SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Introduction: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to arouse a deaf world…. No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment.”[i] Thus wrote C.S. Lewis, and I suspect there are a number of individuals here who could testify that God’s megaphone of pain and tragedy is what brought them to personal faith in Christ. The Psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” (Psalm 119:67) Affliction has a way of getting our attention and forcing us to re-evaluate our lifestyle.
If ever God used a megaphone, it was on Pharaoh when He brought the ten great plagues upon Egypt to “encourage” him to let the children of Israel go. It his case, unfortunately, it led to final and unrepented rebellion, but it need not in ours.
Earlier we read a portion of the Scripture text for today, enough to grasp the flavor of the events that make up the five chapters of Exodus that describe the plagues on Egypt. I wish to take a synthetic approach to this extensive section, first establishing a proper perspective on the plagues, then considering their progress and their purpose.
Perspective on the plagues
It should be no surprise that not everyone treats these plagues as supernatural judgments from God. Secular historians dismiss the entire account as being purely fanciful myth. Liberal Bible scholars tend to explain these plagues as merely natural occurrences which were given a theological interpretation by Moses. For example, one writer suggests that the so-called “blood” of the Nile was really the result of the growth of red plankton or the reflection of the setting sun. The fact is some of these natural explanations seem more miraculous and take greater faith to believe than the supernatural explanations given in Scripture.
In his book Archaeology and Bible History, Joseph P. Free lists five unique aspects of the plagues which set them apart from natural events as first-class miracles.
Intensity (9:18; 10:6). Again and again, we are told that the various plagues were worse than any similar event ever experienced. For example, 9:18 warns of “the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now.” And in 10:6 Moses promises Pharaoh that the locusts “will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.” True, all the plagues except the Nile turning to blood were known to occur naturally in that part of the world, but they were supernatural in their intensity.
Timing (8:9). Rarely is it possible to predict a natural disaster. We’re still waiting for an earthquake that was supposed to hit southeast Missouri last December. But in the case of these plagues, Moses predicted, by God’s help, the exact starting point and ending point. And to prove that no trickery was involved he even let Pharaoh set the time of the cessation of one of them. Look at 8:9: “Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs.'” And Pharaoh responded, “Tomorrow,” and the next day the plague stopped. By the way, this Pharaoh wasn’t too bright, and here’s one indication—why wait for tomorrow?
Discrimination (8:22-23; 9:4-7,26; 10:23). Most of the plagues affected only the Egyptians and not the Israelites, even though the latter lived very close to the Egyptians and undoubtedly had a great deal of interaction with them. Look at 8:22-23, where the Lord is speaking to Pharaoh, “But on that day 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 land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people.” Then in chapter 9, where the plague on the livestock is described, we read in verse 4: “But 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.” Two verses later we read that Pharaoh investigated and sure enough, not one of the animals of the Israelites had died.
In verse 26 of the same chapter we read, “The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were.” And most amazingly, the plague of darkness was total in Egypt for three days, yet, according to 10:23, “all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.” I don’t know how to explain such discrimination except by affirming that a divine miracle occurred.
Orderliness. They seem to demonstrate a gradual increase in severity, concluding with the death of the firstborn. This, too, is evidence of the hand of God behind them.
Moral purpose (9:16). This is clear from chapter 9:16, where God speaks through Moses to Pharaoh and says, “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.” There’s a sense in which every calamity or catastrophe, whether natural or supernatural, serves a moral purpose, because a moral God allows it and promises that “all things work together for good to those who love God,” but rarely is the moral purpose announced so clearly or revealed in advance, as in the case of the plagues.
Let’s now briefly consider the progress of the plagues themselves. There are ten in all, each distinct from the others yet each designed to add pressure to Pharaoh and the Egyptians at a sensitive spot. We will also note that every one of the plagues struck at a key member of the Egyptian pantheon of gods.
Progress of the plagues (7:14-ll:10)
Water to blood (7:14-25). This was singularly appropriate as a judgment on Egypt, for 80 years earlier another Pharaoh had ordered all Hebrew boys to be drowned in the waters of that same river. Now one of those boys, miraculously spared from that edict, is granted power from God to pollute the Nile so that nothing in it could live. No nation on earth depends more upon one river than does Egypt. In fact, were it not for the Nile, all of Egypt would be a desert. Yahweh is striking a blow at the very lifeblood of the nation by means of this judgment—agriculturally, financially, and spiritually.
Frogs (8:1-15). Frogs were a symbol of fertility to the Egyptians. The goddess Hekt was embodied in the frog, making the frog a sacred animal in Egypt. Since the frog could not be killed, much like the sacred cow in India, there was nothing the Egyptians could do about this horrible and ironic proliferation. They were forced to loathe the very symbols of their depraved worship.
