Having briefly introduced the plagues that the Lord sent upon Egypt, we’re going to consider them more fully this week. It’s possible to take them one by one or in groups of three (they seem structured that way) but it strikes me that perhaps the best way to handle them and to benefit from them is to look at them together, with the exception of the final plague which we’ll consider separately – its account is more lengthy and heralds the final release of Israel from Egypt.
1. God, the Sovereign Lord
The plagues that the Lord sent upon Egypt are the clearest statement of his absolute sovereignty and his utter resolve that he will indeed act to deal with sin and redeem his fallen creation. Those points are made in a host of ways in these great acts of judgement.
i) Creation moving in tandem with the Creator in his acts of judgement upon Egypt. We saw last week how the plagues were acts of uncreation, of giving to Pharaoh the fruit of his rebellion against the Lord. We ought to note in line with that the absolute control the Lord has over the creation and that the creation which is longing for its own release from bondage is, so to speak, his partner in moving that great project along.
This is perhaps underlined by the fact that, whilst the magicians of Egypt can replicate some of the plagues (the first two) they are powerless to go any further than that. The Lord is supreme.
ii) Judgement upon the gods of Egypt. In line with that, we should note that it isn’t just the magicians who are defeated but the gods of Egypt too. Many of these plagues deliberately involve aspects of creation over which Egypt’s gods were said to have power or aspects of creation that Egypt considered to be gods. But those gods are idols, worthless things with no true power. The LORD, he is God and he is God alone!
iii) That supreme control is further underscored by the continued emphasis upon the extent of the plagues – everything is affected (with some important exceptions that we’ll come to later). The whole of Egypt is condemned and judged; nothing is beyond the scope of the Lord.
iv) The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s contribution to this dramatic reversal for his nation is truly culpable. He moves between sheer obstinacy and moments of pleading for mercy yet he never truly repents, he never takes to heart the clear message he is being given by the Lord.
And yet, while he is culpable and responsible, the text makes great play upon the fact that his heart is in the hands of the Lord (cf. Prov. 21:1). What happens, happens because the Lord purposes it to happen; he is acting in salvation and judgement with sovereign control over all that is taking place – such is his commitment to his own character and to the healing and rescue of his creation.
Now, how should all this impact us? Perhaps the most direct impact it is to have is to move us with a sense of the grandeur of God, of his majestic strength, his mighty wisdom, his inscrutable ways. In short, to lead us to worship and revere the God who is far greater than we give him credit for being, to bow before him in awe and adoration.
Here is not a God you can box up and say you have comprehended; this God, who moves in such power and for purposes of salvation, is far beyond us. We are so tiny in comparison with him. It is good to be humbled by a fresh vision of who he is and what he does.
This sequence of events should also inspire a sense of confidence within our hearts – here is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, acting to rescue, acting in fulfilment of his promises. Such passages evoke not simply awe in us but awaken trust and stimulate faith. He is worthy of our trust; we can venture for him – as William Carey so helpfully put it, “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
2. God, the Particular Lord
One of the peculiar and puzzling aspects of the plagues is that fact that some of them are also experienced by the people of Israel whilst others are not (they experience the suffering caused by the first 3 plagues – blood, frogs and gnats – and also the locusts).
Given what we have seen of the absolute sovereignty of the Lord, the question has to be asked, ‘Why he does not spare his people from all the effects of every plague?’ If he could spare them some, then why not spare them all? If it isn’t a case of ‘could not’, why would he not do so?
The only answer that seems reasonable is that the Lord chose to allow his people to experience something of what the Egyptians were suffering as a result of Pharaoh’s sin in refusing to let them go. And such experiences would no doubt speak powerfully to them of the true nature of sin and its bitter harvest, as well as humbling their hearts (they were not all that different to the Egyptians).
Can we not also say the same about our experiences of the sufferings of this life? If the Lord can spare us all sickness and disaster, why does he not? In his own time, he certainly will do so – there will be no sorrow in the new heavens and earth – but in these interim times, suffering is indeed a reminder to us of the broken state of this world.
It keeps us humble; it keeps us trusting; it keeps us looking forward to the return of Jesus. And it fosters within us a sense of compassion toward those who are still far from the Lord.
3. Plagues: A call to repent
Clearly, the ten plagues that the Lord sent upon Egypt to make Pharaoh release his people (and so to further his saving purposes for the world) were a unique event. All through the OT, the people of Israel looked back to the time when the Lord acted in such power on their behalf and took great encouragement from that.
And yet, we can also see in the scriptures deliberate allusions to the plagues that show them as setting a pattern for the Lord’s dealings with the world. In particular, I think we can see this happening in the book of Revelation.
There, the apostle John sees visions of great cataclysms coming upon the world following the ascension of Jesus to his place of authority at the right hand of God.
Those events recall the plagues in Egypt but with an important qualifier in terms of the earlier events: they do not afflict the whole earth; a great stress is laid on the fact that only a third of the earth is to be afflicted. That limitation is ultimately removed when the great final acts of judgement are unveiled.
What does this linkage with the plagues of Egypt say to us? It clearly shows the continuity of the purposes of God, that what took place in Egypt was one phase of the great work of rescue that is ultimately seen as fulfilled in the book of Revelation.
But what I want to particularly mention in terms of the use of plague imagery in Revelation is the emphasis on the opportunity to repent that the plagues present – an opportunity squandered by Pharaoh, to the tragic loss of his people; and an opportunity that is also allowed to slip away by those described in John’s vision (see Rev. 9:20ff).
We live in a world of suffering and decay, a world in which the Lord speaks powerfully through his word and also through his actions in history. I want to ask you this morning: have you heard that voice, calling you to repent? Have you taken the opportunity his grace is giving you to turn back to him, now, before the ultimate tragedy befalls you?
Look around and see what is happening. See the distress and the decay; take note of the hardness and hostility which arouses God’s anger; and humble your heart to receive salvation from Jesus, the Lamb of God who died to take away sin.