Staredown in Nile-Town


When we harden our hearts, it can cause us to miss the miraculous.

Exodus(38) (Part of the Rescued(37) series)
by Marc Webb(78) on November 26, 2023 (Sunday Morning(346))

Obedience(36), Self-examination(3)


The Rumble in the Jungle was a professional heavyweight championship boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. It took place in Zaire, Africa on October 30, 1974, and has been called "arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century." It was a major upset, with Muhammed Ali coming in as an underdog against the unbeaten, heavy-hitting George Foreman. There were 60,000 people in attendance and some sources estimate that the fight was watched by as many as one billion television viewers around the world, becoming the world's most-watched live television broadcast at the time. Decades later, the bout would become the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary film When We Were Kings.

Even if you have never watched a boxing match, you may know that there is always a time or two where the two opponents are brought face-to-face with each other before the match starts. It may happen during the final weigh-in and or it may happen right before the bell sounds when the referee gives final instructions. (Picture) Right before the Rumble in the Jungle started, George Foreman recalls the words of Muhammad Ali during their intense stare-down in the ring. George Foreman said, "I looked him in the eye, to stare him down and he said - 'oh George you were in school when I was beatin' Sonny Liston." Stare-downs are meant to be intimidating, right? You make direct and uninterrupted eye contact with someone in order to intimidate them and cause them to yield. You want the other person to get the message that you are going to beat them and there’s nothing they can do about it. Each one wants the other to be the first one to flinch.

This morning, we are going to see another stare-down between two opponents. On the one side is Moses and Aaron and on the other is Pharaoh. The actual match will begin with next Sunday’s sermon but today is the “final weigh-in”, so to speak. The power of God is going to be displayed and the question is, will Pharaoh flinch? Will he flinch in the face of an all-powerful God and let his chosen people go into the wilderness to worship him? Will he flinch, saving himself and the Egyptians a lot of hardship and pain, which is coming around the corner? Or will his heart be hardened even in the face of God’s miraculous acts?

We can ask ourselves the same questions this morning. Because we have come and will come face-to-face with God’s miraculous acts many times in our own lives. How have we or will we react to God’s all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful sovereignty in our lives? Will we flinch and worship him for his miraculous wonders? Or will we just stare back, never backing down or allowing him to be Lord of our lives? Will we stop listening for and hearing the voice of God, hardening our hearts, as he is calling us to serve and worship him? Maybe you would say you haven’t noticed any miraculous acts done by the Lord. I would suggest that that might be a sign that you are hardening your heart this morning. God’s miraculous acts are all around us, and we must have eyes to see and ears to hear and respond in worship to Him. That brings us to our big idea this morning that When we harden our hearts it can cause us to miss the miraculous.

As we allow that to resonate with our spirit this morning, let’s pray: God, we ask for your Holy Spirit to dwell in us this morning. We ask for wisdom and insight as we open your Word. Let your Word dwell in us richly and let it be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path as we live our lives in worship and service to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

There are two points this morning. The first is Obedience seen in Exodus 7:8-10. Follow along as I read those verses. This is what God’s Word says, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake.”

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen a Moses who has been discouraged. His first meeting with Pharaoh did not go as planned and Pharaoh was able to turn the Israelite foremen against him, to the point that they cursed Moses and Aaron before God. Then the Israelite people would not listen to Moses because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. But the Lord again told Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelites go. Moses responds twice with an excuse reminiscent of chapter 3, “I speak with faltering lips so why would Pharaoh listen to me?” But at the end of last week’s sermon, we see a more confident Moses. He has met with God and his lingering doubts seem to be answered and it says that Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded.

As Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh a second time, it is important to know that this was not a battle between two men, Moses and Pharaoh. Moses was God’s appointed person to lead his people out of slavery from Egypt. And Pharaoh was typical of the power of evil that was out to oppress and destroy God’s people just because they were God’s people. No, this was a battle between God and Satan. The purpose of this second appearance before Pharaoh was not just to repeat the message to let God’s people go. It was to specifically perform a miraculous wonder that would demonstrate God’s power and sovereignty over Pharaoh, Egypt, its gods and the entire world. The purpose of the miracle was to lead Pharaoh and others who witnessed it into worship of the one true God of the universe.

The first thing we see is the Lord giving instructions to Moses and Aaron. “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron” emphasizes that what is going to happen will not be the result of human initiative but divine action. Alexander says, “From beginning to end, YHWH is the instigator of all that takes place, underlining his sovereign authority.” This brings us to our first principle this morning that “God is sovereign.” He is in control of all things; he has the right to rule, and he rules rightly.

In giving these instructions, we see our second principle that “God is All-knowing.” God told Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh was going to demand they perform a miracle. He knew what was going to happen before it ever happened. This will be the only time that Pharaoh will demand a miracle and he demands it to prove that Moses’ God was legitimate and should be listened to. Then the Lord gave them instructions on how the miracle was going to be performed. When Pharaoh demanded the miracle, Moses was to tell Aaron to throw down his staff before Pharaoh and it would become a snake. ​​ 

After getting their instructions from God, Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh and we are told again that they did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and it became a snake. We can ask some important questions here. First, why did God use a staff to perform this miracle? A staff was a symbol of Pharaoh’s authority and kingship. It was synonymous with his power. By utilizing the staff to perform the miracle, God was exerting his authority and sovereignty over Pharaoh. The staff also signified that God was the one doing the miracle not Aaron.