Please note that the magicians of Pharaoh’s court were able to duplicate these first two plagues, much as they had earlier turned their staffs into snakes. How so? Probably either through sleight of hand or through direct demonic power. Countless times in the Bible believers are warned to stay away from the occult, from magic, from astrology, or from any kind of psychic phenomena, for there are only two possible results—you will either be fooled by deception, or worse yet, influenced by Satan. Just this week a very nice lady with a Christian background who works for a fine business firm in our city came to see me. Several weeks ago she hosted a psychic party in her home and ever since bizarre things have been happening, and she wanted to know how to stop them. The best thing, of course, is to avoid such things like the plague (no pun intended) in the first place.
Now, even though Satan and his demons can counterfeit God’s power up to a point (and only to a point, for they give up when the third plague arrives, claiming in 8:19, “This is the finger of God.”), there is an ironic fact about the magicians’ ability. They can turn some water into blood and they are able to conjure up frogs, but that, of course, was not the problem. There was more than blood and more than enough frogs; the Egyptians didn’t need more. What Pharaoh needed was for his magicians to get rid of the plagues, but that they could not do.
Gnats (8:16-19). Scholars suggest that these insects may have, in fact, been chiggers or mosquitos. I recall a personal encounter that helps me appreciate the seriousness of this plague perhaps more than the average person. In the summer of 1967, my brother and I were both in seminary in Dallas and our folks were vacationing in northern Minnesota. My brother and his family were planning to spend a week with them, and at the last minute I decided to go along. Since my parents didn’t know I was coming, we decided to surprise them. I decided to get out of the car about a block before the cabin, and then after everyone was settled in, I would go knock on the door. Well, it was already dark when we arrived and there were these swarms of gnats in the car’s headlights, but I got out anyway and my brother drove on to the cabin. Well, those gnats turned out to be mosquitos (which are honored as the state bird in Minnesota), and by the time I got to the cabin I was one huge welt! In fact, I got seriously ill from the bites, ruining the whole trip!
Believe me, this plague was no laughing matter for the Egyptians.
Flies (8:20-32) constituted the fourth plague, though here again the exact nature of the insect is unknown. In fact, the original Hebrew just speaks of “swarms,” not bothering to identify the insect, and the implication may be that all the insects of Egypt increased supernaturally, infesting the streets, the courts, and the homes. The Orkin man was of little use in this case.
Up to this point Pharaoh’s response to each plague has been rebellion. Again and again, we read that his heart was hard and he would not listen. But here we begin to see the first chink in his armor, as he suggests that the children of Israel may indeed sacrifice to their God, as they requested, but they had to do it in the land of Goshen. That compromise, of course, was totally unacceptable to Moses, for it would do nothing to accomplish the deliverance of the people. So, Pharaoh gave in a little further, suggesting they could go into the desert to worship but not very far. He wanted them to remain close enough so they could be watched. As soon as the plague ends, however, Pharaoh reneges.
Livestock epidemic (9:1-7). We must judge this one also by the specific religious veneration paid to animals in Egypt. One of the most popular of the religious movements was the cult of Apis, the bull god. At Memphis and at other shrines a sacred bull was kept within the temple and worshiped there by devotees. In fact, dead bulls were given elaborate burials in vaults near Memphis. Against this depraved religious system, God now brings a plague that means death to the bulls, the other cattle, the horses, donkeys, camels, and sheep, probably a contagious disease that spread like wildfire. Still Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Boils (9:8-11). The source of this plague was handfuls of soot from a furnace. Moses tossed the fine dust into the air, and it brought festering sores on everyone it touched. There’s an irony to this, for it was the custom in Egypt for the ashes of the sacrifices to be sprinkled into the air above the worshipers, and all who had the ashes fall on them counted it a blessing. Now, in the hands of Moses, the ashes of blessing became ashes of cursing. And even the priests who performed the sacrifices were so defiled that they could not enter the temple and stand before Moses.
Next came three judgments against the sky—hail, locusts, and darkness—demonstrating that Ra, the Sun god, and his fellow gods and goddesses, were ineffective against Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Hail (9:13-35). I have read that it almost never hails in Egypt; in fact, it almost never rains. There are years when the country knows nothing but sunshine for 365 days. But now the skies are filled with clouds, and the Lord sends hail and lightning. Crops and livestock are devastated throughout the land, except in Goshen. Should one ask where the livestock came from, since they were all supposed to have been killed in one of the earlier plagues, it is important to point out that these plagues did not all happen in one week. More than likely, they covered nearly a year, and immediate efforts must have been made to replace the livestock in between the plagues.
The plague of hail, by the way, produces a distinct improvement in Pharaoh’s theological perspective. Look at 9:27: “This time I have sinned. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” Unfortunately, once again his confession turns out to be shallow and insincere.
Locusts (10:1-20). The warning of this plague prompts the servants of Pharaoh to question the wisdom of his decisions. This was not done lightly, for despots do not take kindly to unsolicited criticism. But knowing he’s on thin ice, Pharaoh offers his third compromise. He is willing now to let the grown men go, but not the little ones or the families, whom he apparently intends to hold as hostages. This, however, is unacceptable, and Moses is driven from the king’s presence. So, the devastating invasion of locusts comes and covers the land, bringing famine and death to the nation. Pharaoh begs for mercy and asks for forgiveness “one more time.” But when the last locust is gone, he changes his mind and refuses to let the people go. Without warning the ninth plague falls.
