If you grew up in church like I did, likely one of the main stories in the Bible that you learned of is in Exodus where Moses goes before Pharaoh and asks him to let the Israelite people go, who had been subjected to slavery to the Egyptians for over 400 years. Over the course of chapters 7-12 of Moses’ account of the Exodus, we are told of 10 plagues, or (terrifyingly) miraculous works that God brought upon the people of Egypt through the human means of Moses and his brother, Aaron, so that Pharaoh would let God’s people go free.
But what was the ultimate purpose of the plagues? In other words, was there a greater purpose for which God brought this judgment upon Egypt, other than to free his people from cruel oppression? I think the answer to that question is Yes, that God used the plagues penultimately to show his providence (“God’s purposeful sovereignty,” John Piper) and power over the hearts and wills of human beings, and ultimately to glorify himself in the world. Now that the stage is set, let’s look at the actual biblical passages that give warrant to what I have proposed.
A constant thread that runs through Exodus 7-12 is the response of Pharaoh to the wonders that God, through Moses, is performing. After each sign, we read that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened more than what it had been before the sign.
- After Aaron threw his staff down on the ground and it became a snake, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them” (7:13).
- After the water of the Nile River had been turned to blood, “Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart” (7:23).
- After countless frogs came upon the land, “He hardened his heart and would not listen to them” (8:15).
- After gnats swnarmed the land, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them” (8:19).
- After flies were sent upon the land, “Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also” (8:32).
- After the livestock of the Egyptians died, “The heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (9:7).
- After boils came upon the skin of the Egyptians, “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (9:12).
- After hail came upon the land of Egypt and destroted many thing, “The heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (9:35).
- After locusts came upon the land, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:20).
- After it became dark in the land, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27).
And then, finally, after all the firstborn of Egypt die, Pharoah finally relents and lets the Israelites go (12:31-32).
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a perplexing issue, because in some cases, we are told that it is Pharaoh who hardened his own heart, but in three cases Moses writes that it was actually God who did the hardening (9:12; 10:20, 27). What ought we to make of this? I think the answer is simple: Behind the powerful Pharaoh hardening his own heart is an even more powerful Being ensuring that it happens. This did not come out of the blue, and was not unexpected, because before Moses even went before Pharoah to do these signs and wonders, God told him, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonder in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you” (7:3-4). We are then told throughout chapters 7-12 that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was “as the Lord had said” (7:13; 8:15, 19), and “as the Lord had spoken to [or through] Moses” (9:12, 35).
Though we are not told in Exodus how exactly God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, if we fast forward to the New Testament, particularly Romans 9, Paul picks up on this particular event in Exodus and gives us more insight into it as he seeks to answer an anticipated response to his teaching. In the first eight chapters of Romans, Paul has been laying out the gospel as clear as day, that all people are sinners and under God’s just condemnation, but Christ has come to take away the penalty of sin, to be the propitiation, for all who would place their faith in him. So the question then becomes: what about Israel? Has God gone back on his promise to save his chosen people? The answer to that question is a resounding No, and Paul appeals to the doctrine of election to support his case.
He argues that God never promised or even intended to save all of ethnic Israel, that “it is not the children of the flesh [ethnic Israel] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [those who have faith, see Romans 4] are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:8). In other words, there was always a remnant of people within the remnant of ethnic Israel who were the true children of God. Paul then refers to Jacob and Esau, the two sons and twins of Isaac and Rebekah, and that “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:11-13). And Paul, being as brilliant as he was, anticipates our gut reaction to this, and appeals to Moses and Pharaoh to support his case:
14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.Romans 9:14-18
This is where my thesis statement for this post came from. God used the plagues penultimately to show his providence and power over the hearts and wills of human beings, and ultimately to glorify himself in the world. God’s penultimate purpose of showing his providence and power over the hearts and wills of human beings is seen in verses 14-17a, and his ultimate purpose of glorifying himself is seen in verse 17b, “[I do all of this] that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Paul then, goes on, anticipating another objection:
19You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.Romans 9:19-23
The natural human reaction to God’s providence, power, and ultimate determination over the human will is to accuse God of being unfair. And instead of giving us a full and comprehensive theological or exegetical answer, Paul simply leaves us with the mystery that God is God, and we are human, and we, therefore, have no right to question his judgments. Indeed, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34).
So we return to where we started, to the question of, Why did God bring all of the plagues upon Egypt that he did in Exodus? I believe that the overwhelming evidence from Scripture leads us to conclude that, yes, it was to show that God has power over the natural world; but it doesn’t stop there. I believe that the plagues were also brought upon Egypt to show that God also has power over the human will, that he is able and has the right to have mercy on whom he wills, and to harden whomever he will (Romans 9:18).
But those two things are only penultimate to the ultimate reason that God did these things, which was to show that he alone is God, and no one else is. No one else has the power to do what he does, whether over the natural world, or the human will. They were done that we might see these things, and be more inclined to love and worship him because of them. It ought to lead us to a “big God theology” that underpins and sustains everything we do, knowing that he is working in all circumstances, both good and bad, to bring about the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), which is ultimately to find rest in him and the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ.