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6. The Plan Isn’t Working (Exodus 5:1-6:30)

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March 11, 2018

Life of Moses (6)

Many Christians think that if they’re serving the Lord in some way, the Lord will bless them and life will be sweet. After all, they’re seeking first God’s kingdom. They’re doing His work. Won’t the Lord bless those who do His work?

That depends on how you define blessing. If you define blessing as hardship, sleepless nights, daily pressure, weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and other difficulties, yes, you’ll be blessed. Those are just some of the things that Paul endured as he served the Lord (2 Cor. 11:23-28; 12:10). But if you define blessing as everyone loving what you’re doing, no one ever criticizing you, and everything always going well in your life and ministry, I’d ask, “Have you ever read the Bible or church history?” There would be no such thing as persecution or martyrdom if God protected all of His servants from difficult trials.

The fact is, when you begin to serve the Lord, you’ve joined the infantry. The prince of darkness begins gunning for you. Often things don’t become easier or go more smoothly in your life. Things get more difficult.

Moses quickly learned this when the Lord called him to go back to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go three days’ journey into the wilderness so that they might sacrifice to the Lord (Exod. 3:18; 5:3). Scholars debate why the Lord told Moses to ask for a three days’ journey when the real objective was to leave Egypt permanently. Some liberals accuse God of being dishonest or deceptive!

Probably this was an initial test to expose Pharaoh’s hardness of heart. Moses was asking a reasonable request: “May we go for three days to worship our God?” There were precedents for such requests. A manuscript and a limestone tablet dating to the time of the ancient pharaohs indicates that Egyptian slaves were sometimes given time off to worship their gods (Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], pp. 140-141). So Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel do this simple request, coupled with his command to increase their workload exposed his hard heart. His priority was to keep the Egyptian economy moving, not to listen to the request of a bunch of slaves to worship a God Pharaoh didn’t know or believe in.

So when Moses began to obey God’s calling to serve Him, things didn’t get better—they got much worse! Pharaoh demanded that the Hebrew slaves gather their own straw to make bricks while keeping their quotas the same. He ordered the Hebrew foremen to be beaten when the quotas weren’t met. And the Israelite leaders, who at first had believed that God would deliver them from their affliction (Exod. 4:31), now angrily turned against Moses for making the Israelites odious in Pharaoh’s sight. Clearly, the plan wasn’t working as Moses had hoped it would! We learn that …

Because the Lord is the Lord and He is faithful to His covenant promises, serve Him faithfully even in the face of opposition and setbacks.

God could have taken out Pharaoh by a heart attack, but He chose to harden his heart and use Moses to perform the miraculous plagues to display God’s power and glory more brightly (Exod. 9:16; Rom. 9:17). These chapters and those that follow show the strength of opposition that Israel was up against: Those who do not know God and are opposed to Him are hardhearted and often cruel towards His people. But even His chosen people can fall into complaining and faithlessness when they are suffering. Even Moses, God’s chosen leader, reveals his lack of faith at this point. He questions why God sent him, complains that God hasn’t delivered His people at all, and repeats his excuse about being unskilled in speech (Exod. 5:22-23; 6:12, 30). (Some of the above is from John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 112.) So clearly, if Israel is going to be delivered, it has to be the Lord who does it.

These are vital lessons at the outset when you serve the Lord: to recognize the strength of the enemy, the helpless, desperate condition of the people you’re serving, and your own weakness and inability for the task so that you don’t rely on human schemes or methods, but on the Lord Himself and the promises of His Word.

1. Serve the Lord faithfully even in the face of opposition and setbacks.

Moses and Aaron were coming off a spiritual high. The people had accepted their testimony and believed that the Lord was concerned about their affliction (Exod. 4:31). Moses, Aaron, and the Israelite elders all had worshiped the Lord. Probably the spiritual high made them forget that the Lord had said that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart and that he wouldn’t let Israel go except under compulsion (Exod. 3:19; 4:21). So Moses and Aaron marched boldly into Pharaoh’s presence, but hit a brick wall. Pharaoh wasn’t sympathetic in the slightest. In fact, he made things more difficult than they already were for the Hebrew slaves.

