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4. The Truth and Consequences Of A Hardened Heart, Pt. 1 (Ex. 7:14-10:29)

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Since our last sermon in this series, Moses has now returned to Egypt (4:18-28), having been fully informed by God that persuading Pharaoh to let the Israelites go would not be easy (4:21). Additionally, on the way back to Egypt, Aaron came out to meet him (4:27-28), just as God had previously told Moses (4:14), and Aaron began to act as Moses’ mouthpiece in communicating with the Israelites (4:29-30). Despite Moses’ fears as to how the Israelites would react to him and the questions they might ask, the “people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had paid attention to them and that He had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped” (4:31). What a wonderful response! How that must have encouraged Moses to take the leadership as God had commissioned him to do.

At their first meeting with Pharoah Moses and Aaron said, This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival for me in the wilderness” (5:1). To this Pharoah replied, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him by letting Israel go? I don’t know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go” (5:2). Pharoah’s arrogant response echoes Moses’ question to God in 3:13, except that Moses’ question to God has to do with who God is, whereas Pharaoh’s question is not generated by any desire to know God or even to know his name. Indeed, Pharoah’s question seems to be rendered with cynicism, ridicule, and scorn. He did not know God and did not want to know God. Furthermore, as God had warned, Pharoah would not let Israel go because God had hardened his heart (4:21).

This issue of God hardening Pharoah’s heart needs to be addressed since it raises the question of why God would do that and then turn around and punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians. We need to understand at the outset that Pharaoh was a wicked and ungodly ruler. He and his predecessors had kept the Israelites in brutal slavery for 400 years. You remember that when Moses was born, the Pharoah had ordered that all Israelite babies were to be killed at birth (Ex. 1:16). Indeed, it would have been perfectly just for God to have destroyed the entire nation of Egypt for being a wicked regime in opposition to God and His chosen people.

And so this hardening of Pharoah’s heart was a bilateral act – Pharoah hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32) and God hardened his heart (Ex. 9:12). Remember that God, in his grace, gave Pharaoh repeated warnings of judgement, despite which Pharoah chose to pursue his hard-hearted, cruel course of action. So, we must conclude that Pharoah brought judgement on himself.

Let this be a warning to us. If you choose to harden your heart, God may harden it even further, even as He waits in grace for you to comply with His demands. Pharoah received what he deserved and, in the process, God did what He said He would do, so that “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the Israelites from among them” (Ex. 7:5; cf. 14:18). By so doing, God brought glory to himself, as the apostle Paul reminds us, 17 For the Scripture tells Pharaoh, I raised you up for this reason so that I may display my power in you and that my name may be proclaimed in the whole earth. 18 So then, he has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:17-18). Remember, this is God’s sovereign right. He has no obligation to us to act or not act in any particular way.

Pharoah’s response to Moses was to accuse the Israelite slaves of laziness – that’s why they wanted to go out into the wilderness to sacrifice to their God (5:5, 8b). As a result, Pharoah placed an even heavier burden on the Israelites than before, demanding that they make more bricks without providing them with any raw materials - they would have to gather their own straw now (5:6-9). This, of course, brought a swift reaction by the Israelites against Moses and Aaron (5:20-21) and a negative reaction by Moses to God, accusing Him of not delivering his people as He had promised (5:22-23).

How often do we, like the Israelites, react to circumstances even though we don’t know what God is doing or going to do? How often do we, like Moses, blame God for not keeping his word, even though present circumstances are all part of God’s plan?

In his grace, God reminds Moses, “I am the LORD” (6:2), and, interestingly, He tells Moses that He had revealed to him something that He had not told even Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. To them He had revealed himself as God Almighty, “but I did not make my name the LORD known to them” (6:3). In other words, Moses knew God as the covenant-keeping God of Israel, a revelation that his forefathers did not know and which ought to give Moses far more faith than could be expected of them. Further, God reminded Moses, I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land they lived in as foreigners” (Ex. 6:4), a covenant which, despite appearances, God was about to fulfill. This message Moses was commissioned by God to tell to the people (6:6-8). “But they did not listen to him because of their broken spirit and hard labor” (6:9).

