God's glory in salvation through judgement

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We’re on to the next in our series on Exodus, and let me just tell you up front that there’s nothing here about specifically about mothers! But there’s plenty for all of us, including mothers. So let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you for your living word. Thank you that through it, by your Spirit at work in us, we hear your voice, and by faith we see you. So Lord, please open the eyes of our hearts. We want to see you, high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory. Open the eyes of our hearts, we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.I want to see you…high and lifted up,shining in the light of your glory.[Open the Eyes of My Heart, Paul Baloche © 1997 Integrity's Hosanna!]

That is our song. Do we mean it? The greatest need in our lives is to see the glory of God. We see it above all in the face of Christ, crucified for our sins and risen to reign. And we see God’s glory in the events of the Exodus. It’s not a comfortable, cosy sight. The living God is not tame. But the sight of him is what we need above all else. So over last week and this, we’re looking at the account of the first nine plagues on Egypt and Pharaoh in Exodus 7–11. This week my title is ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgement.’ It’s a phrase I’ve taken from a book by the biblical theologian Jim Hamilton. It’s what we see here in the account of the Exodus. In fact it’s what we see all through Scripture.

Let’s remind ourselves of the unfolding story here that we began looking at last week. Moses went to Pharaoh with the Lord’s command that Pharaoh should let God’s people go, but Pharaoh would not. Then there was this series of ten plagues. After every one, Pharaoh was hard-hearted, and rejected the Lord’s command, and refused to let God’s people go. So the water of the Nile was turned into blood. There were plagues of frogs, and gnats, and flies. The livestock of the Egyptians died. Then there were plagues of boils, and heavy hail. Then a plague of locusts so intense that no plants were left. The ninth plague was three days of pitch darkness so deep that it could be felt. But still Pharaoh would not let them go. So, finally Moses warned Pharaoh of yet one more fatal plague that would fall: every firstborn in Egypt would die.

We’re working through the cast of characters here, and last week we saw, firstly, that the Lord (not just one of the characters but sovereign over them all) is the only God, present and powerful; secondly, that Moses had learned to live by faith; and thirdly, that the magicians were overwhelmed and defeated. We have three more characters today. Before we get to them, let me make two observations. First, it’s important to see how there is an intensification of the plagues. They are serious from the start, but their impact gets worse and worse. So there’s a movement from plagues on the land, through plagues on the livestock, to plagues on the people. And of course in the tenth plague the firstborn die. There is also intensification through the cumulative effect of the plagues, piling one on top of the other. And there is an intensification through the ever more direct and personal intervention of the Lord himself. So for the first three plagues, the Lord works through Moses who works through Aaron. Then for the next six, the Lord works through Moses, without Aaron. Then for the terrible tenth plague, he works alone and directly. And for all the horror of this piling up of judgement, we mustn’t miss that there is mercy in this intensification. At any point, Pharaoh could have repented genuinely and brought it all to an end. It is the same today. The Day of Judgement is coming, but the Lord is patiently withholding his hand, to give people time to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith. So let’s make sure we turn now, and tell others, while we can.

My second observation is that judgement is necessary for salvation. If there is implacable, intractable evil oppressing the people of God, causing them to suffer and die and keeping them from the Lord, then the only way God’s people can be saved is through the utter destruction of that evil. If there are permanently unrepentant servants of that evil who are agents in the oppression of God’s people, then the Lord must destroy them to set his people free to come to him. That destruction of evil is not only necessary but is a cause for sober rejoicing. We should hate evil and long for its elimination. We should also throw ourselves on God’s mercy and amazing grace through Jesus, lest we too are destroyed. So, there is an intensification of the plagues. And there is a necessity of judgement for salvation. Let’s turn back, then, to our cast of characters, and to the next three – Pharaoh; the servants of Pharaoh along with all the Egyptians; and the Israelites.

1. Pharaoh, by his unrepentant and God-hardened heart, brought down judgement on himself

And yes, that’s carefully worded! There’s so much to see here about Pharaoh, who is the archetype of the ungodly ruler and the enemy of the Lord. He is everything we must not be. We must constantly be crying out to the Lord to purge us by his Spirit of the petty Pharaohs that lurk in our hearts and wage war against the Holy Spirit who lives in us. There’s Pharaoh’s breath-taking arrogance. We saw that back in Exodus 5.2:

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.”

There’s his repeated refusal to do what the Lord is telling him to do (Let my people go). Again and again he refuses (despite every warning and every plague), save the last, and even then he tried to undo his permission. There are his self-serving and short-lived concessions, his false piety when he’s feeling the pressure, his lies and deceitfulness and inconsistency. So for instance, when he’s under a carpet of frogs, only amplified by his own magicians, he calls Moses and Aaron back and says (Exodus 8.8):

Plead with the Lord to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.

But as soon as respite came, and the frogs were dead and lying in stinking heaps, he changed his tune. Or when everything is filled with flies (Exodus 8.28):

So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away. Plead for me.”

But Moses is not fooled (Exodus 8.29):

…“Only let not Pharaoh cheat again…”

Then again when the heavy hail is wreaking havoc he sounds even more penitent (Exodus 9.27-28):

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 Moses agrees, but is under no illusions (Exodus 9.30):

But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.

And then when the locusts are destructively swarming, he hastily called Moses and Aaron and said, so apparently sincerely (Exodus 10.16-17):

I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Now therefore, forgive my sin, please, only this once, and plead with the Lord your God only to remove this death from me.

