After his first appearance before Pharaoh ended with disastrous results for both Moses and Israel, the scene and power begin to change as God starts to work. Whereas Pharaoh showed his authority over Israel in the incident with the bricks, God now shows His sovereignty over Pharaoh and all of Egypt with the plagues. In these chapters the reader witnesses the astounding and frightening power of God, the growth of a leader as he begins to believe God more and fear man less, and the horrifying implications of God giving a man over to his pride. Along the way the story also shows what false repentance looks like and how its practice leads to self-deceit and destruction.
God reassured Moses in Chapter 6 that Pharaoh’s harsh response to Moses’ entreaty would allow Him to demonstrate His power at Pharaoh’s expense. He now fulfills that promise in nine clear and mighty ways.
Plague 5 – Pestilence (9:1-7)
Moses and Aaron repeat the scene they’ve participated in several times already – go to Pharaoh, tell him to let God’s people go, warn him what will happen if he doesn’t. This time, what will happen is that God will send a pestilence on the Egyptians’ livestock. Horses, donkeys, camels, herds and flocks – all will die. The livestock of Israel, however, won’t be touched. The pestilence will come tomorrow so Pharaoh has time to grant their request and let the people go and avoid it.
Of course, he doesn’t. And all the livestock of Egypt dies (‘all’ must either mean that all the livestock in the field dies – as vs 3 delineates – or that “all kinds” of livestock die – the fact that more livestock are alive to be affected by the boils of plague 6 and killed by the hail of plague 7 shows this doesn’t literally mean that all livestock dies). Pharaoh sends to Goshen to confirm that not one animal of Israel is affected. Amazingly, even after he confirms that Yahweh did exactly as He said He would, Pharaoh isn’t convinced and refuses to let the people go.
Some things to consider with this plague. Imagine what it must be like in the land to have perhaps thousands of dead horses, cattle, donkeys, etc. rotting right after having thousands of frogs rotting. The effect on living conditions has to be intense. Also – short of the crops themselves – nothing is more important to an agrarian society than livestock. The loss has to devastate the local economy. This plague is also the first to include death. Nothing died in the first four plagues. That death is now on the table has to sober the Egyptians who actually notice and think about what’s happening to their country. Do not count Pharaoh among the thinkers. His irrational pride even after confirming Yahweh’s words show that he’s lost total control over his and his people’s fate. He’s God’s tool – nothing more. He’s an arrogant object of God’s wrath along for the ride.
[Something to think about – while there’s no need to explain away the plagues as simply natural occurrences, there is a certain logic to pestilence breaking out after the rotting frogs of the second plague and the flies of the fourth. It also follows in this line of thinking that Goshen is spared the pestilence because it didn’t suffer the frogs or the flies.]
Plague 6 – Boils (9:8-12)
Now things get personal. No plagues have directly attacked people – until now. God tells Moses to throw soot from a kiln (ironically, where bricks are baked) into the air – in front of Pharaoh – so the soot can become a fine dust that spreads over the country and becomes boils that break out on all the Egyptians and their animals (the ones that survived the pestilence). That Moses and Aaron do this in the sight of Pharaoh means that he presumably breaks out in boils as they stand before him. He calls for the magicians to replicate the trick but they can’t come because they’re covered in boils and are too miserable to perform. The magicians’ plight shows the severity of this affliction – per Josephus, some Egyptians actually die.
Picture this scene and what it shows about Pharaoh’s pride and hardness. Pharaoh is afflicted with boils and sores all over his body. He has to be miserable, perhaps barely able to function. This is the SIXTH plague that he’s been through. He’s seen Yahweh’s power demonstrated dramatically over and over again. The boils that cover him show Yahweh’s power over him specifically. And yet with all that, he still calls for the magicians to replicate the plague so he can discount Yahweh’s power and justify his decision to refuse Yahweh’s command. He’s now reached pathetic extremes.
Plague 7 – Hail (9:13-35)
Nothing is in the text about the pestilence or the boils coming to an end, but apparently God ends both plagues and moves on to the next. Once again Moses and Aaron meet Pharaoh early in the morning (third time they’ve done this) and tell him God’s demand to let the people go. This time, however, they deliver a longer warning from Yahweh. They tell Pharaoh that the remaining plagues will be more intense attacks on Pharaoh and his people (think about how scary that sounds after living through the first six plagues). God also says that although He could have taken Pharaoh and the people out any time He wanted through pestilence (as He did the livestock and as He perhaps did with the boils), He’s left Pharaoh alive just so He can demonstrate His glory and power through him. He essentially says to Pharaoh, “You are alive so I can make an example of you.” The reason Pharaoh lives and the Israelites are still in Egypt is so God can show His power and proclaim His name through all the earth.
This is a fascinating peek into the inner workings of the world. Think about it – a king remains in power and in control of a whole country and another nation remains enslaved all so that God can bring greater glory to Himself. It just shows how this world isn’t about us, our lives aren’t about us, and history’s direction isn’t about us. This is God’s world made by Him FOR Him. That said, however, notice also that ultimately God’s people benefit when God glorifies Himself. The Israelites will not only eventually be freed; they’ll also have a much greater appreciation for God’s power and a greater understanding of their security as God’s people. They’ll also be much richer.
