God of Wonders

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Exodus 11:1-10 | March 21 -

March 21
God of Wonders | Exodus 11:1-10
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

11:1 The Lord said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely. Speak now in the hearing of the people, that they ask, every man of his neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, for silver and gold jewelry.” And the Lordgave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people.

So Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt,and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. And all these your servants shall come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get out, you and all the people who follow you.’ And after that I will go out.” And he went out from Pharaoh in hot anger. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”

10 Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land. (ESV)


God of Wonders

Kevin DeYoung / Exodus 11:1-10 / March 20, 2016

Let’s pray as we come to God’s word. Gracious God, help us as we come to your word. Give us ears to hear, eyes to see, a mind to understand, a heart to believe, and a will to obey. Teach us, O Lord. Turn our hearts from lesser things and give us a glimpse—oh, for just a glimpse—of your glory. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.

As we return to our series from the book of Exodus, we’ve gone through nine of the ten plagues. This morning we will hear the tenth plague announced and threatened. For Easter Sunday, we’ll look at the Passover.

The LORD said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely. Speak now in the hearing of the people, that they ask, every man of his neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, for silver and gold jewelry.” And the LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people.

So Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.’ And all these your servants shall come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get out, you and all the people who follow you.’ And after that I will go out.” And he went out from Pharaoh in hot anger. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.”

Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land. Exodus 11:1-10

Over the past number of weeks, both while we were overseas and since being home, many people have asked me, “What is your take on the church scene in the UK?” It was a common question when I was there. The most common question was, “What’s the deal with Donald Trump?”—and they did ask it! The second most common question was, “What do you make of the church scene here in the UK?” As you can imagine, I’m hardly an expert after a number of trips and a couple of months there over the past few years. If you’re very interested in the question, I recommend an article you can find online called Is Christianity in Britain in Terminal Decline?, by a pastor in England named Mike Gilbart-Smith. It’s on the 9Marks website. The article focuses on England and Wales, and it will give you a very good sense for things.

My brief sense of things is that it depends on what you are trying to answer and where in the country you are trying to answer it. By my estimation, Northern Ireland is closer to the United States, with a residual Christianity and some semblance of conservative culture still, though the Republic of Ireland just voted to make gay marriage legal. I believe abortion is still illegal. They are not quite as far down the path of secularization—though I will tell you that Northern Ireland is the only place where I have been where they gave me whiskey in the gift basket! I did not drink it, nor did I bring it home for any of you.

England is certainly much more secularized than the United States—perhaps not more so than parts of the Northwest or New England, but certainly more than the Midwest and the South. Just to give one example, people there follow our presidential process quite closely, and are very interested in it, though they find it confusing. One of the things that amazed them was that so many candidates would talk openly and warmly about their Christian faith, and even be able to give theological sorts of answers on the campaign trail. They thought this was really mindblowing. Even though they might have a few Christian MPs (Members of Parliament) here and there, they just don’t hear anything about it. It’s not a part of the public conversation. So there are many things that you could point to to say, “Christianity is in decline in England.”

At the same time (this may surprise you) I had several people tell me that they thought the evangelical church in England was as strong as it’s been in a hundred years—which doesn’t mean that it’s as big numerically. Certainly cultural Christianity is much less pervasive. Nominalism has somewhat dropped off for good, but the strength of evangelical churches is still impressive.

Now, the churches are much smaller than we have. I would consider the size of URC to be sort of a medium, trending toward big-ish, church in the United States, but not anything that people would consider extremely noteworthy. But 600 or 700 people would be a very, very big church in the UK. There are few churches in London. We were mainly based with St. Helen’s in London—a big conservative Anglican church of maybe 1200 people—and that was very, very unusual.

When you get up to Scotland, if you have a church of 150 people, that’s quite a large, significant congregation in Scotland. Scotland may be even harder ground than England. We spent a week in Edinboro, and estimates there are that only two to three percent of the population of Scotland go to anything resembling an evangelical church.

So there are hard things going on—and, at the same time, many exciting things. Lots of church plants are happening. There are lots of gospel partnerships—really excellent training opportunities and venues—doing things that I think churches in the States don’t do nearly as well.

