Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” 2 But Pharaoh said, “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.” 3 Then they said, “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.” 4 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.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many,[a] and you make them rest from their burdens!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 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.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
10 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. 11 Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced in the least.’” 12 So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.” 14 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?”
15 Then the foremen of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you treat your servants like this? 16 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.” 17 But he said, “You are idle, you are idle; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Go now and work. No straw will be given you, but you must still deliver the same number of bricks.” 19 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.” 20 They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; 21 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.”
22 Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 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.” (Exodus 5)
Probably the most fundamental and ultimate question in life is the question of authority. “Whose in charge here?” “Who says?” It’s a question that never stops getting asked. When kids are playing and one kid tells another to do something that one doesn’t want to do, the question is always, “Oh yeah, says who?” We begin asking this question as children and never stop asking it. When someone is confronted with a demand that they do not wish to obey, the question always comes down to “who says?”, and whether or not whoever says is taken as an ultimate or higher authority to that person.
This is the fundamental question at play in our text today. Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh and they declare the authority by which they come, “Thus says the LORD.” Pharaoh who fancies himself a god questions this authority, “Who is the LORD that I should obey him?” Then in verse 10, the taskmasters go out to the people and they declare what authority they give these new commands, saying, “Thus says Pharaoh.” So at this stage in the narrative the questions really seems to be in the air, “whose in charge here?” Now we know that it was never up in the air and that God was always in charge. But this is where we are at in the narrative. Moses is very unsure of why God even brought him out here.
This chapter sets the stage: “Thus says the LORD” vs. “Thus says Pharaoh.” Whose word, whose authority will win? Who is really in charge is it Pharaoh, or is it the LORD?
This is something that all parties involved will soon learn – Pharaoh, Moses, The Egyptians, and the Israelites.
So Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh saying, “Thus says the LORD,” which, by the way, is a great model for us when we have opportunity to instruct those with authority over us. Since they have authority over us, we have to point to the authority that is over them, which is the standard by which they are to rule and the authority to which they are to answer.
But the Pharaoh is quickly dismissive of this claim of authority. Pharaoh of course cannot have a god who is a sovereign apart from him. He cannot allow for a god that reveals himself to the Hebrews that is outside of his authority. Otherwise, his authority is undermined. This is the sick disease of totalitarian authority.
Pharaoh will soon be taught that the king or ruler who rejects the authority of God over him will lose his authority. A king or ruler who does not submit to the ultimate authority of God, is a lesser magistrate in rebellion and insubordination who will be removed by the all-sovereign magistrate. Thus to overlook Almighty God is to invite His judgment. Pharaoh thinks that he is displaying the strength of his iron fist and powerful arm, but in reality he has put himself in a completely vulnerable position to be handed down the judgment of God, which we know ends up happening.
I once again want to draw your attention to the fact that this is not mere political maneuvering, it is a religious showdown. It is a matter of sovereignty, authority, and loyalty. When tyrants feel their control on their subjects getting out of control, they always lash back with severity, which only further quickens their grasp on control.
The people ask to go and worship, a three days journey. This is all they ask for at this time, but even this Pharaoh cannot allow. For a rival God who requires days of worship from his people means that time is taken away from Pharaoh’s public works projects of building Egypt’s religious buildings. So this religious freedom is denied and the Hebrew God is mocked by Pharaoh. This is suppression of true religion. And this is foolishness, for it fails to recognize that true religion cannot be suppressed. God’s people will worship Him. If a leader does not make sure that that can happen, God will make sure.
Pharaoh’s big concern that he repeats over and again is idleness. If the people are out worshiping their God, then they are idle in service to the Egyptians gods.
Worship is seen as idleness to the world, to competing totalitarian gods. But Christian worship is not idleness, it is rest and refreshment, and it is of first importance. It is in fact foundational to productivity, progress, and fruitfulness. Christian worship shows that God is the one who fights on behalf of His people, and that salvation is not accomplished by our works. We rest from our work showing that salvation is not by our works or by our hands, but that we are resting and trusting in the power of God alone and His Work to Save us, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
This does not make sense to the world or to the flesh. Man is so inclined to a distortion of the law in his flesh, thinking salvation can be had by work. Our flesh is partial to the law, and a false view of the law, thinking that salvation can actually be had by our work, when it cannot. The gospel is different in every way, for it is received not by our working toward it without end, but by faith resting in Christ alone.
By way of analogy, the legalist comes in, or the legalist in our hearts, looks at the one resting in Christ and says, “you are idle. Get back to work. Here’s more work.” Indeed there is so much work to be done for Christ in this world, but it can only be done by resting in Christ. So if and when you hear the legalist in your heart accusing you of being idle and not doing enough work to be a Christian, or to be worthy of eternal life, then tell him or her that that is true, and that is why you have to rest in Christ all the more.
