After moving through the first two three-plague cycles, we come now to the final set of three: the plagues of hail, locust, and darkness.
WHOEVER FEARED THE WORD OF THE LORD // VERSES 13-35
As we have seen, the LORD’s plagues against Pharaoh and the land of Egypt have been intensifying each time. First, God struck their water supply and their land. He then destroyed their livestock, and we closed out our previous study with the LORD striking the flesh of the Egyptians with painful boils. This seventh plague, however, marks a very definitive ramping up of the stakes. As with the first and fourth plagues, Moses was again told to go to Pharaoh early in the morning, and again he was to declare, Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” Yet notice the further elaboration that is then given:
For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. 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. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.
The LORD’s declaration that all of His plagues would be sent upon Pharaoh himself and his servants and people is certainly ominous for the stubborn monarch. Yet God has continued to harden Pharaoh’s heart for this very purpose. Through the outpourings of His wonders, He will make it clear to Pharaoh that there is none like me in all the earth. Indeed, the LORD explicitly informed Pharaoh in verse 15 that He could have easily wiped Egypt off the map. We still do not know exactly where Sodom and Gomorrah were located because they were so thoroughly annihilated; without effort, God could have done the same to Egypt. Yet these plagues were not about eliminating the Egyptians; they were about teaching them, displaying to them that the LORD is the Most High God.
This warning is also unlike the others because God includes steps of obedience by which Egypt can be spared deaths of men and beasts. All men and animals that are in caught in fields when the plague of hail rained down would die. Therefore, the LORD commanded Pharaoh to save his servants and whatever remained of his livestock from the fifth plague.
Then whoever feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, but whoever did not pay attention to the word of the LORD left his slaves and his livestock in the field.
These verses show that Pharaoh did not obey even this command. For if Pharaoh had ordered all of his servants and livestock to take shelter from the coming storm, they certainly would have. However, because Pharaoh ignored God’s Word, his servants were left to decide for themselves. Did they fear Yahweh and His plagues or Pharaoh more? To take shelter would risk the wrath of Pharaoh, while staying in the field would risk the death that Moses had promised (and none of his words proved untrue so far). The result was a division being made within Pharaoh’s own palace. Some of his servants feared the LORD and took shelter, while others feared Pharaoh and did not pay attention to God’s Word. Ryken writes:
The practical lesson to learn from their example is that salvation always comes in response to God’s word. Some of Pharaoh’s officials “feared the word of the LORD” (9:20). Here the Bible uses the word “feared” in its proper sense. Does it mean these men were afraid of what God said? You bet they were! They were scared enough to make sure that they did whatever they had to do to save their property. But they also feared God’s word in the sense that they treated it with reverence and respect. They believed that what God said through his prophet Moses was true, and when they believed it, they were saved from the worst hailstorm ever.
All who did not hear and fear God’s Word met destruction. Whatever cattle that the LORD spared from the fifth plague were now pummeled to death by fierce hail if they were left out in the fields. This is also the first mention of lethality among the plagues. The sixth plague raised the stakes by bringing painful boils upon the actual flesh of the Egyptians, but here servants are hailed to death who refused to take shelter from the storm of God’s judgment. Barnhouse rightly gives the questions that must have run through the Egyptians minds as they helplessly watched hail as heavy as their king’s heart destroy everything in sight:
Where was Shu, the wind god? And where was Nut, the sky goddess? Where was Horus the elder, the hawk-headed god of upper Egypt? Could they not protect the land from these dire outbreaks in the nature that was supposed to be subservient to them?
In the midst of the storm, Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron, saying, This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer. While this sounds again like a promising step for Pharaoh, Moses saw the truth: Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the LORD. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s. But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the LORD God.”
Because Moses said that he would stretch out his hands outside of the city, we can assume that not a piece of the hail that was pouring down struck him. If Goshen was too far away for Pharaoh to give his attention, Moses was bringing an individual demonstration of God’s blessing right into the king’s throne.
More importantly, there are a few clues with Pharaoh’s plea that easily let Moses know that Pharaoh did not yet fear the LORD. First, while Pharaoh acknowledged his sin and the LORD’s righteousness, he seemed to think that this was his first sin! By saying, this time I have sinned, we can almost hear the king of Egypt sighing in frustration, “Okay! This time I went a little too far!” He was apparently and willfully blind to all of his previous sins. Second, although Pharaoh continued to refer to God by His name, Yahweh, he yet refrained from calling upon the LORD personally. He was like the superstitious nominal Christians who only go to church or ask a pastor for prayer whenever they are experiencing problems. Which leads to the third sign, Pharaoh was not repentant over his sin; he was simply weary of the hail. Again, he only cared about the consequences of his sin. Once more, Pharaoh is a model of false repentance that we would do well to consider.
