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Let us endeavor to place ourselves in the position occupied by these two ambassadors of the Lord. Moses and Aaron were now required to confront Pharaoh in person. His temper toward their race was well known, his heartless cruelty had been frequently displayed; it was, therefore, no small trial of their faith and courage to beard the lion in his den. The character of the message they were to deliver to him was not calculated to pacify. They were to tell him in peremptory language that the Lord God required him to let that people whom he held in slavery go, and hold a feast unto Jehovah in the wilderness. Moreover, the Lard had already told His servants that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the people go.
Notwithstanding these discouraging features, Moses and Aaron “went in and told Pharaoh”. A striking example was this of God’s power to overcome the opposition of the flesh, to impart grace to the trembling heart, and to demonstrate that our strength is made perfect in weakness. “And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness”. Careful attention should be paid to the terms of this request or demand upon Pharaoh. Jehovah had already promised Moses that he and his people should worship God on Mount Sinai ( 3:12), and that was much more than a three days’ journey from Egypt — compare 12:37; 14:2; 15:22 and <021901> 19:1; yea, He had declared that He would bring them “unto Canaan” ( 3:8). Why, then, did not Moses tell Pharaoh plainly that he must relinquish all claim on the Hebrews, and give permission for them to leave his land for good? Mr. Urquhart has ably answered this difficult question: “God is entering upon a controversy with Pharaoh and with Egypt.
He is about to judge them; and, in order that they may be judged, they must first be revealed to themselves and to all men. Had they been asked to suffer the Israelites to depart from Egypt, so large a demand might have seemed to others, and certainly would have appeared to the Egyptians themselves, as so unreasonable as to justify their refusal. A request is made, therefore, against which no charge of the kind can be brought. A three days’ journey into the wilderness need not have taken the Israelites much beyond the Egyptian frontier. It was also perfectly reasonable, even to heathen notions, that they should be permitted to worship their God after the accepted manner. The heart of Pharaoh and of his people was, therefore, revealed in their scornful refusal of a perfectly reasonable request. In this way they committed themselves to what was manifestly unjust; and in proceeding against them God was consequently justified even in their own eyes. Conscience was stirred. Egypt knew itself to be in the wrong; and a pathway was made there for return to the living God — the God of the conscience — for all who desired to be at peace with Him whom they had offended. “Has God ever judged a people whom He has not first dealt with in that very way? National judgments have been preceded by some outstanding transgression in which the heart of the nation has been manifested. Carlyle traces the fearful blow which fell upon the clergy and the aristocracy in the French Revolution to the massacre of St. Bartholomew. France had sought to crush the Reformation as Egypt had sought to crush Israel. Spain dug the grave for her greatness and her fame in the establishment of her Inquisition, and in her relentless wars against a people who desired to remove from the Church what were glaring, and largely confessed scandals. “But we have to go farther to find the full explanation of that request. The demand was indeed limited. It was seemingly a small matter that was asked for. But what was asked for set forth and inscribed in flaming characters Israel’s mission. This conflict was to be waged on ground chosen by the Almighty. The battle was not one merely for Israel’s deliverance from bitter bondage. It was not fought and won solely that Israel might be able to go forth and possess the land promised to her fathers. The one purpose, to which every other was subsidiary and contributory, was that Israel should dwell in God’s Tabernacle. She was redeemed to be His people. Her one mission was and is to serve Jehovah. No other demand would have adequately stated the claim that God was now making and urging in the face of humanity. No other could have so set forth God’s claim as against the claim of Pharaoh. Pharaoh said: ‘The people is mine; I will not let them go.’ God said: ‘The people is Mine; thou must let them go; they have been created and chosen that they may serve Me’. The conflict was being waged over the destiny of a race, its place in history and in the service of humanity.