So Pharaoh’s next move was to clamp down on the Israelites. He senses an uprising or unrest among the people, and he feels that he must quelch it immediately. So, he demands bricks to continue to be made, but without straw, but you’ll still have to make the same amount of bricks. So not only does Pharaoh have issues with God’s authority over him, but Pharaoh has now proven that his authority is nothing but arbitrary.
Pharaoh exercises arbitrary authority, demanding bricks without straw and maintaining the same level of output, without the same level of input. But Pharaoh is not the ultimate, therefore his authority, properly exercised, is not allowed to be arbitrary. He lived in God’s world, and demanding the same output with no input is not how God’s world works. God’s world is not an arbitrary world. It has standards. So, Pharaoh’s arbitrary power failed and was exposed. Pharaoh has basically demanded an impossible task. So God will make sure of it. How many bricks will they be able to make when there are frogs everywhere? What about when there are gnats and locusts everywhere? What about when all the livestock dies and when all the water is turned to blood? How many bricks can they make when everyone has boils on their skin, or when the hail destroys everything? How many bricks can they make in complete and utter darkness? Will Pharaoh still care about bricks when his firstborn son is put to death?
God will run Pharaoh’s arbitrary tyranny through the ringer. God’s purposes always thwart the serpent’s tactics. This is not a lesson only for Pharaoh. This is something that each person with authority must learn. Even if your only bit of authority is that you are the head of your home, or a keeper of the home. If you are a tyrant in your domain, however big or small it is, God will judge you and humble you, someday, one way or another. Therefore we must humble ourselves before God and seek to exercise our authority in accordance with God’s Word, with the Spirit and attitude of Christ. It starts by asking that fundamental question, “whose in charge here?” And living like it really is God, and you are under Him.
So Pharaoh essentially lays upon the people an impossible standard. Again, we see a great analogy here. If we look to our works to justify us before God, or if we think that enough good works will get us to heaven, then we are striving towards an impossible standard. It is not possible for your works to justify you before God, or to be enough to earn heaven. It is not possible. If you set that as your standard, you will turn out a lot like the Israelites: bitter and angry at God and his people, and brought to complete despair. If you have sinned one time, you have broken all the law, and that’s it. Work all your life, you can’t atone for that sin. There is only One Person who has fulfilled the law, the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Bible teaches that sin is atoned not by works, but by blood, and pure undefiled blood. And that One Who fulfilled the law, with pure and defiled blood also shed that blood to atone for the sin – both fulfilling the law as our complete righteousness, and shedding His blood for the atonement of our sin.
Crying out to Pharaoh
So the stricter rules are handed down by the taskmasters and the foremen from Pharaoh. Now, the taskmasters would’ve been Egyptians working for Pharaoh, and the foremen would’ve been Hebrews, who were in charge among their people. And what is their response to these heavier burdens? Verse 15, the foreman of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh. They go around their taskmasters straight to Pharaoh, believing he could save them from their taskmasters if he wanted to.
But here they must learn that Pharaoh cannot and will not save them. He is not a savior to those who cry out to him. The foremen cried out to Pharaoh and did not receive relief, deliverance, or salvation. They were told, “Go now and work,” and given heavier burdens. Only God gives relief, deliverance and salvation. The Hebrews who had turned to worship the false gods of Egypt, had to be taught that those false gods were not coming to save them. They were cruel taskmasters As Proverbs says, the mercy of the wicked is cruel.
Who’s word will win? “Thus says the LORD” or “Thus says Pharaoh?” Who will save those who cry out to him, Pharaoh, or the LORD?
So the foremen leave Pharaoh with no relief and no deliverance from their burdens, and instead of crying out to the God of their Fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and trusting His Word and promises to save, they basically turn to unbelief. The people very quickly reject Moses and God, even using God’s name to curse Moses, saying, “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.” How quickly they have turned from belief to unbelief.
In the eyes of the people Moses was a discredited leader. Pharaoh had successfully isolated Moses from the people. Moses was now alone with God. This was God’s purpose from the beginning.
Alone With God
Even amidst Moses’ struggle of belief, we still see here the beginning of his work as a mediator. He hears all the complaints of the people and brings them to God. Jesus does this for us.
So here is Moses, rejected by Pharaoh, once again rejected by the Israelites, now alone with God, struggling himself to believe. Moses’ faith is yet very weak. Did God not tell him that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let them go, that God’s power might be displayed? Moses should not be disheartened, he should be encouraged because things are going exactly as God said they would. And over and over again in the wilderness, the people are going to be angry with Moses because of their own unbelief. But even though Moses is struggling we see that his faith is contrasted with that of the foremen. The foremen cried out to Pharaoh and rejected Moses and God. Moses, in his distress, cries out to God in prayer.
