As last, here in the fifth chapter of Exodus, we find the first confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. Through all of his faults and fears, Moses returned to Egypt with his brother Aaron and told the elders of Israel all that God had spoken to him. In response, they believed what Moses had said and worshiped the LORD. Now, with the support of his people behind him, the prophet of God is ready to speak directly to the king of Egypt.
THUS SAYS THE LORD // VERSES 1-3
Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh… After receiving the support of the elders of Israel, Moses and Aaron were clearly not interested in wasting time. How exactly they were able to get a standing before the king of Egypt so quickly is not mentioned here, but I would assume that the gravitas of these two messengers of the Most High would have convinced Pharaoh’s servants that their message was an important matter to attend to.
In this initial dialogue with Pharaoh, which we should remember was happening between Aaron and the mouth of Pharaoh while Moses and Pharaoh watched the proceedings and perhaps whispered in the ear of their ‘prophet,’ Moses and Aaron speak twice. Their initial pronouncement is a direct demand, coming from the very mouth of the Great I Am: Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” Then after Pharaoh dismisses the words of the Almighty, the prophets speak again: The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.
Many have noted the shift in tone between their first and second statements, for the first is an authoritative demand from God while the second appears to be a polite request from Moses and Aaron. We should remember, however, that God explicitly commanded Moses to speak the words of their second statement back in 3:18. Therefore, it is not as if Moses and Aaron were cowering down after meeting the initial opposition of Pharaoh. Indeed, as we noted before, the LORD is apparently giving Pharaoh this simple request merely to let the Israelites go a three-days’ journey in order to display the hardness of the king’s heart. It is to reveal that Pharaoh would not even let the Hebrews go temporarily. Thus, it is not as if things would have been any different if the LORD had offered a compromise to Pharaoh.
As dismissive as Pharaoh’s response is, let us draw this bit of encouragement: success in evangelism is not measured by the response of the receiver but by the faithfulness of the herald. Moses and Aaron were faithful in their mission to proclaim God’s Word, even though we have already been told that Pharaoh would not listen. Nevertheless, God intended to pile up His warnings to Pharaoh so that Pharaoh would be that much more worthy of judgment. Although we should pray mightily for the salvation of everyone around us, we would do well to remember that God’s mercy and judgment are the same today. Although we are to proclaim the gospel to everyone, only some will be believe, and the others will have heaped greater judgment upon themselves for having also rejected God’s mercy and grace.
The final phrase of their proclamation is an interesting one: lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword. I do not think that we should read this as Moses and Aaron speaking of God’s judgment solely upon the Israelites; instead, it seems that they were still speaking of themselves as belonging to the nation of Egypt, which goes right along with this initial request to sacrifice in the wilderness and then return. Again, let us stress that the LORD is giving Pharaoh the great mercy of warning him of the coming judgment. Thankfully, this is how God almost always operates. He gives opportunity after opportunity for repentance before finally bringing down the sword of His justice and wrath. This will become incredibly clear as each of the plagues reveals the stubbornness of Pharaoh to be more and more worthy of God’s judgment.
Before discussing Pharoah’s responses, Philip Ryken makes an excellent point on how Christians might learn from the statements of Moses and Aaron:
This dialogue is a model for bold Christian witness. Moses and Aaron began by telling Pharaoh exactly what he had to do. But they also took the time to explain who was making this demand and why and what would happen if it wasn’t met. The God of Israel was demanding freedom for his people. He was making this demand so that he could be glorified in their worship, and if his demand was not met, he would respond with swift and terrible justice.
Christians ought to adopt a similar strategy in presenting the good news about Jesus Christ. The gospel is first of all a demand in which God commands sinners to repent and believe in his Son. But that demand requires some explanation. To repent is to be sorry for sin and turn away from it. To believe in God’s Son is to trust in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the full payment for one’s sin. Christians also need to be prepared to explain why God makes this demand. Very simply, it is because those who refuse to come to Christ will be lost in their sins and will suffer the eternal punishment of God’s wrath. If you are not a Christian, consider yourself warned! Like Pharaoh, you have heard what God demands, as well as the consequences of refusing him.
Pharaoh’s initial response to Moses and Aaron declaring, “Thus says the LORD…” is a perfect insight into the heart of this prideful monarch: Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.
Let us take a moment, however, to walk in Pharaoh’s shoes. Imagine the audacity of these demands from the perspective of Pharaoh. He believed himself to be a son of the gods, a god-man, both human and divine. And before him were two representatives from a nation of slaves, speaking on behalf of their God, a God who had let them endure slavery for four hundred years. Pharaoh’s response is, therefore, cold and honest, and as a self-proclaimed deity, he directed his skepticism and hostility directly at the God who had sent Moses and Aaron.