Was Israel to be slave, or priest? Egypt’s beast of burden, or the anointed of Jehovah? That was the question; and was it possible that God could have done other than put that question, written large and clear, in the forefront of this great controversy? “And let me add that the demand was prophetic. Israel is in this matter also the type of God’s people. When Christianity began its conflict with the Roman Empire, what was the one question over which the great debate proceeded? We all know now what God intended. The nations were to abandon their idols so that their very names, as the household words of the peoples, were to perish. But no demand was made by the Christian Church that the temples should be closed, and that the heathen priesthoods should be abolished. One thing only was asked, and that apparently one of the slightest. It was freedom to worship the living God — the very demand made for Israel in Egypt. Over that the battle raged for centuries. The triumph came when that was won. It was not for any claim the Christians made to direct the worship of the Roman Empire: it was not for their rights as citizens: it was for liberty to worship God in accordance with His demand. That claim kept them, and when the triumph came it consecrated them, as the people of God” (The Bible: Its Structure and Purpose: Vol. IV). “And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness”. So far as Pharaoh was concerned, this was God addressing his responsibility, giving him opportunity for obedience, speaking to him in grace. Not yet does He launch His judgments on the haughty king and his subjects. Before He dealt in wrath, He acted in mercy.
This is ever His way. He sent forth Noah as a preacher of righteousness and Enoch as a herald of the coming storm, before the Flood descended upon the antediluvians. He sent forth one prophet after another unto Israel, before He banished them into captivity. And later, He sent forth His own Son, followed by the apostles, before His army destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So it is with the world today. God is now dealing in grace and long-sufferance, sending forth His servants far and wide, bidding men flee from the wrath to come. But this Day of Salvation is rapidly drawing to a close, and once the Lord rises from His place at God’s right hand, the door of mercy will be shut, and the storm of God’s righteous anger will burst. “And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (v. 2).
Here then was Pharaoh’s response to the overtures of God’s grace.
Unacquainted with God for himself, he defiantly refuses to bow to His mandate. The character of Egypt’s king stood fully revealed: “I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go”. Precisely such is the reply made (if not in word, plainly expressed by their attitude) by many of those who hear God’s authoritative fiat, “Repent! Believe!”, through His servants today.
First and foremost the Gospel is not an invitation, but a declaration of what God demands from the sinner — “God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” ( Acts 17:30); “And this is His commandment, that we should believe on the name of His Son, Jesus Christ” ( 1 John 3:3).
But the response of the unbelieving and rebellious heart of the natural man is “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice?”. Thus speaks the pride of the man who hardens his neck against the Blessed God. “I know Him not” said Pharaoh, and “I know Him not” expresses the heart of the sinner today; and what makes it so dreadful is, he desires not to correct this ignorance. For these two things God will yet take vengeance when Christ returns. He will be revealed “in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” ( Thessalonians 1:8). “And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword” (v. 3).
The request of Moses was, “Let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God”. This speaks from the human side. The one tells of what God’s heart sought, the other of what man’s sin needed. The “feast” points to rejoicing, the “sacrifice” to what makes rejoicing possible. In the second place, observe the ground upon which Moses here bases the Hebrews’ need of a “sacrifice” — “lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword”. It is impossible to evade the plain implication of this language. Israel were confessedly guilty, and therefore deserving of punishment, and the only way of escape was through an atonement being made for them. God must be placated: blood must be shed: the Divine justice must be propitiated. Only thus could God be reconciled to them. Finally, observe a “three days’ journey” was necessary before the Hebrews could sacrifice to Jehovah. Profoundly significant is this in its typical suggestiveness. “Three days” speaks of the interval between death and resurrection. It is only on resurrection-ground, as made alive from the dead, that we can hold a feast unto the Lord! “And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let (hinder) the people from their works? get you unto your burdens. And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens” (vv. 4, 5).
It seems clear from this that Pharaoh had already heard of the conference which Moses and Aaron had held with the “elders” of Israel, and knew of the signs which had been wrought before them. These had created, no doubt, a considerable stir among the rank and the of the Hebrews, and instead of going about their regular drudgery they had, apparently, expected the Lord to act on their behalf without delay. This, we take it, is what Pharaoh had in mind when he charged Moses and Aaron with hindering the people from their work. When he added “Get you unto your burdens” he referred to the whole of the people, the representatives of whom had accompanied God’s two servants into the king’s presence (cf. 3:18). “And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God. Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein; and let them not regard vain words” (vv. 6-9).