Darkness (10:21-29) seems like an odd choice for a plague, but only if you’ve never experienced total darkness. I’ve done a bit of caving and exploring of mines in my life, and several times I have been in “darkness that could be felt,” as 10:21 expresses it. Five minutes of that is all I care to experience, but Egypt, the land of perpetual sunshine, endured three full days of total darkness. Don’t ask me how God accomplished that, especially since the Israelites enjoyed normal daylight, but I have no doubt He did.
This plague produces Pharaoh’s fourth effort to compromise, allowing the Israelites to go, even with their children, but not with their herds. Once again, however, Moses rejects the compromise, and Pharaoh dismisses him for good with the threat, “Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”
The stage is now set for the tenth and final plague—the one that will turn Pharaoh’s heart and thrust Israel out of Egypt.
Death of the Firstborn (11:1-10). Due to the extreme importance of the tenth plague, however, our consideration of it will be reserved for next Lord’s Day.
There is one more issue I want us to examine this morning, and that is the …
Purposes of the plagues
I believe the purpose is fourfold:
To deliver God’s people (7:3-4). Certainly, this is the primary immediate goal of the plagues. For nearly 400 years the Israelites have been living as exiles in a foreign land, and for at least the last century of that time they have been living as slaves in bondage. Since their oppressors are not willing to let them go, God will help them become willing. Whatever it takes, He will fulfill his promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph to bring his people into the land He gave them—the land flowing with milk and honey. But there’s a broader goal in the plagues, and that is …
To demonstrate God’s power (9:13-16; 10:2). Never in all human history has there been a greater, more concentrated display of God’s power over nature and mankind than is seen in these chapters. In 9:13=16, just prior to the plague of hail, the Lord said to Moses,
“Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For 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. But 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.”
But it is not only the unbelieving world that needs to be aware of the power of God; it is also the believer. In 10:2 God says to Moses that these miraculous signs are also for the purpose “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.” I remember many times how my parents would sit down with me and my siblings and relay examples of great answer to prayer they received during the Depression. And they would recite how God miraculously provided for them while my dad was in seminary during W.W. II, and how He came through at the most difficult times with just what was needed. I have experienced some of those same demonstrations of God’s power, but I think I have not been as faithful in reciting the evidence to my own children. The danger is that our spiritual memories become clouded, and we forget how great and powerful our God really is.
To discredit the magicians and gods of Egypt (8:19, 12:12). I mentioned as we were going through the plagues the direct correlation with the gods of the Egyptian pantheon. In effect the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh was a battle of the gods. It was Yahweh against the demon-gods of Egypt, and Yahweh’s victory was total. He discredited completely both the magicians of the royal court and the gods by whom they performed their trickery.
To disparage all rebellion or compromise of the truth (5:2; 7:3-5; 8:25, 28; 10:11, 24). I think there is a workable analogy between Pharaoh of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of our day. Both were despots surrounded by sycophantic courtiers willing to tell them only what they wanted to hear. Both were cruel to foreigners, almost beyond belief. Both were headstrong and willing to sacrifice great numbers of their people, as well as the welfare of their nation, so as not to lose face. Both tried to compromise when the pressure mounted but were wisely refused.
Now I don’t know to what extent God was involved in Saddam Hussein’s defeat, but I do know He purposely brought about Pharaoh’s defeat and ultimate demise. Back in chapter 5 Pharaoh asked, when first presented with the request to let Israel go, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” It didn’t take long before his rebellious bravado was toned down, and he started to offer compromises—four in all. He even made some pretty clear confessions of personal culpability, but his confessions remind me of a phrase from 2 Tim. 3:5: “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.”
Frankly, friends, Pharaoh is not too different from many people today regarding their attitude toward God, ignoring Him except when He shouts. It’s not surprising, then, that God still uses the megaphone of pain to get their attention. And he doesn’t use it only on cruel despots. C.S. Lewis, whose monumental work on The Problem of Pain I quoted at the beginning of my message, writes further,
“We are perplexed to see misfortune falling upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people—on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little businessmen, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said?… Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore, He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover.”[ii]
Could it be that you have failed to acknowledge that God is sovereign and Jesus is Lord? Perhaps the pain that you are enduring right now is God’s encouragement to give up on all your own efforts to find meaning and purpose in life, and instead to turn in faith to receive the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of eternal life that Jesus purchased for you when He died on Calvary’s Cross.
Conclusion: Allow me to close with this thought: when God shouts, He will be heard; better to listen for the still, small voice. Earlier in our service Joanne Smith sang, “Be Still and Know that I Am God.” Right now I want us to turn to Hymn 444: “Speak, Lord in the Stillness.” You could use this time right now to invite Jesus Christ to be you Lord and Savior.
DATE: June 2, 1991
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 93, 95.
[ii] Lewis, 96-7.