And yet, as you can imagine, Christianity is a hard sell in Britain. There has certainly been a sharp decline in church attendance and in people self-identifying as Christians. Somewhat famously, there was a movement afoot a few years ago, when there was some kind of survey or census throughout England. I forget the exact number, but I think it might have been hundreds of thousands of people who marked ‘Jedi’ as their religion. Now, some of you are thinking, “Really? They have Jedi there?” It’s not because they are sincerely Jedi, but just to say: “We don’t have to be anything. We’d as soon be Jedi as be anything else.”

I asked a number of Christians there, “What is the main objection to the gospel? What makes gospel work difficult?” Some people would talk about how Christians are considered intolerant, or how people may have an issue with this particular doctrine or have intellectual questions. But by and large, the answer that I heard is that people think that God is simply irrelevant. He just doesn’t enter their mind. He’s not something that they think about or feel like they need to think about.

I’m sure this is not all that different from many people that you know—perhaps even you. You think that if Jesus helps you, and you’re into him and the Bible, then that’s fine good. “Just don’t get in anybody else’s way. I don’t feel like anything is missing in my life. I’ve got a family, or I’m pursuing a career. I’m plenty busy on the weekends and I don’t need to go to church. I’m doing my life as best as I can, and I don’t feel like God has anything to do with it. He may exist or may not exist, and you may be really into him, but it just doesn’t impinge on anything in my life.”

Don’t you think that that is one of the main reasons that students at Michigan State University would not be interested in Christ—why some of our friends, family members, and people who are visiting from other countries don’t make time for God—why the middle-class Americans who live next door to you think you are a bit odd for going to church all of the time? God is simply irrelevant.

If people think God is irrelevant, they do not know the real God. If you think God has no bearing on your life, you don’t know who he is. This is why we often have to do a lot of pre-evangelism to do evangelism—to come to people and say, “There is a God, you’re a sinner, and you need a savior.” They go, “Whoa, maybe there’s a God, but sinner? Savior?” They have no idea what sort of God we’re proclaiming.

The only irrelevant god is the god of our own imagination. We are not interested in God because so many of us have a god that is not very interesting. I think that when many people think of God, they think of the god of religious tradition. If you feel like you need services—something to mark out a birth of a child, maybe something very formal for your wedding, and perhaps somebody there at your bedside in the hospital—and you feel like you want to go through a ritual (you want something to do for Easter), then perhaps you have the god of religious tradition. If religious ritual makes you feel good, then okay.

Other people think of God as the god of moral expectation. God wants you to be nice. He wants you to be good. He wants you to be tolerant. If you’re on the right-wing, he wants you to stop having sex with people who you shouldn’t have sex with. If you’re more on the left-wing, god wants you to be passionately concerned about social justice. If you feel like, “I’m figuring out things on my own and trying to be a decent person. I’m not perfect, but I’m not terrible,” you have no interest in this God. You have the god of moral expectation.

Others have a god of vague personal inspiration. He lifts you up so that you can walk on mountains. You know what I’m saying? You can walk in stormy seas and clouds, and you feel this general sense of uplift. You have faith in what? In faith! “I believe in myself, or believe in believing, or in a vague sense of—‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was something beyond ourselves?’”

What our friends and neighbors do not know—and what, perhaps, you may not know—is the biblical God of wonders! We conceive of a god, who (if he does exist at all) is impotent, innocuous, and borderline inept. Such a god will not inspire worship. So many people say they have no time for God without ever taking time to find out who God really is. If we saw God as Moses has seen and will see God in the chapters ahead, in his all-encompassing sovereignty and splendor, we would not dare think that he is irrelevant. It may be frightening. It may make us angry. We may fall down and worship, but we would not think him irrelevant.

In this announcement of the final plague, we see a God in transcendent sovereignty and splendor: sovereignty over the future, over our enemies, over his people, and over the human heart. Those are my four points.

God’s Sovereignty over the Future

Notice the language of ‘will’ and ‘shall’. Verse 1: “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh…Afterward he will let you go from here…he will drive you away completely.” Verse 4: “About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt…” Verse 6: “There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt…” Verse 8: “And all these your servants shall come down to me…” And again in verse 9: “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied.

There are all of these ‘wills’ and ‘shalls’ as God declares what is going to happen. But notice that this is a God who not only predicts the future, but plans and purposes the future. You see this divine ‘I’ in verse 1: “Yet one more plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh.” This is not some sort of natural process in the changing of seasons in the Nile River basin. This is the Lord’s activity. You see it again in verse 4: “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt…’” God is the active agent.

