Then Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals. Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again. But against none of the children of Israel shall a dog move its tongue, against man or beast, that you may know that the Lord does make a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.’ And all these your servants shall come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get out, and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will go out.” Then he went out from Pharaoh in great anger.
Earlier this week, our family watched the Disney version of Pollyanna. I had never seen it before, and so I was in for quite the treat. There’s a really startling church scene where Polly’s preacher ascends a very tall pulpit, dressed in sober black and white vestments, lets loose, “Death comes unexpectedly…” That line is a repeated refrain, as the sermon winds through threats of hellfire, a torturous but just punishment for sins, and man’s delusion to dictate the time and occasion of his death. “Death comes unexpectedly,” the pastor says again and again.
Now, this is presented as a somewhat comical foil, and by the end of the movie Polly has done her work in cheering up the whole town. But I wasn’t so sure what I thought about this “fix.” After all, that sermon sounded to me as basically, well, correct. A few days later, I decided to look into it more, and you know what I found? That sermon was largely a reproduction of Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The reason that I thought the sermon sounded biblical is because it was!
What do we think of these kinds of “fire and brimstone” sermons? I do have some criticisms of them. I don’t think they need to be frequent, and I don’t think that otherwise “normal” or “average” congregations should be brow-beaten or scared into some sort of action. But, at the same time, I have to respect the urgency that comes out when we call people to consider that they will die and that they actually have no control over how that happens. This is an important and inescapable point with which we must all reckon. Memento mori, the old saying goes: remember (that you have) to die.
Pharaoh was confronted with this very message. His own counselors pointed it out to him, and Moses repeatedly warned Pharaoh, culminating with the death of the firstborn at the first Passover. And yet Pharaoh continued to resist. He pretended he was still in control when he wasn’t. But others took notice, and we see that the people of Egypt voluntarily gave their riches away in an effort to pacify Israel and perhaps secure some safety for themselves.
Thus, this morning, we will look at how the warning of death affected Egypt. In turn, let us also learn how it ought to affect us. But let us not leave things with only this message, but let us also see how God Himself was working through these terrible plagues and how He was showing us a picture of salvation in Christ through the Passover.
The Last Three Plagues
We are coming to the end of the ten plagues. The final three are, as you might expect, the most devastating. The locust consume the remaining vegetation of the whole country, “all that the hail has left” (Ex. 10:12). This means that the agricultural crop of the whole country was taken out for the year. No harvest. The plague of darkness wasn’t quite so economically devastating, but it was spiritually devastating. Imagine not being able to see a thing for three days. You would wonder if you were dead already. And remember, the Egyptians worshipped the sun. Thus, for no light to exist in their land would essentially mean that one of their greatest gods was dead.
What could be worse than that, you might ask? The final plague provides the answer. It is the most dramatic of all. In it, God Himself went “into the midst of Egypt” to claim the lives of the firstborns, both of men and animals (Ex. 11:4-5). He would even take Pharaoh’s firstborn, the heir to the throne and another claimant to deity.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians were warned of this beforehand. They heard their own death-knell. Yet Pharaoh again resisted. “The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land” (Ex. 11:10). He would have to be fully broken by the final plague.
The Emerging Difference between Pharaoh and His People
We have noted, in the past, how there is a progression of severity in the plagues, how Egypt’s power is gradually zapped, and how the nation is gradually destroyed. We also see a progression in the uncertainty and disagreement that exists between Pharaoh and the rest of the people of Egypt.
After being warned about the plague of locusts, “Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go… Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” (Ex. 10:7). These men saw the obvious. They knew that they were already doomed, and they hoped that Pharaoh could cut their losses and make some effort at survival.
Interestingly, Pharaoh seems to give in, at least in part. He says that the men of Israel can go. This wasn’t the original request, of course, and so Moses refuses. This enrages Pharaoh further, and so he drives Moses out of his presence (Ex. 10:8-10)
After the locusts and the darkness, Pharaoh has been brought down a notch, and he again offers a kind sort of deal, “Go, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be kept back. Let your little ones also go with you” (Ex. 10:24). Now, Moses had made it clear earlier that the animals had to come to, and he had given the reason, “for we must hold a feast to the LORD” (Ex. 10:9). He repeats that point to Pharaoh and says no deal (Ex. 10:25-26). This is not a matter to be bargained over. The demands are coming from the LORD. They are only to be obeyed.
After the final plague is announced, we see just how far Pharaoh’s people have moved from his own vision. While he tries to bargain with Moses and remains hardened in his heart, they actually give “articles of silver and articles of gold” to the Israelites (Ex. 11:2). The text makes it sound like this was entirely voluntarily. Israel was in no position to coerce it. It was simply out of the fear of God that the Egyptians do this, and the Scriptures explain it this way, “The LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians” (Ex. 11:3). Thus, the “plundering of the Egyptians” was at first a spiritual act, whereby God softened the hearts of the people of Egypt and caused them to give a free-will offering to Israel. They see something that Pharaoh doesn’t—or cannot.
