18 And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.
19 And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life. 20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.
21 And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. 22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: 23 And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.
24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
27 And the LORD said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. 28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.
29 And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel: 30 And Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 And the people believed: and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped. (Exodus 4:18–31)
As Moses prepares to leave for Egypt, he learns several lessons that can help us in our Christian walks today. First, he learns that…
I. GOD WANTS OUR FIRST COMMITMENT
Exodus 4:18 And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.
Exodus 4:19 And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.
Exodus 4:20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.
After meeting the Lord at the burning bush (which remember, was at Sinai, some distance from Midian), Moses traveled back to Midian to ask permission to leave from his boss and father-in-law, Jethro. That would have been, and still is today, I think, the proper thing to do.
What is a little odd here is what Moses says to him: “Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive.”
Moses doesn’t mention anything about the burning bush or his encounter with the living God. And what he says about return to his “brethren which are in Egypt” to see if they are alive appears to be a lie.
(1) If, by “brethren,” he means his people in general, then he knows that they are alive because God was sending him to deliver them.
(2) If by “brethren,” he was referring to his immediate family, then he knows that Aaron is alive because the Lord told him so in verse 14.
Why didn’t Moses just tell Jethro that, “I talked to the Lord in a burning bush and he told me to go get my people out of Egypt”?
He could have had a couple reasons:
(1) He could have been afraid that Jethro would tell him that he had been in the sun too long and lock him in the Psychiatric Tent. We’ve seen that Moses is, at this point, more fearful than bold, and so he lies out of fear.
(2) Or Moses may have been thinking that he wasn’t sure that he hadn’t been in the sun too long. Maybe he was still wavering between faith and doubt, but at least he was willing to go to Egypt, even if was just to check on people there.
However you explain it, one thing is clear: Moses shows a commitment to follow God. He places that commitment above his employment and his family.
Jesus said, that in order to follow him, there would have to be an commitment to him above all other things and people:
26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Now, he didn’t mean to be hostile to our families or to commit suicide—he meant that our commitment must be to him first.
That commitment to Jesus may actually mean loving a family member that is hard to love or who has hurt you badly. Jesus said to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), and that includes relatives!
Next, we see that the Lord speaks again to Moses. Among the lessons he learns here is that…
II. GOD IS SOVEREIGN OVER MEN’S HEARTS
Exodus 4:21 And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.
“I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.”—This phrase is only the first of nineteen instances of this and similar phrases in the next several chapters. It’s a very important feature of this section of Exodus.
Of the nineteen times, ten of those clearly state that the Lord himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart (or, in the case of 14:17, the Egyptian’s hearts) (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17).
The other eight are either ambiguous as to who hardened his heart or clearly state that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15, 19, 32; 9:34).
This presents a problem. If God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, then can Pharaoh be held responsible for his sin? Couldn’t he, as he was about to be thrown into the pit of Hell for eternal torment yell, “Wait! I didn’t do it! God hardened my heart!”?
As we work through this problem, we need to keep the following in mind:
A. God Is God and We Are Not
The apostle Paul flatly states this in Romans 9—
18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. 19 Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? 20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? (Romans 9:18–20)
Beware of trying to put yourself on the same level as God. There are no equal rights amendments when it comes to the Creator and his creation.
With that in mind, we can point out that…
B. Pharaoh Hardened His Heart First
Kids who have been caught will sometimes shift the blame somewhat by claiming, “But she did it first!” I am not comparing God to a kid shifting blame, but it is helpful to point out that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first.
In fact, the first two times the “hardening” phrase is used (4:21; 7:3), the Lord is only predicting that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, not actually hardening his heart.
The first time hardening actually happens is in 7:13,
12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. 13 And he [meaning Pharaoh himself] hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said. (Exodus 7:12-13)
So God didn’t do anything to Pharaoh that Pharaoh hadn’t already done first.
In addition, there’s an interesting difference in the Hebrew words used for “harden” in these chapters.