Has that ever happened to you when you tried to serve the Lord or obey His calling for your life? When Marla and I moved to Dallas so that I could finish my seminary degree, we had a very hard time finding an apartment. We finally found one we could afford and moved in just before classes started. Three days later, we were mugged at gunpoint as we walked from the carport to our door. I tore my hand open on the gunsight of the mugger’s gun and had to get four stitches. Then, a couple of weeks later, I slipped on a muddy sidewalk and cut my finger badly on a Thermos I was carrying. So I started classes living in an apartment that was maybe in an unsafe neighborhood, and with both hands bandaged! At such times, it’s easy to wonder, “Did I miss God’s will for my life? Maybe I was supposed to take an off-ramp a couple of miles back!”

But don’t assume that encountering difficulties means that you’re not in God’s will. Often, God uses the difficulties to bring us to the end of ourselves so that we trust totally in Him (2 Cor. 1:8-9). Chuck Swindoll (Moses [Thomas Nelson], p. 162) observes, “The best framework for the Lord God to do His most ideal work is when things are absolutely impossible and we feel totally unqualified to handle it.” Note three lessons here:

A. When you serve the Lord you will face opposition both from without and from within.

Moses’ first opposition came from the scoffing Pharaoh. We don’t know how Moses and Aaron managed to get an interview with him, but the meeting didn’t go well! You can understand why he didn’t want to let two million slaves go free when they were the cheap labor force for the Egyptian economy. But as I just explained, God graciously gave Pharaoh an easier request at first: Rather than demanding that he immediately free all of the slaves, Moses simply asked for a three-day break so that they could worship God. But Pharaoh brazenly replied (Exod. 5:2), “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”

Pharaoh was not impressed with this God whom Moses identified as “the Lord God of Israel” and “the God of the Hebrews” (Exod. 5:1, 3). He probably scoffed to his aides, “Some god that is who lets his people be our slaves for hundreds of years! Why should we obey a god like that?”

Even so, today some may scoff, “Why should I bow before a crucified Savior? What kind of God would allow His Son to be killed in such a horrible way?” In fact, one leader in the emergent church called Jesus’ death on the cross “cosmic child abuse”!

But Pharaoh’s question is the crucial question for every person to answer: “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice?” Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:13), “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied (Matt. 16:14), “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked them the crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with his well-known confession, (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Everything in this life and for eternity depends on answering that crucial question correctly!

When you encounter opposition from those outside the faith, try to keep the conversation focused on the crucial question: “Who do you say that Jesus Christ is? Are you open to examine the evidence?” Invariably, a skeptic will bring up many objections, just as Pharaoh could have objected to obeying a God who let His people remain in slavery for hundreds of years. (I have two sermons on the church website that explain how to answer the most common objections.) But almost always, the underlying reason a person is hostile toward Christ is not intellectual; it’s moral. Pharaoh didn’t want to damage the economy and he didn’t want to obey any god! The skeptic does not want to submit to Jesus as Lord because he loves his sin. But just as Moses eventually had to warn Pharaoh of the consequences if he did not obey the Lord, we gently need to warn hostile skeptics of the judgment to come that they will face if they don’t submit their lives to Jesus as Lord.

But, Moses not only faced opposition from without. He also incurred the wrath of those within. When Pharaoh increased the workload on the Hebrew slaves, their foremen complained, only to find Pharaoh unsympathetic. He accused them and their people of laziness. When they left that encounter, they met Moses and Aaron and angrily said (Exod. 5:21), “May the Lord look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

At this point, the Hebrew leaders were more concerned about relieving their harsh conditions while remaining enslaved than they were about being freed from slavery. They still identified themselves as Pharaoh’s servants (Exod. 5:15, 16), not as servants of the living God. But they were God’s people whom Moses had come to redeem. But Moses was not their favorite guy at this point, to say the least!