Of course, we know what happened once God ceased the storm. Pharaoh hardened his heart yet again and refused to let the people of Israel go. Although this pattern is well-worn, this time we are given a hint as to why Pharaoh may have refused to yield. Verses 31-32 note that only the flax and barley were struck down by the hail, but the wheat and emmer were spared because they sprouted later. Perhaps Pharaoh had this in mind as he was making his mental calculations and came to the belief that Egypt could still weather the destruction caused by God’s severe weather.
FORGIVE MY SIN, ONLY THIS ONCE // VERSES 1-20
If that was the case, then God intended to strike down Pharaoh’s hope in the remaining crops through the eighth plague: locust. The LORD sent Moses and Aaron again to Pharaoh. Again, He calls them to rebuke the pride of Pharaoh. In the previous plague, he was rebuke for exalting himself and now he is rebuked for refusing to humble himself. The portraits of Moses and Pharaoh within these chapters of Exodus powerfully illustrate the reality of 1 Peter 5:5, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Moses is ever seen as God’s humble servant, yet, as we will see next week, he “was very great in the land of Egypt” (11:3). Pharaoh, on the other hand, refused to humble himself, so the LORD was humiliating him through these plagues.
After warning of the swarm of locusts, Moses and Aaron began to leave Pharaoh’s palace, but they were brought back after the servants of Pharaoh plead with the king to let the Israelites go. Just as the previous plague revealed that some of Pharaoh’s servants were beginning to fear the LORD more than they feared Pharaoh, now we find those in his palace being bold enough to rebuke the king to his face!
Again, Pharaoh seemed to yield only to again attempt to negotiate. Moses, however, remained firm that all of the Israelites were to go into the wilderness to sacrifice. Ryken comments:
This seemed like a reasonable offer, but Pharaoh was making two false assumptions. One was that the women and children didn’t count. Pharaoh assumed that when it came to performing religious duties, men were the only ones who mattered. If the Israelites wanted to worship, then why did everyone have to leave? Why not just let the men go and get it over with? Part of the answer, of course, was that God wanted freedom for all his people. From the very beginning he told Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and that meant everyone… Pharaoh’s other false assumption was that he could bargain with God. He assumed that he and God were on more or less equal terms, and therefore he could negotiate from a position of strength. But there would be no compromise. God does not discuss terms; he dictates them.
After Pharaoh drove Moses and Aaron out of his palace, God brought a swarm of locust that darkened the land and devoured every green thing. Barnhouse writes:
Where was Nepri, the grain god? Where was Ermutet, the goddess of childbirth and crops? Where was Anubis, jackal-headed guardians of the fields? Above all, where was Osiris, great head of the Hamitic trinity, who was also an agricultural god?
Such was the threat of these insects that Pharaoh hastily called Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the LORD, and against you. Now therefore, forgive my sin, please, only this once, and plead with the LORD your God only to remove this death from me.”
This is such a sorrowful plea because it reveals how truly ignorant of the LORD Pharaoh was. Although he rightly notes that he sinned also against Moses in driving him out the palace, he begs to only be forgiven once. Months later, Moses would be hidden in the cleft of a rock as God passed by and declared His name and character to the prophet, which included “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (34:7). Forgiveness of sin is a fundamental characteristic of who God is. Indeed, the whole Bible is the story of how He has brought perfect forgiveness to His people while also perfectly maintaining His justice against sin. Even before He created anything, God intended to forgive sins. So, by asking for God to only forgive one sin, Pharaoh revealed how little he knew about God’s nature. In fact, Pharaoh was presuming that God was like him, lacking in both patience and grace. And yet again, we see that Pharaoh only cared out the effects of his sin: plead with the LORD your God only to remove this death from me.
Even still, Moses interceded on Pharaoh’s behalf, and the plague was lifted as miraculously as it was brought. Even still, the Egyptian king would not let God’s people go.
A DARKNESS TO BE FELT // VERSES 21-29
As with plagues three and six, this ninth plague came without any warning to Pharaoh or the Egyptians.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived.
If the progression of each plague was greater and greater chaos being brought upon the land of Egypt, then this plague seems a bit strange. The thunder, hail, and fire of the seventh plague would have felt like hell being brought on earth, while the locusts were very much death-bringers, devouring the food of the Egyptians right before their helpless eyes. Here, however, there was silence and calm. In most circumstances, those two things are gladly received, yet for three days they were thrust upon the Egyptians by pitch darkness that the LORD cast upon them.
We tend to think of darkness as being an absence of light. Similar to coldness (which is the absence of heat), darkness is not an entity in and of itself; it is mere what is left behind whenever light is removed. While we instinctually understand this to be the norm, we also have the capacity to fear a different kind of darkness. We think of darkness as thick whenever darkness seems to have substance. Such deep darkness feels like an envelopment or swallowing of light, rather than merely its absence. Thus, for all the silence and stillness, this plague was the most chaotic so far.