Nevertheless, despite their harsh response to Moses, God was about to work on their behalf in a way that had not been experienced ever before, a work that would radically and permanently change their onerous circumstances.

Thus begins the extraordinary saga of God’s deliverance of his people by the ten plagues. The theological principle that we learn from this episode is that sometimes God exercises his power in creation to display and demonstrate that He is the LORD. We find this principle summarized in Ex. 7:3-5: 3 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you, but I will put my hand on Egypt and bring the ranks of my people the Israelites, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt, and bring out the Israelites from among them” (cf. also Ex. 9:16; 8:19).

Therefore, through the ten plagues in Egypt, God did indeed accomplish his purposes: (1) to execute judgement on Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Ex. 3:19-20); (2) to redeem his people, Israel, from slavery (Ex. 3:7-10; 6:6-8); and (3) to demonstrate unequivocally that He is the supreme One (Ex. 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 10:2; 12:12; 14:4 etc.).

As we examine these judgements on Egypt, consider how they may be a forerunner of the even more devastating judgements that God will execute on the earth at the end of this age. I will cover the tenth plague on its own in the next sermon in this series. For this sermon, let’s briefly review the first nine plagues…

I. Water Turned To Blood (7:14-25)

Taking his staff in hand, Moses was instructed by God to meet Pharaoh at the mighty river Nile, where evidently Pharaoh bathed or carried out some sort of ritual each morning. There, Moses was instructed by God to confront Pharaoh with his disobedience and to advise him that, through his staff (that Moses had previously turned into a serpent), God would judge the land by turning the waters to blood, such that the fish would die and the water would be unusable: There will be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in wooded and stone containers” (7:19b).

All of this was to be done upon Moses’ order, by Aaron extending the staff over the waters of Egypt, which he did and 20b all the water in the Nile turned to blood. 21 The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink water from it. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt”(7:20b-21).

Three things to notice. First, despite his previous claims to not be able to speak well, Moses is clearly God’s spokesperson and Aaron is his helper. Second, the very river in which the Egyptians drowned the Hebrew babies is the river which God curses by turning to blood such that, instead of being the source of life-giving water for the Egyptians, it became the source of death. Clearly, this was God’s retributive justice on the Egyptians.

You would think that such miraculous action would have produced an immediate response of submission by Pharaoh, but such was not the case. In fact, strangely, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated this act 22b by their occult practices. So Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 23 Pharaoh turned around, went into his palace, and didn’t take even this to heart” (7:22-23), despite the effect on all the Egyptians, who had to dig alongside the Nile to get drinking water for seven long days (7:24-25).

So, what’s going on here with the magicians of Egypt? How is it that they could duplicate God’s miraculous action? In fact, they had already done so before when, Moses and Aaron first requested permission from Pharaoh to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, failing which God would bring out the ranks of my people the Israelites, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment” (7:4). In response to Pharaoh’s demand to prove such a claim, as God had instructed them they cast down their staff and it became a serpent. And, lo and behold, the magicians of Egypt did the same (7:11)! Now, they do it again, turning water into blood. This happens three times in total (the staff turned into a serpent, the water to blood, and the plague of frogs) before they lost their power.

How do we explain this? Some try to explain it by saying that it was a sleight of hand, or somehow the magicians coloured the Nile with red dye. This is far-fetched and lacks biblical support. Others argue that they only did this to a small amount of water, as the Nile itself was already turned to blood. But this does not adequately explain what happened. The way the text reads does not necessarily imply that the magicians entirely duplicated Moses’ miracle either in its extent or its means. But whatever they did certainly convinced Pharaoh that their powers were equal to Moses’ (and, by implication, to God’s), but at that point Pharoah probably didn’t need much persuasion.

Whatever the magicians’ power enabled them to do, the plain, natural reading of the text is that they turned water to blood. The most plausible explanation, therefore, is that they derived their power from Satan (cf. 2 Thess. 2:9; Mk. 13:21-22; Matt. 7:22; Matt. 24:24; Rev. 13:13; Rev. 16:14; Eph. 6:12). For this reason, because Satan’s power is limited and can only be used to the extent that God permits, (1) the magicians could not reverse their actions; (2) they did not perform their feat in the same way as Moses (i.e. by stretching out a staff over the waters); and (3) they were only able to duplicate the first two plagues after which their powers ceased (8:18). Let us not underestimate the power of Satan. Remember that, with God’s permission, Satan caused Job’s suffering, but let us also remember that God places limits on Satan’s power - He only lets Satan go so far.