But shortly after, in the pitch black darkness of the ninth plague, Pharaoh said to the same Moses (Exodus 10.28):

Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.

There, then, are his true colours. We need to beware of self-serving false repentance. The apostle Paul warns in 2 Corinthians 7.10:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

And death is what it produced for Pharaoh. Then there is the way that Pharaoh’s heart gets hardened. There is a kind of tempering process going on, as it gets progressively harder and harder and ever more resistant to God’s word and will. This hardening of his heart is spoken of in three ways. First, it became hardened – without saying who by. Secondly, it is hardened by Pharaoh himself. And thirdly, it is hardened by the Lord. So for instance – Exodus 8.32:

But Pharaoh hardened his heart also…

And then Exodus 9.12:

The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart…

How do we make sense of the fact that both Pharaoh and the Lord hardened his heart? There is deep and vital truth here. Too deep for us to understand fully. If you’d like to come to a seminar on it, let me know! But a few comments. First, we have to hold together both truths – that Pharaoh was responsible for his own choices, his own sin, and his own hard heart; and also that God is sovereign and hardened his heart. That is what is called in theological language ‘compatibilism’. Though it’s hard for us finite creatures to see how, we must hold on to both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Both are crystal clear in this account of Pharaoh’s speech and action. Secondly, is the Lord unjust to judge Pharaoh, if he hardened his heart? The apostle Paul tackles exactly that question head on. Romans 9.14:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!

God’s judgement is just. We all deserve it. God’s mercy is pure grace. If that’s beyond our understanding, that’s hardly surprising. God is God. We are mere creatures. Thirdly, Article 17 of the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England is called ‘Of Predestination and Election’. It is a brilliant and balanced statement of the encouragement to found in a right understanding of what the Bible teaches on this; and of the discouragement to be found in a wrong understanding. Take a look at it if you want to follow this up further.

What, then, is the lesson for us from Pharaoh? Don’t be hard-hearted! Don’t refuse to listen to the voice of God in the Scriptures! Let’s be crying out to the Lord to keep us from being like Pharaoh – to give us open ears, and to keep them wide open to hear his voice. And let’s be crying out to the Lord to give us soft hearts, and to keep on softening them, so we might live by faith and in obedience to him. So – Pharaoh, by his unrepentant and God-hardened heart, brought down judgement on himself. We’ve taken some time over him.

2. Pharaoh’s servants and all the Egyptians had to decide whose side they were on

It’s really striking to see how some of Pharaoh’s people show signs of repentance, some are hard of heart, and all of their responses are uncertain and ambiguous. So when, through Moses, the Lord warns them to get themselves and their animals inside to avoid the deadly hailstorm that’s coming, this is the reaction (Exodus 9.20-21):

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.

Some listened to the word of the Lord and acted on it, some didn’t. But then there’s Exodus 9.34:

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.

But then again this is what happens when Moses warns of the coming unprecedented locust swarm (Exodus 10.7):

Then Pharaoh's servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?”

On the face of it, that’s a bold defiance of Pharaoh and his stubborn refusal of Moses’ demands. And there are further signs they were listening to Moses. This is Exodus 11.3:

And the Lord gave the [Israelites] 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.

So what is true about them? It seems to me the very ambiguity of their response is the point. It points the finger back at us, and asks the question about our response. So what’s the lesson for us from these servants of Pharaoh? We mustn’t be ambiguous in our response! Choose life! Reject Pharaoh’s unbelief. Chose the Lord’s side. Then finally:

3. The Israelites, despite their bitterness, are protected from the plagues

This too becomes more and more clear as the plagues progress. What is also clear is that this protection is all of grace. The Israelites are suffering, resentful, bitter, rejecting Moses, broken in spirit, and refusing to listen to God through Moses. Back in Exodus 5.21 they said to Moses and Aaron:

The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.

Exodus 6.9 says:

…they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.

They wouldn’t listen – just like Pharaoh! But, despite themselves, the Lord acts towards his people with amazing grace. In Exodus 8.22-23, come the flies, the Lord says to Pharaoh:

“But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth. Thus I will put a division between my people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall happen.” And the Lord did so.

And Exodus 9.7:

And Pharaoh sent, and behold not one of the livestock of Israel was dead.

Exodus 9.26:

Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail.

Exodus 10.22-23:

So Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived.

And this is all going to come to a head with the tenth plague and the Passover. Don’t miss the climax of the story over the next couple of weeks! But there’s a preview in Exodus 11.6-7, when Moses is giving a final warning to the people of Egypt about the death of the firstborn:

There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

So the Israelites, despite their bitterness, broken spirit, and initial refusal to listen, are protected from the plagues. By grace. What is the lesson for us? We too are saved by grace alone – through faith in our Saviour Jesus who died for our sins and rose to rule as our Lord. So we should be grateful to God. Deep down. And always. I began by saying this is about God’s glory in salvation through judgement. Where is God’s glory seen in all we’ve been thinking about? It’s everywhere. In Exodus 9.16 the Lord says to Pharaoh:

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.

The Lord, by his judgement on and destruction of evil, shows his glory. The Lord, by his hardening and softening of hearts, shows his glory. The Lord, by his saving grace towards his people, shows his glory. Let’s pray:

Open our ears to your voice, Lord, that we might listen. Soften our hearts, that we might trust and obey. Open our eyes, that we might see your glory. In the name of Jesus, our crucified Lord and risen Saviour. Amen.
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