18 Observations about Nine Plagues

God brought ten judgments (known as the “plagues”) upon Egypt in Exodus 7-12. The first nine plagues are set apart from the tenth by multiple literary features. While considering the tenth judgment–the death of the firstborn–is a worthy focus, the following comments are limited to Plagues 1-9. Some of these observations can be noted in studies addressing the subject of the Egyptian plagues.

  1. Plagues 1-9 unfold in three series of three plagues each.
    • Plagues 1-3 (7:14–8:19)
    • Plagues 4-6 (8:20–9:12)
    • Plagues 7-9 (9:13–10:29)
  2. Each new judgment section begins with “the LORD said to Moses” (7:14; 8:1, 16, 20; 9:1, 8, 13; 10:1, 21).
  3. Each new judgment section ends with a report about Pharaoh’s heart (7:22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 12, 35; 10:20, 27).
  4. The first set of three plagues (1-3) are performed with Aaron holding the staff (7:19-20; 8:5-6; 8:16-17).
  5. The second set of three plagues (4-6) are performed with no staff involved (8:24; 9:6, 10).
  6. The third set of three plagues (7-9) are performed with Moses holding the staff (9:22-23; 10:12-13, 21-22).
  7. The first plague in each series (1, 4, 7) takes place with Moses going to Pharaoh outside in the morning (7:15; 8:20; 9:13).
  8. The second plague in each series (2, 5, 8) takes place with Moses going into Pharaoh’s palace (8:1; 9:1; 10:1).
  9. The third plague in each series (3, 6, 9) takes place without a warning to Pharaoh at all (8:17; 9:10; 10:22).
  10. Israel is spared from the second series of plagues (4-6).
  11. Israel is spared from the third series of plagues (7-9).
  12. The shortest plague of each series comes third (3, 6, 9).
  13. The third plague of each series (3, 6, 9) doesn’t have the statement “Let my people go, that they may serve me,” which appears in the other plagues.
  14. The plagues serve a polemical purpose by humiliating an Egyptian god (or gods) that is in some way associated with the nature of the judgment.
  15. When each series of three plagues is considered (1-3, 4-6, 7-9), the plagues increase in severity, for judgments 7-9 are the most devastating of the nine plagues.
  16. In the first series of plagues (1-3), the Egyptian magicians attempt to imitate the work of Yahweh. The other series of plagues (4-6 and 7-9) do not report any attempt by the magicians to imitate what they saw.
  17. In the each threefold series of three plagues, Pharaoh tells Moses the Israelites can go.
    • Once in Plagues 1-3 (8:8)
    • Once in Plagues 4-6 (8:28)
    • Three times in Plagues 7-9 (9:28; 10:11, 24)
  18. Pharaoh tries to negotiate with Moses about the Israelites’ departure.
    • None in Plagues 1-3
    • Once in Plagues 4-6 (8:28)
    • Twice in Plagues 7-9 (10:11, 24)

I recently preached through the ten plagues at Kosmosdale Baptist Church, where I serve as the Preaching Pastor. Those sermons can be found here.

“A Temple Left Undone”

Today is Tuesday of Passion Week, and on this day Jesus spoke parables and taught many things to his disciples and any crowds that gathered (see Matt 21-25). Included in this teaching was the famous Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24.

“A Temple Left Undone”
March 31, 2015
Tuesday of Passion Week

Jesus pointed to the stones
And said of them, “Each one
Of these shall be upon the ground,
A temple left undone.”

Then on the Mount of Olives, he
Disclosed the coming years
Of wars and quakes and many fakes
Until the Son appears.

None shall know the day or time
When comes the Son to take
The ones not ready for the Thief,
So therefore: stay awake.

“Depart from Me, You Workers of Lawlessness”: The Use of Psalm 6:8 in Matthew 7:23

The Sermon on the Mount constantly uses the Old Testament, either by allusion or quotation, so the use of a psalm in Matthew 7:23 is no surprise: “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

The scene is judgment day (Matt 7:22), and Jesus is refusing kingdom entrance to those who had a mere confession (7:21) without a heart-life commitment to him. In reply to their protest (7:22), he dons the words of David. The genealogy and birth account in Matthew 1 show that Jesus is the true and greater David who will lead his people from exile and rule in righteousness. In Matthew 2, the wise men seek him in Bethlehem, the very town where David had been born (2:2-6). We might expect that Jesus would give David’s words (particularly in the Psalms) their greatest, fullest significance and application.

As Jesus nears the end of the Sermon on the Mount, he quotes a Davidic psalm and evokes its context. In Psalm 6:8, David wrote, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil.” Psalm 6 was a prayer that God would be gracious to David, and near the end it shows confidence that God’s enemies will be ashamed. The prayer is for vindication. “How long” until deliverance? (6:3-4)? Then the good news is welcomed: David’s prayer is heard (6:9)! David is vindicated! His enemies must flee!

