In the passage we looked at last week, the Lord assured Moses that he would break the power of Pharaoh and bring his people out of their captivity. And then the Lord gave Moses signs to convince the Israelites that God had indeed sent Moses to them to lead them out of their captivity. And then, when Moses hesitated and complained that he wasn’t the right man for the job, and God should send someone else, God promised to help him. And last week’s passage finished with Moses, going to his father-in-law, Jethro, to say that he wanted to go back to Egypt. And verse 18 of chapter 4 ended by Jethro saying to him:
Go, and I wish you well.
Today’s passage can be divided into three parts. Firstly, in verses 19 to 23, the Lord again spoke to Moses; and this time he warned him about how he was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would refuse to let them go. And when that happens, Moses should issue a warning to the Pharaoh about what would happen to the Pharaoh’s son. Secondly, there’s verses 24 to 26 and this strange story about Zipporah, Moses’s wife, performing an emergency circumcision on her son. And thirdly, there’s verses 27 to 31 where Moses and Aaron go together to the elders of the people to explain what was happening; and this third section ends with the reaction of the people. And we’ll look at those three sections now.
Verses 19 to 24
So, verses 19 to 24, first of all. And verse 19 is one of these verses which summarises where we’ve got to. If you imagine this book being read to the people originally, they might, from time to time, lose track of what’s happening. And so, we have these little summaries and reminders. And so, in verse 19 Moses — who we believe wrote the book of Exodus — is reminding his readers of where we got to: the Lord had said to Moses to go back to Egypt. And we’re given a reason for why the Lord chose to send him at this particular time: all the men who wanted to kill him are dead. You might recall that the reason he left Egypt in the first place was because he had killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite. And when the Pharaoh heard about it, he tried to kill Moses. And so, Moses became a fugitive; he had to flee to save his life. Well, it now seems that those who wanted to kill him are dead; perhaps that first Pharaoh died and has been replaced by another who knew nothing about it; and perhaps everyone else who knew what Moses had done and cared about it has also died. So, now’s the time for Moses to return.
And so, we read in verse 20 that Moses set off with his wife and sons — and according to chapter 18, Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer — and the staff of God in his hand. And then the Lord spoke to Moses again to instruct him to perform before the Pharaoh all the wonders God had given him the power to do. However, all the wonders will not persuade the Pharaoah, because, as the Lord goes on to say, he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go.
And sure enough, as we read on, we’ll see again and again how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened so that he would not let the people go. We see it in verse 13 of chapter 7, where we read that his heart became hard after Moses changed his staff into a snake. We see it in verse 22 of chapter 7: after the Plague of Blood, his heart became hard and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron. It’s in verses 15 and 19 and 32 of chapter 8: after the Plague of Frogs and the Plague of Gnats and the Plague of Flies, his heart was hardened. We see it in verses 7 and 12 and 34 of chapter 9: after the Plague on the Livestock and after the Plague of Boils and after the Plague of Hails, his heart was hardened. And it’s in verses 1 and 20 and 27 of chapter 10: after the Plagues of Locusts and Darkness, his heart was hardened. And even after the last and worst plague — the Plague on the Firstborn — when finally the Pharaoh agreed to let them go, nevertheless, once more the Lord hardened his heart so that he sent his men after the Israelites to re-capture them; but instead of re-capturing them, they drowned in the Red Sea.
At least once we’re told that Pharaoh himself hardened his heart; sometimes we’re told his heart was hardened, though it doesn’t say by whom; but again and again we’re told that God hardened his heart.
This is a reminder to us of the sovereignty of God and how God rules over all of his creatures and all of their actions. As our church’s Confession says:
God, the great Creator of all things, upholds, directs, arranges and governs all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest to the least, by his most wise and holy providence.
There’s not one person who is outside of his sovereign rule so that even the heart of the king is in his hand, as the Proverb tells us, so that he’s able to turn it where he will. We make our plans; the things we want to do and intend to do; but, behind the scenes, working in the background, there’s the Lord who is able to turn our hearts and direct our wills and move us so that we end up doing what he wants.