Notice also the specificity of Moses’ speech. It’s not some sort of vague prediction of the future. You’ll sometimes get people today who do that. Whether they fancy themselves a Christian prophet, or they’re some sort of fortune teller who makes a living trying to dupe people, they give just a vague: “Something dramatic is going to happen in the next year.” Oh really? Wow. It’s just some sort of fortune cookie prediction: “You have great things awaiting you in love.” Oh really? “And your lucky numbers are 7, 12, and 114.” Really?

No, notice the specificity. This is not just a word that something is coming at some point—“Some day, Egypt will be judged.” We have the when: midnight. We reckon midnight to be the changing of the day, but that’s not how they counted their day. Midnight simply meant the deepest, darkest part of the night. What will happen? The death of the firstborn. Where will it happen? Everywhere and to every family, even to the animals. And the result? A great cry throughout all the land, such as there has never been. This is a specific prediction of what the Lord will do. He says, through Moses, “I am going to tell you what will happen, when it will happen, and how it will happen. Not only that, I’m going to make it happen. Such is my power.”

One commentator says,

Moses was writing this story not merely to help his fellow Israelites trust YHWH as things happened to them, but to help them learn to trust that YHWH is the one who makes things happen in the first place as part of a great redemptive plan for the benefit of his people.

Do you see the difference? It’s not simply, “You can trust God as things are happening to you. God will respond. God will act in the midst of difficulty and trial. Don’t worry. God is still there, and he knows how to bring this all to something good.” It’s not just trusting as things are happening, but learning to trust that God is the one who is making them happen. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says, “I know that what these men meant for evil God meant for good.” Not: “God has shaped it. He’s so great at responding. He cleans up our messes.” No, from the very beginning—Joseph going into the well, being sold to the Midianite traders, getting betrayed in Potiphar’s house, being forgotten by the jailer, and eventually rising to second in command in Egypt—God was not just rearranging the table as human activity took place, but instead meaning it for his own good purposes. God is sovereign over the future.

God’s Sovereignty over His Enemies

You have to remember that we’re talking about the most powerful man on the planet leading the most powerful empire of his age. Many of us who grew up with the Bible are so used to this story that we think of Egypt as some out of the way sandy place. Then they did something with the pyramids—but then you have Moses! But who was Moses? He was a cast-off. He wasn’t even raised by his own family. Someone found him in the river. Then he had to flee his adopted people, and wound up in some seemingly God-forsaken place out in the wilderness with a pagan priest and his family.

Then he came back at 80 years old. That, again, is a reminder that though you may think that your life’s purpose is fulfilled when you are 40 (you go from 30 into 60, and whoa! those are the sweet spots), perhaps it is the very last third of your life that everything else God is preparing has been for. That’s what he did with Moses. “Let’s see. I think I’ll really use Moses when he’s 80. That’s when I’m going to get around to doing something really special with this guy.”

He didn’t look impressive. Well, he did once he started displaying God’s wonders, but he’s speaking on behalf of the slave people and their God to Pharaoh—the most powerful man on the planet, thought to be the son of the gods, reckoned to be divine himself, ruling over this vast Egyptian empire and far-reaching dynasty. And you know what? All of that arrayed against YHWH was not even close to a fair fight.

We finally have the word ‘plague’ in verse 1. We call them the ten plagues, but now they are called what we know them as, as God is announcing his ten-fold victory over Pharaoh.

In addition to this tenth plague defeating Pharaoh, it defeats the entire pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses. We’ve seen a number of them time and time again that correspond with the Nile River, with frogs, or with the sky. Here there is probably some reference to Osiris, the god of the dead; and his assistant Anubis, who is the god of the underworld.

If you’ve ever seen an Egyptian exhibit in some museum or seen some special on TV, you know how seriously the Egyptians took the prospect of the afterlife. They built these massive mausoleums. Why did they want to embalm them or bury them with gold? Because they wanted to prepare their people (and their rulers, especially) for this grand entrance into the afterlife. They wanted to make sure that they were on the right side with Osiris or Anubis. Here we see that they are utterly powerless over death.

Though in America we may not bow down to gods (and have statues) that we call Osiris or Anubis, is it not the case that so many of us worship at the feet of these same gods? We have medicine that will help us live forever. We have insurance so that everything can be taken care for us. We’re able to eat the right foods and exercise in the right way, so that we won’t get sick and we can live and live. What are we trying to do? Just like ancient people, we’re trying to avoid this god of death, as we perceive him. “Well, ancient people were so superstitious.” Oh really? What about us, doing everything in our power to live?

