To be sure, the subject of God’s character is an inexhaustible topic. Books about books will continue to be written, but in my experience there are few books which will reverence the One who is being studied from a personal standpoint. Whenever I listen to preachers I listen for the soft hush ready at the edge of every word apprehensive they might miss His still small voice when He speaks. I wait in the listening of men like John Bunyan, Leonard Ravenhill, T. Austin Sparks, or any believers who have suffered martyrdom for their faith, and my soul reaches out its hands to be warmed by the fire of holy men of God who let the Holiness of God forge them. Men like these came out of that fire the color of molten metal: that Amber shade of reverence that tempers each word at just the right temperature to comfort and confront the selfish human heart. In my study, I have been discipled not to know the content, but the character, not the plot-lines but the person, not the heroic deeds, but the heart of the One who did them. And one such story amazes me, simply put. And in light of so many who mistakenly wag their bony fingers at God in the Old Testament and say, “You are all wrath and no love. You look nothing like Jesus.” I feel compelled to patiently try to keep back my smile as I look them seriously in their misguided expressions, and assure them that there is more to the story if you know where to look.
The story is familiar thanks to Cecil De Mill’s The Ten Commandments, but as often happens whenever something is taken out of its culture and put into the vein of another set of values, the story gets rewritten in ways that obscure what was originally going on. One thing that has helped me to see more of what is happening in the story of Moses and God versus Pharaoh in Egypt over the people of Israel, is translating the passage from Hebrew into English. Syntax, Word-meaning, nuances, and idiomatic phrases are much more refined down here at this level, and some of my findings I want to share with you. My aim is not to tell you a different story: My aim is to tell you more about the Hero.
Who is the hero? Well, the obvious answer according to the way the story has been told is that it is Moses. And Pharaoh is the villain. This is close, and its easy to see how the hero’s side is the one Moses is on, and the villain’s side is the one that Pharaoh is on, but I can tell you with complete confidence that the hero isn’t Moses.
How do I know that? Well, for one thing the action does not originate with Moses. Moses is not the one who is on a quest to save the people of Israel. That is God’s doing. Moses isn’t the one who goes through and slaughters all the first-born of Egypt, that was God. God was the one who remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God was the one who gave the words to Moses to speak. Moses isn’t the hero, he’s the Hero’s message boy. And God wanted him to be his message-boy. In fact, he grew angry when Moses refused to be his message boy, and let him have a message boy himself so he would actually go. Moses isn’t the hero. The hero is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who made man in his own image, and against whom Adam and Eve sinned. Same God.
It’s also the same God who saw the intentions of all humanity’s hearts in Genesis and saw the need to shorten man’s life-span so that evil would not become irreversibly rampant. Evil would have taken over the whole world except one man, God’s remnant– the one man who stood in the gap. It’s all God needs to keep his foot-hold or his work. He chose a remnant, he held onto a single thread a number of times in the Bible, where He kept on holding onto the hope and plan that he would in the end save his people.
So his people, in this passage are the people of Israel. God is fighting for them, and Moses is the servant who does his master’s bidding. His master is the hero. The villain is Pharaoh. Pharaoh is shown to be the villain in plenty of actions he does like drowning the Hebrew babies, and in things he says. One of the things he says to Moses and Aaron when they come to him, “I do not know Yahweh. Who is he?” Boy are you ever about to find out!
Yahweh is shown in this story to be very patient. It is something about Him that I have come to appreciate more and more. He says to Pharaoh, not quite like what Moses said in The Ten Commandments, “Let my people go, and they will serve Me.” or here in this first account “Let my people go into the wilderness to celebrate a feast to me.” His first request was let them come and eat with me. The intention of this request was shown to be answered later on in Exodus of what God was talking about in Exodus 24. The elders and Nadab and Abihu and Moses and Aaron go up and they get to eat and drink together in the presence of the God who they could see, by the way. God was interested in celebrating, but he was also interested in holiness. So here he was, God the hero, commanding his subject Pharaoh king of Egypt to release the children of Israel who had been suffering great affliction under his hand. And what does Pharaoh say. He says, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey His voice?” God is so patient. He knows Pharaoh is hard of heart. God is part of the reason why his heart is hard.
