Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 5:1-9
by Sam Perry
Adding insult to injury. We have phrases like this in our English usage, which remind us that sometimes life gets worse before it gets better, if it gets better at all. It’s a fact of life that there are times when we think things can’t get any worse, and yet they can, and sometimes do. When situations in our lives as the people of God could be described as ‘insult added to injury’, how should we respond? How should we think about God? For Israel they are about to see a tough situation become much tougher, demonstrating that what is true of our lives in general is true in their lives in particular.
Chapter 5 begins with “Afterward,” linking the passage to what has gone before in chapter 4. After all of Moses’ fears wondering if God’s people would believe him or not, he obediently does what God asks him to do, and tells the people of God everything God had told him. He also performed signs before the people and they believed him. The people bowed down and worshiped. So we see God’s servant Moses doing the right thing, being obedient to God, and things go wonderfully as the people believe.
The Daring Demand. Then we get ‘afterward’ and ‘The Daring Demand.’ Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh boldly. They have just had this wonderful experience of faithfulness and ‘success.’ Israel is backing them, and they speak to Pharaoh with all the confidence that servants of God might have after such success. So they bring a demand to be free to go for three days to worship God in the desert.
The More Daring Denial. Pharaoh replies with an even more daring denial. It is even bolder because while their demand was based on God’s word, he relies on himself for authority. Not only does he say he doesn’t know Moses’ God, he scorns God saying: “Who is Jehovah? I neither know him nor care for him, neither value him nor fear him.” At the core here is original sin. God is sovereign over all the earth, yet in our fallen condition, humanity will not submit to God’s authority. This can be seen even in the church, with the growing number of discussions I have heard lately challenging the authority and reliability of God’s Word. Almost reminiscent of the serpent in the garden, voices can be heard challenging the authority of God’s word saying, “Did God really say?…….” Pharaoh is the leader of a great nation. Moses is the leader of an enslaved people, so why should Pharaoh even consider the God of such a people as this? Along with Psalm 2 “The kings of the earth take their stand…..” Pharaoh is taking his stand against God, declaring, “I set the agenda. I am in control.” There is a sense that every time we choose to sin, we are saying along with Pharaoh, “I don’t know this God! I neither know Him or fear Him.” Someone once said the anthem of hell is Frank Sinatra’s, “I did it my way.” Precisely the song Pharaoh sings in Exodus 5 as he rejects God. If only he knew that though he may think he is doing it his way, the truth of the matter is, God is still sovereign.
Notice too that because he rejects God he also rejects Moses in vss. 4-5. Moses and Aaron try again. Again their appeal is based on God’s word. This time they appeal to Pharaoh to let them go, demonstrating fear of the Lord and what God might do if they don’t do as He says. But Pharaoh won’t be moved. He completely ignores their plea and tells them to get back to work, and in fact he makes the work even harder for the people of Israel.
So Moses and Aaron do what God asks. They faithfully take the message to Pharaoh. And instead of things going well, they get worse. Insult is added to injury. God’s people now have to collect their own straw for making bricks and complete the necessary quota of brick making. Further, Pharaoh suggests that Moses is lying when he says that God commanded that the people be allowed to go and worship (vs. 9). Once again he is calling into question the veracity of God Himself and dividing Moses from God’s people and the message that God has for His people.
How do we respond when we do what God requires and life gets harder? It is easy when there is relative success to know how to respond as in the end of chapter 4. This leads to worship and even energizes to proceed further. But isn’t it true that so often we quickly forget the ways God has worked in the past, and find at the first sign of discouragement or defeat, a desire to throw in the towel? How often, when things don’t go as expected, do we find fingers pointing in blame? Reading on, that is exactly what happens as the Israelite foremen see the trouble they are in and blame Moses and Aaron. They even call for God to judge Moses and Aaron. Isn’t it interesting that they don’t blame the one who doubled the work-load, they blame God’s leaders!
I wonder how often godly people have offered the counsel of God and His word to those who are in bondage, only to have those in bondage turn and reject the Word and accept the words and ways of the world. This is a picture of how sin works in enslaving and blinding humanity to the point where we would rather own the pleasures of sin, though they destroy us, than the freedom of Christ.
In the church today, how often at the first sign of trouble do we point hands at leadership and cry foul? In a country obsessed by numbers where so many churches are in decline, is it possible that God still works this way today? Is it possible today that God’s leaders could be totally faithful in carrying out God’s calling on their lives and still see difficulty and decline? Is the growing number of pastors being removed from their churches by their congregations possibly related to a lack of faithfulness here? How might the people of God remain faithful even in the midst of difficulty? How might difficult and discouraging circumstances be eased for the leaders God gives us if, instead of finger pointing, the people of God prayed and encouraged to press on?
There are lots of questions and decisions that need to be made here. Moses and Aaron have to decide whether or not to quit or to keep leading. The people of God have to decide whether or not to despair and grumble and criticize, or to trust in the promises and word of God. It is interesting that when things get difficult the idols of our hearts are quickly revealed. When the workload doubles and comfort is threatened, it is easy to see by our response if we have taken a good thing like comfort and made it an ultimate thing. The striking thing is that this idolatry in their hearts has muddled their thinking. They fail to see their slavery as the problem, but rather the added workload. Truly their heads and their hearts have been blinded and enslaved. They would prefer to have an easier life as a slave than a harder life as a free people.
There is no way the Israelites will so quickly turn on Moses and Aaron unless something else is functioning as their ultimate God. There is no way Moses and Aaron fall into utter despondency unless they themselves have elevated something besides God and His promises to the throne.
But God has a plan. He has set things up so that His mighty hand will be revealed. In this, there will be no mistaking that it is God who saves. It was because Pharaoh resisted the decree of God that we have the greatest lessons of the divine deliverance in Old Testament times. Romans 9 speaks of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I don’t think I have ever heard Romans 9 preached, but it speaks directly to God’s workings in Exodus 5. It emphasizes that the work of salvation is ultimately God’s work, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
When Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, invitations were sent out to the privileged few who were allowed to attend. The words of her invitation included the following words, “We greet you well. Whereas we have appointed the second day of June, 1953 for the solemnity of our coronation. These are therefore to will and to command. All excuses set apart that you make your personal attendance upon us at the time above mentioned, there to do and to perform such services as shall be required of you.” All excuses set apart……. In other words whatever you are doing drop it. Whatever you had planned, changed it. This is what you are going to do. It is an issue of authority. It is the question raised in the text. The question before us, “Who is God?” Does He have the right to command us to do as he pleases, and do the results have to be exactly what we want them to be?
Ultimately, Moses points to the greater Moses than Moses. Moses is faithful yet accused of laziness and lies. Jesus was called a drunkard and a liar. Only Jesus was the only man to walk the earth and be completely faithful to the Word of God. Moses life was in danger approaching Pharaoh with his bold demand, but Jesus Christ gave up His life taking on not just the burden of added work, but the utterly crushing burden of His people’s sin.