Second, why did God turn Aaron’s staff into a snake? First, we need to know that there are two Hebrew words for snake. In verse 10, the word is “tannin.” It is not the same Hebrew word used in Exodus 4:3 or even in Exodus 7:15, which will refer to the staff turned into a snake used here by Aaron. That word is “nakhash” which means just a plain “snake.” It seems that the author used the two words interchangeably and was nothing more than a stylistic variation. But it is interesting where the author used the word “tannin.” He made sure to use it in the stare down between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh. “Tannin” means “dragon” or “monster” and can even refer to a “crocodile” which would be appropriate to Egypt. The word “tannin” was also used to emphasize a large, fearsome and venomous serpent type creature, possibly a cobra. The cobra was feared and worshiped in Egypt and was a symbol of immortality, which was why Pharaoh appropriated it for himself and made it part of his headdress. He was claiming to be immortal and used the cobra as a fear tactic to keep his people in line.

Second, we need to look at the theological meaning for the use of the word “tannin.” Fretheim and Enns says, “the word “tannin” was used for the chaos monster that the gods in various myths of the ancient Near East defeated in order to bring about the present cosmos. In Genesis 1:2, we read that “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The words, “without form”, “void”, “darkness”, “the deep” and “waters” speak of the primeval chaos that God created the heavens and the earth from. By using the word “tannin”, the author is making it clear that all of creation is under Yahweh’s control.

Also, Egypt’s kings were called the ‘great serpent,’ ‘dragon,’ or ‘crocodile.’ Ezekiel 29:3 says, “YHWH proclaims, ‘Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon [tannîn], that lies in the midst of his streams, that says, “My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.” ​​ A further allusion to an Egyptian Pharaoh is in Isaiah 51:9–10, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon [tannîn]?” Ryken says, “This background helps us to understand what Aaron was doing when he threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh. He was taking the symbol of the king’s majesty and making it crawl in the dust.” Aaron’s staff turning into a snake was nothing less than a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s power by the Lord. And by using the word “tannin”, the author was directly attacking his authority and sovereignty over Egypt.

I mentioned earlier that Moses and Aaron were obedient. It took a lot of courage for Moses and Aaron to return to Pharaoh after what happened the first time, but they simply obeyed and went trusting in the Lord. That brings us to our third principle this morning that “God is pleased when his people are obedient.” We are told twice that Moses and Aaron were obedient, first in verse 6 (last week) and again today in verse 10, because it is important that God’s people are obedient to what he is calling them to do. Imagine the miraculous things we would see from the Lord if we were just obedient to Him. That brings us to our first next step on the back of your communication card which is to be obedient to what the Lord is calling me to do, putting me in the position to see the miraculous.

So now that Moses and Aaron have obeyed and God has performed the miracle of the staff turning into a snake, we could suppose that Pharaoh would be intimidated by the power and splendor of almighty God, causing him to flinch and tremble before his majesty. But that is not the case as we come to our second point this morning, which is Obstinance, found in verses 11-13. This is what God’s Word says, “Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.”

Pharaoh was not impressed with God’s miraculous “wonder” even though it was actually what he had asked for. Pharaoh, seemingly not phased by the miracle, summoned “wise men”, “sorcerers” and “magicians” to join the stare down. The “wise men” would be Pharaoh’s counselors who had skills in various fields. “Sorcerers” would be the ones engaged in the widespread Egyptian practice of magic using spells and occultic arts. “Magicians” were scribes and interpreters of books that contained magic formulas. They were priests who were associated with rituals and incantations. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:8 gives us the names of two of these magicians who “withstood Moses”, Jannes and Jambres. Mackay says, “Throughout the ancient world magic was inseparable from religion, and in every court, there would be priests who practiced such black arts. By summoning the magicians Pharaoh called the priestly representatives of the Egyptian gods (particularly the moon god Thoth, who was the patron god of magic and divination) to deal with the representatives of the LORD.”

The wise men, sorcerers and magicians were able to perform the same miracle but with a couple differences. One, Aaron performed the miracle through the power of God whereas Pharaoh’s officials performed it through the “secret arts” or the power of Satan. These “secret arts” were demonic, reminding us of how powerful Satan is. The second difference was that Aaron’s snake was able to “swallow” or “gulp” up all the other snakes. This was a clear sign that God was superior to the gods of the Egyptians. The Egyptians would have believed that swallowing something was the way to acquire all its powers. By swallowing the other snakes, God was claiming that all their power and authority belonged to Him – that the God of Israel was also the God of Egypt. The swallowing of Aaron’s snake was something that the officials’ snakes couldn’t do. Interestingly, the word for “swallow” here is the same word used when Pharaoh’s army is “swallowed” up by the Red Sea which connects this passage with the later one.