So then begins a contest between God and Pharaoh, and God agrees to this contest, for no other reason I can surmise other than He wanted to show the world what he could do. He had to show the world how powerful He was to humble the proud. But if that was all he showed them we would just be reading a variation of the book of Job, where God flexes his muscles for Job. No, no, no. What we see here in Exodus is the just, merciful, thorough, and patient devotion God has to deliver His people, from the proud who he knows from afar. This story is prototypical for the whole Gospel which we who name the name of Christ hold to be a treasure in our hearts. The Gospel, the good news, the bitter-sweet reality is that God will stop at nothing to get his people back, but not without giving his rival every chance in the world to set him free.
So, God is a God not of second chances, not of third, or fourth, or fifth chances, but here we see that God is a God of Tenth chances. Even the seventh chance, he considered being done with the contest, but He is so patient to give his rival every chance to submit before He goes for the jugular. Because all the terror He unleashes in Egypt, the staff-snake, the blood, frogs, lice, flies, disease, the boils, he says to Pharaoh, “You still won’t give up?” Then he brings 3 more signs of his power, Hail, locusts, and darkness, and still Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.
Is God cruel to tease him? Cruel? Did you watch closely? God is King. He has the right, and he gives Pharaoh ten chances to turn back before he whips out the big guns. God isn’t cruel, he is merciful! He is also devoted to finish the fight He starts so he can have his people free to serve him.
Have you ever considered this, when you read the narrative of God versus Pharaoh, never once does it say that God was angry with Pharaoh. If you don’t believe me check the story again for yourself. God’s wrath isn’t mentioned until much later. In fact the first 10 signs God does in Egypt, God sends them by the hand of Moses. It isn’t personal yet, but then, when the 10th plague, which is the 11th sign is given out, the last straw that broke Pharaoh’s camel’s back, We read an interesting statement in Exodus 11:4 which we do not see earlier on in the story. God says to Moses, “About midnight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt.” In the Hebrew it is glaringly obvious with the presence of the first person pronoun, ‘I’. I tell you, when I translated that my soul shuddered through me. God’s patience has run its course, and now He himself is coming to rescue His people. And the blow is devastating. He cripples Pharaoh, and Egypt by taking the one thing they have left, what the American President J.F. Kennedy said once in his speech on peace, “We all cherish our children’s future.” God took that future away from them because of their pride.
Yes, God is one who kills; we are the ones who deserve death. But can you see His patience, His incredible forbearance which Peter, who saw Jesus closer than anybody else did, recognized? He said, “God is not slow in fulfilling his promise, but is patient with us not wanting any to perish but all to come to the knowledge of repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
O the tenacious love of Yahweh, who will not let the proud stand to oppress the children of freedom! The proud person’s days are numbered, because they are nothing like God.
God is a hero who takes down Pharaoh and sets free His people, and even after his people are free to go, that last intention of Pharaoh’s heart is proven yet again to be evil continually, through and through. He lashes out with the last of his strength at the Red Sea, and Yahweh obliterates his military. Pharaoh knows by the end, only when he has lost everything, that he is beaten.
Now it gets personal. God is with his chosen people who have seen His wondrous works, and now we see the anger of God. We see it when the people complain, when they refuse to obey, and we see God very personally involved in leading the people in a cloud by day and fire by night, he feeds them he gives them water, and all they do is complain and say we want to go back home.