Jesus, the long-awaited Davidic king who will reign forever, has an eschatological role in Matthew 7:23. He is exiling unbelievers from the kingdom’s gate, saying, “Depart from me.” He calls them “workers of lawlessness,” using the same phrase as the LXX of Psalm 6:9 (6:8 Eng.). God’s enemies on judgment day will face the shame of eternal exile and divine rejection. To reject the Son is to align yourself against his Father.

Jesus is the Davidic King, and on the day of final judgment he will not be speechless. He will speak with sovereign and final authority, and any who contend shall do so in vain.

Judge With Humility, Not Hypocrisy

The message of Matthew 7:1-5 is about judging others. The opening words “Judge not” (Matt 7:1) are some of the most oft-quoted in the 21st century, and they are used in our culture to justify the abdication of moral discernment and evaluation. “Who are you to judge? Jesus said judge not!”

Context always matters, though, and in this case the verses following Matthew 7:1 show that the prevailing cultural view of Jesus’ words is manifestly wrong. He does give a warning (7:2) and an illustration about ignoring your plank while focusing on another’s speck (7:3-4), but the final verse is the twist in the teaching.

Hearers may have expected that the opening command (“Judge not!”)–which was followed by a warning (7:2) and two rhetorical questions showing the absurdity of judging a speck in someone’s eye (7:3-4)–might lead to a conclusion like this: “Therefore, don’t judge anyone at all! If you’re doing it, stop it! And if you’re not doing it, don’t start!”

But Jesus opens the final verse (7:5) with “You hypocrite.” This address pinpoints the problem in the kind of judging going on. Jesus called out hypocrisy with respect to giving (6:2), praying (6:5), and fasting (6:16), but his use of that word in Matthew 6 wasn’t intended to nullify the practices of giving, praying, and fasting. Rather, Jesus wanted giving, praying, and fasting done in the right way–namely, with the aim to honor the Lord and not for human applause.

The use of “hypocrite” in Matthew 7:5 indicates not that judging itself is wrong but that it isn’t being done correctly. After all, Jesus wouldn’t forbid making judgments right before talking about pigs and dogs (7:6) and true and false teachers (7:15-20). Without making judgments, how could his disciples ever recognize a pig or identify a false teacher? How could the saints ever exercise church discipline? (18:15-20).

The problem Jesus was addressing seems centered on the judge not dealing with his own sin before judging another’s sin. The judge is occupied with another’s speck while there is a plank protruding from his own eye! (Matt 7:3-4). That’s the hypocrisy: ignoring one’s more pressing (and perhaps even worse) sin while simultaneously trying to help a brother out with his speck (perhaps a lesser sin or at least one not so obvious).

Jesus wants his disciples to make moral judgments without this kind of hypocrisy, so he says, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5). Remove the log, then help your brother. More specifically, after removing the log you will be able to see clearly to take out your brother’s speck. The unattended vision problem, then, is the problem. How can we aid someone with their speck when we are so obviously impaired with our log?

If Jesus isn’t prohibiting judging others (discerning and dealing with their sins) per se, what is he prohibiting? Think of it this way: if we aren’t addressing our own sins but are zeroing in on the sins of others, we become self-righteous. We’re either minimizing, excusing, or ignoring our sins, and in the end we’re trying to help someone while being severely impaired. Self-righteousness is not a posture from which to help people.

But what’s the resultant attitude if we deal with our log first? To begin dealing with our log, we must agree we have sin that must be addressed–perhaps even the same sin we’re wanting to help a brother with (see Paul’s words in Rom 2:1)! And if we agree that we have a log, its removal isn’t through any process other than repentance. We must turn from our sin. We must not minimize, excuse, or ignore it. Repentance involves dependence on God’s strength and forgiveness, forsaking and mortifying our fleshly desires. Focusing first on our own sin produces an attitude of humility. We have applied the word of God to our own soul and have been honest about our needy state before him.

We are able to help our brother from a posture of humility. Humility’s friends are Gentleness and Mercy, and we need them too in the process of dealing with a brother’s sin (whether it’s a plank or a speck). Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal 6:1).

When the time comes to deal with the sin of a brother, the way to address the subject humbly is to keep a close and honest eye on our own hearts first. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). When our posture is what it should be, we can be helpful to others and avoid the kind of hypocritical judgment Jesus forbids.

What if God Saved the Living Boston Bomber?

I wonder what Jonah would’ve thought of the Boston bombers. More on that in a moment.

Here were two men who committed heinous acts against image-bearers. One of them died and the other is in custody. According to the apostle Paul, governments do not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4b) and actually manifest God’s earthly wrath on wrongdoers (13:4c). Since one bomber still lives, he should answer for his crimes–for the blood of the dead and the plight of the wounded.

But what about his spiritual state? He is an idolater, because worship of anyone/anything other than the One True God (who is revealed by Jesus) is idolatry. God is worthy of worship from everyone bearing his image, even those currently pursuing falsehood and having hearts dead in sin.

