History Teaches Us to Hope

Exodus 4:18-31

June 19, 2022 | Ray Pritchard

Lately I have been reading—started reading, to be precise—Robert E Lee: A Life by the esteemed Civil War historian Allen Guelzo. He is a research scholar at Princeton University and formerly served as a professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

The book is destined to become the standard work on the man who as an Episcopal layman led the Confederate forces in the Civil War.

His legacy is complex, to say the least.

I have come back again and again to a quote from the early pages of the book. Like the man himself, the quote is complex.

Providence Marches Slowly

Robert E. Lee wrote these words shortly before his death in 1870:

“The march of Providence is so slow,
and our desires so impatient;
the work of progress is so immense
and our means of aiding it so feeble;

the life of humanity is so long,
that of the individual so brief,
that we often see only the ebb
of the advancing wave
and are thus discouraged.
It is history that teaches us to hope.”

That’s a profoundly Christian view of history. We see so little. Only God sees the big picture. We get discouraged because what we see often makes no sense.

Only God sees the big picture

History teaches us to hope.

That’s the advantage of studying history from God’s point of view.
It gives us hope!

We get impatient.
We want progress.
We demand action.

God says, “Check back with me in a hundred years.”

Only in this case, it’s more like 80 years,
At long last, Moses is about to deliver his people.
He’s gotten his marching orders.

He’s ready to face Pharoah—almost!

Let’s remind ourselves where we are in the story. After calling him at the burning bush, God gave Moses his marching orders. Moses knows what God wants him to do. After making his excuses, and after hearing God’s answers, he thinks he’s ready to go back to Egypt.

He’s not.

That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, when we think we’re ready to move, God says, “You’ve got more to learn!”

Our text reveals three lessons Moses must learn before he is ready to go back to Egypt and deliver his people.

Lesson #1: Do the Hard Thing (vv. 18-23).

A Lesson About God’s Sovereignty.

18 Then Moses went back to his father-in-law, Jethro,
        and said to him,

“Please let me return to my relatives in Egypt
        and see if they are still living.”
Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”

 19 Now in Midian the Lord told Moses,
        “Return to Egypt,
        for all the men who wanted to kill you
        are dead.” 

 20 So Moses took his wife and sons,
        put them on a donkey,
        and returned to the land of Egypt.
And Moses took God’s staff in his hand.

 21 The Lord instructed Moses,
“When you go back to Egypt,
        make sure you do before Pharaoh
        all the wonders that I have put
        within your power.

But I will harden his heart so that
        he won’t let the people go. 

 22 And you will say to Pharaoh:
This is what the Lord says:
        Israel is my firstborn son. 

 23 I told you: Let my son go so that
        he may worship me,
        but you refused to let him go.

“Look, I’m about to kill your firstborn son” (vv. 18-23).

Don’t skip over one key phrase: “I will harden his heart.” People have wondered about that for thousands of years. Ten times in Exodus we are told Pharaoh hardened his heart, and ten times we are told God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

The heart is where life makes up its mind

What’s going on here?

The term “heart” refers to what we might call “the real you,” the place inside where the decisions of life are made. Your heart chooses your values. It decides where you will go and how you will get there.

Every important decision you make starts in your heart. It’s the “real you,” the place where life makes up its mind.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all diligence because out of it flow the springs of life.” The heart must be “kept,” or else it will run away from us. If we do not “keep” the heart properly oriented, it will lead us in the wrong direction.

Did you know the Bible mentions the heart over one thousand times? The heart comes in many varieties:

Deceitful Heart,
Double Heart,
Wicked Heart,
Perverse Heart,

Heavy Heart,
Fretting Heart,
Troubled Heart,
Broken Heart,

It is important to “keep” your heart

Fixed Heart,
Compassionate Heart,
Contrite Heart,
Soft Heart,
Merry Heart, and a
Pure Heart.

The Bible repeatedly warns us about the danger of a hard heart. That’s why Hebrews 3:15 says,

“Today when you hear his voice,
        don’t harden your hearts
        as Israel did
when they rebelled.”

 This verse harkens back to that moment at Kadesh-Barnea when the spies came back with a mixed report. Yes, the land flows with milk and honey. Yes, it is an amazing place to live. But, alas, the land is filled with enemies, including giants, and the walled cities seem to reach up to heaven. “We were like grasshoppers to them.”

No one wants to go through life as a grasshopper.