Our times are in God’s hands, the Psalmist says. And not only are our times in his hands, but we’re in God’s hands; he not only sustains us so that we keep on living, but he rules over our hearts and our thoughts and all of our actions in order to ensure that his own plans and purposes for the world happen as he intended. And so, on this occasion, he so ruled over the Pharaoh that he hardened his heart so that the Pharaoh kept refusing to let the Israelites go. —
By why would God do such a thing? Why would he hardened the Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the people go? Well, the Lord gives us one reason for doing so in verse 16 of chapter 9. The Lord told Moses to go to Pharaoh and say to him:
I have raised you up [And pause there to consider that the Lord is the one who raised him up and appointed him to rule over the Egyptians; the Lord tears down one ruler and raises us another; it all happens according to his will.] for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
So, why did God raise him up and then harden his heart? In order to display God’s power to the world so that in all the earth people would hear of the great things God had done — the plagues he sent; and the way he opened the Red Sea to let his people escape; and the way he closed the Red Sea and caused the Egyptians to drown — people would hear of the great things God had done and they would see how great and mighty and powerful he is.
And sure enough, do you remember what happened years later whenever Joshua sent the spies into the city of Jericho? Rahab told them that the people of Jericho were afraid. And they were afraid because they’d heard what God had done to the Egyptians and they understood that this God was the true God: the God of heaven above and the earth below. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because he wanted to display to the world his might and power by sending the plagues to break Pharaoh’s power.
And so, we ought to remember and believe that our God is mighty and nothing is too hard for him; nothing is impossible to him. We worry — don’t we? — about what this government will do and what that government will do. We worry about what this leader is doing and what that leader is planning. But, we need to remember and believe that our God rules over all; he rules over every prime minister and president and every king and queen and every government minister and councillor. And he rules over all the people in our lives, from the greatest to the least, including all the people who upset us and hurt us and who make our lives difficult. He rules over them all; and so, we can trust in him to do whatever seems best to him and to work in their lives and to turn their hearts this way and that way in order to fulfil his own purposes for the world. And whatever they might do to us, we can trust that our God is in control and that he will let them do only what is in accordance with his good and perfect plan.
However, there’s another reason why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And it’s there in verses 22 and 23. God was going to harden his heart; when that happens, Moses was commanded to say to him:
Israel is my firstborn son….
In other words, the Lord regarded the people of Israel like a son; he loved them and cared for them and watched over them the way any parent love and cares and watches over their children. And the Lord continued:
Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.
Here’s the second reason why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart: when Pharaoh refused to let the people go, God was going to come to Pharaoh in judgment; and God was going to kill, not only Pharaoh’s firstborn son, but every firstborn son in Egypt. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart would lead to judgment and condemnation on Pharaoh and all the Egyptians. And the judgment which fell on the Egyptians on the night when their firstborn sons were killed was a foretaste of the great Day of Judgment when God will come down from heaven and break into this world to judge the living and the dead — everyone who has every lived — and he will condemn the wicked for their wickedness and punish them forever for their sins. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart — which led to the death of their firstborn sons — God was revealing that the day is coming when there will be an even greater and more terrible day of weeping and wailing because of the judgment of God on all who have refused to be reconciled to him by trusting in his Son. God was announcing judgment on Pharaoh and on Egypt; and judgment will fall on all those who — like Pharaoh — harden their hearts and refuse to hear and believe God’s word.
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to display his great power to the world. And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to reveal to the world that an even greater day of judgment is coming.
However, this message of judgment is balanced by a message of mercy in the next section.
Verses 24 to 26
And it’s an unusual story. We read in verse 24 that, at a lodging place on the way back to Egypt, the Lord met who? According to the translators of the NIV, the Lord met Moses. However, you’ll notice the brackets around the name Moses and the little footnote which tells you that the Hebrew text says ‘him’. So, the NIV translators are doing a little more than translating the text; they’re trying to interpret the text as well. But really, the text should say:
At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met him and was about to kill him.