When you serve the Lord, you expect opposition from those outside the faith. After all, they’re in Satan’s domain of darkness and they do not know the Lord. They buy into this world’s values, so when you confront them with sin, righteousness, and judgment, they don’t like it. But you don’t usually expect opposition from the Lord’s people. We’re all on the same team, aren’t we? We’re supposed to love one another, aren’t we?

But in my experience, the most painful attacks you’ll get when you serve the Lord don’t come from outside the camp, but from within. You shouldn’t immediately conclude that your critics are tools of the devil and dismiss all of their criticisms. Maybe they have some valid points, even if they’re expressing them in a hostile manner. After listening, you may need to try to help them learn how to state their concerns in a better way. But, be prepared! When you serve the Lord, you will encounter opposition both from without and even from within!

B. When you serve the Lord you will face setbacks that make it seem like you’re on the wrong path.

After the Hebrew foremen angrily confronted Moses, he complained to the Lord (Exod. 5:22-23), “O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all.” Later, when the Lord told him to return to Pharaoh and demand that he let Israel go, Moses pessimistically replied (Exod. 6:12), “Behold, the sons of Israel have not listened to me; how then will Pharaoh listen to me, for I am unskilled in speech?” He was overwhelmed with his inability to speak well or to get through either to the Israelites or to Pharaoh. He had forgotten that it was God, not he, who would deliver Israel from Pharaoh’s hand (Exod. 3:8).

And, Moses was not remembering that the Lord has reasons for His delays, even if we don’t know what those reasons are. The more Pharaoh resisted the Lord’s appeals through Moses to let Israel go, the more it revealed God’s patience and His righteous justice when He finally judged him. Also, Israel needed further humbling under Pharaoh’s harsh treatment so that they would appreciate the Lord’s deliverance when it came (A. W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus [Moody Press], pp. 46-47). And, Moses needed to learn more about patiently waiting on the Lord. He needed to recognize that when deliverance finally came, it wasn’t primarily due to him or his gifts, but to the Lord’s sovereign grace toward His people.

Setbacks in serving the Lord do not necessarily mean that you’re on the wrong path, but rather that the Lord has further lessons to teach you and to teach those you’re trying to serve. So what should you do when you encounter setbacks?

C. When you face setbacks in serving the Lord, pour out your heart to Him.

The Hebrew foremen went to Pharaoh for relief instead of going to the Lord (Pink, p. 45). But Pharaoh wouldn’t save them; only God could and would save them. But Moses did the right thing: He returned to the Lord and poured out his heart to Him (Exod. 5:22-23; 6:12). Often prayer is our last resort: “We’ve done all we can do; now, all we can do is pray!” But prayer should be our first resort. You may be able to do something after you pray, but you shouldn’t do anything before you pray!

But, be careful how you approach the Lord! Some say that we should imitate Moses’ example here in being honest before the Lord, even if it means wrongly accusing Him. Rather than admitting that he doesn’t understand and humbly asking for wisdom, Moses accuses the Lord of not delivering His people as He had promised to do.

While I agree that we should be honest with the Lord (He already knows how you feel!), there is a right and wrong way to talk to the Almighty Lord! When my kids were young and they felt that I had disappointed them in some way, I wanted them to feel free to come to me with their complaints. But their attitude was crucial! If they came defiantly, accusing me of being unfair or uncaring, the accusation may have been legitimate (I wasn’t a perfect father!), but their defiance was wrong. So I would say, “You’re free to complain, but you need to talk to me in a respectful way; then I’ll listen and try to help.”

So, if you face setbacks in serving the Lord, go to Him and pour out your complaint, but do it submissively, fearing Him. Acknowledge that you don’t understand why He isn’t working as you thought He should, but don’t imply that you know better than He what needs to be done! He is the Lord and you’re not! You may not understand the setbacks or delays, but He has His reasons and He’s not under obligation to share those reasons. But we still need to keep serving Him. Why?

2. Serve the Lord faithfully in the face of opposition and setbacks because He is the Lord and He is faithful to His gracious covenant promises.

