened Moses too. Look how hard he fought to avoid speaking the message of God. But eventually he got there, because in the end it was none of himself and all of God.

It took him a while to get to this point. D. L. Moody observed that "Moses spent forty years in Pharaoh's court thinking he was somebody, forty years in the desert learning that he was nobody, and forty years showing what God can do with a somebody who found out he was a nobody"

It is when we get to the point of truly understanding that we are nobodies, that's when we can begin to speak the message of God with all the authority of God.

And it's not just preachers and professional evangelists whom God calls to speak for him: all of us who have his Spirit have the authority to speak for God. That's how he has chosen to speak to the world: through you and me, his people.

So we oughtn't waste so many words talking about football or Eastenders — unlike most of the world we actually have something to say worth listening to. And we oughtn't be frightened to talk about it — when we speak God's message we speak with God's authority.

So, Moses' faltering lips. Why would Pharaoh listen to Moses? Because he brought a message from God.

Pharaoh's heart

Number 2: Pharaoh's heart. Who hardened it?

Look at chapter 7 verse 3. I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.ref

This, of course, is exactly what Moses feared would happen, Pharaoh would not listen to him. But it wouldn't be because of Moses' faltering lips, but because Pharaoh's heart was hard.

Again and again through the series of plagues we read about Pharaoh's hardened heart. After every one of the ten plagues, and the initial miracle, the state of Pharaoh's heart is reported. And in every case the verdict is "hardened".

But how did it end up hardened? We're told on a number of occasions that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and on a number of other occasions simply that Pharaoh's heart was hard, and on a number of further occasions that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. We see all three together at the end of chapter 9 and beginning of 10.

Have a look at chapter 9 verse 34. When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh's heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses. Then the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officialsref

So which was it? Who hardened Pharaoh's heart?

All we can say is that both are true: God hardened Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh hardened his own heart against God.

Hardening someones heart seems like a strange activity for God to be involved with. But he had his reasons. We read earlier in chapter 9 that God says to Pharaoh, I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.ref

By hardening Pharaoh's heart against himself, God was able more clearly to show his power and his glory. Because of Pharaoh's hardened heart, God was able to multiply his miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt.

The Apostle Paul makes this comment on this verse, therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to hardenref. In short, God is completely sovereign, even over human hearts.

Doesn't that make God unfair to Pharaoh? No, for two reasons. First Pharaoh also hardened his own heart — he is completely guilty and complicit in his rejection of God. Second, as the Apostle Paul goes on to say, who are we to judge God? It is God who defines what is fair, not us. How dare we accuse him of doing wrong?

The lesson for us is that there will be people who will never listen to our message. Their hearts are hard, because they have made them hard themselves, and because God, for reasons of his own has hardened them. Some people are implacably hostile to God. Perhaps you know someone like that.

All we can do is pray for these people, just as Moses pleaded for Pharaoh. God is sovereign over their hearts; he is capable of softening as well as hardening, and we must trust him to do the right thing.

God's hand

Number 3: God's hand. What was the point of the plagues?

We're left in no doubt by the Bible's account that the plagues of Egypt are brought about by God's hand at work. Sure, Moses and Aaron are told to stretch out their hands, and their staff, but it's very clear that really it's always God's hand that's at work.

But surely God's fist could have delivered a knock-out blow much earlier. Last weekend the young British boxer Amir Khan knocked out his opponent after just 55 seconds with what he described as the best punch of his career. Couldn't God have done the same? Well, yes he could. In chapter 9, we read that God says, By now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.ref But he chose instead to multiply his miraculous signs and wonders in Egyptref? Why so many plagues, and why so nasty? Why prolong the agony?

We're told in chapter 7 that God's purpose in the plagues is that the Egyptians may know that he is the Lord, and in chapter 9 that the Israelites may know that he is the Lord.

But the Egyptians' and the Israelites' respective experience of the Lordship of God is quite different. One lot experiences his hand in judgement, the other experiences his hand in salvation.

We see both sides of this back in our passage in chapter 7: look at it one last time. We're told at verse 4 Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgement I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of itref. The Lord's hand judges Egypt, and saves his people.


The Lord multiples the plagues in judgement to utterly humiliate Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Of course he could have brought his people out without going through the whole cycle: but that might have left Egypt's pride intact. They could have dismissed a one-off plague as just a fluke, but in bringing ten plagues God made sure they knew that he is utterly in control.

We haven't got time to go into it now, but it's clear that the choice of plagues is far from random. They are each carefully designed to systemically crush the Egyptians' so-called gods and utterly humiliate Pharaoh, who was supposed to be a god himself.

Yahweh, the Lord, is not one among many gods — he is sovereign over all. And to deny this is to come under his judgement.


On the other hand, through the plagues, the Lord's hand saves his people.

We saw earlier that God spared the Israelites from the worst of the plagues. As his hand was acting to judge the Egyptians, it was acting to save the Israelites. Why them? Certainly not because they were good! But simply because they were his people.

Again, he could have brought them out of Egypt without the plagues. But through the plagues he gives the Israelites a deeper understanding of his saving power. We read at the start of chapter 10 that it all happened so that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.ref This is a story they will tell for centuries to come!

In the plagues we see that God's hand both judges and saves in order that everyone might know that he is the Lord.


In conclusion, we must remember that God is still a God whose hand both judges and saves. This is not an ancient myth put here for our interest and to be forgotten over Sunday lunch. This is a massive warning sign! It is the blare of sirens; the ringing of alarm bells.

You see, the plagues point forward both to a judgement day to come for us, and God's saving work in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

The plagues remind us that one day God's hand will come again in judgement on this world. And the plagues on Egypt will seem mild in comparison. The world is still divided into two groups: those who reject him and those who belong to him; Egyptians and Israelites; Pharaoh and Moses; those who will know his judgement, and those who will know his salvation. Which group do you belong to?