and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.
Exodus 12:12 ESV
We have already observed that the plagues of Egypt often targeted specific Egyptian gods. The prelude sign of the staff turning into a serpent displayed God’s superiority of the power of Pharaoh, which Pharaoh sought to invoke via the cobra upon his crown. Turning the Nile to blood displayed His superiority over the many gods associated with the Nile and over the Nile itself, which was often worshiped by the Egyptians as divine. Frogs and cattle were sacred animals that the LORD slaughtered before their eyes and made stink in their nostrils. The boils were a challenge to the gods of medicine. The storm of hail was a challenge to the gods of weather. The locusts were a challenge to the gods of agriculture. The thick darkness was a challenge to Ra, the god of the sun. Even the tenth plague, as indicated by this verse, took aim at the gods that the Egyptians invoked to give them some sort of control over death. We, therefore, have seen God’s execution of judgment upon the gods of Egypt.
Even so, I think this verse is worth a bit more of our reflection as we think through what exactly are false gods. We know, of course, that there is only one true God. He is the LORD, Yahweh, who has now revealed Himself as triune, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. Three persons in one God. Therefore, all other gods truly are false, for they are not divine. One of the words used in the Old Testament for idols is hevel, which is the same word that is used more than thirty times in Ecclesiastes as vanity, futility, or meaningless. Isaiah 44:12-17 gives a fitting illustration of such vanity:
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
From such passages, we might begin to think that all false gods are purely human constructions, fabrications of our idolatrous hearts. Yet through the plagues, did God execute judgment upon mere ideas? For example, via the ninth plague, did Yahweh merely humiliate the concept of Ra?
In 1 Corinthians 10:19-20, Paul affirms the vanity of idols, saying, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?” His answer is no. Idols are nothing, vapors in the wind. Yet he also goes on to explain: “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” False gods are nothing, but we should not treat them as mere ideas or pure human concepts, as our materialist age would have us believe. Whenever people sacrifice to false gods, they are actually sacrificing to demons. Thus, there are true spiritual forces behind idolatry.
This means that God’s execution of judgment upon the gods of Egypt was not simply upon an abstraction but upon the actual demons that reveled in such worship. The LORD judged them by exposing them as the frauds, the vanities, that they are. They called themselves divine, masquerading as being sovereign over particular domains of creation, yet Yahweh displayed with each sign that He “is the blessed and only Sovereign” (1 Timothy 6:15).
Of course, these ego-shattering judgments in Exodus were themselves signs of the greater judgment that God would deal to the spirits of darkness through His Son. In Colossians 2:15, Paul writes that God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Contextually, the in him refers to Christ and His crucifixion, whereby God canceled the debt of our sins (2:14), and the “rulers and authorities” are almost certainly the demonic “forces of evil in heavenly places” that Paul speaks of Christians continuing to wrestle against in Ephesians 6:12. Therefore, Paul wrote in Colossians 2:15 the cross of Christ disarmed these demonic forces, triumphed over them, and put them to open shame.
Many commentators have noted that when Paul speaks of triumphing over them, he and his readers were likely envisioning something like a Roman victory parade, in which defeated rulers and generals were often displayed throughout the streets of Rome in chains, only on a cosmic scale.
In other words, God executed judgment upon them through the cross. Just as the plagues humiliated and exposed the gods of Egypt as frauds, Christ did so by triumphing over them through the horrific instrument of death known as the cross. He disarmed them of the condemnation of sin and fear of death that they used to squeeze desperate worship out of their worshipers. God’s judgment fell upon them through Christ by exposing them as the vanities that they are.