1 And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” 6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them. 7 Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. 12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
The tension has built to a crescendo. Moses and Aaron, still stinging from Pharaoh’s cavalier dismissal of their initial efforts to call for Israel’s release as well as from Israel’s fury at the increased misery of their situation after that first effort, dare to believe again that God will indeed do as God promised He would. Even though they will have to walk a painful path, and even though obedience was not the nice, clean, simple cause-and-effect relationship that they assumed it might be, they dare to believe and will come to see that God is faithful even when obedience isn’t easy.
Their belief and willingness to try again is predicated on a renewed, divine expression of God’s sovereign plan and authority in this difficult situation.
I. God’s Call to Act is God’s Permission to Speak With His Authority. (v.1-5)
The Lord begins this reassertion of His saving plan by saying something very interesting to Moses.
1 And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land.
What does this mean, Moses will be “like God to Pharaoh”? It certainly does not mean that the Lord has somehow deified Moses. Moses is not God and that is not the intent of the saying. What it means is that Moses will be God’s representative before Pharaoh. But it means even more than that. It means that, as God’s representative, and as Moses speaks the words of God, Moses will indeed speak with the authority of God. This is why we see the link between “I have made you like God to Pharaoh” in v.1 and “you shall speak all that I command you” in v.2. That is a vital connection. Moses will be like God only insofar as He speaks God’s Word.
It is an important truth that Moses and that we need to understand: when we speak the truth of God we speak with the authority of God. In an interesting way, there is a kind of parallel between this passage and Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 about the church’s authority to bind and loose:
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
These have sometimes seemed like difficult verses for Protestants to interpret. How are we to understand them? To be sure, we do not see any inherent authority within the church to bind and loose, to proclaim either forgiveness or condemnation. Yet Jesus does position this authority in the church. But we must understand (against some faulty understandings that seem to grant the church these powers innately) that the church only has the power to bind and loose as it binds and looses in harmony with the reality of God’s own binding and loosing. In other words, when the church, like Moses, speaks the truth of God to a person, be it a word of forgiveness or condemnation (depending on the other’s posture towards the gospel) it, too, speaks with the authority of God.
It is an amazing and humbling thought. No doubt it was humbling to Moses and Aaron. It is also amazing to hear the sovereign certainty of the Lord’s revelation concerning what is about to happen.
3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”
We have already addressed the issue of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It bears repeating, however, that Exodus speaks of two realities: Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart and God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Some have suggested that the latter is simply a euphemism for the former, but it seems that more is happening here than just that. The Lord indeed hardens Pharaoh’s heart. God is sovereign and can do as He intends for the furtherance of His own glory. Even so, it cannot be denied that this divine hardening is somehow connected to Pharaoh’s own sin and Pharaoh’s hardening of his own heart.
Regardless of how it is understood, the justice and goodness of God cannot be impugned. God is just in what He does, and the sinfulness of Pharaoh, like our own sinfulness, deserves divine justice. It is this fact that makes the grace we receive through Jesus Christ so very amazing indeed.
II. God’s Call to Act Must, Sooner or Later, Be Embraced or Rejected. (v.6-7)
There is a subtle but powerful statement at the beginning of v.6:
6 Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.
“Moses and Aaron did so.” Despite all of Moses’ protests, despite all of Moses’ fears, despite Moses’ debilitating lack of confidence, he did so. He did what God called him to do. Friends, God’s call to act must, sooner or later, be embraced or rejected. You cannot forever argue with the Lord. We must either walk in His will or walk away…and, as His children, the choice must be that walk in His will.
Moses also offers an interesting biographical detail about himself and Aaron.
7 Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh.
This stating of their ages is intentional. The significance of having an 80 and 83-year-old undertake this arduous task cannot be lessoned or diluted with some appeal to the old ages to which many ancient people lived, for Moses only lived to be 120. This means that, while 80 at that time admittedly did not directly parallel our 80, it was still a significantly advanced age that was worthy of note. I agree with A.W. Pink’s observation that this reference to the ages of Moses and Aaron was “brought in here in order to magnify the power and grace of Jehovah. He was pleased to employ two aged men as His instruments.”
One of the great tragedies of modern American society is the subtle and not-so-subtle way that our culture communicates an almost expected insignificance for the elderly. Even the retirement culture contains a debilitating idea: that the retired should content themselves with games and diversions and that the crux of their great contribution to society is finished. This false notion is also sometimes communicated by churches as well, though nothing could be further from the truth.
