Rather than take each of the ten plagues separately, which might become repetitive, I thought I’d have a stab at studying the first nine today, before coming back to the tenth and last plague next week. But before we get to the plagues, there’s verses 8 to 13 of Exodus 7 where Moses and Aaron went to the Pharaoh and performed the miraculous sign the Lord had commanded them to perform in his presence. Aaron threw down his staff in front of Pharaoh and it became a snake. It was a miracle.
However, Pharaoh summoned his wise men and sorcerers; and they were able to copy what Aaron had done so that their staffs also became snakes. The text says they did it by their secret arts; and the commentators discuss what that might mean. Did they have supernatural powers? If so, did their power come from Satan? Or was it merely a trick, the sort of thing we see on TV, when a magician fools his audience with sleight of hand and deception? So, did they, with sleight of hand, hide their staffs and produce snakes, the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat? That’s probably the best explanation of the phrase, ‘by their secret arts’. By their secret arts, or by their trickey, they duplicated the Lord’s sign. However, in the end, we see the superiority of Moses and Aaron and their God, because Aaron’s snake was able to swallow up the snakes belonging to the wise men and sorcerers.
Now, that ought to have convinced Pharaoh; he ought to have seen what Aaron had done and realised the power of Aaron’s God. But look at verse 13 where we read:
Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.
There are two things to say here. Firstly, it should not have surprised Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh did not listen, because this is what the Lord foretold. He had said that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not listen nor let the people go. The Lord was arranging things so that he would be able to display his great power to the world by sending the plagues on Egypt.
But then, secondly, Pharaoh’s unbelief reminds of us of what we read in Romans 1. In Romans 1 Paul tells us that there is evidence everywhere of God’s eternal power and divine nature. In other words, there are signs everywhere we look in the things that God has made and in the way that he has arranged his creation which ought to convince us that there is a God who mighty and powerful and good and who is worthy of our praise and thanks. However, writes Paul, although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. Wherever we look, there is all the evidence we need of God’s existence and his power and his goodness. But instead of thanking him, instead of praising him, unbelieving men and women suppress the truth of God’s existence and they do know acknowledge what is so clear and so obvious.
Pharaoh was doing the same thing. By what Aaron did, when he turned his staff into a snake which then ate up the other snakes, it was clear that Aaron’s God was the true God and that the Pharaoh ought to worship him. But he suppressed the truth; he pushed it down, out of his thoughts, out of his consciousness, and he continued in his unbelief.
That’s what we do, all of us, until the Lord comes into our lives and takes away our hard heart, and he takes away our spiritual blindness, and he enables us to acknowledge what we already know deep down in our hearts, that there’s a God in heaven who rules over all, who gives us good things to enjoy, and who deserves our thanks and praise and our worship. And so, as we read of Pharaoh’s unbelief, and as we read in Romans 1 of the unbelief of the world, we ought to give thanks to God for his grace and mercy to us and for delivering us from our unbelief and for enabling us to believe in him. We ought to give thanks to him and we ought to pray that he will continue to have mercy on men and women and boys and girls around the world, and that he’ll so work in their lives that they will no longer suppress the truth which is plain to see, but will acknowledge that there is a God in heaven who is the source of every good thing who deserves our praise and thanks and whom we ought to love and obey.
Introduction to the Plagues
Let’s move on to the Plagues. And by way of introduction, let me say two things. Firstly, the first nine plagues are arranged in three groups of three. In plagues 1, 4 and 7 — turning water into blood, the flies, and hailstorms — God commanded Moses to go and see Pharaoh in the morning at the river Nile to announce the plague. In plagues 2, 5, and 8 — the frogs, the death of the livestock, and the locusts — God again commanded Moses to go and see Pharaoh to announce the plague, but the text doesn’t mention the morning or the Nile. Plagues 3, 6 and 9 — the gnats, the boils and the darkness — occur without warning.
At the end of the first group of three, Pharaoh’s magicians acknowledge the power of the Lord. They said:
This is the finger of God.
At the end of the second group of three, the magicians couldn’t stand before the Pharaoh because of the boils that were on them which were so sore. And at the end of the third group of three, we don’t hear anything about the magicians, but instead Pharaoh’s heart has become so hard that he ordered Moses and Aaron to leave him and never come back, because if they ever came back into his presence, he would have them killed. So, the first nine plagues can be arranged in these three groups.
