God’s Purpose in Pharaoh’s Fall
Text: Exodus 9:13-26
Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth…
One of the most important and most basic questions of all time is this, “Who’s in charge around here?”
Who’s in charge? This is an important question for ordinary organizations, like a business or a school. It’s a very important question for the military. But it’s also an important question for those big questions—you know, those questions about the universe, the meaning of life, and our eternal destiny. Who’s in charge of all of this?
The theological term that we use for this topic is sovereignty. We say that God is completely and entirely sovereign. He commands all that comes to pass, and nothing comes to pass apart from His will. This is true because He is God. No one else compares to Him. In the beginning, He had no counselors or assistants, and no creature can thwart His will. God is in charge.
The truth of divine sovereignty appears several times throughout the Exodus story, and it is on full display in our text this morning. While telling Pharaoh about the plague of hall, God, speaking through Moses and Aaron, says this:
Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.
The plagues demonstrate God’s sovereignty. In fact, the very method and arrangement of the plagues was meant to make this plain, and it ultimately worked to glorify God, to cause His name to be declared and worshiped in all the earth.
This morning we will look further at the sovereignty of God. We will see how it works for our good, for the putting down of all injustice, and for the spread of God’s glory and worship throughout all creation.
Review of the Plagues
We have had a bit of a break in our Exodus series, due to the hurricane, and so it would be good to review. The opening plague was Moses’ striking the Nile River and then turning all of the water in Egypt to blood. After that, there was a plague of frogs, of lice or gnats, and then of flies. Today we also read about the plague on the livestock and the boils on the people. Each of these plagues moves across the creation, from the water, to the dust, then to the animals and people, and then to the crops and eventually even the sun. As we said in the past, God is judging all of the gods of Egypt, and He is systematically destroying the Egyptian economy and nation.
The plagues also mark a difference between the people of God and the people of the world. Starting at least with the flies, the plagues do not affect the people of Israel. This is meant to send a message: Israel’s God is the true God. To this point, we also see that the magicians of Egypt slowly lose their powers. They begin by replicating, however weakly, the plagues Moses carries out, but then they lose their ability to do so. When we get to the plague of the boils, these magicians are themselves struck down. “The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils” (Ex. 9:11). Egypt’s power is failing because its gods have failed. Only Yahweh, the God of Israel, is supreme.
Plague of Hail
This brings us then to the plague of hail. The text tells us that “very heavy hail” rained down from the sky, killing both man and beast (Ex. 9:18-19). Those who had learned from the previous plagues took the advance warning to heart and moved their people and animals into their homes. But those who remained proud did not believe.
So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, so very heavy that there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation. And the hail struck throughout the whole land of Egypt, all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail struck every herb of the field and broke every tree of the field. (Ex. 9:24-25)
What a scene! There’s even fire mixed with the hail, as man, beast, and vegetation are destroyed. This is an apocalyptic experience. It was like the end of the world. It was, indeed, the judgment of God.
The description of the plague is amazing. It is a great and terrible storm that would strike fear into anyone’s heart. But even more amazing is the way that God describes this plague. In verse 14, He says that it is precisely meant to strike terror in the heart. And it is meant to teach the people who God is, who is really in charge—“at this time I will send all My plagues to your very heart, and on your servants and on your people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth.”
This is an astounding statement, but we can anticipate some resistance. Indeed, we can imagine a few people who would have tried their best to resist, namely Pharaoh! If God really is God, then surely His will cannot be resisted. Even if He wins out in the long run, doesn’t the very fact of an extended process of repeated warnings and judgments show us that God’s will can be stalled? After all, if God really is God, then He should be able to just snap His fingers and bring about instant salvation. Why 10 plagues? Why all this repetition? Why even bother with a process?
As it turns out, God answers this exact question. He says that Pharaoh is not resisting Him at all. To the contrary, it is God who has “raised” Pharaoh up, and it is God who keeps him up. And He does it for a purpose, to demonstrate His own power and to bring worship and glory unto Himself:
Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth. (Ex. 9:15-16)
God could have taken Pharaoh out in a single shot. But that was not His will. No, God specifically desired to gradually work His power in and through Pharaoh, even through Pharaoh’s hard heart, in order that everyone could see God’s power. God’s judgment brought glory and worship to Him, and it did this with three groups of people. God’s own people saw what happened and worshiped Him. Onlookers saw what happened and worshipped Him, with many Egyptians converting and joining and Israel. Finally, even those upon whom the judgment fell gave God glory. This includes Pharaoh!
