Lessons from Israel: No.11 : God of Judgment
Ex 4:21-23 The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’
Possibly in no other area of understanding of Christian doctrine is there such misunderstanding as in respect of the subject of God’s judgment. Let’s see what the verses above say, and then look more broadly at judgment. We have here a summary of the Lord’s instructions: Moses is to go to Pharaoh and do what God leads and empowers him to do, but Pharaoh will reject his pleas and as a result God will take the life of Pharaoh’s first son. We need to look briefly at the individual elements of this summary.
First there are the ‘wonders’ that Moses will do. We have seen briefly the miracle of the changing staff but there was also the miracle of the leprous hand and water into blood (Ex 4:6-9) which we didn’t examine. But of course when we see the whole story we see that these ‘wonders’ are the ten ‘plagues’ that the Lord was going to bring on Egypt, but at the moment He hasn’t mentioned these specifically to Moses. Simply note that the will of God is often only revealed as we walk it out.
But then the Lord says He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. What does that mean and why does He say He will do it? Well, if you read through the following chapters you will see a number of references to Pharaoh’s hardening of heart. To simply summarise what you will read, the truth was that Pharaoh, as a proud man, already had a hard heart that was resistant to the Lord and all that would happen is that every time he was confronted by Moses it would simply harden his heart even more. Every time he was challenged by Moses, his resolve against the Israelites would be strengthened even more.
So why did the Lord bring these ‘judgments’ on Pharaoh and on Egypt? Well if you observe the ten ‘plagues’ you will see that they increase in intensity or severity each time and they are clearly opportunities for Pharaoh and Egypt to repent and come to their senses. God could have judged them in one almighty go from the outset but instead He chose to bring gradual judgments to Egypt so that Egypt could learn and turn. At any point in this monumental tussle, Pharaoh could have given in and that would have been the end of it – no more plagues, but he didn’t and so the plagues carried on getting gradually worse and worse. Now let’s reiterate what we said just now: the Lord could have brought one single, totally destructive judgment in one go but instead He wanted to give chance after chance to Egypt. How many times do you give chances to your disobedient children before you bring discipline?
If you think God is a ‘hard man’ (see Mt 25:24), think again. John, in his first letter, declares, “God is love“ (1 Jn 4:8,16). Ezekiel spoke for God, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and if we didn’t take it in the first time, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32).
In the New Testament, we find a similar thing: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9). What is the Gospel if it is not all about God saving people from judgment: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:16,17).
So why does judgment come? Why is it warned about? It is because it is the alternative that follows rebellion and disobedience but it only comes after many warnings and it comes, ultimately, at the choice of the recipients of it. When God has warned again and again and again, it is down to those being warned to take responsibility for what comes. We are quite happy with this when we see this in practical everyday life. When doctors warn again and again that smoking causes cancer, we are not at all surprised when a smoker gets cancer. When doctors warn about STDs we are not at all surprised when some one living a sexually promiscuous life contracts a sexually transmitted disease and suffers the consequences of that. The same could be said about alcohol or drug abuse. We understand when Paul wrote, “A man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7), because we know that that is how it works. What the old nature doesn’t like is when something is attributed specifically to God. We fail to remember it is NOT what God wants, but that sometimes it is all He is left with if He is to restrain sin and save the rest of the human race.
Please see it clearly. God is essentially going to say to Pharaoh, “Don’t do this or you’re going to get hurt. Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this, please…..” and Pharaoh in his stupidity is going to reject Him. Please don’t steal or you’ll go to prison. Please don’t shoot at the police otherwise you will be killed. So, come on, why do we have these silly ideas about God’s judgment? Perhaps because it is because we have been listening to a liar? Check it out!