Of course, you hear what I am saying. It’s wonderful that we have advances, that we can live longer, and that there are doctors and medicine, but it can quickly become an idolatry. We have an expectation that somebody out there ought to be able to do something at all times to make us better. We’ve got to live!

Of course, the message of this entire week is that there is only one way to conquer this death that comes to us all. It is the one who conquered death himself; who says he is the way, the truth, and the life; who said, “On this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The gates of hell prevailed against Pharaoh and Egypt. It is only those who belong to Christ who will conquer the gates of death and Hades.

God metes out a punishment for Egypt. You may say, “Well, this seems quite harsh. Isn’t the problem just with Pharaoh? Why should God have to kill the firstborn in all the land?” But if you think about it, the punishment fits the crime: son for son. Remember what God says back in Exodus 4:23:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” Exodus 4:22-23

It’s not like they didn’t have a warning. “Israel is my son, my child. For 400 years, you have enslaved my son.” Maybe the commands came from Pharaoh, but he had plenty of complicit accomplices, happy to benefit from their slave labor for 400 years. God says, “Son for son.”

That’s not even to mention Exodus 1, where the Pharaoh seeks deliberately to kill the sons of the Israelites. “If that’s how you treat my son, then I’m warning you: I am a loving father and a jealous God. I will not allow my son to be mistreated forever. Know this,” he is saying, “God cannot be mocked. He sees. He knows. He will not be silent forever.”

Just think! For 400 years, the Egyptians may have thought, “This is not a big deal!” Maybe there was a sense of moral wavering at the beginning. “I don’t know about this.” Then it was 400 years: “That’s just the way life is. We’re masters. They’re slaves.” As if God didn’t see and hear their cries. As if God would not come and the judge of all the earth would not do right for his oppressed people.

When he visits them, there was a cry throughout the land such that was never heard before or since. I remember hearing this story as a kid. It is one of those stories that, if you think about it, would come around every Easter. Sometimes I would watch the old, really long Charlton Heston movie, The Ten Commandments, that I don’t know if they still show on Easter Sunday. I always thought that it was a good way to get my parents to let me stay up really late. “I just want to watch the Bible movie.”

I remember that part. I remember that, in my very sanctified childhood mind, my first thought was, “I’m the second-born. Whew.” But then it would quickly give way to, “But I love my big brother—and my dad is the first-born—and my grandpa is the firstborn—and someday, Lord willing, I’ll have a firstborn.” Throughout all the land, not a household didn’t have some reason to weep and wail. This was a warning. Just as God warned the Egyptians, and they did not listen, so God now warns us. “I am sovereign over even my enemies.”

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment… Hebrews 9:27

If you say, “I didn’t come here for fire and brimstone, preacher. I didn’t come here to hear about judgment,” here’s what you have to decide for yourself: is the Bible wrong? Lots of people in the world think that the Bible is wrong. You have to decide that the Bible is flat-out wrong, because the Bible says that it is appointed once for man to die, then the judgment. Jesus said in John 5 that at the resurrection some will be to eternal life and some to eternal destruction. It’s there in lots of places. You have to decide: is the Bible wrong? “All of that stuff about death, the afterlife, judgment, and coming again to judge the living and the dead? I don’t believe that. The Bible says it. It’s wrong.”

Or God is not irrelevant. If this is true, then you have a holy God with which you must deal and to whom you are accountable. The God of the Bible is sovereign over His enemies.

God’s Sovereignty over His People

Really, we could say from this passage, that God is not just sovereign over his people, but sovereign for his people. He is working on behalf of his beleaguered people. He has given them favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Do you notice how the people get it and Pharaoh doesn’t? They hold Moses in great respect. They have come to see that he is a man of his word. They have come to see, if nothing else, that when he raises the staff, the plagues come. Then he goes and prays to God, and the plagues leave. This is a man that they don’t want to mess around with.

The sense you get is that the nation of Egypt is ready to come to their Pharaoh and say, “Enough is enough. What do they want? Gold, silver, jewelry? Get them out of here.” They have favor with the people, so much so that they will plunder the Egyptians when they leave. This isn’t an instance of the people stealing from the Egyptians. No, God has so shown his wonders that they will freely give to the people. “Leave, please. Go! Please, take something from our wealth that you might go with our silver, gold, and precious jewelry as a freewill offering to send you on your way.”

