Most people remember the story of the plagues from their childhood. We are allowed to enjoy so many of these great Hebrew stories when we are young before we ‘learn’ not to spend so much time in the Scriptures.
Naturally we won’t waste any time on the bizarre attempts to tie the plagues together into a set of meteorological co-incidences! [The flooding of the Nile plain stirring up red silt [which would have stunned the ignorant Egyptians who had never seen red silt before!], which encouraged the frogs to leave the river and invade the houses… the dead frogs decay and produce gnats… and… I forget how this is supposed to continue. I can’t remember how the boils produced the hail and the locusts… but I’ll remember in a minute. This proposal is supposed to make the Bible easier to believe for outsiders so I’m sure there is a really good explanation of the boils, hail and locust… and why the Egyptians didn’t understand about red silt… ? ..! …? If only the BBC would produce one of those excellent TV series at Easter…. They always get ‘Bible experts’ to explain all these things.]
The general truth in these plagues is clear enough: The Angel of the LORD is more powerful than Pharaoh, his mighty magicians and the various gods of Egypt. Yet, each of the plagues displays a different facet of the fact that Jesus is LORD. The plagues have a progression as they circle in around the first born humans. They begin at arms length and then get closer and closer. Plenty of warning is thereby given… yet the terrible and suicidal nature of our selfish hearts is revealed by the fact that we insist on going on to the bitter end in our rebellion.
The plagues serve as an important demonstration of the great and terrible judgements the Lord must exercise in order to redeem us from slavery. It would be so ‘pleasant’ to imagine that salvation and renewal could be achieved from the comfort of an armchair or in that lovely, gentle spirituality of self-improvement and meditation on how divinely glorious we all really are. Yet, the shadow of the Cross falls across redemption, from start to finish. Salvation comes after judgement; glory after suffering.
We are not the desperately grateful victims of a tragedy who cheer the arrival of the emergency services. No, we are the hardened criminals holed up in the building, shooting at any emergency services that try to get near. When we are saved, so many of us are kicking and screaming as we spit in the face of Jesus. Until we see Him as He is and our old humanity is finally destroyed, this is always in us, always making our rescue messy and painful and full of judgement.
The empire of Egypt was comfortable and successful. The Nile made them the breadbasket of the Mediterranean world. Even hundreds of years later when the apostle Paul is sailing to Rome we read that he caught a lift on a boat full of Egyptian grain. Egypt had fabulous wealth and stunning treasures which still capture popular imagination even today. The gigantic tombs and embalming practices of that ancient past [given to Joseph at the end of Genesis] presumably made them imagine that even death was under their control.
Turning from the Divine Angel who Joseph and his family had worshipped, who had brought such wealth and power to Egypt, they plunged into the sewage of these ‘gods’ who had forsaken their proper habitation. Far from ordering the nations to the worship of the LORD God through whom all had come to be, they had enthroned themselves as the masters of the universe. Sin in the heavenlies always looks just the same as sin in the earthlies!
This comfortable and prosperous Egypt has no fear of the Living God! They had no time for these ancient superstitions from the uncivilised slaves! They could chart the stars and build the pyramids; they could feed the world and conquer the nations; they could deal with the gods and defy death itself. Why would they need to listen to a Word that would turn all their security upside down, who would force them to choose between their luxuries and Him?
Into that self-assured arrogance, shown so graphically in Pharaoh as the embodiment of it all, the real world of the Most High God comes crashing down. Onto the playground of the Egyptian gods, the meteorite of reality explodes – revealing their impotence, judging their rebellion, dethroning their power.
We are told that the Lord is making His Name known to the Israelites (6:7), to Pharaoh (7:17), to all the earth (9:16), and to the Israelite descendants to come (10:2). This of course includes us. We too come to know the Name of the LORD Jesus through these plagues, though these judgements. We learn that Jesus does not issue empty threats. When He tells us of a coming judgement, it will certainly come to pass. When He tells us how to escape that coming judgement, His words must be followed to the letter.
How have we accepted certain limits on the power of Jesus? In that day we assume that the Egyptians took it for granted that Jesus could not control the Nile – and yet He did! Perhaps they assumed that the demonic frogs or flies were beyond His power – but they were not! The blood of judgement over the Nile; the demonic revelation of the frogs; the creation of new life from the very dust; the proof that Baalzebub is not the true LORD over the flies; the taking of the breath of life from animals; the diseases of the human body; the destruction of human society and production… until finally the light itself goes out.
Think of all the stories in the Bible where the power of Jesus is shown in impossible ways. Do we really believe that He is capable of acting in that way right now? Do we honestly believe that He could judge the empires of this day and age in that way?
I always fear that I have mentally so domesticated the LORD Jesus that I don’t really think of Him as the Angel of Death and Judgement who brought these plagues of judgement upon ancient Egypt. It is not that I don’t know the right words to say [I have all too many of them]. Rather, when I look at the way that I live… is the fear of the LORD Jesus the beginning of my life? Is the fear and trembling present, the terror of the LORD that drives me to prayer and action, to sacrifice and engagement?