This is ever the effect of rejecting God’s testimony. To resist the light means increased darkness: to turn from the truth is to become more thoroughly than ever under the power of him who is the arch-liar. The same sun which melts the wax hardens the clay. Instead of allowing the Hebrews to go and sacrifice to Jehovah, Pharaoh orders that their lot shall be made harder. So it is with the sinner who disobeys the Gospel command. The one who refuses to repent becomes more impenitent, more defiant, more lawless, until (with rare exceptions) the Lord abandons him to his own ways and leaves him to suffer the due reward of his iniquities.
The unbelief of Pharaoh comes out plainly here: “Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein; and let them not regard vain words ”. Where God Himself is unknown His words are but idle tales.
To talk of sacrificing unto Him is meaningless to the man of the world.
Such are the Holy Scriptures to the sinner today. The Bible tells man that he is a fallen creature, unprepared to die, unfit for the presence of a holy God. The Bible tells him of the wondrous provision of God’s grace, and presents a Savior all-sufficient for his acceptance The Bible warns him faithfully of the solemn issues at stake, and asks him how he shall escape if he neglects so great salvation. The Bible tells him plainly that he that believeth not shall be damned, and that whosoever’s name is not found written in the book of life shall be cast into the Lake of Fire. But these solemn verities are but “vain words” to the skeptical heart of the natural man. He refuses to receive them as a message from the living God addressed to his own soul. But let him beware. Let him be warned by the awful case of Pharaoh. If he continues in his unbelief and obstinacy, Pharaoh’s fate shall be his — God will surely bring him into judgment. “And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished. So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw. And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfill your works, and your daily tasks, as when there was straw. And the officers of the children of Israel which Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and today, as heretofore?” (vv. 10-14).
The severe measures which Pharaoh ordered to be taken upon the Hebrews illustrate the malignant efforts of Satan against the soul that God’s grace is dealing with. When the Devil recognizes the first advances of the Holy Spirit toward a poor sinner he at once puts forth every effort to retain his victims. At no place is the frightful malevolence of the Fiend more plainly to be seen than here. No pains are spared by him to hinder the deliverance of his slaves. Satan never gives up his prey without a fierce struggle. When a soul is convicted of sin, and brought to long after liberty and peace with God, the Devil will endeavor, just as Pharaoh did with the Israelites, by increased occupation with material things, to expel all such desires from his heart.
This obsessed youth was coming to Christ, and while on the way, Satan’s emissary sought to rend him to pieces. So long as a person has no desire after Christ the Devil will leave him alone, but once a soul is awakened to his need of a Savior and begins to seriously seek Him, Satan will put forth every effort to hinder him. This is why so many convicted souls find that their case gets worse before It is bettered. So it was here with the Hebrews. Just as hope was awakened, the opposition against them became stronger: just when deliverance seemed nigh, their oppression was increased. “Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?
There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make bricks: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people” (vv. 15, 16).
How true to human nature is this! Instead of crying unto the Lord these leaders of the Israelites turned unto Pharaoh for relief. Doubtless they hoped to appeal to his pity or to his sense of justice. Surely they could show him that his demands were unreasonable and impossible of fulfillment. Alas, the natural man ever prefers to lean upon an arm of flesh than be supported by Him who is invisible. Just so is it with the convicted sinner: he turns for help to the evangelist, his pastor, his Sunday School teacher, his parents, any one rather than the Lord Himself. God is generally our last resource! Deeply humbling is this! And amazing is the grace which bears with such waywardness. Grace not only has to begin the work of salvation, it also has to continue and complete it. It is all of grace from first to last. “But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the Lord. Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks” (vv. 17, 18).
