Gleanings In Exodus
by A. W. Pink
11. The Plagues Upon Egypt
For over eighty years, and probably much longer, the Egyptians had oppressed the Hebrews, and patiently had God borne with their persecution of His people. But the time had arrived when He was to interpose on behalf of His "firstborn" (4:22) and take vengeance on those who had reduced Israel to the most servile bondage. The Lord is slow to anger and plenteous in mercy, but, "He will not always chide; neither will He keep His anger forever" (Ps. 103:9). A succession of terrible judgments therefore now descended upon Pharaoh and upon his land, judgments which are known as "the Plagues of Egypt". They were ten in number. First, the waters of the Nile were turned into blood (7:14-25). Second, frogs covered the land and entered the homes of the Egyptians (8:1-5). Third, lice was made to attack their persons (8:16-19). Fourth, swarms of flies invaded the houses of the Egyptians and covered the ground (8:20-24). Fifth, a grievous disease smote the cattle (9:1-7). Sixth, boils and sores were sent on man and beast (9:8-12). Seventh, thunder and hail were added to the terrors of these Divine visitations (9:18-35). Eighth, locusts consumed all vegetation (10:1-20). Ninth, thick darkness, which might be felt, overspread the land for three days (10:21-29). Tenth, the firstborn of man and beast were slain (11, 12). A frightful summary is found in Psalm 78: "He cast upon them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and indignation, and tribulation, by sending evil angels among them. He made a way to His anger; He spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence, and smote all the firstborn in Egypt, the chief of their strength in the tabernacle of Ham" (vv. 49-51 and cf. Psalm 105:27-36).
That there is much for us to learn from the record of these judgments cannot be doubted. That they set forth many important lessons of a practical, typical, and prophetic nature, we are fully satisfied. Their order, their arrangement, their number, their nature, their purpose, their effects, each call for careful and separate study. Little or no attempt has been made (so far as we are aware) to supply a detailed interpretation of their significance, so that there is small help to be oh-tamed from the commentaries. This must cast us hack the more on the Lord Himself, who never fails a dependent soul that turns to Him for aid. Let the little light which has been granted the writer stir up the reader to earnestly seek, at the Throne of Grace, more for himself. In this article we shall generalize; in the next we shall enter more into detail.
The purpose of these plagues was manifold.
First, they gave a public manifestation of the mighty power of the Lord God (see 9:16). This, the very magicians were made to acknowledge—"then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, This is the finger of God" (8:19).
Second, they were a Divine visitation of wrath, a punishment of Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their cruel treatment of the Hebrews. This the haughty monarch was compelled to admit—"Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste; and he said, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you" (10:16).
Third, They were a judgment from God upon the gods (demons) of Egypt. This is taught in Numbers 33:4—"For the Egyptians buried all their firstborn which the Lord had smitten among them; upon their gods also the Lord executed judgment s".
Fourth, they demonstrated that Jehovah was high above all gods. This was confessed later by Jethro—"And Jethro said, Blessed he the Lord who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods; for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly He was above them."
Fifth, They furnished a complete testing of human responsibility. This is indicated by their number, for one of the leading signification of ten, is full responsibility—compare the tea Commandments, e.g.
Sixth, They were a solemn warning to other nations, that God would curse those who curse the Israelites (Gen. 12:3). This was plainly realized by Rahab of Jericho—"And she said unto the men, I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when ye came out of Egypt" etc. (Josh. 2:8,9). It was also felt by the Philistines—"Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness" (1 Sam. 4:8).
Finally, these miraculous plagues were evidently designed as a series of testings for Israel. This is taught in Deuteronomy 4:33, 34, where Moses asked Israel, "Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by stretched out arms, and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?" The outcome of these testings was expressed in the following words—"who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?" (Ex. 15:11)!