Look at verse 25 now where we read that Zipporah, Moses’s wife, took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin. So, the Lord met him; and was about to kill him; but, just in time, Zipporah circumcised her son. And then she touched whose feet? Well, again the NIV translators have inserted the name Moses. However, the Hebrew text says ‘his feet’; it doesn’t mention Moses. In fact, the Hebrew text doesn’t mention Moses at all in these verses. So, the Lord met him; and was about to kill him; but, just in time, Zipporah circumcised her son; and then she touched his feet with the foreskin. And then she said:
Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.
However, that can also be translated:
Surely you are a relative of blood to me.
And the result of all this is that the Lord left him alone.
It’s a strange story, isn’t it? And it’s even stranger because it’s not clear who the Lord met and who he was about to kill. The NIV assumes it’s Moses; however at least one of the commentators suggests that it’s one of Moses’s sons: probably his firstborn son, Gershom. And that makes good sense, given the context. In the previous verse — verse 23 — the Lord spoke about killing Pharaoh’s firstborn son. In the next verses, it’s perhaps telling us that God was going to kill Moses’s firstborn son.
Why would God want to kill Moses’s firstborn son? It was because he hadn’t yet been circumcised. Back in Genesis 17 — when God gave circumcision to Abraham as a sign of the covenant — God said that for the generations to come, every male among his descendants must be circumcised; and any male who has not been circumcised will be cut off from the people, because he has broken the covenant. So, every male who is descended from Abraham and who is a member of the people of Israel must be circumcised. If they’re not, they’ll be cut off. In other words, they’ll be killed.
And so, in Exodus 4, here’s Moses’s son; and he hasn’t yet been circumcised; and so the Lord has come and is about to cut him off. But, just in time, his mother performs the circumcision and her son is spared.
Why was circumcision so important? It’s because it was a sign; and a sign signifies something; it speaks to us of something. And what did circumcision signify? Well, one of the thing it signified was God’s covenant with his people and his commitment to them. When God made his covenant with Abraham, he promised to be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants; he promised to take them and to keep them as his people. And so, lest the people ever worried that God had forgotten them, or abandoned them, or had forsaken them, they could look at the sign on their bodies and remember that God had promised never to leave them or to forsake them, but to remain faithful to them always. And God always, always, always keeps his word.
So, in the days of the Old Testament, the sign of circumcision re-assured God’s believing people of his steadfast love and faithfulness. But, if a parent failed to circumcise their sons, it was as if they were saying:
We don’t want the Lord to be our God. We don’t want to be members of his people.
But circumcision signified something else. It signified that the people needed to be cleansed from their sins. Just as the child’s skin was cut off and rolled away, so the people needed their sin and guilt to be cut off and rolled away from them if they ever hoped to have eternal life.
Circumcision spoke of their need for cleansing and forgiveness. And since circumcision was painful and bloody, it also spoke of how their sin and guilt would be cut off and rolled away. Their sin and guilt — our sin and guilt — can only be cut off and rolled away through the shedding of blood. But, of course, sin and guilt are not cut off and rolled away by the shedding of our blood; they’re cut off and rolled away by the shedding of Christ’s blood. His blood was shed on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
That’s what circumcision signified. That’s what it pointed to. It pointed to the need for forgiveness and to how Christ would die for sinners. And so, if a parent failed to circumcise their sons, it was as if they were saying:
We don’t need your forgiveness. We don’t want your forgiveness.
And so, back to Exodus 4. Here’s Moses’s son; and for whatever reason — and we don’t know why — but for whatever reason, he hadn’t been circumcised. He hadn’t received the sign of God’s covenant which signified God’s commitment to his people; and which signified their need for forgiveness; and which signified how we’re forgiven by God through the shedding of Christ’s blood. And since God had warned that whoever is not circumcised will be cut off, here we read how God was about to come and cut off and kill Moses’s uncircumcised son.
But, just in time, just in time, his mother steps in and performs the circumcision, so that her son is spared.