II. The Frogs (8:1-15)

Following Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go after the first plague, God gives him a second chance to comply (8:1). Pharoah’s second refusal is met by the plague of frogs, which would swarm into and throughout every household. Again, as we noted above, the Egyptian magicians duplicated this plague by their occult powers (8:7). In response to the first plague, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Apparently the effect of the waters being turned to blood was not sufficient for him to comply with Moses’ request. But this time, Pharaoh requested that the Lord remove the plague and he would let the Israelites go to worship the Lord (8:8). Apparently Pharoah didn’t care about the first plague’s impact on the lives of the people, but this time the plague directly affected him.

In order to demonstrate to Pharaoh that the Lord was completely in control of this situation and that the removal of the frogs was not a coincidence, Moses gave Pharaoh the option of specifying when the removal of the frogs should occur. “Tomorrow, he answered” (8:10). And so it was that the next day, the Lord removed the frogs from everywhere except the Nile where they belonged. “But when Pharoah saw there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said” (8:15).

III. The Lice (8:16-19)

This time, Pharaoh is not consulted or given any opportunity to let the Israelites go. Once more God tells Moses to have Aaron stretch out his rod, this time over the dust of the earth, the result of which is the plague of insects – sometimes called lice, gnats, mosquitoes, or fleas – that filled the land. If the invasion of frogs into every household was not enough to convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go, then perhaps an invasion of fleas into every aspect of Egyptian life would – into their clothing, homes, and bodies, both human and animal. They would itch and scratch day and night.

Unlike the previous two plagues, the Egyptian magicians were not able to duplicate this plague. At least the magicians have the honesty and insight to admit to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God… But Pharoah’s heart hardened and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said” (8:19).

IV. Flies (8:20-32)

Pharaoh’s hardness of heart continues despite three plagues. This fourth plague introduces the provision that the plague would affect all of Egypt but not the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived – 22 But on that day I will give special treatment to the land of Goshen, where my people are living; no flies will be there. This way you will know that I, the Lord, am in the land. 23 I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign will take place tomorrow” (8:22-23). This would demonstrate to Pharaoh that God was in control of this phenomenon; it was not a coincidence.

And just as the Lord had said, so the swarm of flies came. Thick swarms of flies went into Pharaoh’s palace and his officials’ houses. Throughout Egypt the land was ruined because of the swarms of flies” (8:24). In response Pharaoh, for the first time, grants permission for the Israelites to worship God as long as they stay within the boundaries of Egypt, a condition which is not acceptable to Moses, saying, We must go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as he instructs us” (8:27). Pharaoh concedes to their request, adding “but don’t go very far” and “make an appeal for me” (8:28) - presumably an appeal for God to remove the swarms of flies. Moses agrees to this arrangement but warns Pharaoh not to change his mind (8:29). Moses keeps his part of the bargain but Pharaoh did not keep his. Instead he “hardened his heart this time also and did not let the people go” (8:32).

These interactions with Pharoah are clearly showing that for Pharaoh this is a power struggle motivated by pride – who is the supreme ruler, Pharaoh or God? Pharaoh cannot appear weak to his people or he would lose their respect and subservience. Isn’t this altogether so common with us as well? Oh, we don’t manifest it in quite this way, but we are so reluctant to cede control of our lives to God. We have our own plans for our lives, which often do not comport with God’s plans for us. But ultimately, God always wins. Let us never forget that, because we could save ourselves a lot of heart ache if we willingly and quickly submit to God’s purposes for our lives.

V. Death of Livestock (9:1-7)

This is described as “a severe plague” (9:3). Again, Moses predicts two aspects of this plague which should surely convince Pharaoh that this is from God. First, as with the previous plague, this plague would only affect the animals owned by the Egyptians, not those of the Israelites (9:4). And, second, this plague would occur specifically on the following day (9:5). Both of these conditions were designed to show that God was the author of this plague, not nature or any other force.