2. The arrangement of the plagues plainly manifests Divine order and design. The tenth is separated from all the others because of its special relation to Israel and their redemption. The other nine are arranged in groups of three’s. "They form three divisions, each division consisting of three plagues. That these dividing lines are drawn by the Scripture itself will be plain when we note one remarkable feature. A warning precedes, in each instance, the first and the second plagues; but with the third in each series no warning is given. Thus Moses is commanded to meet Pharaoh before the waters of Egypt are turned into blood. So again (8:1) when the frogs are to cover the land, Moses is to go in unto Pharaoh and announce what God is about to do. But when the dust is smitten and it becomes lice throughout the land of Egypt there is no command to seek Pharaoh’s presence. So it is with the sixth plague, when the ashes of the furnace are used, and it becomes boils upon man and beast; and so also is it with the ninth plague, when the land was covered with darkness as with the pall of death. In none of these three cases is there any announcement to Pharaoh. It was a reminder that God would not always strive; and that warning, repeated but unheeded, will be followed by judgment sudden and terrible" (Urquhart). Murphy in his commentary on the book of Exodus has also called attention to the fact that "in the first three plagues, Aaron uses the rod; in the second and third, it is not mentioned; in the third three, Moses uses it, though in the last of them only his hand is mentioned. All these marks of order lie on the face of the narrative, and point to a deep order of nature and reason out of which they spring."
There is a striking Introversion to be observed in connection with the plagues. Thus, in the first, the waters of the Nile were turned into blood—the symbol of death; while in the tenth there was actual blood-shedding, in the death of all the first-horn. In the second plague, the frogs which are creatures of the night, that is, of darkness, came forth; while in the ninth plague there was actual darkness itself. In the third plague, the magicians were forced to exclaim, This is the finger of God (8:19); while in the eighth (the balancing number according to the Introversion) Pharaoh said, "I have sinned against the Lord your God" (10:16). In the fourth plague we are specifically informed that God exempted the land of Goshen—"no swarms of flies shall be there" (8:22); so also in connection with the seventh plague we read, "only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail". While that which was common to both the fifth and the sixth plagues was the fact that in each of them the cattle of the Egyptians were attacked (see 9:3 and 9:9). Thus we see again the Divine hand in the arrangement and order of these different plagues.
3. The progressive nature of these plagues is easily perceived. There was a marked gradation, a steady advance in the severity of the Divine judgments. The first three interfered merely with the comfort of the Egyptians: the first, depriving them of water to drink and to wash in; the second, invading their homes with the frogs; the third, the lice attacking their persons. In the second three the Lord’s hand was laid on their possessions; the first, the "flies" corrupting their land (8:24); the second, destroying their cattle; and the third, attacking their persons again, this time in the form of "boils" and "blains" (sores). The last three brought desolation and death, more plainly evidencing the direct hand of God; the hail destroyed both the herbage and the cattle; the locusts consuming what vegetation was not ruined by the hail; the darkness arresting all activity throughout the land of Egypt. All of this served to illustrate a principle which is very marked in all of the Divine dealings; as in nature, so in grace and also in judgment, there is first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear!
4. The moral significance of these plagues is very striking. They furnish a most solemn and complete description of the world-system (which Egypt accurately portrayed) in its dominant features. The water turned into blood tells of how death broods over this scene. The frogs, by their very inflation, suggest the pride and self-sufficiency of the children of this world. The plague of lice speaks of the uncleanness and filth which issue from the lusts of the flesh. The swarms of flies announces how that the wicked are of their father the Devil, i.e. "Beelzebub", which means "Lord of flies". The murnan (anthrax) of cattle (beasts of burden)—tells us that the service of the natural man is corrupted at its source. The boils and blains make us think of that awful description of the unregenerate given through the prophet Isaiah—"From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds and bruises, and putrefying sores" (1:6). The hail (accompanied by fearful lightnings which ran along the ground) symbolized that the wrath of God abideth on the disobedient. The locusts which ate up all the vegetation, pictured the spiritual barrenness of this world—a desolate waste so far as the soul is concerned. The dense darkness shows how that the world is alienated from Him who is Light. The death of all the firstborn (representative of the family) foretells that Second Death which awaits all whose hearts are hardened against God.