A. Serve the Lord faithfully in the face of opposition and setbacks because He is the Lord.

In the Lord’s reply to Moses (Exod.6:2-8), “I am the Lord” (“Yahweh”) occurs four times (plus again in 6:29). We need to know that He is the great “I AM,” only living and true God. He is the only self-existent One, who has neither beginning nor end. He is the covenant-keeping God, whom we can know personally. Sometimes it is through our failures and setbacks that we come to know Him more deeply. We come to realize that He is the only one who can really do something about impossible problems. We need to fix our eyes on who it is that we serve. We need to let skeptics know that they are defying the only living and true God.

But the Lord makes a puzzling comment to Moses (Exod. 6:3): “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, Lord, I did not make Myself known to them.” Yet, when you go back to Genesis, God is often referred to as Lord (Yahweh; see, Gen. 15:7). So what does the Lord mean?

Probably, He means that He didn’t reveal the fullness of His name, Yahweh, to the patriarchs as He had just revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush and would further reveal Himself to Israel. The patriarchs had received the promises, but had died without seeing their fulfillment. But now, the Lord would deliver Israel from bondage in Egypt, adopt them as His special people, and guide them into the Promised Land, where they would conquer the evil nations there that he would judge (C. F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], p. 468). As Philip Ryken (p. 169) explains, “This is the difference between Genesis and Exodus. Abraham knew God as a promise-maker; Moses came to know him as a promise-keeper.”

So, even when you face opposition and setbacks, don’t give up. You’re serving none other than the Lord, the faithful, covenant-keeping God. That’s the final thing here:

B. Serve the Lord faithfully in the face of opposition and setbacks because He is faithful to His gracious covenant promises.

John Sailhamer (The Pentateuch as Narrative [Zondervan], p. 251) says that Exodus 6:2-8 sketches out the argument of the whole Pentateuch. He says, “The die is cast for the remainder of the events narrated in the Pentateuch.” God rehearses His gracious covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and what that means for the Israelites of Moses’ time. But they were so overwhelmed with their difficult circumstances that they didn’t want to hear it (v. 9).

Moses had been looking at what he couldn’t do; God reminds him of what He will do (v. 1). In verses 6-8, God repeats “I will” seven more times to emphasize that He is the covenant-keeping God. The seven “I will’s” cluster around three areas: deliverance and redemption from bondage; personal relationship (“I will be your God”); and, future possession of the land. Those three areas mirror the promises of the new covenant that we enjoy in Christ (Heb. 8:10-12): God delivers us from our sins through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. He promises that He will be our God and we will be His people; and He promises every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3)!

In light of the unbelief of both Israel and Moses at this point, God’s promises in verses 6-8 show His sovereign grace. Our blessings in Christ do not depend on our performance, but on God’s gracious promises. Roger Ellsworth puts it (Moses [Evangelical Press], p. 46), “When the ‘I AM’ says ‘I will,’ there can be no room for doubt or discouragement.” It’s a done deal! Salvation isn’t a matter of us doing something for God but rather of recognizing what He has done for us through our Savior, who gave Himself to save us. As Paul put it (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”


Some of you may not yet know Christ as your Savior and Redeemer. You can’t serve Him until you know Him. Jesus promised (John 5:24), “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” That promise is for you!

Others of you may know Christ but you’re not serving Him. Maybe you tried and got burned. Maybe you’ve drifted into living for yourself and collecting this world’s stuff. You’ve lost your focus. Paul told Timothy (2 Tim. 2:3-4): “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” Serving as a soldier can be dangerous. Soldiers suffer casualties at times. But that’s our calling: faithfully to serve our faithful, covenant-keeping Lord even in the face of opposition and setbacks. He enlisted you; now make it your aim to please Him.

Application Questions

  1. What kinds of difficulties or setbacks have you faced in serving the Lord? How did you deal with them? What did you learn?
  2. Have you faced more opposition from without or from within as you have served the Lord? Which was more difficult? Why?
  3. Do you agree that Moses sinned in the way he complained to the Lord (Exod. 5:22-23)? When do we cross the line from an honest complaint to sinful defiance?
  4. How can we know whether difficulties indicate that we’re in the wrong ministry or whether to plow ahead through them?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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