The second thing to say by way of introduction is that, bearing in mind what the Apostle Paul wrote about unbelievers suppressing the truth about God, it shouldn’t surprise us that some Bible commentators have tried to explain away these plagues as natural events and not as supernatural plagues sent by God. So, the Nile didn’t really turn into blood, but it happened naturally because of red dirt in the Nile which made it look like blood. Many fish died as a result of what happened to the Nile and the frogs in the Nile therefore left it in order to get away from the rotting fish. The rotting fish provided the perfect breeding conditions for gnats and flies. The gnats and flies spread diseases which accounts for the death of the livestock and the boils which came on them. Extreme weather conditions account for the hailstorms and the swarm of locusts. And extreme desert storms explain the darkness which came over the land. And so, in this way, they attempt to explain away what we read here and to say that it all happened naturally and not by the hand of God.
However, the fact remains that God’s word tells us that God sent the plagues on the land and we ought to believe God’s word. Moreover, Moses and Aaron announced the plagues in advance, which would have been impossible for them to do if these were random natural events. And Moses and Aaron were able to pray for them to stop; and after they prayed, the plagues stopped, which again tells us that these things were sent by God. And we’re told as well that the Israelites did not suffer the plagues. As one of the better commentators has said, flies are not able to distinguish between nationalities, but these flies came on the Egyptians and not on the Israelites. This is indeed the finger of God; these were not random natural events, but it was the Lord who sent these plagues on the land of Egypt
Sovereign over creation
Let’s move on again and think about how the plagues demonstrate that the Lord is sovereign over his creation. God has come down from heaven and by sending the plagues on the earth he has shown that he has power and authority over the natural world which he had created.
So, in the first plague, God turned the water of the Nile into blood. But not only was the water in the Nile changed, but any standing water in the land was changed into blood. Look at verse 19: Aaron was to stretch his hand over their streams and canals and ponds and reservoirs; and all of them were turned into blood. Even the water in their buckets and jars was turned into blood.
In the second plague, the Lord multiplied the number of frogs so that they were everywhere: in their homes and in their ovens and kneading troughs. Imagine, going into the kitchen and opening the oven, or opening a cupboard, and frogs spilled out. Imagine getting into bed and finding it cover in frogs. They were everywhere and covered the land.
In the third plague, the Lord turned the dust into these gnats. One commentator suggests they were mosquitoes, buzzing around and biting the people and the animals.
In the fourth plague, the Lord sent swarms of flies on the land. They were on the Pharaoh and his officials and no all the people and in their homes. I remember years ago being in a log cabin in Scotland and at night the windows were turned black because of all the midges which gathered on the glass. And if you stepped outside, it was torture, because they buzzed around you constantly and you were always swiping at them with your hand. Well, they didn’t have windows to keep the flies out; and with this dense swarm of flies all around them, it’s no wonder that Pharaoh’s stubbornness began to waver now, and he summoned Moses and discussed with him the possibility that them could go a short distance away to sacrifice to the Lord. But after the flies went away, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and did not let them leave.
In the fifth plague, their livestock — their horses and donkeys and camels and cattle and sheep and goats — died. Although verse 6 says that all their livestock died, the word ‘all’ here probably means ‘all kinds’. So, it’s not that every single animal died, but all kinds of animals died.
In the sixth plague, Mosea and Aaron were commanded to toss soot into the air and boils broke out on the skin of the people. And you can imagine how sore it was for them.
In the seventh plague, hailstorms came on the land, so that there was heavy hail and thunder and lightening. Now, the Lord warned them about this; and some paid attention to his word and brought what animals were left indoors and they themselves went indoors so they were not hit by these large hailstones. But others ignored the word of the Lord, or did not hear his warning, and they died when hailstones hit them. And even what was growing in the fields and on their trees were destroyed.
In the eighth plague, the Lord sent this swarm of locusts to devour whatever crops were left.