Seven strifes and sinful complainings later, God is ready to wipe them out. It’s written in Exodus 32! What? A God of love? Of course! Somehow many have come to miss the anger of God that is backed by his great love which he has for his people. It is not an out-of-control. Hardly! As he said to Moses in Exodus 34, Yahweh is “Slow to anger” literally it takes a long time for the anger to come out of His nostrils. Yahweh is an angry God, because his very name is Jealous. (Ex 34:14) Jesus showed us this in the temple when he cast out the money changers and sellers out of the temple. Zeal for his house consumed him. Anger and zeal and jealousy are not weaknesses in God’s character, they are part of what make Him good. Of all the people in the world, he did not expect the Egyptians or the other nations to know him, but he did in his heart hold that the Israelites would know him. The affront to God was not from Egypt who sinned in ignorance; it was the nation He had chosen for himself to call his own, and to show the whole world how He could love such a people.
And in this moment, God in the Old Testament is written off by many as being nothing more than a wrathful and vengeful God? You bet he’s wrathful. If a man had just patiently won a battle against an ignorant enemy, only to have the prize you fought for whom you loved so much criticizing you and begging you to go back, even erecting images to fantasize over what they used to have in their idolatrous slavery, you would feel some of what He felt.
Enter Moses, God’s message boy who God brings along for this expedition, and in Exodus 32, Moses intercedes for the people, by being part of God’s secret council. Moses represents God to Himself by being the mediator, by demonstrating his understanding of God’s character, and implores him to show more kindness and truthfulness, and God changes his mind.
The fatalists out there like some of my Calvinist friends don’t appreciate the gravity of what Moses did. To think that any sinner could change God’s perfect mind is tantamount to blasphemy. But to think of it from the standpoint of relationship, God is one who invites us into His council and considers what we have to say. Not many of us get to this point with God, because most of the time when we pray it is us who are changing our minds to God’s. It takes great humility, communication, and trust with God, for you to have a say in His council. And God is gracious enough to gladly give us this chance. After all, one might argue, which God would be better? A God who did everything the way he wanted it because that was best for everyone, or the one who entrusted the decisions of what was best for all to others who he let into his council, and still managed to do the perfect and correct thing. One is aloof, the other is accessible. Our God is not aloof, but he is accessible to the humble.
What a hero! What a God! So patient, so kind, so . . . what many of us might call “human.” Jesus, the human, showed us, better than anyone else what God is really like. Because in him, “We beheld his glory as of the only begotten of the father full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) Jesus is God, just as the Word was God in the beginning with God. And he mysteriously assumed the whole essence of Creation in Himself because all of it subsisted through him.
And God is the God of Tenth chances, because even after 10 times of seeing if there was any other way, God Himself steps into the picture, and what a dreadful sight to behold! 10 times it is proven that creation will fall apart unless He himself comes to rescue us. Jesus, God Himself came Himself to save the world, Himself, because no one else could do it. God made the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 that the people of Israel would come out of Egypt into the promised land, and that this covenant was contingent not on what Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob did, but on what God did. And God himself walked in between the pieces, knowing that if Abraham broke the covenant, then He would have to pay the price. And so Jesus died on the cross, and gave his life willingly because no one else could do it.
Does God deserve what we do to Him? He has been good, we cannot see that. We would rather blame Him, and shame Him, than bless Him and confess Him. You who see only a harsh and unloving God in the Old Testament, the issue isn’t with God, it’s with your heart. The Bible says, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found.” You’ve got one chance this vapor of a fleeting life to seek out and know and love the God who you are called and created to obey. And Jesus Christ isn’t some milder version of an angry God, He’s the entire package with all the tears, laughter, jealousy, power, healing, and wonder-working of God as He is known through the Old Testament.
Take heed, you who are on your ninth chance God has given you, because His patience does end. You have an intercessor now who has gone to the cross for you, and if you spit on him, and refuse him with your heart, your soul is forfeit. There is no more sacrifice available for you who will not look at the love of a God so tender and good, who gives His all so that you can be free to serve him. I tell you here that God is a God of Tenth chances, and Jesus said to forgive your brother 490 times, but know that one day it will be too late. Either your heart will turn to stone, or your body will turn to dust. “Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts you double-minded.” James 4:8.
So much more needs to be said on God’s behalf. This is a beginning, a taste, a call to recognize and remember the one whose image you bear. He is calling you to repent, and represent Him well in the world as perfectly and humbly as Jesus did.