There’s something else that we may not have noticed and will come to in Exodus 12:38: “A mixed multitude also went up with them…” Have you ever noticed that? Some of the Egyptians left with the Israelites. Does this mean there was a full-scale conversion, repentance, and turning to YHWH? It’s hard to say. But apparently, there is something of a softening that is happening here. People have seen nine times already, and they are about to see a tenth time that they will never forget. Though Pharaoh is getting harder and harder, the people are saying, “Who is this God? Who is this YHWH, this God of the Hebrews?” Some of them are beginning to fear—maybe some of them are even led to worship.

God’s sovereign power extends even to the mouths of the dogs. We think of dogs as sweet little animals. You walk your dogs, you love your little puppy, and that’s great. Remember that dogs were rats. Dogs were scavengers. Dogs were unclean and nasty. Think of what cats must have been like! The dog was just a dirty animal running around the city, yelping, barking, and getting into people’s way.

Verse 7 says that not a dog will open its mouth. A dog’s not even going to wag its tongue at any of the people—not a man or beast. You won’t see a dog come up to an Israelite goat and start yelping “that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” “They’re my people. They’re not. That’s Egypt. That’s Israel, my son. Those are the people who have oppressed my son.” What sort of God is this who muzzles the mouth of wild beasts?

Do you want to be safe on the day of judgment? You’d better be sure that the sovereign Lord of the universe is on your side. This is the God I want to be with on the day of judgment. This is the God that I want to worship. This is the God that I want to know for certain I am with—he is mine, and I am his. When you come before the judgment seat, there is nobody saying, “Just wait a minute. But, but, but. Didn’t you see that? Well, I never.” Nothing. Not even a dog to bark. You belong to Christ, and you have the sovereign God of the universe on your side. All is silent. “No. My people. My son. My daughter. My beloved. I will make a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” Such is the power of this sovereign God.

God’s Sovereignty over the Heart

We need to spend a few minutes here. People have been asking me throughout this series on Exodus, “When are you going to talk about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?” The language occurs so often, and I didn’t want to make it the main point in sermon after sermon after sermon, but some of you have asked, “What do we make of this language? Are you going to talk about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?”

I want you to have your Bible open. This may seem tedious, but I want you to see each occasion, because I want you to get a sense for how often this is that we have this language of hardening. I could tell you how many times there are, but I just want you to see for yourself how frequent this is.

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Exodus 4:21

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Exodus 7:3-4a

Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Exodus 7:13-14

But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Exodus 7:22

But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Exodus 8:15

Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Exodus 8:19

But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. Exodus 8:32

And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. Exodus 9:7

But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses. Exodus 9:12

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses. Exodus 9:34-35

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them… Exodus 10:1

But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go. Exodus 10:20

But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.Exodus 10:27

Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land. Exodus 11:10

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so. Exodus 14:4

And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. Exodus 14:8

And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”Exodus 14:17-18

We have a reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart 19 times. Did you notice that the language fluctuates? Three times, we have reference to Pharaoh hardening his own heart; six times, just a general reference that his heart became hardened; and ten times, it is explicitly said that the Lord will, did, or has hardened his heart.

What are we to make of this? We see that God was sovereign over his heart, but not in a way that removed his own personal responsibility and culpability. As it said on occasion, “yet he sinned again and hardened his heart”. Pharaoh was held responsible for his actions and activities because they were his own actions. It was a divine hardening according to a rotten will, not in opposition to a humble disposition. Pharaoh, in his hard heart, continued to do what he wanted to do.

This is why the objection that is often raised—“If you believe in this sovereign God, then you must have just robots or puppets on a string”—does not work. The analogy does not hold. If you are a puppet on a string, you have no will. You are moving your arm up and down and your leg side to side because someone is pulling it. You are moving by external coercion and compulsion. That’s not what is understood by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. That’s not what Reformed theologians understand by the sovereignty of God.