C. Three Little Hebrew Words
Three different Hebrew words are used in these verses for that are translated “harden.”
The one (Kabed) that is normally used in the verses where Pharaoh hardens his heart is a strong word meaning “heavy” or “insensitive.”
The one that is used of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Chazaq), means “strength” or “encouragement.”
What’s the difference? One scholar (Roger Forster) put it this way: “Although Pharaoh is making his own moral decision, God is going to give him the strength to carry it out” (Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999], 592).
The end result of this discussion can be summarized this way:
God is the Creator and does need to answer to us.
God does not harden someone’s heart initially. God does harden someone’s heart after they have first hardened it—this is what we call judicial hardening (as a punishment for having a hard heart, God hardens it even more).
God does not harden hearts directly, but he does harden a person’s heart through indirect means (e.g., after the plague of lice, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened more—8:18-19).
God does not harden people’s hearts against what they are unwilling to do (e.g., he won’t keep you from being saved if you want to be saved).
In the end, we must give to God his right as Creator. He is God and we are not. God is sovereign over our hearts.
Another lesson that Moses learned here that we can take with us is that…
III. GOD LOVES HIS SON
Exodus 4:22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn:
Exodus 4:23 And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.
A. Israel, God’s Son, Returned From Egypt
These verses tell us the reason that God brought Israel out of Egypt… “Israel is my son, even my firstborn:” Israel was the son of God’s choice.
7 The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: 8 But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7–8)
So the Exodus is not just the true story of a nation being freed from captivity, it’s the story of a Father seeking and saving his son.
“Let my son go, that he may serve me”—The word for “serve” also means worship. Enslaved Israel had to serve and worship Pharaoh. They had to call him their master, when they should be serving and worshipping the Lord God.
You hear about children who are abducted at a very young age, and how they might live with their abductors for years—they start to call them father and mother. That’s an honor that belongs to their real father and mother, but the abductors have stolen it.
This is what God was doing in the Exodus. He was reclaiming his son Israel so that Israel could worship him as they were meant to do. He was reclaiming the honor for himself.
This is why God was ready to be so harsh with the Egyptians. In a ominous foreshadowing of the tenth plague (Exodus 12:29), he says here that, “I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.” The Lord does so because Egypt had stolen and enslaved Israel his son. It was an eye for an eye kind of deal.
B. Jesus, God’s Son, Returned From Egypt
Later, in Hosea, God remembers this event:
1 When Israel was a child, then I loved him, And called my son out of Egypt. (Hosea 11:1)
Matthew takes the Hosea quote and applies it to the life of Jesus. When he was born, Herod sought to kill Jesus. What did God have Joseph and Mary do? He had them flee to Egypt.
But when Herod was dead, God returned them from Egypt:
14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. (Matthew 2:14–15)
Israel would disappoint God the Father, but Jesus would not. Jesus is God’s true and faithful Son. When Jesus was baptized, the Father declared:
17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17)
C. You, God’s Son, Returned From Egypt
Does God have more sons? Yes, each person who receives Jesus as their Savior becomes a son of God.
26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26)
12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: (John 1:12)
Like the Israelites in Egypt, every unbeliever is enslaved to sin and Satan. Every Israelite that came out of Egypt had to trust God and trust Moses to be freed.
Trusting in Jesus releases us from the bondage of sin and Satan and makes us a son of God returned from Egypt.
That is why the Father sent Jesus to die on the cross for us, to pay the ransom and to return us from Satan’s Egypt. Where are you today? In Egypt? Or in the arms of the Father who loves you?
IV. GOD REQUIRES OBEDIENCE
A. The Lord Seeks To Kill Moses
Exodus 4:24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
Sometimes the Old Testament is strange, and this is one of those times. On his way to Egypt, Moses stops for the night. There the Lord comes and seeks to kill him.
The Bible doesn’t say how the Lord intended to kill Moses; perhaps he afflicted him with a disease. I can see Moses laying down for the night and then suddenly feeling very ill. He steps outside and throws up violently. Hours pass, and he finds no peace from the sudden illness. “Lord, why is this happening?”