Of course, believers today don’t circumcise our children. We don’t circumcise our children, because we believe that God has replaced the sign of circumcision with the sign of baptism. And believing parents will bring their children to church to be baptised, because the water of baptism speaks to us of God’s promise to wash away the sins of all who believe the gospel. Just as water washes away dirt from our bodies, so God promises to wash our sins away the moment we believe. And just as one of Abraham’s descendants could look at the sign on his body and be re-assured of God’s commitment to his people and his willingness to forgive, so all who have been baptised can remember that the water of our baptism speaks to us of God’s commitment to us and his willingness to wash away the sins of whoever believes in Jesus Christ who died for us.
I can’t say this here in Immanuel, because we don’t have a baptism font in the church. But in my old church, where we had a baptism font beside the communion table, I used to say to the people about how we come to church sometimes, feeling ashamed and guilty, because of the things we’ve done during the week which were wrong. We come to church, knowing that we had sinned against our Father in heaven. And from time to time, we might wonder:
What must God think of me? The way I’ve disobeyed him and fallen short of doing his will and let him down. Will he really accept me and my worship today?
And then we see the baptism font, and we remember how we were baptised, and how God has promised to wash away our sins for ever. And God always, always, always keeps his word to us.
But here’s the thing. Notice that God was prepared to kill, not only Pharaoh’s firstborn son, but also Moses’s firstborn son. He was prepared to kill, not only the son of the pagan, but he was prepared to kill the son of the believer too. And that shows us something very important: it shows us that natural descent, being born into Abraham’s family, being born into Moses’s family, having Moses as your father, did not entitle this boy to receive eternal life from God. Even though he was Abraham’s descendant, and Moses’s son, this boy needed to have his sin and guilt cut off and rolled away if he ever hoped to have eternal life.
And it’s the same for the children of believers in church today. Being born into a Christian family does not entitle you to receive eternal life from God. Having Christian parents is not enough. You still need to have your sin and guilt cut off and rolled away. And that only happens whenever you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins. So, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And rejoice in God’s grace to sinners, because just as he spared Moses’s son, so he will spare us from the coming judgment and will give us eternal life for the sake of Christ whose blood was shed for us and for the forgiveness of our sins.
Verses 27 to 31
Let’s move on to the final section today, verses 27 to 31. The Lord spoke to Aaron and told him to meet Moses. They met and Moses told Aaron everything the Lord had said. Moses and Aaron then went and gathered the elders of the Israelites. Aaron told them what the Lord had said and also performed the signs before the people. And, according to verse 31, the people believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.
There’s only one point I want to make here. When we read the Bible, it’s important that we put ourselves in the story. You see, this is written for us, and for our instruction. And so, we need to place ourselves in the story to see how these events relate to us.
Now, what we tend to do is that we tend to identify ourselves with the main character in any story. We identify ourselves with the main player. And so, Christians read the book of Exodus and they think:
I need to be like Moses.
And preachers will often do this as well, and they point out some of the characteristics of Moses which we need to emulate; and some of his flaws which we need to avoid; and just as God promised to help Moses to speak, so we can count on God to help believers to speak, because like Moses we’re not greater speakers, but God can use us anyway. That’s what preachers often do with the book of Exodus; and it’s what we do when we read it at home.
But here’s the thing: Moses points us to Christ. Just as God sent Moses to deliver his people from their captivity, so he sent the Lord Jesus to deliver us from our sin and misery. Instead of identifying ourselves with Moses, we’re to see that Moses points us to Christ.
However, if that’s the case, who should we identify with? If we’re to place ourselves in this story, where do we put ourselves? We’re to identify ourselves with the people. Just as the people of Israel were living in bondage, so we — by nature — were living in bondage to sin and Satan. Just as the people of Israel couldn’t do anything to save themselves, so we couldn’t do anything to save ourselves. But just as the people of Israel, when they heard what God was going to do for them, believed and bowed down and worshipped, so we’re to believe the gospel and bow down and worship God, because he’s done for us what we could not do for ourselves. By his Son — who lived for us and who died for us and who was raised for us and who ascended on high for us — by his Son, God has done all that is necessary to deliver us from our sin and misery to give us eternal life.
And so, instead of trying to be like Moses, we ought to listen like the Israelites to what God has done for us; and we ought to believe his word; and we ought to bow down before him and worship him, giving thanks for his grace and mercy to sinners like us.