The actual plague that God tells Pharaoh is coming is hail. Hail unlike anything that’s occurred in the history of Egypt. The hail will be so big and so intense that any living thing caught in it will die. Interestingly, God poses the plague as a test. If the people bring their animals inside and stay inside themselves, nothing will happen to them. Whatever they leave outside, however, will be killed. So the plague will show belief – those who believe Yahweh’s words won’t be affected. Those who don’t believe will suffer loss. [The hail apparently won’t destroy structures.]
It’s hard to know if the people at large understand the terms of the plague. The text says that Pharaoh’s servants who fear Yahweh bring their servants and livestock inside, while those who don’t, leave everything and everyone outside. What we don’t know is if the general population understands what’s about to happen. Do they get the chance to save their animals and servants?
Something else to consider – how could anyone still doubt Yahweh’s word? After all they’ve lived through, how in the world can anyone still be skeptical? It shows how God’s hand is not only on Pharaoh, but on some of his servants too. Another question – what does Pharaoh do? If he takes evasive action it will show that he fears God. Does his pride keep him from bringing his own livestock and servants inside?
The next day the storm hits (and notice that it is a storm – thunder, hail, fire (lightning?) and rain) and in the storm is the biggest and most intense hail that has ever fallen in Egypt. Everything outside is destroyed – animals, humans, plants, trees. If it’s outside, it’s gone. And that’s true everywhere except in Goshen, where nothing happens to the Israelites.
Pharaoh sends for Moses and Aaron and seems to genuinely repent. This plague has more effect on him than all the others before. He says he’s been wrong and Yahweh is right. He asks Moses to make supplication for him to God and that he will let the people go – no conditions. “There has been enough of God’s thunder and hail; I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.”
This is the most contrite that we’ve seen Pharaoh – more so even than after the plague of the frogs. This time he says all the right things and gives glory to Yahweh and admits his own wickedness. From the outside he appears genuine and sincere.
Moses doesn’t buy it at all. He tells Pharaoh that he’ll beseech God to stop the plague and that the storm will cease in a way that leaves no doubt that the earth is the Lord’s, but he also says, “I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.” It’s a terrifying statement. The ‘yet’ is what’s truly frightening. Even with all that he’s been through Pharaoh still hasn’t learned his lesson and God has more teaching to do. Things are horrific beyond words now, but they’re going to get worse.
As an aside, verse 31 tells us that this occurs in late January or early February when the flax and barley are ready to be harvested and are thus destroyed. The wheat and spelt survive because they ripen later. They also presumably survive so the locusts have something to eat [spoiler alert].
Moses leaves Pharaoh and everything happens just as he predicted. He prays, God ends the storm, Pharaoh changes his mind. It’s another case of false repentance. When the effects of the sin go away and the situation isn’t so desperate, the sin doesn’t seem so bad and turning from it isn’t so urgent. As sincere as Pharaoh seemed (and maybe even believed himself to be), it was all a sham. He’s just as proud and stubborn and hard. And he’s just as deceived and blind. He’s a prisoner of his own sin and beyond hope.
Plague 8 – Locusts (10:1-20)
God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh again but that Pharaoh won’t listen because God has hardened his heart. He also tells Moses something else – something He hasn’t said until now. One of the reasons He continues to harden Pharaoh’s heart and demonstrate His power at Pharaoh’s expense is for the belief of Israel. God’s people will have their belief deepened as a result of the plagues. Here’s what we referred to earlier, that God’s people benefit when God glorifies Himself. The Israelites will belong to God in a way they wouldn’t have without witnessing all ten plagues.
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and give him the obligatory command about letting the people of Israel go (by this time it would seem that both sides could mouth each other’s words). However, they also pose a question to Pharaoh from God – “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?” This cuts to the crux of the matter. “How long will you remain stubborn and ruin yourself and your land and your people, all because of your pride?” His refusal to let the people go is a refusal to acknowledge Yahweh’s power and authority.
They tell him what’s in store if he won’t let the people go. Locusts are coming. And not just a few locusts – enough to cover the land. And they’re going to eat everything that wasn’t destroyed by the hail – including the trees. They will fill all the houses in Egypt and will be a plague unlike anything seen in Egypt’s history. After Moses and Aaron deliver the news about the locusts they leave without waiting for Pharaoh’s response. Things are getting more serious and this little game is starting to end. Moses no longer feels the need to engage Pharaoh in debate: “Here’s the warning, I know you won’t respond, I’m leaving before you can give us your ridiculous refusal.”
For the first time, some in Pharaoh’s court try to talk sense to him. If Pharaoh wants to remain irrationally stubborn and watch the world burn, they don’t. They ask the obvious question – “How long are you going to keep them here? Do you not realize that Egypt is destroyed?” They essentially ask the same question God asked him in verse 3 – “How long will you remain stubborn?” Apparently God hasn’t hardened all the servants of Pharaoh. The ones He hasn’t touched remain rational and see the insanity of continuing this course. “Let Israel go before there’s nothing left of our country and people!” This scene points to Pharaoh becoming isolated in his stubbornness.
