Chapters 5 and 6 tell of the first meeting of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh. When we become Christians, most of us have a pretty good idea in our minds of how the Christian life ought to go. We live in a technological age and we think of things working well, efficiently, on time, and in a predictable fashion. And we think that’s exactly the way the Christian life ought to go. It’s a little bit like driving a car: when you get into a car, turn the switch, step on the gas, you ought to move forward. Well, it doesn’t always work that way in the Christian life. We think we are doing the right things. But there seem to be setbacks and discouragements. And when that happens, and it happens quite often, we become discouraged. Many of us then wonder what’s gone wrong.
This first great incident in Moses’ life when he returned to Egypt and confronted Pharaoh is like that. It is true that Moses had been reluctant to take on this challenge. He pleaded a number of excuses with God, and he’s not finished with that yet. But nevertheless, God had told him to go back to Egypt to meet with his brother to go before the elders of the people and present the fact that God had appeared to him on Mount Sinai and given him instructions to tell the pharaoh to let the people go.
Moses had done all of that, and he’d done it exactly. And it would even seem, to a certain extent, that he had been successful; at least the people listened to him. He had done the signs that God had given him, and they said, “Ah, this is wonderful.” Then he went to Pharaoh, but he failed in his first appearance, and he failed utterly. Not only that, the worst possible thing happened. Not only did Pharaoh refuse to let the people go; Pharaoh actually came down hard on the Jewish people who were slaves and in bondage. He made their lives so miserable that we find in the middle of the story that they are crying out to Moses, who by this time of course lost any credibility at all.
We want to ask an obvious question: “Why in the world did such a thing happen?” Well, we look back on it, and we can suggest a number of ideas. We might say it happened so the people could see how desperate their situation was before God delivered them, so they would appreciate the deliverance. You might suggest that it was so the people, and the leaders too, might learn that their salvation was in God alone. We could argue that Moses and Aaron needed to come to the end of self, and be utterly surrendered to God in whatever it might please God to do for them. All these would be true, but none of them was aware of those issues at the time. And that’s why we find in the story that Moses, when the people turned against him, prostrated himself before God and cried out, “Oh Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all,” at the very end of the fifth chapter.
Did you ever feel like that? Well if you have ever gone through those experiences, then this is a story for you.
The message for Pharaoh that we find in this chapter begins, as the messages from Israel’s prophets were all later to begin, “Thus saith the LORD.” That introduction to what’s being said sets those words off from any mere human desires or words by a mortal. Pharaoh himself didn’t understand it that way, and he certainly didn’t receive it that way. But whether he understood it that way or received it that way, this is the Word of God.
That is the same way we teach the Bible today. We teach the Bible to people today that have no more disposition to receive it or believe it or bow before the God of Scripture than did Pharaoh. But that doesn’t change the message in the slightest. And so when we teach the Bible today, it’s never a question of saying, “Well this is what I happen to think,” or “I have been reflecting on the situation in the world today, and it seems to me that it might be good if we did so-and-so,” or “Here is a bit of advice that you might find helpful this week as you put it into practice.” That’s not the way we approach it. We approach it today by saying, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Why is this what we say? Well, because the Word of God has within it the power to accomplish what God chooses to accomplish. When God brought this universe into being, He did so by the word of His mouth. He spoke, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and “Let the water be divided from the land,” and it happened. God tells us in Isaiah 55, “My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (v. 11). When we speak the Word of God to other people, we need to be encouraged by that. The results are always in God’s hands, and they’re not always the results that we anticipate. But it’s God’s work, and it is God’s power that blesses His Word.
The rest of Moses’ statements contain this message of God for Pharaoh, and what they say is that Pharaoh must let the people of Israel go. They have to go into the desert to worship Him, which is here described as holding a religious festival and includes offering sacrifices. It is described as “a three day journey.”
Now some have taken that as being dishonest. They’ve said that Moses tells Pharaoh they want to go off and have a little religious celebration, with the implication that they will be coming back. That, of course, is not the case. It may very well be that this was a request to go into the desert and worship, and that they would, perhaps, have come back—with the implication that later on there are going to be stronger demands. But Pharaoh declined even this reasonable suggestion. It becomes very clear early in the story that he is not reasonable in this area, and therefore it’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight between Pharaoh and his gods and Jehovah, the God of Israel.
Pharaoh answers no, and he replies in a very arrogant way: “Who is the LORD that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go” (5:2). Pharaoh was considered to be a god himself, and probably he considered himself to be a god. They even had a phrase for Pharaoh: meter nefer, which means “the perfect god.” Well if you are a perfect god, why should you listen to any other god? Certainly not the God of the slave people!