Does it seem like a strange notion that Christians should pray for this bomber to be saved? Would it make you angry if someone in prison shared the Good News with him and God showed him mercy? Of course he should answer for his earthly crimes, but what about the sins against God for which he stood condemned before the events of this week even occurred? He stood condemned already.

Jonah had a certain heart toward those who were enemies of his nation, and it was a heart of stone. No mercy for them; only destruction. God told him to preach to the Ninevites because of their great evil (Jon 1:2), and the prophet said “no.” Well, he didn’t actually say “no,” but he fled in the opposite direction, and actions speak louder than words. God heard it loud and clear.

Even after Jonah experienced God’s deliverance (Jon 1:17; 2:2, 6), he still didn’t want God to deliver the Ninevites. When he finally preached in that city, the Ninevites converted, and God showed mercy instead of judgment (3:2-5, 10). God’s mercy on the Ninevites made Jonah want to die (4:3). He thought it was wrong for God to spare them from wrath (4:1).

I wonder if Christians have Jonah’s heart toward this living Boston bomber. It isn’t wrong–in fact, it is altogether right–to think that this man should answer for his crimes under our laws. Even if he became a Christian, that doesn’t undo the consequences and damage of what he and his brother did. But Jonah’s hardness was against something else. He hated the enemies of his nation so much that the thought of God saving them made him want to die.

Should Christians feel anger at what the bombers did? Of course. Should the one who lived answer for the crimes he committed in that city? Absolutely. But should Christians still pray that he will find mercy and forgiveness from God so that on Judgment Day he can point to Jesus as the only reason why sins like his are atoned for? Most certainly.

Keep several things in mind. Jesus bore the cross reserved for Barabbas, who was a political insurrectionist. And on either side of the cross were two others, criminals receiving earthly punishment for their deeds (Lk 23:40-41). One of them, the Famous Thief, said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42), and that statement of faith changed everything.

Back to my opening thought. I wonder what Jonah would have thought of the Boston bombers–and I don’t think we’re completely in the dark on this one. He wouldn’t want God to show mercy or the grace of conversion.

But a main point in the book of Jonah is this: don’t let your heart be like Jonah’s! That arrogant prophet was wrong in presuming he knew who should receive mercy and who shouldn’t. He himself had received mercy but wanted it denied to others. Jonah received mercy but wasn’t humbled by it; that’s a dangerous place to be. 

Let’s pray for God to save Dzhokar Tsarnaev and reveal the majesty of the Risen Lord Jesus to his heart. There is pow’r in the blood. This blood of Christ can cover and forgive the most inconceivable of sins and wash a sinner white as snow.

Such deliverance, such salvation, results in the kind of words that Paul wrote, a man once steeped in darkness and violence and religious devotion against Jesus: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). 

The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives

“God May Yet Relent”: A Poetic Reflection on the Story of Jonah

“God May Yet Relent”
A Poetic Reflection on the Story of Jonah

Into the fish the prophet went,
Descending to the pit.
Spared now from a watery grave,
Jonah did not forget

To pray and thank the God who saved
Him when thrown overboard.
A fish appeared and Jonah saw
Salvation from the Lord.

The prophet knew the steadfast love
That Yahweh shows His own,
But did not want the Ninevites
To hear the gracious tone

Of preaching when the herald says
That God may yet relent,
If only you will cast away
Your idols and repent.

This God, the One who made the sea
And land and reigns above,
Is merciful and slow to wrath,
Abounding in His love.

But he will not endure always
The rebels or their cause.
What does it profit you to gain
This world? Eternal loss!

How the Judgments on Adam and Eve Relate to Genesis 1:28

Before the fall in Genesis 3, God gave Adam and Eve a creation mandate:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28).

Then, after the fall, God judged Eve (Gen 3:16) and Adam (3:17-19) with language that should be viewed in light of the creation mandate.

  • God said to Eve: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16)
  • God said to Adam: “…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:17-19)

Let’s note how the judgment language for each one reflects the preceding creation mandate of Genesis 1:28:

  • God told them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28), but he judged Eve by multiplying pain in such fruitfulness (3:16). She will indeed begin to fill the earth (1:28), but it will be in pain (3:16). She should exercise dominion over creation (1:28), but her judgment includes the desire to rule over her husband, to exercise dominion that undermines his headship (3:16). 
  • God told them to subdue the earth (Gen 1:28), but he told Adam the ground is now cursed and gleaning its fruit will mean pain for him (3:17).  The exercise of dominion (1:28) will now be toilsome and wearisome (3:18-19). And though he may work to subdue the earth (1:28), in the end he will succumb to the dust in death (3:19).

Clearly, therefore, the language spoken to the man and woman in Genesis 3:16-19 is not without precedent. God issued the creation mandate in 1:28 before the fall, and the later punishments in 3:16-19 did not rescind that mandate. Rather, they ensured that the mandate would now be accomplished through difficulty, frustration, toil, and pain.

In summary, to understand why God judged Adam and Eve the way he did with the language he used, we must first consider the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28. The punishments become inseparably linked to that divine command to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth.