Text: Exodus 1:1-14
…And Joseph died, all his brothers, and all that generation. But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel. So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage—in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.
This morning we are beginning a sermon series on the book of Exodus. This is an iconic book. In fact, this is one of the few books of the bible which your average man on the street is familiar with, at least with its big story. Exodus has provided the pictures of slavery and liberation which have stayed with us over the years. I bet if I tried, I could find a way to make this a good 4th of July sermon.
We won’t preach through every single paragraph of this book. The way it is written would make that far too cumbersome of a task. But we will still try to look at the details of the text and make sure we cover all of its essential components. We will also put it into real-world history, understanding Israel’s experience, not as some fantasy story from long ago, but as real people living in the real world with real problems.
The Israelite experience in Egypt was incredibly real. It was an experience first of blessing, then of affliction. It involved a mighty salvation, but then the people very quickly became ungrateful and disgruntled. The same sin nature we have today was with them then. And we will see that all throughout this ordinary human experience, God’s sovereign grace was at work. In fact, the entire Exodus experience was orchestrated by the pre-ordained will of God. He caused every part of this story to happen, and He brought Israel through the difficult places precisely because He wanted to save them.
What we will see this morning in a particular way is a picture of the gracious sovereignty of God. God’s providence often takes a winding path, it’s true. It sometimes takes us down to Egypt. But God always remembers His covenant. For those who believe, this is a great comfort. Even when we are forgotten by men, we are remembered by God.
A Promise Fulfilled
Exodus begins by reminding us about how Israel got to Egypt in the first place. Jacob and his family, the seed form of Israel, came down to Egypt during the Joseph saga. They numbered about 70 people in total. We have to remember that they may also have brought servants and others with them. The text does not tell us this, but we know that Jacob was the heir to a princely line, and we know that Abraham (and Esau) had lots and lots of men around them, serving them and fighting for them. Whatever the specifics, the picture is that of a relatively small group of people. Within a few generations, however, they have explosive population growth. And that’s what causes the situation to change.
“But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.” (Ex. 1:7) Vs. 7 expresses itself with a string repeating terms. The Israelites were “fruitful” and they “increased abundantly.” The Hebrew word there is actually “swarmed.” They’re like a plague of flies! The Hebrew text then says that they “grew many” and “grew mighty.” Finally, “the land was filled with them. This repetition is for emphasis. Israel is exploding in numbers. By the time of the Exodus, Israel is large enough to have over 600,000 fighting men (Ex. 12:27, 14:7, Num. 1:46). This means the total number of all men, women, and children could easily have been two million or more.
There’s one more important point here that isn’t immediately obvious. The time period is actually quite short. We naturally think that 400 years passed between Joseph and the beginning of the Exodus, but that’s not actually the picture that the Bible gives us. According to Exodus 6:16-20, there are only about four generations between Moses and Levi. Moses’ father is a grandson of Levi, and his mother is actually a daughter of Levi! (Ex. 6:20, Numb. 26:59) This means that Israel was not actually under Egypt for very long, and it also means that their population growth happened very quickly.
This is a rather spectacular situation. How can we account for this? Many commentators have balked at this point, saying that surely the numbers and chronologies are all wrong. They’re probably just symbolic. But the explanation is actually quite simple. God is blessing Israel. He is giving them great fertility and fecundity. What we are seeing is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham—Gen 22:17 “blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.”
Of course, the second half of that promise—“your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies” is precisely what bothered the Egyptians. They didn’t like the sight of all these new Israelites popping up. In the eyes of the new Pharaoh, this was a threat, and so they turned against Israel.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” (Ex. 1:8-10)
This sort of concern makes sense on an earthly level, doesn’t it? Basically, Pharaoh sees an immigration problem on his hands. He’s got a large—a very large—cultural group occupying territory within Egypt, and he fears that their loyalties are first and foremost to their own tribes and not to him. He believes that they pose a political threat. This should sound familiar to us, given the recent political debates in America.