Little good did it do Israel’s “officers” in appealing to Pharaoh. He, like the master of the poor sinner, was absolutely pitiless and inflexible. Probably these officers supposed that the brutal “taskmasters” had acted without the king’s knowledge. If so, they were quickly disillusioned. Instead of expressing indignation at the taskmasters, and relieving the officers of the people, Pharaoh insulted them, charging them with sloth and duplicity, arguing that it was not so much the honor of God they regarded, as that they might escape from their work. So, too, the awakened sinner accomplishes little good by turning to human counselors for relief. When the prodigal son began to be in want he went and joined himself to a citizen of the far country, but being sent into the fields to feed swine was all he got for his pains ( Luke 15:15). The poor woman mentioned in the Gospels “suffered many things of many physicians”, and though she spent all that she had, she was “nothing bettered, but rather grew worse ” ( Mark 5:26). O unsaved reader, if a work of grace has already begun in your heart so that you realize your wretchedness and long for that peace and rest which this poor world is unable to give, fix it firmly in your mind that One only can give you what you seek. Allow no priest — either Roman Catholic or Protestant — to come in between you and Christ. Cease ye from man, and “seek ye the Lord while He may be found”. “And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish ought from your bricks of your daily task. And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh: And they said unto them, The Lord look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savor to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of His servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us” (vv. 19-21).
Poor Moses! His troubles now were only commencing. He had been prepared for the rebuff which he had himself received from Pharaoh, for the Lord had said plainly that He would harden the king’s heart. But, so far as the inspired record informs us, nothing had been told him that he would meet with discouragement and opposition from his own brethren. A real testing was this for God’s servant, for it is far more trying to be criticized by our own brethren, by those whom we are anxious to help, than it is to be persecuted by the world. But sufficient for the servant to be as his master. The Lord Himself was hated by his own brethren according to the flesh, and the very ones to whom He had ministered in ceaseless grace unanimously cried “Crucify Him”. “And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Lord, wherefore hast Thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that Thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast Thou delivered Thy people at all” (vv. 22, 23).
Moses did well in turning to the Lord in the hour of trial, but it was most unseemly and irreverent of him to speak in the way that he did — alas that we, in our petulant unbelief, are so often guilty of asking similar questions.
It is not for the servant to take it upon him to dictate to his master, far less is it for a worm of the earth to dispute with the Almighty. These things are recorded faithfully for “our admonition”. There was no need for Jehovah to hurry. His delay in delivering Israel and His permitting them to endure still greater afflictions accomplished many ends. It furnished fuller opportunity for Pharaoh to manifest the desperate wickedness of the human heart. It gave occasion for the Lord to demonstrate how that He “bears with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction”. It served to show more clearly how righteous God was in visiting Pharaoh and his subjects with sore judgment. And, too, Israel needed to be humbled: they also were a stiff-necked people, as is clear from the words of their leaders to Moses and Aaron on this occasion. Moreover, the more they were afflicted the more would they appreciate the Lord’s deliverance when His time came.
Let, then, the writer and reader take this to heart: the Lord always has a good reason for each of His delays. Therefore, let us recognize the folly, yea, the wickedness of murmuring at His seeming tardiness. Let us daily seek grace to “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him”.
We may add that what has been before us supplies a striking picture of that which awaits Israel in a coming day. The grievous afflictions which came upon the Hebrews in Egypt just before the Lord emancipated them from their hard and cruel bondage, did but foreshadow the awful experiences through which their descendants shall pass during the “time of Jacob’s trouble”, just prior to the coming of the Deliverer to Zion. Pharaoh’s conduct as described in our chapter — his defiance of Jehovah, his rejection of the testimony of God’s two witnesses, his cruel treatment of the children of Israel — accurately typifies the course which will be followed by the Man of Sin. Thus may we discern once more how that these pages of Old Testament history are also prophetic in their forecastings of coming events. May it please the Lord to open our eyes so that we may perceive both the application to ourselves and those who are to follow us.