We see that skepticism and hostility in Pharaoh’s first question: who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? Pharaoh’s ignorance of the LORD was willful. Like all sinners until God intervenes, his skepticism of the LORD was directly tied to his refusal to obey God’s commands. Indeed, notice that Pharaoh’s response is essentially to say that he does not recognize the LORD as God but even if he did, he would not obey him. Citing Ryken again, he points out that Pharaoh’s answer reveals a pattern of unbelief among unbelievers in general:
Unbelief is partly an intellectual problem: the unbeliever does not know the Lord’s name. It is partly a spiritual problem: the unbeliever refuses to obey the Lord’s will. But often it is also a social problem: the unbeliever does not care for the Lord’s people.
This is an important point to make because too often we treat most unbelief as purely intellectual, as if there were no other factors to consider. Paul, however, teaches us that all people know God as the Creator and the Lawgiver, and those who claim otherwise “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). While intellectual problems certainly do factor into unbelief, they are very rarely the primary problem once the heart of the matter is reached.
We can also use Pharaoh’s skeptic response to the command of the LORD to push back against the commonly held modern notion of skepticism as virtuous. Of course, as secularism increasingly uncovers itself to be just as religious as any other religion, that notion is somewhat going out of fashion. Yet it continues to hang on, nonetheless. While a certain degree of skepticism is necessary for scientific inquiry, skepticism as a worldview is path to nihilism. C. S. Lewis wrote of this danger, saying:
But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
THUS SAYS PHARAOH // VERSES 4-14
But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” Pharaoh ends his dialogue with Moses and Aaron by dismissing them to return back to their work and by asking why they keep the Israelites from their labor. Here again we see the self-centered heart of the king, for his only concern is of losing the productivity of his slaves. Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to call that concern a fear. Although Pharaoh was the most powerful man in the world at that time, it is no secret that those with the most authority are also often the most fearful. And that fear is not entirely without warrant. Anyone who has ever played king of the hill knows that being at the top makes you the target of everyone else who wants to be there. History is filled, therefore, with rulers making highly irrational decisions out of fear. And so it was with Pharaoh:
And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
Only tyrants who fear losing their power answer cries of injustice with an even greater injustice. It was this very kind of foolishness that caused Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, to split Israel in two. The people came to him, crying out to be relieved of the burden that Solomon had laid upon them, but Rehoboam pledged to increase their burden. Ten of the twelve tribes rejected Rehoboam as their king and became a new kingdom. In a similar way, Pharaoh sought to display his greatness to his discontent slaves by breaking their sprit with even greater work. The Israelites would now have the additional work of gathering their own straw to be used in the making of bricks, but their brick quota would not be reduced.
So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced in the least.’” So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.” And the foremen of the people of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten and were asked, “Why have you not done all your task of making bricks today and yesterday, as in the past?”
Here we find an interesting parallel with the words of Moses and Aaron. They came to Pharaoh saying, “Thus says the LORD.” Now Pharaoh’s servants are going forth saying, “Thus says Pharaoh.” Again, the text is showing us that the primary conflict here is between Pharaoh and the LORD rather than Pharaoh and Moses. Yet we are also presented with a challenge. Although we know that the LORD is the one true God, why is Pharaoh’s word obeyed while God’s is disobeyed? Furthermore, if God had come down to deliver his people, why were they now enduring even greater suffering?
The difficult reality is that God often permits suffering to increase before rescuing His people. Often times the LORD uses such affliction to humble us. For example, how many people confess Christ as Lord only when they have been brought to the depths of despair? Of course, we will never know all the depths for why God permits such suffering nor for why God appears to allow the wicked appear to triumph for a season. Yet we can take comfort that nothing befalls us that is not a part of God’s sovereign plan. There is not one tear from God’s people that will not be redeemed by God’s glory.
As for the supposed triumph of the wicked, we would do well to meditate over Psalm 73. The psalmist, Asaph, begins by admitting his envy over the prosperity of the wicked. He laments:
For they have no pangs until death;Psalm 73:4-14
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
Surely, this is how the Israelites felt! Indeed, we too can easily feel the same way whenever we consider the great profitability that evil still very often yields. The question then becomes what shall we do with such laments?
TO WHOM SHALL WE GO? // VERSES 15-23
The first action that the foremen of the Israelites take is to appeal their case before Pharaoh:
Then the foremen of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people.” But he said, “You are idle, you are idle; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ Go now and work. No straw will be given you, but you must still deliver the same number of bricks.” The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, “You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day.”
The central question of the book of Exodus was: Whom were the Israelites made to serve—God or Pharaoh? At the end of chapter 4, the Israelites bowed down to worship their God. But at the first sign of trouble, they ran right back to Pharaoh. Notice how they identified themselves. Throughout their royal audience, they kept calling themselves “your servants” (5:15, 16). The expression occurs three times in one short speech. That show how much power Pharaoh still held over them. They were so used to being in bondage that they could not think of themselves as anything but slaves. Rather than seeking to be free, they went back to renegotiate the terms of their captivity.