5. The plagues were designed to establish the faith of the Israelites. For four hundred years they had dwelt in a land of idolatry, where Jehovah was entirely unknown. Moreover, the priests of Egypt were able to perform deeds which could not be explained apart from supernatural agency. The Lord therefore was pleased to so manifest Himself now that all impartial observers (whose minds were not blinded by Satan) must recognize the existence and omnipotence of the true God, in contradistinction from the impotency of the false gods of their heathen neighbors. In the plagues, the presence and power of Jehovah were demonstrated, so that He stood discovered to His people as the Living God. This comes out the more clearly when it is recognized that these displays of the Lord’s power were so many judgments directed against the false confidences and idolatrous objects of the Egyptians (see 12:12). The sign which authenticated the mission of Moses to Pharaoh furnished more than a hint—the "serpent" was an object of worship among the Egyptians, and when Aaron’s serpent-transformed rod swallowed those of the magicians, a plain warning was given that their god would be unable to save them from the forthcoming storm.
Others have described in detail the particular "gods" against which the different plagues were directed, so that it is unnecessary for us to say more than a few words upon this phase of our subject. The first plague smote the Nile, an object regarded with profound veneration by the Egyptians. Its waters were held as sacred as is the Ganges by the Hindoos. A fearful blow then was it to their system of worship when its waters were turned to blood and its dead fish made to stink. In the second plague, the Nile was made to send forth myriads of frogs, which invaded the homes of the Egyptians and became a nuisance and torment to the people. In the third plague, lice were sent upon man and beast, and, ‘if it be remembered", says Gleig, "that no one could approach the altars of Egypt upon which so impure an Insect harbored; and, that the priests to guard against the slightest risk of contamination, wore only linen garments, and shaved their heads and bodies every third day, the severity of this miracle as a judgment upon Egyptian idolatry may be imagined. Whilst it lasted no act of worship could be performed, and so keenly was this felt that the very magicians explained, ‘this is the finger of God’".
The fourth plague was designed "to destroy the trust of the people in Beelzebub, or the Fly-god, who was reverenced as their protector from visitation of swarms of ravenous flies, which infested the land generally about the time of the dog-days, and removed only as they supposed at the will of their idol. The miracle now wrought by Moses evinced the impotence of Beelzebub and caused the people to look elsewhere for relief from the fearful visitation under which they were suffering. The fifth plague, which consumed all the cattle, excepting those of the Israelites, was aimed at the destruction of the entire system of brute worship, This system, degrading and bestial as it was, had become a monster of many heads in Egypt. They had their sacred bull, and ram, and heifer, and goat, and many others, all of which were destroyed by the agency of the God of Moses, thus, by one act of power, Jehovah manifested His own supremacy and destroyed the very existence of their brute idols" (Dr J. B. Walker). And so we might continue.
6. The conduct of the magicians in connection with the plagues is deserving of notice. It has already been intimated in a previous article that we have no patience with those who would reduce the miracles wrought by these men to mere slight-of-hand-deceptions. Not only is there no hint whatever in the sacred narrative of any deception practiced by them, not only does the inspired account describe what they wrought in precisely the same terms as it refers to the wonders performed by Moses and Aaron, but there are other insuperable objections against the conjuring theory. It is therefore deeply distressing to find men whose names command respect, pandering to that rationalism which seeks to deny everything supernatural. Have such men forgotten those words in Revelation 16:14—"they are the spirits of demons working miracles"!
If Jehovah was to make a public display of Himself before the Egyptians and the Israelites, it was necessary (in the fitness of things) that He should suffer the sorcerers of Egypt to enter into conflict against Himself. The magicians, appearing in the name of their gods, were completely routed, for not only was it evidenced that the power of God working through Moses was superior to their sorceries, but it was also shown that He was hostile to them and their idolatrous worship. Three times were the magicians allowed to display their powers—in the changing of their rods to serpents (7:12) in turning water into blood (7:22), and in bringing forth frogs (8:12). Beyond this they did not go. The three things which they did do were very significant; the first spoke of Satanic power, the second of death, and the third of pride and uncleanness. Concerning the fourth plague, we are told, "and the magicians did so with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not". (8:18). Here is further proof that the wonders wrought by the magicians were no mere feats of legerdemain. If they were really exhibiting slight-of-hand tricks it would have been far simpler to substitute lice for dust, than it would be to substitute serpents for nods! The fact that they could not duplicate the miracle of the lice is proof positive that something more than a conjuring performance is in view here.