But should Pharaoh have feared Israel? No. He should have remembered Joseph. He should have remembered Joseph’s loyalty. And he should have continued to grant blessings and privileges to Israel because of what Joseph had done for Egypt. After all, Joseph had quite literally saved Egypt from the famine (Gen. 47:13-26). Indeed, it was Joseph who had extended Pharaoh’s own power. And as we have shown, this wasn’t that long ago. Joseph would have been within living memory of this Pharaoh’s parents.
So instead of gratitude, the new Pharaoh shows jealousy and fear. He decides punish and afflict Israel:
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. …the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage—in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor. (Ex. 1:11-14)
The Egyptians enslave the Israelites. They make the build “supply cities.” These are not the pyramids. They are probably the kind of cities that Joseph created, those that stored food and other materials. The Hebrew word can also mean an armory or arsenal, and so it’s possible that these cities are military bases. Whatever the case, this was harsh forced labor. It was a kind of slavery. “They made their lives bitter with hard bondage… they made them serve …with rigor.”
Yet for all of this, “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (vs. 12). Even though Pharaoh has forgotten Joseph, God has not forgotten Israel.
God Remembers His People
Now it would be quite natural for Israel to think that their being in bondage in Egypt meant something had gone terribly wrong. In fact, it’s quite natural for us to think that way today. When we suffer affliction, when we are persecuted or excluded, it’s natural for us to think that something has gone wrong. It’s natural just like Pharaoh’s fears were natural. But just like Pharaoh’s natural fears, our natural fears are mistaken. They are mistaken because they forget that God has ordained every step of the way. Everything that happens is happening because He willed it do to exactly that.
This was no accident that Israel was in Egypt at this time. Back in Genesis God had actually told Jacob that this was how Israel would become great:
So He said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again. (Gen. 46:3-4)
Now sure, God didn’t explain exactly how this would work, but Israel had enough to go on. They should have seen the pattern of how God works throughout Genesis. After all, they got to Egypt through Joseph. What was his life like? He was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused and thrown in jail—all as a means to raise him up to the highest position in the land. This is how God works. Joseph explained it this way, “you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
This is how God works. Afflictions and tough spots are not obstacles to His plan. They are a part of His plan. In fact, they are very often the means by which he executes His plan. God puts it into perspective in Deut. 10:22 “Your fathers went down to Egypt with seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven in multitude.” Had Israel not gone to Egypt, they would not have become the great nation. No slavery, no exaltation. No death, no resurrection.
God ordains everything that comes to pass, including the specifics. And in the case of Israel, it seemed good to Him to have them go through this experience. They are being trained, prepared, and sanctified. And the same is true for us today. God, in His infinite wisdom, knows why it is good for you to go through the struggles in your life. God knows why it is good for you to suffer burdens. God knows why it is good for you to be exactly where you are at this time in your life. And whatever God ordains is right.
Israel had been forgotten by men. This is true. But they were remembered by God. In Exodus 3, God says this:
I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, flowing with milk and honey. (Ex. 3:7-8)
God has not forgotten His people. He will deliver Israel. He will keep His covenant. And He will deliver them through slavery into a life of great blessing, just as He has promised. That is the central message of the book of Exodus.
It’s good that the themes and images of Exodus are so-well known. They are true. They are the themes and images which are taken up by Jesus Himself, as He becomes our Passover, sacrificed for us. He is our deliverer who leads us out of Egypt. He is God’s ultimate remembrance and covenant memorial.
So when we are afflicted, let us recall these great truths. This is not happening by surprise. God is in control now, just as He was then. He will remember His promise to Abraham. He will remember His promise to Christ. And He has promised to bless us in Him. And He is doing that, even in the tough times. God is always at work.
“We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Affliction is not a sign that God has forgotten us. It is proof that He remembers us.
Again, this is how God works. He uses death and resurrection to bring about our glory:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Rom. 8:31-35)
We may be forgotten by man in this life, but we must always trust that we are remembered by God. He keeps His word. And He uses every turn along the way to bring about His plan of salvation.
Let us pray.