Next, they turned their anger upon Moses and Aaron.
They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; and they said to them, “The LORD look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
This too is a common pattern. Sadly, some people are glad to follow Christ, until they begin to stink in the sight of the world around them. They are like the seed that fell upon rocky soil; persecution and tribulation sweep them away because they lack roots. When they fall away, they often lash their blame at the church. This has gained new notoriety via the exvangelical movement of people sharing their deconversion stories.
Lastly, we have the example of Moses:
Then Moses turned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”
We might read this prayer and question whether Moses had any more faith than the foremen of Israel did. After all, does it not appear that Moses is blaming God for the people’s affliction, as he laments that God has not delivered them? We should remember that a number of days likely passed between Moses’ dialogue with Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s edict, the foremen’s complaint, and now Moses’ prayer to God. Stuart writes that “Moses apparently was genuinely dismayed by what had happened. He had been told to anticipate pharaoh’s stubbornness, but he did not anticipate cruel retribution against the Israelites themselves as a result of his mission. Even still, what made Moses’ prayer any better than the complaints of the foremen?
It was just that, a prayer. Moses did not cast his lament upon the deaf ears of Pharaoh, nor did he turn his sorrow into blaming Aaron or anyone else. Moses took his lament to God. He brought before the LORD the very kind of prayer that around one-third of the Psalms offer to us as prayers. Psalm 88:14-15 is a potent example:
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Most lamentations within the Bible, however, do not leave us in our complaint to the LORD; instead, they lift our eyes to see the hope of our God, even in the midst of pain and torment of soul. And that is exactly how the lament of Psalm 73 concludes. Asaph goes to the sanctuary of God and remembers the end of the wicked, how they are set by God in slippery places, ready at a moment for the fall into their doom. Listen, then, to Asaph’s comfort following his lament:
When my soul was embittered,Psalm 73:21-26
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Proper lament to God concludes with our hope being firmly fixed upon the LORD, even though our lamentable situation has not yet changed.
THE GREATER PHARAOH
As we come to the end of this passage, leaving Moses in his lament, we have seen the faithful declaration of God’s Word by Moses and Aaron, the willfully skeptical and ignorant heart of Pharaoh, the great affliction that Pharaoh brought upon Israel, and finally the proper place of lament. We have often talked about how Jesus is the greater Moses, but we should also note that there is a greater Pharaoh still before us today. Paul writes, in Romans 6:16, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
We all lay under the heavier yoke of slavery than even Pharaoh was able to design; our slavery is to sin, to our own wicked desires. And like Adam and Eve, we have each gladly placed these chains upon ourselves. We have happily presented ourselves as obedient slaves. But thanks be to God, a greater Prophet was sent to demand our freedom. Yet this Prophet did not say, “Thus says the LORD,” because He is God’s very Word incarnate, made flesh. Like Moses, this Deliverer did not come to negotiate but rather to demand our liberation from our slavery to sin, a liberation that was purchased by His own blood.
Yet although our justification before God was completed entirely, once for all, upon the cross of Christ, our final deliverance from sin is just as much of a process as Israel’s exodus. We are being sanctified in Christ each day, so we need the gospel just as much today as we did whenever we first believed. Indeed, we will often find that the deeper the gospel penetrates our hearts, the harder our sinful flesh fight back. Or we find that during times of pain and affliction how easy is it to return to the entrenched paths of sin for “comfort,” just as the Israelites first brought their complaint to Pharaoh. Indeed, the words of Paul resonate far too easily with us: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). This should rightly cause us to lament ourselves as Paul also did: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25)!
To all who have not believed in this good news, I offer not merely an invitation but a divine command from God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth: repent and believe the gospel. Lay your sin, even the sin of unbelief, at the feet of Christ and call upon His name as Savior and Lord.
To all who follow Christ, come to the Table and, likewise, repent of your sin at the feet of our gracious King. Come and see the blessed reality that those whom God has justified, He will also surely glorify (Romans 8:30). Come and be reminded of the forgiveness of your sins, the cost at which it was paid, and the surety that we now have in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 125.
 Ryken, Exodus, 129.
 We should note that the scientific revolution of the modern era grew out of a Christian worldview. Scientists embarked upon their studies with the baseline premise that a knowable Creator also formed His creation to be knowable. Thus, their skepticism was not absolute; rather, they questioned their own hypotheses and theories, while remaining rooted in the reality of the Creator. We have now begun to do the very opposite. Hypotheses and theories are increasingly unquestionable, while the very notion of the Creator is dismissed outright.
 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 81.
 Ryken, Exodus, 138.
 Douglas Stuart, Exodus, 168.