The plague took place exactly as Moses had said. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not let the people go” (9:7).

VI. Boils (9:8-12)

In the presence of Pharaoh, Moses, in obedience to God’s instructions, threw ashes into the air and it became fine dust that settled over the land of Egypt, causing boils to break out on humans and animals throughout all the land of Egypt. This time, not only are the Egyptian magicians unable to duplicate it, they themselves are afflicted by it to the extent that they could not stand before Moses because of the boils. Perhaps also the magicians could not stand before Moses because they were ashamed of their impotence and because they knew that Moses’ power came from God alone. Once before they had confessed to Pharaoh that the plagues were “the finger of God” (8:19). Armed with this renewed conviction, they now evidently appeal to Pharaoh for him to withdraw from this battle, which he could not win. “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses” (9:12).

Hardness of heart surely causes people to press ahead in defiance of logic and evidence, in open rebellion against God’s authority.

VII. Hail (9:13-35)

Now we see that not only is God bringing these plagues upon Egypt (1) to secure the release of his people from slavery in Egypt, (2) so that they can worship him in the wilderness, (3) to reveal to them that “I am the Lord” (cf. 7:17; 8:22), the sovereign Lord, the supreme, all-powerful Creator and Ruler of the universe, but also (4) that they “will know there is no one like me on the whole earth” (9:14). Pharaoh and his magicians cannot withstand the power of God. And no matter how many times Pharaoh continues to rebel against God with a hardened heart, ultimately God will achieve his purposes and Pharaoh will have to acknowledge and bow to the sovereign power of God and to acknowledge the utter uniqueness of God, that there is no one like him “on the whole earth.”

Such is the severity and destruction of this plague of hail that Pharaoh, in his desperation, seems to be softening in his attitude, confessing to Moses: “I have sinned this time. The Lord is the righteous one and I and my people are the guilty ones” (9:27). Further, he agrees to release the Israelites: “I will let you go; you do not need to stay any longer” (9:28). But we have seen this before - an appeal to God in order to stop the plagues, but then another hardening of his heart against God. Will this be any different? No! Despite the fact that Moses always does what he says he will do and appeals to God to withdraw the plague, nonetheless, as Moses warns Pharaoh, “as for you and your officials, I know that you still do not fear the LORD God” (9:30).

And, sure enough once again, 34 When Pharaoh saw that the rain, hail, and thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, he and his officials. 35 So Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not let the Israelites go, as the Lord had said through Moses” (9:34-35).

One wonders at this point how hard the human heart can be. Without submission to God’s rule, the human heart can act in ways that defy logic and evidence. But more than that, I think what is going on here is not only the demonstration of the wickedness of the human heart, but the sovereign purposes of God, which are being revealed and carried out in spite of the opposition and rebellion against God of, probably, the most powerful ruler on earth at that time. These prolonged and repeated plagues and Pharaoh’s utter rebellion against God are all designed by God to manifest His supreme power, repeatedly and clearly. That surely is the overriding purpose here.

VIII. Locusts (10:1-20)

Now God’s overriding purpose in the plagues is stated overtly: 1I have hardened his (Pharoah’s) heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may do these miraculous signs of mine among them, 2and so that you may tell your son and grandson how severely I dealt with the Egyptians and performed miraculous signs among them, and you will know that I am the LORD” (10:1-2). If the plague of hail was devastating, then the plague of locusts would be even more so. Indeed, Moses told Pharaoh: 5They will eat the remainder left to you that escaped the hail; they will eat every tree you have growing in your fields. 6They will fill your houses, all your officials’ houses, and the houses of all the Egyptians – something your fathers and ancestors never saw since the time they occupied the land until today” (10:5-6). To this dire warning, Pharaoh’s officials react in abject fear, saying to Pharaoh: “How long must this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, so that they may worship the LORD their God. Don’t you realize yet that Egypt is devastated?” (10:7).