Pharaoh is willing to do what is evil. You must not picture Pharaoh as humbly beseeching YHWH: “I want to do what is right. I’m going to let the people go.” Then God says, “No.” You know, he grabs his hand and wrestles it down, and then he says, “Why are you hitting yourself?” That’s not what ‘sovereignty’ means. It’s not external coercion or compulsion. This heart, hardened by Pharaoh and God, is nevertheless Pharaoh’s own heart, which is yielding forth this wicked stubbornness. Not puppets, and not robots.

19 times, and 10 times explicitly stated that God hardened his heart. Surely this is a very important point that Moses (and the Holy Spirit, through Moses) wishes to make. Why? Well, I think we can put it very simply. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not about Pharaoh, but to show us something about God. Look at the purpose statements. You’ve already heard some of them.

Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord… Exodus 7:17

That’s why the plagues continued to happen.

For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. Exodus 9:15-16

This would not have been a hard thing for God. He didn’t need ten plagues. He could have snapped his finger. One plague could have done it. “Pestilence! Boom, you’re done. My people are free.” But he raised up this hard-hearted Pharaoh and continued to harden his heart so that he would have occasion to show wonder after wonder. You see it again in Exodus 10:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” Exodus 10:1-2

He hardened Pharaoh’s heart for us, in one sense: so that we can continue to tell our kids and our grandkids the story of God’s great power and mighty wonders in all the earth.

Why do we talk about sovereignty in this church? Why learn about controversial things like election or predestination? It’s not to be divisive. It’s not so that we can all put the Calvinism uniform on, though it is a very attractive uniform. Why? It is so that we might know what God is like—so we might know the God of wonders.

What is the terminus? What is the last “Why?” question, after which no other “Why?” questions can be asked? Parents understand this. Kids come to you, and ask “Can I have a sleepover?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because you have school.” “Why?” “Because you’ll be tired.” “Why?” “Because you’ll get sick.” “Why?” “Because—go to bed. Leave me! I said so. I said so! I’m your mother.” That’s the terminus. There’s no more questions.

What’s the end of the “Why?” questions with God? Really, you have two options. Option #1 is that the end of all the “Why?” questions is that God wanted to give us a libertarian free will, such that he would leave us (apart from his own ordination) to do whatever we wanted to do according to our own plans and designs. That is the greatest good in the universe: that you have a will that can choose things that can be other than God has planned them to be. That option is the end of all the “Why?” questions. Why this suffering? Why this evil? Why this hardship? Why these plagues? Why Pharaoh so stubborn? Why 400 years in slavery? And you have to say, “Because of this certain notion of free will.”

Or it’s because God is intent on getting glory. If you’ve got both of those, that will give you some existential angst. You’ll scratch your head with some intellectual conundrums. This one, besides that it’s biblical, is going to set you free. That’s why we see it here in this text: because it re-orients us from an anthropocentric view of the universe to a theocentric view of the universe.

Who is the central agent around which everything else must operate in this universe? We’re born into this world thinking that it’s us. Everything in our culture tells us that it’s us. Everything must make sense with reference to you and your brain.

When we really stare in the face of God’s sweet, stunning, shocking sovereignty, it forces us to say, “Maybe that’s not the way the universe really is. Maybe there is a God who will raise up a Pharaoh and harden his heart that he may show his wonders ten times over. Why? That he might be known for who he really is. That the world would see that he’s God, we’re not, and in that we would find freedom and joy.”

In Christ, know that this great God is for you, not against you. Do you see this God of sovereign splendor? You can be around God and religion, and not see him when he’s right there in front of you. That’s what Palm Sunday is (sadly) about. “Oh, Jerusalem! How I long to gather you as a mother hen gathers the chicks under her wings. Oh, that you would have known the things that would make for peace, but you did not see it! The King was in your midst and you could not recognize him. God showed his face to you and you spat in it.” That’s what’s coming this week. There was God, and they didn’t want this God. They didn’t like the way this God looked and acted.

Our God, the God of the Bible, the true and living God, is sovereign over the future, sovereign over his enemies, sovereign over his people, and sovereign over the human heart, so that all things might work together for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose.

One more “Why?” question farther up than that is the last “Why?” question of all: “Why?” For the praise of his name and for his own glory—so that the universe may see and behold God as he is. Let’s pray.

Father in heaven, help us to see, know, believe, rejoice, and praise you. We praise you, great God of the universe; God of wonder; God of splendor; God of sovereign power; God who is for us in Christ, not against us; God who wields all of this divine energy that we might be redeemed to the praise of your glory. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

All Scriptures are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.