But two brave souls gave a minority report. Joshua and Caleb agreed with the observations of the majority but not with their conclusions. They said, “God has called us to take the Promised Land. If God called us, he will go with us. If he goes with us, we can’t lose. Those giants cannot stand against us.”

Sometimes the majority is dead wrong

Sometimes the majority is right.
In this case, they were wrong. Dead wrong.

Literally so, because as punishment God decreed the unbelieving generation would die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land.

That’s what it means to harden your heart. You make a conscious choice not to believe what God has said. Underlying this is a crucial principle:

Truth demands a response.
Every step leads to the light or the darkness.

Your heart is like a flowing river.
It goes in one direction or another.

Light received leads to more light.
Light rejected leads only to the darkness.

Your heart is like a flowing river

Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
He did it so Pharaoh would let the Jews leave.

If God doesn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart, the Jews will never get out of Egypt. They can’t fight their way out, and Pharaoh will never cheerfully agree to let them go. He’s not about to have a crisis of conscience and ask forgiveness for enslaving them for generations.

Remember this about Pharaoh:
He’s proud, arrogant, ruthless, and brutal.
Plus, he’s getting free slave labor from the Jews.

No way he’s going to let them go.

It’s not as if Pharaoh loved God. He didn’t.
It’s not as if Pharaoh loved the Jews. He didn’t.
It’s not as if he feared the Lord. He didn’t.

The Bible says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord” (Proverbs 21:1). Like a river, he can direct the king’s heart this way or that way.

God said, “I’m going to raise up Pharoah, and then I will harden his already-hard heart so that when the time comes, he will let my people go.”

Is that fair?
It depends on who’s talking.

Is it fair?

If God does it, it’s fair.
If God does it, it’s right.
If God does it, it’s just.

That’s precisely Paul’s point in Romans 9:18 when he uses Pharaoh as an example: So then, he has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” This is God politely saying to us: “Mind your own business.” Who are we to object if God chooses to harden a man’s heart? If he decides to show mercy to someone else, should we object to that?

What’s the First Rule of the Spiritual Life?
He’s God and We’re Not.

Until you get that, you are still in spiritual kindergarten.

He’s God and We’re Not!

Why did God tell Moses? To encourage him not to lose heart when Pharaoh opposed him. He wants Moses to know in advance that when Pharaoh rudely rejects his appeals, it’s all part of God’s plan to free his people.

When God decides to free his people, no puny Pharaoh can stop him. In context, this is what God is saying:

Go back to Egypt.
Speak to Pharaoh.
Get Ready for Rejection.

Perform the signs I told you to do.
I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.

In other words, God is saying, “I am sending you back to guaranteed failure.” Strange as it may seem, that’s the first step to freedom.

Yes, it’s hard.
This is God’s way.

Seen in that light, God’s sovereignty is a soft pillow for the soul. It gives us comfort when we face unrelenting opposition and unexpected difficulty.

God is sovereign!
Never forget that.

Lesson #2: Do the Right Thing (vv. 24-26).

 A Lesson About God’s Holiness.

God’s sovereignty is a soft pillow for the soul

24 On the trip, at an overnight campsite,
        it happened that the Lord confronted him
        and intended to put him to death (v. 24).

Stop and think about this. After everything that has happened, God wants to kill Moses. What’s that all about? Why would you kill the man you just called into your service?

You’ve waited 80 years to get to this point.

Why now? Why here? Why Moses?
What did he do wrong?

 25 So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin,
threw it at Moses’s feet, and said,
      “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 

26 So he let him alone.

At that time she said,
“You are a bridegroom of blood,”
        referring to the circumcision (vv. 25-26).

 This is the strangest episode in the life of Moses. For reasons that aren’t immediately clear, God wants to kill his own man, the man he just called at the burning bush. It’s as if God is saying, “You’re not the man I thought you were.”

My way or the highway!

What does circumcision have to do with anything? And why did Zipporah fling the bloody foreskin at Moses’ feet?

At its heart, this passage is not about circumcision, at least not primarily. Circumcision points us to a profound truth.

This story is about taking God seriously.

For some reason, Moses had not circumcised his son as God had commanded.

Maybe they didn’t practice it in Midian. (Possibly)
Maybe his wife didn’t approve. (Likely)
Maybe Moses thought it didn’t matter. (Clearly)
Maybe he intended to do it later. (Possibly)
Maybe he had other things on his mind. (Definitely)

So we don’t know exactly why his son was not circumcised.

It was a very big deal to God!