And in the ninth plague, the Lord caused a darkness to spread over Egypt, a darkness so thick that it could be felt. Have you ever been in the country, where they were no street lights. And when there’s no moon, and there are no houses nearby, and perhaps clouds are covering the stars, it’s so, so dark. It’s unnerving because we’re not used to it. Well, that’s what they suffered not for a few hours, but for three days.
And so, by sending all of these plagues on the earth the Lord has shown that he has power and authority over the natural world which he had created. Pharaoh’s magicians could use their trickery to turn their staffs into snakes. And they could use their trickery to turn water into blood. And they could use their trickery to bring up frogs from out of the Nile. But after that, they were frustrated. After that, they could not imitate what Moses and Aaron had done; and so, they had to confess that what Moses and Aaron had done was by the finger of God.
And so we confess that the God who made all things rules over all things; he’s able to turn water into blood; he’s able to multiply frogs; he’s able to turn dust into gnats; he’s able to multiply flies; he’s able to give life and to take it away; he’s able to cause boils and sores to break out on our skin; he’s able to throw down hailstones from the sky; he’s able to direct the wind and carry swarms of locusts this way and that; and he’s able to block the light from the sun and cause darkness to fall on the earth.
Our God rules over all that he has made; and so we ought to fall down before him and worship him, because there is none like him.
And, of course, we ought to trust in him. The Heidelberg Catechism, which is like our own Shorter Catechism, says this about the providence of God: Providence, it says, is:
The almighty and ever-present power of God whereby he still upholds, as it were by his own hand, heaven and earth together with all creatures, and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
Whatever happens to us in this world, happens because of the Lord our God who upholds and rules over all the circumstances of our life. That’s what we mean by the providence of God. And then the Catechism goes on to ask:
What advantage comes from acknowledging God’s creation and providence?
And here’s the answer:
We learn that we are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and to trust our faithful God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.
Since the Lord upholds and rules over all the circumstances of our life, then we ought to be patient in adversity, because he has sent it into our life; and we ought to be grateful in the midst of blessing, because he has sent that into our life as well; and we ought to trust our faithful Father for the future, because everything, everything in our future is in his hands.
By sending the plagues, the Lord God used his great power and authority against the Egyptians, who were his enemies. But for all who trust in his Son, and who have therefore been reconciled to God, the Lord God uses his great power and authority only for our good. And so we can trust him for the future, because there is nothing too hard for him, and he’s able to help us and strengthen us and to uphold us each day.
Judgment on his enemies
The plagues demonstrate that the Lord is sovereign over his creation. But they also speak to us of God’s judgment on his enemies, for God was coming down from heaven to earth to judge the Egyptians for their unbelief and sin. Think of the way the Egyptians had mistreated and abused the Lord’s people, making their life bitter with hard labour, and murdering their children. Think of how Pharaoh had refused to listen to the word of the Lord when Moses and Aaron had come to him in the name of the Lord. Think of how, by refusing to let God’s people go, he was keeping what did not belong to him. Think of how he would agree to let them go, and then went back on his word. Think of how, the Egyptians did not worship the Lord who made all things, but instead worshipped false gods and idols. And so, because of all their sin and guilt, God was coming down from heaven to earth to judge the Egyptians for their unbelief and sin.
Our Bible teach us that God will once again come down from heaven to earth to judge the nations for their unbelief and sin. And so, if you go to the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, and read about the final judgment there, you’ll discover that the Apostle John uses images drawn from the plagues to describe the final judgment. So, he writes about the sea turning to blood, and he writes about hailstorms and about swarms of locusts and frogs and sores which break out on the people. He’s announcing how the Lord God will once again come down from heaven to earth to judge the nations, just as he did in the days of Moses. And so, we see that the plagues which God sent on the Egyptians speak to us of the coming judgment when the Lord will come to judge the living and the dead and will punish for ever all those who, like the Egyptians, have not believed in him.
However, the Lord is already judging the nations. I’ve mentioned Romans 1 already this evening, and I’m going to mention it again, because in Romans 1 the Apostle Paul writes about how the wrath of God is even now being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth about God. And Paul goes on to explain that right now, God doesn’t reveal his wrath and execute his judgment by sending plagues on the earth. Instead he reveals his wrath by loosening his restraining grip so that the wicked fall deeper and deeper into sin and into all the misery it causes. Right now, the Lord is revealing his wrath against the wicked who do not acknowledge him or worship him by letting them fall deeper and deeper into sin. But there is a day in the future, when God will come down from heaven to earth to judge his enemies, just as he did once before in the days of Moses, and to punish them for ever.