And so the final plague comes, with God saying that it is He Himself who will go out into Egypt. We sometimes use the expression “angel of death” to explain this, but that’s not actually in the text. Instead, it says, “I will go out into the midst of Egypt…” The active agent is the Lord. He takes vengeance. He takes the lives of Egypt’s firstborns.
Concluding Reflections on the Plagues
We will spend more time discussing this final plague and the Passover festival which accompanies it in another sermon. It gets nearly three chapters’ worth of discussion, and so it’s pretty important. But for now we will consider the plagues as a unit. What are some concluding reflections we can make about the whole ordeal?
The first has to be God’s own role in all of it. As we have said before, the plagues show us the absolute sovereignty of God. He controls every step of the way. He is the one who executes the plagues, only using Moses as an instrument. And the text again and again points out that it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to bring about more judgment (Ex. 10:20, 27; 11:10). God shows Himself to be supreme, destroying the gods of Egypt, culminating in the person and office of Pharaoh.
We also see the creation of Israel as a nation. They existed already, but only as a tribal family. The Exodus will bond them together, and, it should be noted, is the way in which God grows them numerically. (They go from 70 to over a million during this time (Ex. 12:37). They saw the Lord’s power and His grace, and they should have held that firmly in their memory. As we know, however, they did not. They forget God’s love for them and became ungrateful.
The plagues also teach us what it is like to be confronted by God. Moses is the ultimate prophet, speaking God’s words to Pharaoh. And God is good on His word. All that He promises does come to pass. You would think that Pharaoh would begin to listen. But he doesn’t. And he doesn’t because his heart is hard. As 1 Cor. 2:14 puts it, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them…” Pharaoh does not do the obvious or rational thing. Instead he doubles down in his sin and receives judgment. Let us not make that same mistake. When we are confronted by God, or by His word through His messengers (which is the same thing), let us not respond in sin. Let us not demand that God bow to us. Instead, let us humbly repent. Soften your hearts. Submit to the Lord.
It’s also important to remember the Exodus in its biblical context. What I mean by this is that it’s important to remember that this series of judgments occurs at a specific place in God’s redemptive history. It is one foundational Old Covenant event, but it ultimately points forwards, to the New Covenant in Christ. As such, it serves as a picture of our own deliverance. Israel is a type of the church, the Exodus is a type of salvation, and Christ is a type of the Passover itself. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).
Comparing the Passover with the work of Christ draws some very important points to our minds. Both the killing of the firstborns of Egypt and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are acts of divine vengeance. In both, God is claiming the demands of justice because of the people’s sins. Egypt had earlier killed the firstborn of Israel. Now they are receiving judgment eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Their firstborns are now killed. In Christ, the same thing is going on, but in profoundly new way.
Why does Christ die? Among other reasons, Christ dies because of our sins.
God set [Him] forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:25-26)
You see, God does not just come down and smite the bad guys, leaving us as “good guys” spared from His wrath. No, God “passes over” our sins and does not take out the judgment that we deserve. He sees the blood of the lamb over us, just as He saw that blood in Egypt. But this blood is more than an earthly lamb’s blood. This is the blood of the Lamb of God. It is Christ’s blood which covers us.
And that means, that on a very deep level, God took the punishment on Himself. In Christ the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily, and so when Christ becomes the lamb which is slain for us, this means that God becomes the lamb which is slain for us. The judge and the victim are one in the same, held together by the mystery of the Trinity. And we see the priority and sovereignty of God in the most amazing of all ways. He does it all. He is the just judge executing vengeance and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus, defending His new Israel and granting them new life.
This is the Christian gospel. In Christ, God does it all. He slays Pharaoh. He judges evil. And He saves His people. He saves all who have seen God’s terror and might and who have run for refuge to the blood-stained lintel. People of Israel, behold your God!
In conclusion, I’d like to take you back our opening illustration, that of the fire and brimstone preacher. Remember that you will die. Pretend you are Pharaoh, confronted with an angry Moses. What should you do?
Don’t say that you haven’t been warned. You have seen what will happen. And the thing is, it is coming to us all. We should remember that the day of our death does draw near. What can we do?
The only thing we can do is that only thing any ever could do, the only thing the Egyptians could do. Turn from our own hard hearts and run to Jesus. See that God is all-powerful, that He is in control, and throw yourself at His mercy. Run to the blood of the lamb and put your trust in Him.
And the good news is that God has promised to be faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you of all unrighteousness. He will receive you in. He will pass you over. He will deliver you and defeat your enemies, if you place your trust in His Son, Christ Jesus.
Let us pray.