God is not merciful?

            There seems to be a certain ditch where modern day readers get stuck. As we observe the Old Testament text, there is such a display of God’s power and of God’s righteous judgment that they, at least according to our limited perception, overshadow His grace and mercy. If the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New, we would expect to see the same characteristics, because God does not change.[1] This means that we should be able to read the Old Testament and see God’s merciful nature; and we should also be able to read the New and witness God’s righteous and just nature. Many times, though, we fail to see these, not because they are absent, but because but because we have learned (either by the church or the accusations of secular thinkers) that God’s wrath belongs in the Old age and His love belongs in the New. Because we do not engage scripture, we have believed that the God of the Old Testament had not mercy. Let us be careful, lest we become guilty of accusing God as so many have done.

The history of Exodus provides a grim look at God’s awesome power as He brings ten plagues against Egyptians who treated His people shrewdly. As we read through the first fourteen chapters, we also witness mercy and a display of God’s burning desire to for all people to have eternal life. The plagues in Exodus were about more than freeing God’s people, they were about directing the world to that eternal life.

The Lord instructed Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, make sure you do all the wonders before Pharaoh that I have put within your power. But I will harden his heart so that he won’t let the people go. Then you will say to Pharaoh: This is what Yahweh says: Israel is My firstborn son. I told you: Let My son go so that he may worship Me, but you refused to let him go. Now I will kill your firstborn son!”

Position of Israel

            Here, God refers to Israel as His firstborn son. The people of Israel were God’s people and He cared so much for them that He actually designated the nation as His first born child. Israel is the nation by which God brought about the messiah and through which He offers reconciliation to all the people of the earth. It was through Israel that He saved Egypt from the famine and through Israel that He revealed Himself to the Egyptians so that they might be saved eternally. As we know, there came to power a Pharaoh who did not know what God had done for Egypt. The Israelites were made slaves and they were treated shrewdly, but God had more grace. For 430 years,[3] He allowed the Egyptians to mistreat His firstborn, giving the Egyptian people more than enough time to see Him and to be reconciled as people to Him.

Through Israel came Jesus. Jesus is God’s messiah. In Colossians 1:15, Paul tells the Church that Christ was the firstborn of all creation. Israel’s purpose as a nation was to usher in God’s messiah, who would bring about the salvation of the world, and their time in Egypt undoubtedly foreshadowed that. When Christ was born into this world, the firstborn status of the nation of Israel was specifically translated in the person of the Messiah. No longer did God reveal Himself only through a nation, but specifically through the messiah. Therefore, all those who trust in the messiah are children of God. We must remember that God views life in light of eternity, He acts in the scope of eternity and He desires that all people receive eternal life. He had the coming of Jesus in mind as He related to the Egyptians through His chosen nation.

I am amazed as I think about history. Firstly, I am amazed that we still have so much. I am more than certain that a vast majority of human history remains hidden because it has not been remembered or recorded. I am amazed that any ancient manuscripts still exist and am further amazed that history of peoples and individuals has survived for any amount of time. Historical discovery is nothing short of a miracle. God did not have to, but He even gave us a way to be certain of the reliability of scripture. I often wonder how faith in God, and life in general, would be different if history was indiscernible. Could we still know God if there were no scriptures that were based in antiquity, or a way to be certain of their accuracy? One thing is for sure. It is that God has all knowledge. He knows all of history and continues to orchestrate events according to His good, pleasing and perfect will. One of the reasons I am so sure that Christ is the messiah is because of the Exodus narrative and the fact that God used the deliverance of Israel from Egypt to foreshadow the deliverance of all people from the power of sin.

The position of Pharaoh

            Pharaoh was guilty of oppressing God’s firstborn, the nation of Israel. The instruction the God gave Moses included this fact and came as a warning that if Pharaoh continued, he would lose his firstborn son as well. Pharaoh would be on the receiving end of God’s wrath, just as all those who belong to the kingdom of sin will be. Needless to say, Pharaoh would not let the people of God go. A total of ten plagues, along with other signs, prevailed in Egypt and with each one, Pharaoh ignored God’s mercy: eventually bringing about the death of his firstborn son.

The signs


Sign Where in Exodus? Pharaoh’s Response
Moses staff turns into a snake and devours the snakes conjured by the Egyptian mages. 7:8-13 Pharaoh would not listen to them
Nile’s water is turned to blood and its fish die. Other small bodies of water are also turned to blood. 7:17-23 Pharaoh retreated, not even taking this to heart.
Frogs cover the land of Egypt. Moses prays on Pharaoh’s behalf and God allows the frogs to die, ending the plague. 8:6-15 Pharaoh did not listen to them.
Gnats covered both man and beast in Egypt. 8:16-19 The magicians admitted that this could only be the work of God. Pharaoh would not listen to them.
Swarms of flies fill the houses of the Egyptians. Moses prays on Pharaoh’s behalf and the flies leave. Not one remains. 8:20-32 Pharaoh did not let the people go.
Livestock belonging to Egypt die. 9:1-7 Pharaoh did not let the people go.
Boils and sores broke out on the skin of the Egyptians. 9:8-12 The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh did not listen.
Hail rained down on Egypt. Moses prayed that the hail would cease so that Pharaoh may know that the earth is the Lord’s. 9:13-35 Pharaoh did not let the people go.
Locusts devoured all the green plants of the land. 10:1-20 The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh did not let the people go.
A darkness that could be felt covered the land of Egypt for three days. 10:21-29 Pharaoh would not let them go, and threatened to kill Moses.

Time after time God, in His great mercy, gave Pharaoh another chance. Each time, Pharaoh refused to recognize God and to let God’s people go. Now, God would carry out His promise and bring about the liberation of His people from the hand of the Egyptians.

Now at midnight the Lord struck every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and every firstborn of the livestock. During the night Pharaoh got up, he along with all his officials and all the Egyptians, and there was a loud wailing throughout Egypt because there wasn’t a house without someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron during the night and said, “Get up, leave my people, both you and the Israelites, and go, worship Yahweh as you have asked. Take even your flocks and your herds as you asked and leave, and also bless me.”[5]

The position of God

Through all this, it seems plain to me that God is in a position of mercy. From the very rebellion of Adam in the Garden, God has had mercy on the human race and this mercy has always preceded God’s wrath. God is just. Because of this, we will not gain His mercy forever unless we have recognized Him and trusted in His firstborn: Jesus Christ.

Pharaoh did not relent until God’s just wrath required the life of his firstborn. When he did relent, he asked that the Israelites bless his as the went to worship God. Even though there is more to the story, we can know that at one point, because of God’s mercy, Pharaoh did acknowledge God and even ask for His blessing.

God is in such a position that right now, just as with the Egyptians, He has more grace. His mercy is prevalent and His love is obvious. People all over the world continue to deny Him and to subject His firstborn, Christ, to persecution. My question for those of you who read this is: Are you in the place of Pharaoh? Do you continue to deny God? Is your heart hardened toward God because of what He has allowed to happen to you? Do you ignore God because the church has done you wrong, or do you simply persecute the church because you believe something different? Know that you will not always be in God’s mercy unless you trust in His firstborn son.

For those who believe in Christ, there is a promise. Just as God delivered Israel from the hand of Egypt, so he will deliver us from those who have made Him an enemy and from the presence and power of sin. Let us live like people who have such a promise!

[1] Malachi 3:6

[3] Exodus 12:40

[5] Exodus 12:29-32 (HCSB)

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