This scene is an interesting juxtaposition with God’s commanding of light in Genesis 1. There, God brought light into existence and established the division between the two elements. The darkness was a primordial chaos, an absence of light, and God was dispelling it away as He shaped His cosmos into order. His commanding of light, therefore, seems entirely natural. But here He is commanding the darkness as well. He actively shrouded the Egyptians in un-light, blotting out Ra the sun god.
Terror is the proper response to such primordial chaos. Within it, we glimpse the horror of having the Creator’s hand of grace removed, of a disordered and rebellious cosmos. In a sense, then, God was providing the Egyptians with a tangible representation of sin, and they were right to fear. Moses says that no one rose from his place for those three days. What else could they do? Although they were all in darkness, it separated them from one another. They were all together alone. God left the entire nation to cower in the dark.
But all the people of Israel had light were they lived. Let me draw us back to verse 22 of chapter 8, in which God said, “But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth.”God’s setting apart the land of Goshen throughout these plagues is a picture of God making that land of His people holy. Remember that God’s holiness refers to His own uniqueness, that He as the Creator is set apart from all other things which are fundamentally His creation. Then, whenever people, places, and things are called holy, they are only holy in relationship to God’s holiness. The Holy One makes things holy by setting them apart for Himself, by separating them from what is common and reserving them exclusively for Himself. In fact, Moses would later use that same Hebrew word for set apart as he interceded for God to forgive Israel and go with His people into the Promise Land. All of this is to say: in the midst of the plagues of Egypt, God wanted to mark His people as holy even as He marked the Egyptians for His wrath.
The New Testament has not changed this fact; it has only made it true across the globe and transcending all nations and ethnicities. Nevertheless, holiness has fallen on hard times. Indeed, one of the greatest fears of Christians today is to be seen by the world as “holier-than-thou.” There is always a pull to downplay any division between the church and the world, largely because we do not want to present ourselves as being better than others. And we should certainly have the humility to freely admit that that is not the case! Just as the Israelites were no less sinful than the Egyptians, so too are we who in Christ no less sinners than those apart from Him. The difference is grace. While we are not better than anyone else (indeed we may be worse!), we are made holy by the grace of Christ. And we should not attempt to hide that distinction, for it is the very thing we are calling unbelievers to enter into!
Consider 1 Peter 2:9 says of we who are in Christ:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We have been set apart as a holy nation within all nations of the earth, as a chosen race within all ethnicities to proclaim the excellencies of Him who saved us. How would God’s glory have been revealed to the Egyptians if the Israelites left the land of Goshen to pretend to be Egyptians? The very purpose of God marking His people as holy is to call those still in darkness into His marvelous light.
When the darkness was lifted, Pharaoh again called Moses, saying, Go, serve the LORD; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind. Even after witnessing a glimpse of God reversing the creational order as well as the humiliation of Egypt’s great sun god, Ra, Pharaoh refused to fully submit to the command of Yahweh. He was intent on being seen as an equal on the divine playing field, so he offered yet another compromise. Of course, he knew that the Israelites were commanded to go into the wilderness to sacrifice and hold a feast to the LORD, which would require taking their livestock with them. Moses and Pharaoh even talked about those sacrifices during the fourth plague! Yet Pharaoh was a proud and increasingly desperate ruler, and such very often become models of irrational thinking.
As we read Moses’ response, keep in mind how afraid of Pharaoh Moses was before the plagues began and how bold he was at their end:
But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take them to serve the LORD our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the LORD until we arrive there.
The account of this plague ends with Pharaoh sending Moses away from his presence with the promise of death if they ever met face-to-face again and with Moses agreeing to those terms. Moses was officially cast out from seeing the face of the king of Egypt. For most people that would have been a bitter blow, since Pharaoh was the most powerful man in the world. Yet Moses was ready to lose access to the mightiest king in the world precisely because he belonged to an even greater authority, to the Authority. Later in the book we are told that this King “used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (33:11). Moses sided with the King of kings against the king of Egypt, and it was to his blessing.
Paul tells us that, though we now see in part, we too will one day see our Lord face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). As we walk toward that goal, we must be prepared to lose to the favor and countenance of this world, just as Moses did.
 Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 257.
 Donald Gray Barnhouse, Invisible War, 208.
 Ryken, Exodus, 269.
 Barnhouse, Invisible War, 209.
 Of course, in the next chapter, Moses gives Pharaoh one last warning about the tenth plague. It seems best to read chapter 11 as continuing the scene in Pharaoh’s palace from these verses.