Today’s passage is a story of war, a war between God and the nation of Egypt. And it is a war between God and Egypt’s gods (or their so-called gods). The Egyptians worshiped dozens, even hundreds of false gods. And through the Story of the Ten Plagues, the Lord easily defeats all of them. God is the initiator of this war because his chosen people, the descendants of Abraham are enslaved, being violently oppressed by the king of Egypt. And the Lord will rescue his people in a dramatic way.
The message of our passage today is this:
The Lord our God is greater than all gods. And because of this, we will easily draw the conclusion that we should be humble before him. We shouldn’t, like Pharaoh, have hard, stubborn hearts….Instead, we should have soft hearts. Teachable. Humble. Obedient.
During the issuing of the Plagues on Egypt, God’s greatness was obvious. And it was obvious after Israel escaped through the Red Sea. Just after Red Sea, Moses and Israel sang a song of worship to the Lord. One line of that song says,
Exodus 15:11 CSB Lord, who is like you among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, revered with praises, performing wonders?
I memorized this verse 40 years ago, and I think about this in prayer on a weekly basis as I worship the Lord. Who is like him? To whom can you compare him? What idol or so-called god—which really are nothing more than demons—is a match for God? His holiness. His glory. His wonders. God’s authority and power are no match for any so-called god or earthly king or the most powerful nation on the earth.
This morning, the story of these 10 Plagues covers 5 chapters, which we obviously cannot read entirely. So we will hit a few important highlights. Some key points in the story.
The Precursor to the Battle
Let’s begin in Chapter 7, verse 1. This is a precursor to the battle of the Plagues.
Exodus 7:1–5 (CSB)
1 The Lord answered Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet.
2 You must say whatever I command you; then Aaron your brother must declare it to Pharaoh so that he will let the Israelites go from his land.
3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.
4 Pharaoh will not listen to you, but I will put my hand into Egypt and bring the military divisions of my people the Israelites out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment.
5 The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the Israelites from among them.”
This is essentially repeating what the Lord said to Moses back in Chapter 3. Moses now has marching orders from the Lord to go to Pharaoh, the ruler of the most powerful nation. And the Lord promises to deliver the Israelites.
Let’s continue reading in vs. 8
8 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
9 “When Pharaoh tells you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh. It will become a serpent.’ ”
10 So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord had commanded. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a serpent.
11 But then Pharaoh called the wise men and sorcerers—the magicians of Egypt, and they also did the same thing by their occult practices.
12 Each one threw down his staff, and it became a serpent. But Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.
13 However, Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
Pharaoh asks for a miracle to prove God sent Moses, but he is mocking God. When Moses’ wooden staff turns into a serpent, the magicians of Egypt do the same thing. This is likely an actual demonic event, showing the power that Satan does have on this earth. But the Lord shows his superiority, when Moses’ serpent swallows the magicians’ serpents.
The battle has now been enjoined between God and Pharaoh. Rather than being amazed and humbled and then believe in this powerful God who rules over the laws of creation, Pharaoh hardens his heart.
This is a major theme in these five chapters. Instead of a soft, humble, receptive heart to the voice of the living God, Pharaoh’s was stubborn and resistant and unbelieving. He refused to bow before the God of miracles, the God who holds sway over the laws of nature. It is a sad indicator of the battle that is coming.
The First Plague: Nile Water to Blood
So in judgment against Egypt, the first of the ten plagues is now issued
Exodus 7:14–18 (CSB)
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hard: He refuses to let the people go.
15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning. When you see him walking out to the water, stand ready to meet him by the bank of the Nile. Take in your hand the staff that turned into a snake.
16 Tell him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to tell you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. But so far you have not listened.
17 This is what the Lord says: Here is how you will know that I am the Lord. Watch. I am about to strike the water in the Nile with the staff in my hand, and it will turn to blood.
18 The fish in the Nile will die, the river will stink, and the Egyptians will be unable to drink water from it.”
First, let’s define “hard” heart. Vs. 14 says his heart was hard. The Hebrew word means to be strengthened. To grow firm or resolute. Used in a positive way, it can mean that your heart…your mind, your will…strengthens. You persevere. When life is difficult, you won’t quit.
Used in a negative way, as it always is for Pharaoh, it means that your heart…your mind, your will…grows more stubborn. More resistant. Obstinate. Anyone outside can see, you should simply yield and submit, but the stubborn pride blinds you from seeing reality. I like what one author said: To harden the heart means you mind and will and your conscience become “stupefied.” Groggy, insensible, stupid.
Surely we all know someone like that. And we have to be honest, surely every one of us has been that way ourselves.
That is how Pharaoh is described constantly in the next 7 chapters.
So here in this passage, Moses did as the Lord told him. Water sources all over Egypt turned to blood.
