For His Great Name's Sake, Part 1

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Exodus 9:8-16

The Old Testament, the Bible for that matter, knows nothing of God as we conceive him to be. The God of the Bible is inconceivable. His actions which we rightly confess to be truthful and just always nevertheless baffle us and leave us wondering.

Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land.”

So they took soot from a furnace and stood before Pharaoh. Moses tossed it into the air, and festering boils broke out on men and animals. The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all the Egyptians. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses.

Then 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.

Exodus 9:8-16, niv

In some ways the early historical books in the Old Testament are quite problematic. The problem has to do with the picture that we see here of God – how he acts, what he says, what he does. The God of the Old Testament is a God with angularities, sharp edges. He’s not smooth, bland, reassuring. This is a difficult God, sometimes a troubling God. This is a God who says and does things that make us step back and say, “Wait! How does this square with the God that we see revealed in Jesus Christ?” He can be very impressive but also terrifying. He can fill us with awe as well as with a sense of dread. This is a God who not only saves people but kills them as well.

It’s easy to see why certain parts of the Old Testament are avoided so much by Christians today. It’s also easy to understand why the Old Testament writers talked so much about the fear of the Lord. The God whom we see revealed here is a fearsome God. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The children had just been told that the Lord of Narnia was a lion called Aslan. They wanted to know if he was safe. “Of course he isn’t safe,” came the answer. “He’s not a tame lion!” Americans like to think of God as a vague higher power. “God as you conceive him to be” is the phrase that’s often used. Well, the Bible knows nothing of God as we conceive him to be. The God of the Bible is inconceivable. We do not understand him. His ways are past our knowing. His actions, which we rightly confess to be truthful and just always, nevertheless baffle us and leave us wondering.

THE PLAGUES

Take the story of the Exodus – the plagues in Egypt, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and so on. We’ve all scratched our heads over that one, haven’t we? I mean here God sends these disasters one after another. He destroys the land and the crops on the land. He poisons the rivers and pools and streams. He kills the livestock. He afflicts people with pain and discomfort, and even the animals too. Eventually he kills many of them, people whom most of us would describe as innocent bystanders – children, infants, ordinary Egyptians, slaves who had nothing to say about how their country was run. And all the while this is happening God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, confirming him in his obstinacy, in order that he may prolong the process even further. It’s almost as if it’s not enough that God is going to send a plague or two, he wants to stretch it out. So he makes sure that Pharaoh doesn’t cave in before he’s able to send the ultimate in disaster upon the people of Egypt.

So as I read this story I find myself asking why. What is the point of God’s doing all this? But reading it again not long ago, I noticed that the Bible itself offers some answers to that question. In fact, quite a number of answers. God, in speaking to Moses as he gives him instructions for what he’s to do, repeatedly adds explanatory comments. He plainly says, “This is why I’m going to do this. This is why I want you to do that, in order that this may happen, so that this other result will occur in turn.”

So God explains himself here in the book of Exodus as the story of the plagues unfolds. It’s almost as though he knows that we’re puzzled by these events and he wants us to understand what he’s doing. Not only the fact that he is in the process of delivering his people from slavery in Egypt – that’s the bottom line, of course – but the reasons he has for the manner in which that deliverance is effected.

AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO FAITH

Here then are several of the reasons God himself gives for the plagues he inflicted on Egypt. First of all, he did all these things in order to encourage his peoples’ faith. Look at the opening verses of Exodus 10. God says this to Moses:

Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them so 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.

God’s first intention is to direct these acts toward the people of Israel themselves in order to produce a particular effect upon them. He wants them to know just who he is. He wants them to have confidence in his ability to take care of them. He wants to give his people a story to tell, a story that they’ll never forget. He wants to make the Exodus event memorable so that as long as the generations of Israel endure, they will never forget how God delivered them from bondage with mighty power and miraculous acts. God’s purpose is first of all to confirm them in their faith in his word, in his power to do whatever he has promised. The psalmist says that the word of the Lord is tried. It’s been tested in the fire and it is dependable. God can do what he says he will do.

Frederick the Great once asked his chaplain if he could prove the existence of God. His chaplain replied, “I can prove it with one word – Israel.” Where did this unique people come from? How do they endure? Only by the power of God. Let me ask the question of myself. How do I know that there’s a God?” I too would answer in one word: Jesus. He came into the world by a miraculous birth, he lived a sinless life, he died a sacrificial death, he was raised with power and great glory, he reigns now over the universe. These mighty acts of God in the person of Jesus Christ are all we need in order for us to have confidence in him. So God’s first reason for performing mighty deeds of deliverance for his people – whether in the Old Testament Exodus or the New Testament gospel – is so that we may know that he is the Lord. And not only that we may know this but that we may tell our children and our grandchildren what he has done, how he has delivered us. It is all so “that you may know that I am the Lord.”

WHO IS GOD?

Secondly, this passage tells us that God chose to deliver his people by means of these plagues in order to demonstrate his rule over the world. In other words, he not only wanted to send a message to Israel. He wanted to send a message to Pharaoh and ultimately to everyone else as well.

Look at Exodus 9:29. Pharaoh has summoned Moses and Aaron, we read there, and he confesses his sin to them (although not sincerely). And, by the way, this language about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart needs to be balanced by what the text says about Pharaoh hardening his own heart. He is a willing participant in resisting God’s purpose to deliver Israel. Pharaoh is not a puppet. Whatever the Bible means when it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it does not mean that Pharaoh had no choice in the matter. This is a biblical way of ascribing to the Lord all that happens. But this does not preclude the truth that we are still responsible for our own actions, however difficult it may be to reconcile these two facts logically.

So Pharaoh speaks to Moses and Aaron: “The Lord is in the right. I’m in the wrong. Pray to the Lord. We’ve had enough of this thunder and hail. I’ll let you go “ And Moses replies, “All right, when I’ve gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands in prayer to the Lord. The thunder will stop. There’ll be no more hail.” Why? “So that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s” (Exodus 9:29 Here we see another purpose stated for this long drama of deliverance via escalating acts of divine power. In simplest terms, it’s all to show who’s boss. To whom does the earth belong? Who is the real God? The purpose of the plagues is not to just teach Israel about the greatness and power of God. They’re also intended to teach a lesson to the enemies of God.

Missiologists often speak about “power encounters” between the God of the Bible and the deities, spirits and powers of a given locality. This is something very foreign to us in our civilized, science-oriented world view. But it’s very real in many places in the world, especially on the frontiers of missionary advance. Exodus 8-10 describes a power encounter, a very early one, between God and the gods of Egypt.

You remember how the whole thing started. Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh back in chapter 5 and make the demand that God has sent them to deliver: “Let my people go!” And Pharaoh sneers back, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him and let Israel go?“In other words, “I don’t know this Lord you’re talking about. Why should I listen to him?” Well, Pharaoh is about to find out.

Remember also that early on the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh sort of seesawed back and forth. Moses threw down his staff and it became a serpent. Pharaoh called in his magicians and they did the same thing. And then the first two plagues (blood in the Nile and swarming frogs) were also mimicked through the dark powers of the sorcerers of Egypt.

So the battle is engaged and it’s going back and forth, and the stakes keep getting higher, until we come to a plague that Pharaoh’s magicians are unable to match. The third plague is a cloud of gnats that go out and bother everybody throughout the land. And Pharaoh’s magicians come to him with a warning – “This is the finger of God” (8:19). They’re trying to tell him to quit, to give up the contest while he still can, but Pharaoh won’t listen.

So the stakes are raised again, and what comes next is a plague of boils. Now frankly, I think this is a little bit of comic relief in the middle of the story. Moses and Aaron are instructed to throw handfuls of soot into the air, causing boils to afflict the population. The boils also break out on the magicians, and so we read that they “were unable to appear before Moses because of the boils that were on them and all the Egyptians” (Ex. 9:11). I’m sure that little detail was told for laughs. The God of Israel doesn’t just defeat the sorcerers of Egypt; he humiliates them!

So the question the plagues are intended to answer is this: Who is the real God? Is it the evil powers of Egypt and their representatives? Is that what’s in control in the land of Egypt? Or is it the God of Israel, the One who says, “Let my people go!”

What about that same question today: Who is the real God in our world? Is it the God of Mohammed? Is it the 33 million deities of the Hindus in their pantheon, like Kali, the goddess of destruction who rules over the city of Calcutta that bears her name? Who holds the power?

Who is the real God? Is it the humanist gods of secularism and technology, money and political power, human invention and discovery? Is that the ultimate power? The Bible says “No.” It is the God of Israel, the God and Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord, and all will know it as he delivers his people by his mighty power. As the novelist Fredrick Buechner once remarked in another context, “A God who can do these kinds of things isn’t just a God. He’s a God and a half.” That’s the God of the Bible. And the whole world needs to know it.