The best Pharaoh’s officials could do was imitate what God had done. Ryken says, “Satan can only corrupt, never create. The Bible says that “the work of Satan [is] displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9). Satan is always a counterfeiter, never an innovator.” I like what Guzik says, “Miracles can prove that something is supernatural, but they cannot prove that something is true.” We need to be discerning so we know the difference between the miraculous that God is doing and the counterfeiting that Satan does. We also notice that Aaron was not even involved in his snake swallowing up the others. It happened completely by the power of God. Which brings us to our fourth principle that “God is All-powerful.” God’s miraculous power was displayed for Pharaoh to see along with his officials, Moses and Aaron. God’s power was far superior to that of Satan’s power. This is a reminder to us that although Satan’s power is real it is not absolute. He can only do what God allows him to do and there is nothing Satan can do to thwart the Lord’s plans. What should have been an opportunity to bow and worship before an Almighty God was wasted on Pharaoh. Instead, his heart became hard and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, and ultimately God. (Big Idea) God had told Moses and Aaron in Exodus 7:3, that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart and even though he would do many miraculous signs in Egypt, Pharaoh would not listen to them. This reminds us of our first principle that “God is All-knowing.” God knew ahead of time that Pharaoh would not believe even after seeing His miracle.

Even though Pharaoh had asked for a miracle and God had performed one, proving his power, sovereignty and superiority over Pharaoh, he still did not flinch. His heart became hard. Even though Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God, the verb used to describe this hardening is in the perfect tense, indicating a completed action. Pharaoh’s heart, meaning his will, was already set against God and his people. He had preconceived ideas about “spiritual” things and couldn’t give up his false belief that he was the divine ruler of Egypt instead of the Lord. This made Pharaoh stubborn and obstinate.

Ryken says, “If Pharaoh had realized how hard his heart was, he would have been terrified. The Egyptians believed that the heart was the essence of the person and thus the key to eternal life. Many of their temples and tombs depict a heart being weighed on the scales of justice. At the front stands the balance of truth on which the death-god Anubis will weigh the dead man’s heart. Anubis is joined by Thoth, who will record the verdict, and by the goddess Amemit, who waits to devour the hearts of the damned. Their hearts are weighed against the feather of righteousness and their eternal destiny stands in the balance. If a heart is too heavy, they will be condemned for their sins and thrown to the voracious monster. But if their heart is as light as the feather, they will receive everlasting life. According to the Egyptians, a man with a hardened heart could never be saved. The weight of his sins would drag him down to destruction. As John Currid explains, “Anyone whose heart was heavy-laden with misdeeds would be annihilated, while anyone whose heart was filled with integrity, truth, and good acts would be escorted to heavenly bliss.” This just shows how hardened Pharaoh's heart was against God and his people.

My conclusion comes from Anders' commentary: A shipping company had advertised a job opening for a ship’s radio operator, and the outer office was crowded with applicants for the position. They were waiting to be called in turn and were talking to one another loudly enough to be heard over the sound of the loudspeaker. Another applicant entered the crowded waiting room, filled out his application, and sat quietly for a few moments. Suddenly, he rose and walked into the office marked PRIVATE. A few minutes later, he came out of the room with a huge smile on his face. He had been hired; the job was his. Someone in the waiting room began to protest. “Hey, we’ve been waiting a lot longer than you. Why did you go in there before us?” The new radio operator replied, “Any one of you could have landed this job, but none of you were listening to the Morse Code signals coming over the loudspeaker. The message was, ‘We desire to fill this position with someone who is constantly alert. If you are getting this message, come into the private office immediately.’”

Pharaoh could have been in that same waiting room, and he wouldn’t have gotten the message either. He was a poor listener. In fact, we are going to see the great lengths God is going to go in order to get him to listen as we continue our study of Exodus. But for now, there was no code for Pharaoh to decipher, he was simply told, “to let God’s people go!” and was even given a miracle to prove that the Lord was the one true God. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is a warning to us. God has already revealed himself to the world with enough evidence to persuade everyone to trust in and follow him. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” When you fail to listen to God or his word and fail to see His miraculous signs all around you, you are inviting trouble. Pharaoh didn’t learn that right away because he decided to “stare-down” God and harden his heart. What will you do when God calls you to do his work in this world and even shows you the miraculous? Will you be like Pharaoh and harden your heart or will you be obedient like Moses and Aaron. That brings us to the second and last next step on the back of your communication card. My next step is to search myself, to keep from having a hardened heart, so that I can see the miraculous.

As the ushers prepare to collect the tithes and offerings and the communication cards and as the praise team comes to lead us in a final song, let’s pray: Dear Heavenly Father, again, we thank you for your Word and for this time as a community of faith to study it together. Help us to have open hearts and open minds. Help us to not harden our hearts to your miraculous acts in our lives. Forgive us when we are stubborn and obstinate. Help us to be obedient to you and to search ourselves daily so that we will have eyes to see and ears to hear your awesome power and sovereignty. In Jesus’ name. Amen.