And so, the message for any who do not believe is to repent. Turn from your sins before the Lord comes again. And turn to the Lord and ask him to be merciful to you and to forgive you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners.
And the message for those who already believe is to give thanks to God for his mercy towards you, because he sent his one and only Son into the world to suffer the punishment that you deserve for your sins, so that you will never had to suffer God’s wrath, as the Egyptians did. You ought to give thanks to God for his grace and mercy; and you ought to demonstrate your gratitude to him every day by living a life of obedience to God.
Kindness to his people
The plagues demonstrate that the Lord is sovereign over his creation. And they also speak to us of God’s judgment on his enemies. But they also speak to us of God’s kindness to his people. In several places, the Lord makes clear that he was drawing a distinction between the Egyptians and his own people. The plagues were going to fall on the Egyptians, but his people would be kept safe from harm. We see it first of all at the time of plague of flies. In verse 22 of chapter 8, the Lord said:
But on that day, I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people.
And then we see it in the next plague, the plague on the livestock. So, in verse 4 of chapter 9, we read:
But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die.
And in verse 7 we read how the Pharaoh sent men to investigate whether or not this was the case and whether the livestock belonging to the Israelites were kept safe. And he found, of course, that this was the case. And then we find the same thing in the plague of hail. Verse 26 of chapter 9 tells us:
The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were.
And we read of it during the time of the plague of darkness, because verse 23 of chapter 10 says:
No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.
Several times we’re told that the Lord drew a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites so that the Israelites were unharmed while the Egyptians suffered greatly. And it’s possible that by telling us that God did this sometimes, we’re to assume that he did it on every occasion.
But the point is clear, isn’t it? Whereas the Egyptians suffered God’s wrath, and had to endure each and every plague, the Israelites were protected by God.
Did the Israelites do anything to deserve this special treatment? Were they any better than the Egyptians? Well, we’ve seen how sometimes — just like the Egyptians — they didn’t believe God’s word. Remember back in chapter 6 where we read that they did not listen to Moses when he brought them a message from the Lord. And I mentioned before that there’s evidence in earlier chapters that the Israelites had forgotten the Lord and — like the Egyptians — they were worshipping false gods.
Were they any better than the Egyptians? No, they were just like them; and they had done nothing to deserve this special treatment from God. And remember what we learned before from Exodus 3 and God’s special name, ‘I AM WHO AM I’? That name speaks to us of God’s independence and how he didn’t need the Israelites for anything. He didn’t need them; and he could easily have destroyed them with the Egyptians.
Why did the Lord protect them? Why did he draw this distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians? Well, there’s only one reason: God had chosen this people to be his own special people. He has chosen them and had bound himself to them with a promise. And having chosen them, and having bound himself to them with a promise, he was determined to protect them from the plagues. And, of course, more than that, more than that, he had come down from heaven to earth in order to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them to the Promised Land, just as he had promised.
And in the same way, God draws a distinction today between his people and the rest of the world. He reveals his wrath to the rest of the world, to the wicked who suppress the truth about him. But to his people, he reveals that he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. To his people, he reveals that he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. To his people, he reveals himself as a loving heavenly Father.
And here’s the thing; here’s the really astonishing thing: Just as the Israelites were no better than the Egyptians, so we’re no better than the wicked, for we too are sinners who sin against the Lord continually; and we too often doubt him and distrust his fatherly care. We have done nothing to deserve his kindness; in fact, we deserve like everyone else to suffer his wrath and curse and to have all his plagues fall on us.
But instead of treating us according to our sins, he has set us apart to belong to him. And he’s placed us under his fatherly care and protection. And he’s able to forgive, and to place us under his fatherly care and protection, because his one and only Son came down from heaven to earth, not to reveal God’s wrath and to send plagues upon us, but he came down from heaven to earth, to suffer God’s wrath in our place and to send his blessings on us, one spiritual blessing after another, while he leads us all the way to eternal life in his presence.