In verse 20, we learned that Moses had two sons, and later we find that they were named Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 18:3-4). Apparently he had not circumcised one or perhaps both of them (verse 25 speaks only of one son). This would have been in disobedience to God’s command to circumsize every Hebrew male.
Zipporah somehow recognizes that Moses’ affliction is related to this disobedience of the command to circumcise and she steps in to right the wrong that Moses had done (quite possibly because Moses was too close to death to do anything):
Exodus 4:25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
Exodus 4:26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
It’s hard to tell what is meant by this phrase, “a bloody husband thou art.” Is Zipporah angry with Moses and disgusted with the ritual of circumcision? Or is she saying something about how redemption and forgiveness requires the shedding of blood?
Without further information, it’s hard to tell—I tend to think that she, a non-Jew, was expressing revulsion with the ritual—that seems to be the natural tone.
In any case, we see here that God regarded the sign of the covenant—circumcision—very highly. As he told Abraham when he instituted the ritual:
10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17:10)
14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:14)
If Moses was going to restore the nation of Israel, he had better have his own house in order first. A leader cannot be a hypocrite.
B. An Old Testament Picture Of Salvation
Often, when we think that the Old Testament is being strange or harsh, what we’re seeing is a picture of salvation being drawn for us.
The gospel tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that is what the Lord was showing Moses here. His sin of not circumcising his son was killing him.
Only a sacrifice of blood can cover sin (in this case, it was the blood of circumcision). Blood turns away the anger of God. But in the Old Testament, this was only a symbolic covering.
True forgiveness is found in the blood that Jesus Christ shed on the cross.
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [meaning, a satisfactory atonement] through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; [this is when Moses’ sins found true forgiveness] (Romans 3:25)
So when something in the Old Testament seems bloody or harsh to you, try looking for a connection to sin and to salvation.
C. Does God Do This To Us When We Disobey?
When we think about an event like this in the Bible, we wonder: if I disobey God like Moses did, would he kill me?
Our first response might be to say that stuff like that happened in the Old Testament, but not in the New Testament. We might rightly point out that Christ has taken our sins on himself—that his death appeased God’s wrath.
Okay, what about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5?
3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? 4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. 5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. (Acts 5:3–5)
Granted, such judgments from God are rare, even in the Bible, but they can happen. Sin, even lying, isn’t trivial—if it was, would Christ have died for our sins?
We really should beware of treating our sin lightly. We treat it lightly when we keep participating in the same sins and especially when we think that we don’t have to ask forgiveness from God any longer.
God may let us have a long rope, even to the end of our lives. Moses was supposed to circumcise his son when he was eight days old (Genesis 12:3), but it’s likely that his son was close to forty years old at this point. God let Moses go that long and then, suddenly, one day, Moses is on his deathbed.
God requires obedience, not to earn our salvation, but as a response to our love for him. Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Let’s not take sin lightly, but show our love for God in our obedience to him.
Exodus 4:27 And the LORD said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him.
Exodus 4:28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.
Moses meets with Aaron, just as the Lord promised. It’s interesting that the Lord tells Aaron to meet with Moses, but apparently leaves it to Moses to tell Aaron everything else. As the Lord said:
16 And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God. (Exodus 4:16)
When God has work for us to do, he helps us do it, but he doesn’t do it for us.
Exodus 4:29 And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel:
Exodus 4:30 And Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.
Exodus 4:31 And the people believed: and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.
For all the effort that Moses put into arguing that he wasn’t the one to do the task of telling the Israelites that he had come to lead them out of Egypt, it seems that everything goes without a hitch.
What was the reason for the Exodus? It was, as we said earlier, that Israel would be able to worship God and serve him only, instead of serving Pharaoh.
Here we see the beginning of that happening. What did Moses think as he looked around and saw the people bow in worship? I think it was something like, “What an awesome God we serve!”