I love what Matthew Henry says, “If we retreat let us retreat to Him [to God in prayer] and no further.” In chapter 6 we will see how the LORD encourages Moses’ faith. But today we consider God’s ways.
God’s Judgment and Ways
It is so often the case, that when God starts to do a work, it gets worse before it gets better. This is because things are shaken up when the enemy is confronted. Darkness fights back, though in vain. A little bit of resistance should not surprise us or shake our faith. We ought to expect that when we take a stand for the Lord, men will oppose us, and they will resent us.
How often, when we pray, do we simply pray that God would deliver us out of all our troubles and take all our hardships from us? So often our prayers are prayers of escape, and we forget that God often desires that we endure trouble and hardship. So often God sends us troubles to sanctify and strengthen us, and that means that we must endure them. There is, of course, nothing wrong at all with praying for deliverance, but we must always remember how God so often works, and what it truly means to pray for deliverance.
When we forget these things, Rushdoony calls these “cheap prayers.” He points out that God did not simply want to deliver the Israelites, but He was also in the process of changing them and chiefly, changing Moses – Moses being schooled looking God-ward. Rushdoony says, “The humanist in the church expects cheap prayers to set all problems right and forgets that God works at both ends of every matter.” I love that phrase, that God works at both ends of every matter. Meaning, God is working out every situation and circumstance through our prayers, but that God is also working on us and changing us in prayer. God works at both ends of every matter.
Conflict is to be expected. Hardship is to be expected. These things are to be faithfully endured with hope in God and His promises. A bit of resistance and suffering should not cause us to discard our faith.
God often does things gradually and progressively, and takes us on routes THROUGH trials and THROUGH enemies. He has not shown Himself to be a God who zaps His people from one place to the next with no sanctification taking place. If that is what we expect we have barely begun to know God.
Matthew Henry says, “What strange steps God sometimes takes in delivering his people. The lowest ebbs go before the highest tides; and very cloudy mornings commonly introduce the fairest days.”
This is so often how God works. Before Jesus rose from the dead He had to die. Before Jesus defeated His enemies, He was put to death by them. Before Jesus saved and delivered His people, He was arrested, mocked, beat, spit upon, whipped, and crucified on a Roman cross. If this is how God worked in the life of His OWN SON, then it will be okay if that is how God works in your life.
So when distress and hardship comes, cry out to God through Jesus Christ. Cry out to Him for deliverance, and pray hard, but never forget what Christian deliverance looks like – it looks like a bloody and wounded crucified Christ, BEFORE it is the risen, reigning, and ruling CHRIST. Jesus Himself was oppressed by a mighty pagan empire, but Jesus was in it for the long game. It was necessary for the deliverance of His people and the advancement of His KINGDOM. Just a few centuries later, that empire would come to end as Christianity would spread and conquer the ancient pagan religion.
There may be times when you are tempted to cry out to the little Pharaoh’s in your life to save and deliver you, to bring relief when things are difficult. Whatever these little Pharaoh’s are, they cannot hear you, they cannot save you, they will not bring relief, they will only enslave you with more and more heavy burdens. I don’t know what it is in your life, that you are tempted to cry out to for relief, maybe it’s food indulgence, entertainment, pornography, drinking, or some other person you have made your deliverer, whatever it is, these things will not remove your burdens. They will grant a very temporary illusion of escapism, but will only leave you in greater enslavement.
Do not cry out to these little Pharaohs. Cry out to the Lord Jesus Christ, run to Him! HE is no tyrant. He is the only ONE who can and will deliver and save. Though you stink with all your sins, when you come to Christ, you are not a stench to Him. Jesus Christ does not turn you away with more burdens to bear and more work to do. Little Pharaoh’s say, “go now and work.” Jesus Christ says, “I have done all the work. The work is done. Rest.” Jesus Christ is a King, indeed THE KING, the total all-sovereign King. But He is god. HE is the king, who stepped down into the suffering and enslavement of His people. He is the KING who took their burdens of sin and slavery off of their backs, and put them upon His back, and bore them in His body in His death on the cross. He is our master, and we ARE His slaves. But He is a good master, who has made us His family. He is also our elder brother. HE is our master under whom we are free from true slavery and tyranny. He is our master whom we labor for, after the fact that He has done all the work necessary to justify us before God. HE is the master who says, “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you REST. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He is the master who suffered for and bore the burdens of His slaves, that we might serve Him with joy and gladness. Jesus Christ is not a taskmaster who lashes the whip upon our back, but who bore the lashes upon His own back for us.
Now how much would you want to work for that master? How much would you want to do for that King? It should be everything we want to do for Him – our lives we want to work as unto Him.