22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same thing by their occult practices. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
23 Pharaoh turned around, went into his palace, and didn’t take even this to heart.
24 All the Egyptians dug around the Nile for water to drink because they could not drink the water from the river.
25 Seven days passed after the Lord struck the Nile.
All Pharaoh had to do is to yield and obey… to listen to the voice of the Lord, but he would not.
So what are the plagues? In the simplest of terms, the plagues are God’s judgment on a sinful people. Throughout the Bible, from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20, God judges all sin. In the story here in Exodus, Pharaoh was sinning. In addition, Egypt as a nation was sinning in multiple ways; one of the greater ones was that they were violently and cruelly oppressing a people group whom the Lord loved. In addition, they were completely given over to worshiping idols. False gods. So in multiple ways, both Pharaoh and the people of Egypt were under God’s judgment.
If you understand the gospel of Christ in the NT, it’s explained quite succinctly. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death.” These plagues on Egypt are the wages for their sins against God and man.
We just read the First Plague, turning Nile River water into blood. It’s a fascinating read to go through every other plague. For sake of time, we cannot. But this same storyline is repeated over and over, with essentially the same outcome.
Let me give you an overview the Ten Plagues. Each of the Ten Plagues is an attack on and a mocking of Egypt’s so-called gods. Turn to Exodus 12.
Right before the last plague, the death of the firstborn sons, the Lord said,
Exodus 12:12 CSB …I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt.
This table shows the Ten Plagues and one of the many Egyptian gods that may connect to each plague. So each plague defeats Egypt’s so-called gods.
|Plague||Examples of Egyptian gods|
|Nile water to blood||Hapi, god of the Nile|
|Frogs||Hekt, goddess of reproduction/fertility, often pictured with the head and body of a frog. So the frog was sacred in Egypt|
|Gnats||Seb, god of desert storms|
|Flies||Kehphera, sacred scarab|
|Disease on livestock||Apis, sacred bull, symbol of fertility|
|Boils (on people and animals)||Sekhmet, goddess with power over disease|
|Hail and lightning||Nut, the sky goddess|
|Locusts.||Serapis, protector from locusts|
|Darkness||Ra, sun god|
|Death of every firstborn son||Isis, goddess who protected children. Also, Pharaoh’s firstborn son was considered a god|
There are dozens, even hundreds, more of Egyptian gods. Pharaoh and all the Egyptians were given to idolatry. To the worship of false gods. They were rejecting the God of all creation. So these plagues are God’s judgment against them.
The NT describes God’s judgment quite clearly in two well-known and well-loved gospel verses:
Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Romans 6:23 says, “the wages of sin is death.”
Every person on the planet has sinned against his Creator. Therefore, every person—including you and me—deserves death. We deserve plagues on us.
Pharaoh and the Egyptians and their so-called gods are facing a power and authority they have never understood. The One True God, the God of all rivers and frogs and flies and livestock, the God over darkness and light, the God over all life and death, this God is the One who is fighting against Egypt. And the Egyptians and their gods will not win.
Hardness of Heart
But the king’s heart was hardened against God. He refused to do the right thing. The obvious thing: to let the people of this all-powerful God go, to set them free from the king’s oppressive, evil hand. So plague after plague, Pharaoh had moments of sanity….in some cases he was ready to let them go. But then he hardened his heart again. Insanity and blindness came back over him.
But there’s an interesting twist to the plot. Not only did Pharaoh harden his own heart, several times we are told that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Look at Exodus 9. This is after the 6th plague of painful boils on both people and animals.
Exodus 9:12 CSB But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses.
The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This may surprise us. It sounds like God is causing sin.
But we know from elsewhere in the Scriptures the Lord never sins, and never causes sin.
So what is happening here? Let’s begin with this: Pharaoh is no different than any of us. The Apostle Paul describes it succinctly in Ephesians 4. Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus, and he says, “Don’t live like you did before God saved you.”
Ephesians 4:17–19 CSB …You should no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more.
Paul says to this church, “Remember the futility of a life of rejection of God? Do you remember the darkness in your understanding? Do you remember the hardness of your hearts? Do you remember how you wanted to sin more and more?”
So Paul now says to the believers in Christ, “You were delivered from that through the work of Christ to save you. Now don’t go back to living in those dark, ignorant, hardened ways.”
For us today, if you know Jesus, he has saved you from your sins… from the death you deserved. From your stubborn, hard-hearted ways. And we must never forget where we once were. With sadness and humility, we understand Pharaoh all too well.
So back to Pharaoh where God hardens his heart. One fascinating thing about Egypt and Pharaoh in those ancient times is that they as a nation prized “hardness of heart” as a virtue. Historians tell us that Egyptians prized the ability to appear strong, firm, and resolute. And they actually described it as being “hard of heart”. So ironically, the very quality prized by Pharaoh and the Egyptians turns out to be their undoing, functioning as a judgment on their basic convictions…. Their pursuit of this virtue called “hard of heart.”