We see Pharaoh confessing the truth about God on at least two occasions, and he even offering something almost like worship. Exodus 9:27-28 says, “I have sinned this time. The Lord is righteous, and my people and I are wicked. Entreat the Lord…” Then again in chapter 10 we read:
Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste, and said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now therefore, please forgive my sin only this once, and entreat the Lord your God, that He may take away from me this death only.” (Ex. 10:16-17)
Thus God’s purpose came about, exactly as He had predicted. Even Pharaoh confessed God’s true, God’s justice, and God’s sovereignty.
Sadly, there was no true conversion on Pharaoh’s part. As soon as he was granted relief, he turned back to his obstinacy, but this too was as God had predicted. It was because Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened, as the Lord had spoken (Ex. 9:34-35).
This teaching occurs a few times in the book of Exodus. It was stated in chapter 4, verse 21, and then it came up again in chapter 7, verse 3. God wanted this message to be clear from the beginning, and every time that the text repeats that Pharaoh’s heart was hard, we remember why.
This also isn’t the last time we hear about this message. It appears throughout the Bible, whenever God explains the mystery of His sovereign calling, but our precise passage from Exodus 9 actually reappears in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Romans. In Romans chapter 9, the Apostle Paul quotes Exodus 9:16 in a section explaining God’s sovereignty. In Romans, Paul is explaining the mystery of spread of the gospel, why it is that the majority of Israel, God’s covenant people, are rejecting the message, while a large number of Gentiles are accepting it. The argument actually runs from Romans 9 to Romans 11, but the key passage for our interests this morning comes in Romans 9:14-18:
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
What an argument!
Let’s take that in. The question asks whether or not it’s fair for God to exert control over salvation. Now, earlier in Romans, Paul has answered this question by pointing us to the unfortunate truth of our own sinfulness. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). But here he gives a different answer. The answer is that it is fair because God is God.
“It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” This proves that salvation is all of divine grace. We aren’t saved because we try hard and do a good job. We are saved because God has mercy on us.
More than this, even those who are not saved are instruments for God’s glory. His name is “declared in all the earth” through the awful but just judgment executed upon them. The example cited is Pharaoh. Everyone can see that evil men are defeated, and this causes them to see God’s power and glory. Every step of this is planned by God. It all comes off as it should. And He is glorified in both the salvation of those who believe and the judgment of those who rebel. Finally, He is glorified in the truth that it was all of Him. God made it all happen. He is sovereign. His purpose is fulfilled.
What are we to make of this doctrine? As we’ve said in the past, it’s actually not possible for someone to see the truth, give true worship to God, come to Him for salvation, and then be turned away. That’s not how it works. Jesus says that no one will be turned away (John 6:37). The real question is why you would ever come in the first place. How can your heart be changed? And the answer there is clear—only by the grace of God.
And so the response to this teaching is the same for all people, no matter what “class” of men you fall into. You should open your eyes, see the truth, repent, and run to the true God for salvation. As the Psalm says and as is repeated in Hebrews 3: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Heb. 3:7-15). See which power is the almighty. Worship that God. Turn away from all idols. Trust in the true God.
This teaching also answers that first question we asked. Who’s in charge here? Not only is God in charge, but He has a consist purpose that works its way through all things. He wants to reveal Himself to us. He wants to demonstrate His power and His grace, the fullness of His glory. And He does this because He wants us to know Him. He wants us to see Him for Who He is and in so doing, He wants us to be saved.
Let us take notice of God’s purpose in all things. He raises up, and He brings low. He even sustains His enemies in order to bring about His will. That is total sovereignty.
The Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til had a powerful image for what is going on when humans deny the image of God. Van Til said that it is like a baby or a toddler being held in the arms of its mother who then reaches up and slaps its mother’s face. The toddler would never even be able to do this if the mother wasn’t holding it up the whole time. That’s something of what it’s like when we attempt to thwart God’s will. We couldn’t even deny Him if He were not first sustaining us. After all, “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
This ought to humble us. He really does have the whole world in His hands. All things are done by His permission, but more than that, at His command and in order to bring about His purposes. We can’t always understand how this works in this life, but we are taught that it is always good. And so we are called to believe. We trust God precisely because He is God. We confess His righteousness. And we give Him His glory.
Let us pray.