If we bear in mind that these earlier chapters of Exodus bring before us a symbolic tableau of the great conflict between good and evil, we shall easily perceive the reason why the Lord permitted Pharaoh’s sorcerers to work these miracles. They serve to illustrate the activities of Satan, and this, not only as describing the character of his works, but also, as exposing both the methods he pursues and the limits of his success. The Devil is ever an imitator, as the parable of the tares following that of the wheat (Matthew 13) plainly shows. The aim of Pharaoh was to nullify the miracles of Moses. The Lord’s servant had performed miracles—very well, the king would summon his magicians and show that they could do likewise. This exemplifies an unchanging principle in the workings of Satan. First, he seeks to oppose with force (persecution, etc.), as he had the Hebrews by means of their slavery. When lie is foiled here he resorts to subtler methods, and employs his wiles to deceive. The one is the roaring of the "lion" (1 Pet. 5:8); the other the cunning of the "serpent" (Gen. 3:1).
There is a striking verse in the New Testament which throws light on the subject before us. In 2 Timothy 3:8, we read, "Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth; men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith." Here we learn the names of two of the magicians (doubtless the principal ones) who worked miracles in Egypt. Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses. They did this not by having him turned out of the king’s palace, not by causing him to be imprisoned or slain, but by duplicating his works. And, says the Holy Spirit, there are those now who similarly resist the servants of God—"as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these (the ones mentioned in vv. 5 and 6) also resist the truth". This is one of the Divinely-delineated characteristics of the "perilous times". The reference is to men (and women) supernaturally endowed by Satan to work miracles. Such are found to-day, we believe, not only among Spiritualists and Christian Scientists, hut also in some of the leaders of the Faith-healing cults. There are men and women now posing as evangelists of Christ who are attracting large crowds numbered by the thousand. Their chief appeal is not the message they bear, but their readiness to "anoint" and pray over the sick. They claim that "Jesus" (they never own Him as "the Lord Jesus"), in response to their faith, has through them removed paralysis, healed cancers, given sight to the blind. When their claims are carefully investigated it is found that most of the widely-advertised "cures" are impostures. But on the other hand, there are some cases which are genuine healings, and which cannot he explained apart from supernatural agency. So it was with the miracles wrought by the magicians of Pharaoh; though limited by God they did perform prodigies.
7. These plagues furnished a most striking prophetic forecast of God’s future judgments upon the world. This is. to us, one of the most remarkable things connected with God’s judgments upon Egypt. The analogies furnished between those visitations of Divine wrath of old and those which the Scriptures predict, and announce for the future, are many and most minute. We here call attention only to a few of the more striking ones; the diligent student may discover many more for himself if he will take the necessary trouble:—
During the Time of Jacob’s Trouble Israel shall again be sorely oppressed and afflicted (Isa. 60:14 and Jeremiah 30:5-8).
They will cry unto God, and He will hear and answer (Jer. 31:58-20).
God will command their oppressors to, Let them go (Isa. 43:6).
God will send two witnesses to work miracles before their enemies (Rev. 11:3-6).
Their enemies will also perform miracles (Rev. 13:13-15)
God will execute sore judgments upon the world (Jer. 25:15, 16).
God will protect His own people from them (Rev. 7:4; 12:6,14-16).
Water will again be turned into blood (Rev. 8:8; 16:4,5).
Satanic frogs will appear (Rev. 16:53).
A plague of locusts shall be sent (Rev. 9:2-Il).
God will send boils and blains (Rev. 16:2).
Terrible hail-stones shall descend from heaven (Rev. 8:7).
There shall be awful darkness (Isa. 60:2; Revelation 16:10).
Just as Pharaoh hardened his heart so will the wicked in the day to come (Rev. 9:20,21).
Death will consume multitudes (Rev. 9:15).
Israel will be delivered (Zech. 14:3, 4; Romans 11:26).
Thus will history repeat itself, and then will it be fully demonstrated that the plagues of Jehovah upon Egypt of old portended the yet more awful judgments by which the earth shall be visited in a day now very near at hand.