So, Pharaoh tries to make a compromise with Moses. He will grant limited permission – the Israelite men only may go and worship the Lord but not the women and children (10:10-11). I suppose that Pharoah’s scheme was that if he could keep the women and children there, then the men would be sure to come back. But Moses was having nothing of it. No compromise! No negotiations! It was God’s way only. Not only did Moses demand that men, women, and children go, but also their flocks and herds (10:9). Remarkably, once again, Pharaoh drives Moses and Aaron from his presence – the conversation is at an end. And the plague of locusts begins. “Never before had there been such a large number of locusts, and there never will be again” (10:14). They covered the entire land of Egypt such that the land was black and by the time they were finished, “they consumed all the plants on the ground and all the fruit on the trees that the hail had left. Nothing green was left on the trees or the plants in the field throughout the land of Egypt” (10:15).

Once more, Pharaoh confesses his sin against the Lord and against Moses. He pleads for forgiveness and for Moses to intercede for him before the Lord to “take this death away from me” (10:17). Notice that he does not request that it be taken away from “us,” but “from me.” The only person Pharoah cares about is himself. Let the people suffer, but let him be protected. Graciously, the Lord causes the removal of the locusts by a strong west wind, blowing them into the Red Sea. “Not a single locust was left in all the territory of Egypt. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not let the Israelites go” (10:19-20).

IX. Darkness (10:21-29)

This time, there was no warning issued to Pharaoh. Surely, the plague of darkness was not only physical but also reflected the spiritual darkness that was over all the land of Egypt, “a darkness that can be felt” (10:21-22). For three days, no one could see their hand in front of their face. So thick was the darkness that they could not move from where they were. “Yet all the Israelites had light where they lived” (10:23).

Wouldn’t you think that, by now, the intensity and scope of the plagues, together with the clear demarcation between their effects on the Egyptians and the Israelites, should have awakened Pharaoh to the reality of what God was doing? But no, he again tries to negotiate with Moses. “Go, worship the Lord. Even your families may go with you; only your flocks and your herds must stay behind” (10:24). But again, Moses would hear nothing of it. It was all or nothing. They needed their herds and flocks to offer burnt offerings to the Lord and they would “not know what we will use to worship the LORD until we get there” (10:26).

But one more time, “the Lord hardened Pharoah’s heart and he was unwilling to let them go” (10:27). In fact, Pharoah become even more resolute, threatening Moses with death if he ever saw his face again (10:28). I love Moses’ reply: “As you have said…I will never see your face again” (10:29). Little did Pharaoh know how true and how utterly devastating that statement would turn out to be.

Final Remarks

So, nine plagues of increasing intensity fail to subdue Pharaoh’s hard heart. He will not relinquish control. This seems to be the root issue – control, power and pride. This is a standoff between Pharaoh, a finite human being, and God himself, the infinite, sovereign ruler of the universe. Remember our thesis that sometimes God exercises his power in creation to display and demonstrate that He is the LORD. He certainly demonstrated His supremacy through these plagues in response to, and in spite of, Pharaoh’s rebellion and hardness of heart, and He will do so again at the end of this age.

From our vantage point, we wonder what Pharaoh was thinking. But when you stop and think about it, Pharaoh is just manifesting the wickedness that lies in every human heart – independence from God and rebellion against God. This has been the story of the human race from the beginning. It was human rebellion against God’s authority and the insistence on human independence that caused sin to enter the world in the first place. In direct defiance of God’s command that “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17), Adam and Eve ate of it anyway. This was the very first demonstration of the self-will and rebellion of the human heart.

We may well ask, “Why?” Why would Adam and Eve do that, when God had given them a perfect paradise to live in and enjoy? When there was only one restriction placed on them? And here we must consider two reasons. First, God created human beings with the freedom to choose whether to obey him or disobey him. This was necessary in order for God to have a people to voluntarily and freely love him. Second, Satan entered the scene with his wicked deception, promising Adam and Eve greater enjoyment and greater powers if they disobeyed God – “When you eat it (the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden) your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Ever since that fateful day when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, the human race has suffered the consequences of separation from God and a rebellious spirit against God.

So, let this be a lesson to us, to be on our guard against hardness of heart. Remember the admonition of the apostle Paul to “no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts” (Eph. 4:17-18). Remember what Jeremiah said: The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). And let us adhere to the warning of the writer to the Hebrews who quotes David in Psalm 95:7-8, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 4:7).

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