Everything has gone well for Moses so far on his return to Egypt, with the Lord’s commission in his heart. He has been met by Aaron and the elders and favourably received. The plans for their release from the oppression of Egypt seem ready to unfold neatly before them. But life is never straightforward, as we’ll see, and it is often true in spiritual terms that things get worse before they get better.
1. Boldness & Confrontation (vv.1-5)
Moses and Aaron go boldly in to see Pharaoh (but without the elders – see 3:18). In the light of Moses’ encounter with the Lord and the people’s warm and worshipful response, they no doubt feel confident that the Lord’s word will come to pass and quickly. Moses is displaying the spirit not of timidity but of love, power and a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7).
It is entirely right that we should be confident in the Lord, that we have assurance his word will be fulfilled and his will be done. We need have no diffidence in standing on God’s Word and acting in the light of it. Moses who began so very timidly in Midian now walks boldly into Pharaoh’s presence, strengthened in the Lord.
And, in boldness, Moses demands the release of the people, using a term that leaves Pharaoh in no doubt that they will no longer be under his rule.
But his boldness is not met by an immediate humbling of Pharaoh and the release of the people. The response is, rather, one of stark unbelief and rebellion: “Who is Yahweh?” Here is the uncovering of the essential issue in the whole storyline of the Bible – sin is the de-godding of God, the refusal to honour him. This is why the whole creation is groaning under the curse, this is why humanity knows decay and death.
And this is what we see all around us – the steadfast and persistent refusal to give God his due, to honour him with lives of grateful praise and adoration.
Moses and Aaron seem rather taken aback by Pharaoh’s response and try again in v.3, adding their own thoughts to the Lord’s clear command (the threat to strike them with plagues). They are clearly rattled by what has happened.
How should we respond to such outright rejection of the Lord and of his message? Clearly we will feel a sense of outrage that the God of glory should be so slighted, the kind of distressed anger that Paul felt when he walked around Athens and saw their idols. But how should we deal with the mixture of anger and sadness?
I think we need to be careful that we understand the situation for what it is and see where the answer lies. We should not be surprised by the sinful rejection of God that we see so clearly, nor should we think that the appropriate response is to organise social resistance (which is a tempting option in a society that was once nominally Christian).
What is the solution? Let me read you some wise words from a helpful commentator: “our reaction should be one of godliness and patience, knowing that the message belongs to the Lord and he will set things aright. We must rise above the fray, the plans and schemes of humanity, with a godly confidence that comes only from knowing God and being known by him. (Exodus, NIVAC p.167f)
Godliness and patience: just the answer that Peter gives in his first letter to an oppressed church. Let’s ask God to help us to display such attributes ourselves in difficult days.
2. Outright rejection leads to oppressive retaliation (vv.6-16)
Pharaoh is quite definite in his response. He takes his stand against the Lord and his people; he opposes the one true God, setting himself up as an anti-God figure, leading the fight for the forces of sin and evil.
In that role he immediately orders that the people be oppressed further (v.6ff). And notice that his word finds an immediate response – what he says is done and done quickly. He has real power; sin has real power.
The Lord has called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt; he has promised his presence with his people. But that reality of his presence does not remove the reality of suffering. The people who have been oppressed are further oppressed and harried by the Egyptians.
A real struggle is developing here over the release of the people from Egypt; they suffer very much at the hands of the Egyptians and that raises a troubling and important question: why does the Lord allow this? Why wasn’t Pharaoh humbled straight away? Why can’t the people be spared some of this additional burden of pain?
Those sorts of questions are never easy to answer but I think we can say at least this: sin is a real power; evil as a reality has a certain strength. We should never forget that. Satan has real power and with that power he has blinded the minds of unbelievers. He does all he can to thwart the Lord’s plans to rescue his creation from the dominion of sin and death.
This reality is something Paul was aware of in his ministry, too. In 1 Thes. 2:18 he says he had been wanting to visit the church “but Satan stopped us”.
Now, some might ask if Paul doesn’t know that the Lord is sovereign? And of course he does. But he is also working with the reality of sin and evil and it does us no good to deny that sin is a real power, that Satan has genuine power.
Yes, the Lord is sovereign and all opposition to his purposes will be overcome; that is not in doubt. But what we are seeing in this passage is that the overthrow of sin and evil will take real effort on the part of the Lord. Not because he is weak or only just sovereign but because of the real power that exists in sin.
Our perspective as we engage the world must also be a fully and truly biblical one – the all-sufficiency of the Lord and his power and the real power of sin. Holding those points together will stop us from taking wrong turns and coming to wrong conclusions. It will also prepare us to endure the sufferings of this life in the sure hope of eternal life that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
3. The Blame Culture (vv.17-21)
One of the upshots of this kind of oppression is that it often splits apart the community it is directed against. And the germs of that are seen here in v.20 – when the Israelite foremen leave Pharaoh they meet Moses and Aaron and turn on them.
When we experience something of the difficulties of living and witnessing in a hostile world, we can all-too-easily find ourselves drawn inwards into conflict within the church and a blame culture begins to establish itself. ‘People aren’t being converted because the pastor is a poor preacher’; ‘people aren’t being saved’, says the pastor, ‘because people don’t invite their friends to the services and don’t live attractive lives before them’.
The church under pressure from the world splits into factions – and each faction blames the other for the problems: ‘if you were more with-it we’d have lots of people – young people! – coming along’. ‘Yeah, and if you were more faithful to God’s Word we’d be in a better state’. And so it goes.
How can we guard against that? How can we ensure infighting does not take place? By grasping what we have already seen here: that sin is a powerful foe, that the tactic of the enemy is to divide and rule, that we serve a God of power and might whose word will not fail.