Evidently it wasn’t that big a deal to Moses. He’s about to find out it was a really big deal to God.

Moses almost died because of his carelessness.

All of us have heard the phrase, “My way or the highway.” Football coaches sometimes say that to unruly players. It means do what you’re told or get out.

At this moment in history, God had not yet given the law. That would come later. So this isn’t about keeping the law.

But God had given circumcision to the Jewish males as a sign of the covenant. Ever since the days of Abraham, all Jewish baby boys were circumcised on the 8th day after birth.

God wanted all Jewish males circumcised

All of them.
No exceptions.

It was a way of saying, “We may live in a pagan land, but we are still the people of God.”

It was an outward mark of an inward commitment.

For some reason, Moses had neglected to circumcise his son.

So his wife did it for him. She saw him get sick, knew he was about to die, and somehow understood the cause.

She took a knife and circumcised their son.
That’s a man’s job, but she did it anyway.

Then she threw the bloody foreskin at Moses’ feet.
Which is very dramatic if you think about it.

This comes after the burning bush

Once she did that, Moses got better.
Now think about this. God was going to kill Moses because he hadn’t circumcised his son.

And this comes after the burning bush,
After the call of God,
After God answered all the excuses,
After telling Moses to go back to Egypt, and
After promising to be with him.

After all that, God is about to kill his own man.

He’s not playing around.
He means business.

What message is God sending? Moses is not ready to deliver his people until he gets serious about serving the Lord.

He will fail utterly unless he obeys completely.

Why? Because as Saul will learn centuries later, to obey is better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). Partial obedience is disguised disobedience. When God gives a command, he won’t accept excuses for non-compliance.

Moses will fail utterly unless he obeys completely.

In other words, God is saying, “It’s my way or the highway.”

God can raise up another leader because Moses is expendable. A leader who obeys only when he feels like it is useless to the Lord.

Holiness extends to the details of life.

That’s the message from this strange encounter.
Moses will never forget this lesson.

Lesson #3: Do the Next Thing (vv. 27-31).

A Lesson About God’s Faithfulness.

27 Now the Lord had said to Aaron,
        “Go and meet Moses in the wilderness.”
        So he went and met him at
        the mountain of God and kissed him. 

28 Moses told Aaron everything the Lord had sent him to say,
and about all the signs
        he had commanded him to do.

29 Then Moses and Aaron went|
        and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 

30 Aaron repeated everything the Lord
        had said to Moses and performed
        the signs before the people. 

31 The people believed,
        and when they heard that the Lord had paid
attention to them and that he had seen
        their misery, they knelt low and worshiped (vv. 27-31).

He had been scared about this meeting. He had worried and worried and worried about it. This was at the heart of his objections.

But the text is brief.

It was a breeze. Aaron did his part, Moses did his part, and the people believed.


Holiness extends to the details of life

Simple. Just like God promised, which reminds us of the old adage that 95% of what we worry about never happens. The problem, of course, is figuring out which of our worries are in the 5% that actually happens.

But the lesson is clear. Go! Take the next step. Head back to Egypt and let God take care of the details.

There will be huge problems to come, big mountains of impossibility to traverse, but all that is in the future.

Moses doesn’t know about the frogs

Remember, Moses doesn’t know about the frogs, the gnats, the hail, or the darkness. He certainly has no idea about the death of the firstborn.

All that is yet to be revealed.

The question is, will he take the next step in front of him? That’s all God asks for the moment.

After 80 years of preparation, Moses is ready.

After all his doubts, Moses is ready.
After all his fears, Moses is ready.

He’s back home in Egypt at last.
Pharaoh doesn’t have a clue.
God’s man has come to town.

God’s man has come to town

With God’s help he will lead the Jews to the Promised Land.

In the end it will all happen just as God had said.
It won’t be what Moses expects, but that’s OK.

God’s people will be free at last when it’s all said and done. And Moses will be remembered as one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived.

That brings me back to the quote from Robert E. Lee. History teaches us to hope. More specifically, history teaches us to hope in God.

What lessons should we learn from all this?

History teaches us to hope in God

Because God is sovereign, do the hard thing.
Because God is holy, do the right thing.
Because God is faithful, do the next thing.

He calls us to obey and leave the results with him. He doesn’t promise us an easy road. But he does promise to lead us to the Promised Land, and what could be better than that?

Do the hard thing.
Do the right thing.
Do the next thing.

Everything else is just details.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?