It is important that we think biblically about aging and about the contours of life as a whole. An anonymous person has penned the following charming little tale about the length of man’s days:
God created the mule, and told him: “You will be a Mule, working constantly from dusk to dawn, carrying heavy loads on your back. You will eat grass and you will lack intelligence. You will live for 50 years.”
The mule answered: “To live like this for 50 years is too much. Please, give me no more than 30.” And it was so.
Then God created the dog, and told him: “You will hold vigilance over the dwellings of Man, to whom you will be his greatest companion. You will eat his table scraps and live for 25 years.”
And the dog responded: “Lord, to live 25 years as a dog is too much. Please, no more than 10 years.” And it was so.
God then created the monkey, and told him: “You are a Monkey. You will swing from tree to tree, acting like an idiot. You will be funny, and you shall live for 20 years.”
And the monkey responded: “Lord, to live 20 years as the clown of the world is too much. Please, Lord, give me no more than 10 years.” And it was so.
Finally, God created Man and told him: “You are Man, the only rational being that walks the earth. You will use your intelligence to have mastery over the creatures of the world. You will dominate the earth and live for 20 years.”
And the man responded: “Lord, to be Man for only 20 years is too little. Please, Lord, give me the 20 years the mule refused, the 15 years the dog refused, and the ten years the monkey rejected.” And it was so.
And so God made Man to live 20 years as a man, then marry and live 20 years like a mule working and carrying heavy loads on his back. Then, he is to have children and live 15 years as a dog, guarding his house and eating the leftovers after they empty the pantry; then, in his old age, to live 10 years as a monkey, acting like a fool to amuse his grandchildren.
And it was so.
Well, that’s humorous in its way, and it causes us to chuckle, but it should also cause us to shudder. Surely the Lord God did not intend for us to end our days as a monkey, amusing and acting clownish before our grandchildren. But our culture almost expects such nonsense. Neither are you a mule, a dog, or a monkey. You are a child of the living God and you have work to do for the Kingdom!
Brothers and sisters, it is never to late to be of service to your King! It is never too late to try to accomplish great things for the Kingdom! Paul Dekar has pointed to the example Louis Lyautey as encouragement not to quit attempting great things because of old age.
Having retired to a farm, [Louis Hubert Lyautey] was into his eighties when he approached his gardener about planting an orchard. “But,” protested the gardener, “the trees will not bear fruit for twenty years.” Lyautey responded, “Then we must begin planting at once.”
We should die in the midst of attempting great things for God. Moses was 80. Aaron was 83. What are you attempting for your King? Have you embraced a mission that will transcend your earthly years? We must, or we are not attempting enough for the Lord!
III. The Path of Obedience is Surrounded by Opposing Powers, but None as Strong as the Power of God. (v.8-13)
So Moses and Aaron act, and, in doing so, they face great opposition.
8 Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. 12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
This episode has led to no small degree of comment. The miraculous transformation of Aaron’s staff into a snake is less difficult than the magical transformation of the Egyptian magicians’ staffs. Some try to explain their magic away on rationalistic grounds, suggesting that this was a mere parlor trick or illusion. I have read a fascinating theory that there is a way to paralyze a cobra, making it go rigid like a staff, then to revive it again. Apparently you can see this trick performed in Egypt to this very day. It has been suggested that this is what is happening here and that there is no real power being demonstrated.
Personally, I disagree with this. For one thing, there is nothing in the way this is written to suggest that the magicians of Egypt were practicing some mere slight of hand. On the contrary, it sounds as if actual power is being demonstrated here. But how can this be? It can be because, though limited and always existing only insofar as God allows it, the devil does indeed have power. This is why we are warned to avoid occultic practices, because there really are diabolical powers at work.
What we see in the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh is, in reality, a microcosm of the great conflict between the Lord God and Satan. The magicians are reflecting the devil’s power. But what is truly noteworthy is the fact that though Moses and Aaron face these hostile powers, they are nonetheless inferior powers that they face. The power of Satan is no match for the power of God. Thus, the Lord’s serpent eats the magicians’ serpents.
The magicians do have a kind of power, but it is merely a mimicking power posturing to convince Moses and Aaron that they were more powerful than they really were. Interestingly, Paul gives us the names of the two magicians who opposed Moses and Aaron in 2 Timothy 3, and he does so to make a particular point.
1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
Paul uses the example of the Egyptian magicians, Jannes and Jambres, to speak of people who pose as authentic believers but who really are not. These are people who have a type of power, but not the genuine power of God. He is warning that people like this will come into the church, pretending, like the magicians, to be more than they are. In commenting on this passage, Charles Henry Mackintosh made this observation:
There is nothing which so tends to deaden the power of the truth as the fact that persons who are not under its influences at all do the self-same things as those who are. This is Satan’s agency just now. He seeks to have all regarded as Christians.
There have always been people like Jannes and Jambres. They can impress with their tricks, convincing the gullible that they have real power, but they are not of God. Even so, these magicians do have limited power, though it fails to match the true power of God. “But Aaron’s staff,” we are told, “swallowed up their staffs.” This is a powerful moment, this devouring of Pharaoh’s serpents. It is a statement of the superiority of God, but probably in more ways than we realize.
Philip Ryken has offered some interesting insights into the Egyptians’ fascination with snakes.
The Egyptians were fascinated with snakes, partly because they were so afraid of them. Many of them carried amulets to protect them from Apophis, the serpent-god who personified evil. Egyptian literature contains various spells and incantations to afford protection from snakebite. It was this fear of snakes that led Pharaoh to use the serpent as the symbol of his royal authority. His ceremonial headdress – like the famous death mask of Tutankhamen – was crested with a fierce female cobra. The idea was that Pharaoh would terrorize his enemies the way a cobra strikes fear into her prey. This is how a relief at Karnak describes one of Shoshenk’s victories in battle: “Thy war-mace, it struck down thy foes…thy serpent crest was mighty among them.”
Despite their fear of snakes, the ancient Egyptians nevertheless were drawn to worship them. This is how Satan generally operates, using fear to gain power. Serpent worship was particularly strong in the Nile Delta, where the Hebrews lived. There the Egyptians built a temple in honor of the snake-goddess Wadjet, who was represented by the hieroglyphic sign of the cobra. Some of the Pharaohs believed that she had brought them to the throne and invested them with her divine powers. Others considered her to be their protector. In an inscription found at Tanis, Pharaoh Taharqa claimed, “I had taken the diadems of Re, and I had assumed the double serpent-crest…as the protection of my limbs.” According to another ancient text, “His gods are over him; His uraeus-serpents are over his head.” After surveying this and other evidence, John Currid concludes, “the serpent-crested diadem of Pharaoh symbolized all the power, sovereignty, and magic with which the gods endued the king.”
By finding his security in the serpent-god, Pharaoh was actually making an alliance with Satan. The ancient manuscripts are explicit about this. When Pharaoh first ascended the throne of Egypt, he would take the royal crown and say,
O Great One, O Magician, O Fiery Snake!
Let there be terror of me like the terror of thee.
Let there be fear of me like the fear of thee.
Let there be awe of me like the awe of thee.
Let me rule, a leader of the living.
Let me be powerful, a leader of spirits.
This helps us see what exactly the Lord is saying to Pharaoh, as well as the fascinating way in which He chooses to say it. The Egyptians feared and worshipped the serpent. It was the symbol of Pharaoh’s power and his kingdom. Thus, the transformation of the staff into a serpent and, even more so, the single serpent of God eating the serpents of Pharaoh, was a provocative act filled with symbolic importance. It was a blatant statement to Pharaoh that the source of his strength and the source of his power, as he and the Egyptians’ perceived it, was nothing to God. These serpents before whom Egypt trembled and worshipped were mere puppets in the hand of the one true God.
What we see in all of this background, and in God’s dramatic statement to Pharaoh through the obedience of His servants, Moses and Aaron, is simply an Old Testament demonstration of the beautiful truth communicated by John in 1 John 4:4, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
Yes, obey the Lord in a fallen culture and you will face the spiritual opposition of the devil. But be encouraged! The powers of darkness do not match the powers of light. The power of the devil does not compare to the power of God. He is not an equal opposite. He is but a creation whose time draws near. He has the power to frustrate us, to be sure, but he cannot overcome the Jesus to whom we have pledged allegiance and who dwells within us.
Take courage! The staff of a living God is mightier than the staff of the devil. There is no comparison. We can therefore obey in the steady confidence that our God is indeed God! Our God reigns. He has never been defeated. He never will be.
May we, like Moses and Aaron, stand in the halls and arenas of this fallen world order and announce the liberation we have through Jesus Christ, knowing in doing so that we speak God’s truth with God’s blessing and authority.
He is for us.
Who could be against us?
 A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1981), p.56.
 Paul R. Dekar, Community of the Transfiguration. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), p.122.
 Charles Henry Mackintosh, Notes on the Book of Exodus. (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1862), p.104.
 Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.206-207.