Exodus 7:8-10:29

Sun, 24/01/2010 - 11:30 -- James Oakley

We don’t like plagues. We shudder to think what it must have been like to live through the various runs of Bubonic Plague in the middle ages. We fear illnesses like swine flu because of what they might do to our community. We get very anxious when we hear that Iraq might have biological or chemical weapons, that could make life very painful and uncomfortable for us.

So, if we are honest, the account of the plagues of Egypt is a difficult part of the Bible to stomach. It’s hard to read. It’s hard to preach on. It’s hard to listen to a sermon on. We start to ask: How could God do such horrible things to the Egyptians?

Tell the Story

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the story. Some of you will have been reading Exodus chapters 7 to 10 this week, but others won’t have had time. God sends Moses to Pharaoh to ask that the Israelites can go a three-day journey into the wilderness, with their women and children, with their flocks and herds, to offer sacrifices to the Lord their God.

Pharaoh says no. He doesn’t know the Lord. So God sets about introducing himself to Pharaoh. He needs to bring Pharaoh to the point where he does recognise God to be the Lord, L O R D in capital letters, the God who is committed to his people. And he needs to bring Pharaoh to the point where he says yes.

So God sends 9 plagues on Egypt. In 6 of the 9 plagues, Moses goes to confront Pharaoh. He warns him that if he does not let the people go, a particular plague will fall. Pharaoh digs his heels in, and the plague follows.

9 plagues. First blood. The water in the river Nile turns into blood, as does the water beside the river that is in storage containers. Then frogs. Vast numbers of frogs teem over the land, until Moses asks God to take them away, then they die and rot and smell. Third we have gnats. Then flies. Then a plague affects the Egyptian livestock, so that the cattle die. Then there is an outbreak of boils on everyone’s skin. Then there is a hailstorm, the like of which Egypt had never seen and would never see again – it killed cattle and people, and it wiped out crops. Eighth is the plague of locusts. A strong easterly wind brings a vast locust cloud over the land, that ate every living plant, and then Moses asks God to take them away, so a strong westerly wind drives them into the sea. And finally, we have the plague of darkness. Three solid days and nights with no light. So dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Pitch black.

And all the time, Pharaoh keeps on saying no. He will not let the people go. He said he would a few times, but then he changed his mind. He tries a few compromises. How about you offer your sacrifices here? How about you leave the women and children here? How about you leave your livestock here? But he will not say yes to what God has asked. So the next plague falls. And the next one. And the next one.

It really happened

Before we go any further, we need to be clear that these things really happened. Some people try to let God off the hook by telling us that God had nothing to do with it. The story goes something like this.

The River Nile, until the year 1970, had an annual cycle. It would flood in August, leaving a rich and fertile silt over the Nile delta. The waters would then retreat, and the enriched soil could be used to grow crops. The red colour of the soil being washed downstream could make the Nile look like it was flowing with blood. The inundation of water would bring a rush of frogs, who would die when the waters dried up. The stagnant water would be ideal for gnats to breed in, and the rotting frogs would be ideal for flies to lay eggs on. Flies spread disease, and this explains the death of the cattle and the skin lesions on people, and so on.

The trouble is that an awful lot is hidden in the “and so on”. Boils just don’t lead naturally onto a hail storm. And hail doesn’t bring locusts. And locusts don’t bring pitch darkness for 3 whole days. After 6 plagues, the explanation all breaks down.

The other problem is that the Egyptians knew about the annual Nile inundation. So much so, that they set their calendar by it. This annual event wouldn’t strike terror in the hearts of Pharaoh and his court magicians; everyone would have reminded Pharaoh that this happened every year.

And the other big problem is the timing. The way God shows Pharaoh that this is his handiwork is by announcing each new development in advance, and making sure it happens exactly when he says so. The Nile turns to blood as Aaron’s staff touches it. The gnats come when Aaron flings the dust into the air. God even allows Pharaoh to name the time himself when the frogs will go.

No: There’s no getting around it. These things happened because God made them happen.

Hard to Stomach

As I say, this is all a bit much to read. The blood is just unpleasant. The frogs disrupted every part of life. The gnats and flies would spread disease. The cattle dying would be a disaster for their economy. The boils were personally extremely uncomfortable. The hail and the locusts destroyed the environment. And the darkness would have been terrifying.

How can God do this? Well, there are a few things we can say. Before we say them, we do need to remind ourselves that this is God we are talking about. He doesn’t owe us an explanation for everything he does; he is infinite, and our minds are very much finite. If we can’t find an explanation for what God does here that satisfies our curiosity, then we have to bow before the Lord rather than tell him that we know better what he should have done. After all, isn’t that the heart of Pharaoh’s mistake: He thought he knew better than God did.

Having said all that, God hasn’t left us in the dark. In fact, there are 4 things I think we can say about these plagues. The first thing to talk about is God’s justice. God is punishing the Egyptians for the wrongs they have done to him and to his people. But it wasn’t just Pharaoh, was it, who hurt God’s people. Pharaoh enlisted all of the Egyptian population to help his genocide programme. So if we say, “poor, innocent Egyptians, suffering like that – what harm have they done?”, the answer is: They threw countless baby boys in the river to drown them. If we think the plagues were bad, try drowning babies for size.

The second thing to say is about God’s patience. The plagues get steadily worse. God doesn’t throw his whole arsenal at Pharaoh all at once. He starts off with some relatively minor things. He gives Pharaoh lots of chances to put a stop to all the other plagues. God is extremely patient. Sadly, Pharaoh is extremely stubborn to match.

The third thing to say is about the nature of Pharaoh’s arrogance. This is primarily a battle between the Lord and Pharaoh. Who is going to get their way? And that translates into a battle between the Lord’s people and Pharaoh’s people. Who can look after their people the best – Pharaoh or the Lord? Pharaoh thinks he can do the better job. He claims he can look after his people better than God can. And he’s so determined that he’s the best at it, that God has to go this far to show him that his people are not safe under Pharaoh’s protection.

The fourth thing to say is about how serious sin is. At the end of the day, why do we think these plague are so unfair, so over the top? It’s because we think it is less serious to disobey and ignore God than he does. These plagues show us how much God hates it when his word is refused. We react against the plagues because we don’t think sin is as serious as that. That was Adam and Eve’s mistake, wasn’t it? “You won’t surely die”, the serpent told them. God doesn’t really treat disobedience that seriously. But he does. Thankfully, most of the time, God doesn’t show us how much he hates our sin. But we get a little window into God’s heart with these plagues.

So, yes, they’re hard to stomach. But God is just and patient, whereas Pharaoh thinks he’s the better ruler and that sin doesn’t matter.

And when the justice and patience of God meets human pride and arrogance, these plagues are what you get.

What do we learn?

So what do these plagues have to say to us then? Fortunately, God tells us what he intends us to learn, and as we read the account God repeatedly tells us that we are to learn the same two lessons.

Lord of all the earth

First, God is lord of all the earth. The frogs will go tomorrow, God says to Pharaoh, “that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God.” The hail will come, “that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.” God is Lord of the whole world. God is Lord of Egypt. There is no-one like him, and certainly Pharaoh is not the Lord of Egypt.

So there is no tyrant that can threaten God, put fear into God’s heart, or stand in the way of God’s purposes. Do you remember the fuss a few years back when Jacqui Smith said she wouldn’t walk through the East End at night. Well God doesn’t have any no-go areas in his world. He’s in charge.

God is still lord of all the earth today. There are plenty of parts of the world, parts of this country, parts of Kemsing, where God is not acknowledged. But God is just as much in control there as he is in this church building. In fact, we know that he’s God of the whole world today even more than these Hebrews could have done. After Jesus rose from the dead, he said that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him. And then he sat down at the right hand of the father, as ruler of heaven and earth. Truly, the Lord Jesus Christ is lord of all the earth, and there is none like him.

A distinction

The second thing God wants to teach us is that he makes a distinction between his people and other people. The flies would not come into the land of Goshen, where God’s people lived, “that you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth. Thus I will put a division between my people and your people.” The livestock of Israel would not die, because “the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt.” And when all Egypt was in pitch black, all the people of Israel still had light.

God makes a distinction. How you experienced the plagues on Egypt depended a lot on whether you were one of God’s people or not. In fact, we get a couple of cameos of Egyptians who feared the word of the Lord, and so were spared some of the plagues. The servants of Pharaoh who feared the Lord brought their cattle and their slaves inside before the hail fell. The plagues weren’t indiscriminate. The Western military love telling us about their so-called smart bombs, that don’t wipe out a whole area regardless of who was living there, but destroy their precise targets. Well they often don’t work. But these plagues were very discriminating.

So if you were an Egyptian, we’ve already said that God is lord of the whole earth, and that God hates sin more than we can understand. Put those two together, and that means that God’s hatred of sin was felt.

And God still hates sin today. In fact, the plagues show us that God is very good at being patient with sin. He gives warnings, he overlooks things, he holds off. But when Paul was preaching in Athens, he explained that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead puts an end to the time of God holding off. Jesus’ resurrection proves that God will one day judge the world. And when the New Testament talks about that final judgement, one of the ways it does so is by using the language of these plagues. That’s not to say that these exact plagues will happen again. But it is to show us the continuity between God’s judgement in Egypt, and his final judgement when Jesus comes back.

It’s the same thing. God hates sin. And in Egypt he made that felt, and Jesus will make that felt when he returns. If these plagues are frightening, that is a good thing, because it will be frightening when Jesus comes back as well.

That’s if you were an Egyptian. If you were an Israelite, or if you were an Egyptian who feared the Lord, things were very different. You were spared the worst of these plagues. In fact, these plagues were God’s way of dealing with the tyrannical and oppressive Egyptian regime. In the time of plague, you experienced God’s favour, his blessing and his protection. You discovered that when God shelters you under his wings, you are safe indeed. You discovered that it is a very good thing indeed that God is the lord of all the earth, because that means he can work every little detail for your good.

And God still works all things for good for those who love him today. God loved us enough to send his Son for us. If he gave us the Lord Jesus Christ, how will he not now give us all things? What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The Lord Jesus has bound up the strong man, Satan. Now his house can be plundered, and we can know God’s love, protection and blessing in life.


So these rather unpleasant stories show us that God is lord of all the earth, and that Jesus is lord of all the earth. But how he uses that varies depending on who we are talking about. For us, as the people of God, God uses his lordship of the whole world to bless and protect us.

What we need to do is to get under his wings. To take shelter in him. To get out of the field before the hail comes down. And to be assured by these stories that if we are sheltering under God’s care, that is a very strong shelter indeed. There is nobody who can knock the shelter down, no-one who can stand in his way. There is no place to be, in all the world, like sheltering in the love of God.

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