So after the 6th plague, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as a judgment for sin. God was actively bringing his wrath on Pharaoh and the nation for their worshiping of false gods, for their evil oppression of God’s people, and for their stubborn, proud hearts. It’s like the Lord is saying, “So you value your stubborn pride against me? Well, then, I’ll give you more of what you want. You will become even more stubborn, and so experience more of the misery of your own sin.”
Again, God was actively bringing judgment on the nation. And it was not only for the sake of justice, but also to glorify God and make him known in Israel and to the nations.
In Exodus 9, this scene is immediately before the sixth plague of hail. The Lord speaks to Pharaoh:
Exodus 9:15–17 CSB By now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague, and you would have been obliterated from the earth. However, I have let you live for this purpose: to show you my power and to make my name known on the whole earth. You are still acting arrogantly against my people by not letting them go.
The Lord could have already and justly put the entire nation to death for their sins against him. But he waited, partly out of his judgment. And partly out of his desire to make himself known to Israel and to the rest of the world. This is his testimony of his power and justice, and even his mercy…mercy that he showed to Israel.
So we’ve read a portion of a hard and heavy passage in biblical history. It’s a lot to take in. What is something we can take from this? How can we apply this to our lives?
The one obvious lesson to me is that we should strive to be the opposite of Pharaoh. That is, to Be humble. To have soft hearts.
As we’ve already seen from Romans 3 and 6 and Ephesians 4, all of us have a propensity toward stubborn, defiant, hard hearts toward the Lord. We are more like Pharaoh than we care to admit.
Even Israel was hard-hearted. After the 10th plague, Israel was shown mercy by deliverance through the Red Sea. But it wasn’t much later that their hearts were just like Pharaoh. Proud. Unbelieving. And the Lord judged them for it. The Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32 is a classic example of this.
So how do we humble ourselves before God with soft hearts? Here are five ways.
And the first point is the most important:
- Remember the gospel that saved you.
Romans 5:8 says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” At our worst moment, God loved us and gave his Son for us. The good news is that God softens our hearts by his mercy and kindness. God tenderizes our hearts….perhaps like we tenderize meat before cooking. And so we respond to him in faith. He saves us from the judgment we deserve.
And now in Christ, instead of saying, “Why Pharaoh?”, we should wonder, “Why has God been so kind to me?” Now with great thankfulness and awe, we humble ourselves before the Lord. We reject our pride. Our arrogance. Our insistence that we know better than God. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we come to our senses and yield before the Lord of all creation. Now as we look back, we remember how destructive our pride was. We remember the wrath we deserved…that we were just like Pharaoh.
And crucially, we remember how good the Lord has been to us.
Ephesians 2:4–5 CSB But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!
We humble ourselves by remembering God’s rich mercy to us.
And we remember that our humility before God…our soft hearts… bring favor and blessing to us.
James 4:6 CSB God…gives grace to the humble.
James 4:10 CSB Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Grace upon grace is ours when we humble ourselves before Almighty God. Exaltation from God is ours when we are humble before him.
So we humble ourselves before the Lord by remembering the gospel.
Then here are four other simple, straightforward ways we can humble ourselves:
- Focus on God’s greatness.
Read Exodus and learn of the greatness of God. Of his power. His authority. His “otherly-ness.” There is no one like him, even among demons, these so-called gods. When you see how great God is, you automatically are humbled, for you will realize your smallness. It doesn’t mean you are unimportant to him. It simply means he is mighty, and you are small. That is humility.
- Serve others.
Read Philippians 2. Though Jesus was greater than any mere mortal, he lowered himself to a servant, even to the point of dying for your sins. Our God is very, very humble. It’s hard to be arrogant and full of yourself when you are serving others.
- Confess your sins to one another. Seek forgiveness if you sinned against someone.
Proud people will not admit they are wrong. Hard-hearted people have excuses for their mis-behavior. Calloused people are blameshifters. But humble people take ownership of their sins.
- And we can help one another stay humble and not harden our hearts. How? By encouraging one another.
Hebrews 3:12–13 CSB Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.
We are to encourage one another every day. We pray for one another. We speak to one another about the glory of God and the beauty of our salvation. We study the Word together in small groups. We discuss the sermon and the songs we sing after every Sunday service. We prayerfully look for opportunities to help others keep their eyes on the greatness of our God.
In this famous passage of the Ten Plagues, we see the justice and power of God. No power on earth or in heaven—not even the greatest demon portraying himself as a false god—can stand up against the Lord our God, the Great I Am, the Promise-Keeper to Abraham, the Judge of all the Earth, and the Rewarder of those who seek him.
Like Moses sang in Exodus 15:11, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you? Majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” May we humble ourselves before this Great and Mighty God with soft, teachable, faith-filled hearts.