As a result of their entreaty, Pharaoh calls Moses and Aaron back. For the first time, he offers to let Israel go before a plague hits. However, it’s not a full capitulation. He asks who all will go and Moses tells him that it will be everyone – old and young alike along with flocks and herds. At this response Pharaoh explodes. He tells Moses that only the men will be allowed to go and he’ll never let all the people go (even though he offered just that option after the hail – 9:28). “God help you if you take families and possessions with you. I see through you and what you really want! It will never happen!” After he yells at them, he throws Moses and Aaron out of his presence (likely to the chagrin of his servants who just appealed to him and who now understand they’re doomed).
The next day the locusts come just as God said they would (God first causes an east wind to blow the remainder of the day that Moses and Aaron talk to Pharaoh and then all night – imagine the foreboding that falls on the people as they wait to see what comes on the wind). The locusts eat/destroy everything. Whatever was left by the hail – presumably including the wheat and the spelt – is gone. The locusts are so numerous that they actually darken the land. When they’re done, nothing green is left in Egypt.
Pharaoh gets humble in a hurry. He calls for Moses and Aaron and confesses his sins. He says he’s sinned against God and against them. He pleads with them to ask God to forgive him – only this once – and make the locusts go away. He asks them to ask God to remove this death from me.
Once again, notice the prayer of the habitual sinner. “Forgive me one more time and I won’t do it again. Please take the effects of my sin away, and I promise to change.” He hates what sin does, not what sin is.
Moses does what Pharaoh asks. He makes supplication to God and God causes a west wind to remove the locusts. And surprise! Pharaoh changes his mind because God makes sure he changes his mind. He again is an irrational tool of God’s glory. He has virtually no land to rule over and his people no longer have any means of feeding themselves, but there’s no way he’s going to humble himself and admit defeat to the God of the Hebrews.
Plague 9 – Darkness (10:21-29)
One more plague before the plague of plagues. God tells Moses to stretch out his hand and bring darkness on Egypt. This time there’s no warning to Pharaoh – just the plague. And the plague is a direct shot at both Pharaoh and one of the main gods of Egypt. The Egyptians worship the sun god Ra and Pharaoh is considered the son of Ra. Thus the darkness shows God’s glory and power over both. Pharaoh and Ra are nothing compared to Yahweh.
The darkness lasts for three days. For three days the Egyptians (just the Egyptians – Israel has light in Goshen – which raises a question – is there light spillage from Goshen? – if you live next door to a Hebrew house, can you see light? – assuming there’s a clear demarcation it points to the supernatural essence of the darkness) can’t work, can’t tell time, can’t travel, can’t easily interact at all (notice the text says they don’t leave their houses). Even if they have lamps of some kind, the darkness is so pervasive that they still can’t really function. And over the three days they likely become very disoriented. Plus, for a pagan and superstitious culture the ongoing darkness must be terrifying. While this plague seems mild to the 21st century reader (compared to frogs, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, etc.), for a people living 1400 years before Christ the darkness with its portents of death and seeming unending duration is the worst yet (note that they have no idea it will end after three days, and since they can’t mark days it wouldn’t mean much even if they did).
Pharaoh again calls for Moses and tells him he can take the people and serve the Lord (presumably this conversation happens after the darkness goes away). Once again, however, he thinks he can impose conditions (since he has all the leverage in this relationship). He tells Moses they can leave but they can’t take their flocks and herds. Moses refuses the conditional release. Pharaoh then throws Moses out of his presence and tells him not to come back or he’ll be executed. Moses tells him that won’t be a problem – Pharaoh won’t see his face again (in chapter 11 we hear more of this conversation).
And that’s the end of the nine preliminary plagues. The only thing left is for the Big Daddy of all plagues – Passover. Everything that’s happened up to now has just been an opening act for the redemption of Israel that will occur in a way that will leave no doubt as to the glory and power of Yahweh.
What have we learned?
- It’s a fearful thing to be given over by God. Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the world but he’s now just a tool for God’s glory. He’s been given over to his biggest love – his pride. And as such he stands no chance at life and no chance at real repentance.
- False repentance leads to destruction. Pharaoh has ‘repented’ three times but he always returns to his vomit once the effects of his sin go away. False repentance never leads to change because it’s ultimately concerned with erasing the effects of sin rather than the sin itself. It hates what sin does, not what sin IS.
- God always acts for His own glory. Why nine plagues (ten ultimately)? Why continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart and continue to afflict him and the people of Egypt? Because each subsequent plague brings more glory to God and shows more of His power. Each one proclaims his name through all the earth. The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains (Ps 24:1). For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:36).
- God’s people benefit when He acts for His glory. Who ultimately profits the most from the plagues? Who will not only gain their freedom but belong to God in a way they otherwise wouldn’t without the plagues? Who will have their belief deepened and know without a doubt that God loves them and has redeemed them with an outstretched arm? God’s people. Remember, everything God does in the plagues is a fulfillment of his words to Moses after the disastrous first appearance before Pharaoh – Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (6:6-7).