1 And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness. 2 And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go. 3 And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword. 4 And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens. 5 And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens. 6 And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, 7 Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God. 9 Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words. 10 And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. 11 Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished. 12 So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw. 13 And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw. 14 And the officers of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and to day, as heretofore? 15 Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants? 16 There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make brick: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people. 17 But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the LORD. 18 Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks. 19 And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish ought from your bricks of your daily task. 20 And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh: 21 And they said unto them, The LORD look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us. 22 And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me? 23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all. (Exodus 5)
What do hardened hearts do? What are they capable of? How does a hardened heart become soft? Exodus 5 is the story of the hard heart of Pharaoh and the hardening of the people’s hearts when God didn’t save them from Egypt in the way that they expected.
I. THE PHARAOH’S HARD HEART
Moses made the journey to Egypt. He met up with Aaron, and together they have convinced the Israelites that the LORD had sent them and was ready to free them from their bondage. The people believed and they worshipped the LORD. So far, so good. Now there’s the little matter of telling Pharaoh to let the people go.
A. The Courage Of Moses
Exodus 5:1 And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.
God’s instructions in Exodus 3:18 was for the elders to join Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh. The fact that they weren’t mentioned could be simply that Moses, through the Holy Spirit, didn’t record their presence here.
Or it could mean that they lost their nerve, the first sign that they would be a troublesome group to deal with as we’ll see at the end of this chapter.
Moses seems to have overcome his fear. He walks right up to the most powerful man in the world and demands the release of two million slaves, saying “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go!”
How did he overcome fear and replace it with courage? By faith in the LORD God. He trusted God’s promises and was walking in obedience as a result. God said to walk up to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites, and Moses took a deep breath, and obeyed. His fearful and hard heart at the Burning Bush was melted by faith in the LORD.
The disciples of Jesus experienced the same transformation. They were a fearful lot, hiding in a room after Jesus’ death and burial. But the resurrection changed all that. Their faith overcame their fear.
They became courageous and bold, facing down Jewish leaders who tried to silence them, even to the point of dying for their faith. In Acts, we read of the stunned reaction of the Jewish leadership:
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:12–13)
When you meet Jesus Christ and when you follow him in faith, the same can happen to you. Your hard heart of fear can be melted by faith.
Moses’ journey led him from fear to courage; from a hard heart to faith in the LORD. Pharaoh’s journey would be quite the opposite.
B. The Hard Response From Pharaoh
In any case, Pharaoh wasn’t willing to let them do anything. His responses demonstrate the hardness of his heart:
1. Pharaoh Was Ignorant Of The LORD
Exodus 5:2 And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.
Unbelievers are always ignorant of God:
14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
What is the remedy for the hard-hearted ignorance of unbelievers?
Nothing short of a direct encounter with the living God. I am not suggesting that you need to see an angel or a light in the sky. You need to know God from the Bible.
Read Genesis and the Psalms for a good sense of the absolute greatness of God. Read the Gospels to see how this great God came to this earth to seek and save the lost. And read Romans to understand the mechanics of salvation.
During my pre-teen years, Arlen Hilkemann and his wife taught weekly Bible Clubs and Vacation Bible School at the little Prairie Elk school where I attended until sixth grade. As best they could, they filled my mind with the Bible, with stories about Moses and Paul and Jesus. I learned about God.
During my teen years, I experienced moments of hardness against God. Once I shook my fist at the sky and told God to go damn himself—that I did not believe in him.
Another time I mentioned to a friend that I thought the Bible was written by one person to fool people—it was all made up. Such was my foolish ignorance because of my hard heart.
But on July 3, 1990, I had a personal encounter with the Lord. No, it wasn’t audible or visual, but it was an encounter nonetheless. God reached in and touched my heart and the hardness simply melted away. I was able to respond in belief.
Why didn’t God do the same for Pharaoh? Because Pharaoh would have never been willing. God touches hearts and influences people, but he will never force them to do what they are unwilling to do. To try and say more would be speculation.
Pharaoh’s heart was so hard that he was unwilling to even learn more about God. So while he did ask, “Who is the LORD?” it was not an honest question.
The next words out his mouth were, “I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.” Pharaoh’s hardness made him ignorant of God and his ignorance made him hard-hearted.
Another response of Pharaoh also shows us his hardness:
2. Pharaoh Extended His Hardness
Exodus 5:3 And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.
Exodus 5:4 And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens.
Exodus 5:5 And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.
Pharaoh had no tolerance for what he considered a distraction from the work the people should be doing.
This is yet another indication of how hard Pharaoh’s heart really was: not only did he refuse to believe in the LORD, he also prohibited others from worshipping the LORD.
We might see this in when an unbelieving husband prohibits his Christian wife from even attending church. His heart is so hard, he not only refuses to believe himself, but extends his hardness to his wife and family.
We see this in the move by atheists to purge Christianity from the walls and halls of public buildings. Hard-hearted people do not want others to worship the Lord either.
Pharaoh’s hard heart erupted against the Israelites:
Exodus 5:6 And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,
Exodus 5:7 Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.
Exodus 5:8 And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God.
Exodus 5:9 Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.
Exodus 5:10 And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw.
Exodus 5:11 Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished.
Exodus 5:12 So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw.
Exodus 5:13 And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw.
Exodus 5:14 And the officers of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and to day, as heretofore?
The Israelite slaves were involved in the making of bricks using the time-tested method of mud and straw. One scholar describes the industry:
Brick-making was an important industry in ancient Egypt. A relief…depicts workers in various stages of the process. Some are drawing water to mix with soil in order to make mud. Others are forming bricks in wooden molds and setting them out to dry in the sun. Still others are stacking the bricks and carrying them to a building-site. Straw was essential to the whole process because it reinforced the clay and helped each brick stay intact…
The Egyptians used bricks for all kinds of buildings. Their temples were generally made of stone, but their palaces, storehouses, military installations, administrative buildings, and official residences were all made of mud bricks. Thus it took millions of bricks to satisfy the architectural ambitions of the Pharaohs. (Philip Graham Ryken and R. Kent Hughes, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory [Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005], 151)
Here in Exodus 5:6-14, we have even more evidence of Pharaoh’s hard heart. He makes the Israelites to work even harder by making them go and gather the straw for brick making themselves. It’s completely irrational, as it will only produce fewer and poorer bricks for his nation to use.
But his only thought was to punish the Israelites and to show them who was really their god—himself. His hardness affects his ability to make rational decisions.
Unbelievers have problems: Mentally, they cannot grasp the truth about God. Spiritually, they refuse to obey the Lord.
So when they encounter people who do understand and obey the Lord, it drives them absolutely insane. This is why Christians have been persecuted so much throughout church history.
Sometimes the persecution is violent, as in the case here, or when Christians are martyred. But often the persecution is more of an intellectual variety.
Christian convictions are ignored, as in the case of Christian photographers being sued because they didn’t want to violate their conscience by photographing a homosexual wedding.
Christian ideas of creation are excluded from the public school system, even if it is just a basic “Intelligent Design” argument.
Movies and television shows portray Christians in the worst possible light, showing us as hateful, bigoted, or just stupid.
All persecution flows from the hard hearts of unbelievers.
C. Two Choices About Christ
Really, there are only two choices that one can make about Jesus: you either love him or hate him. If you hate him, you’ll find yourself growing more and more antagonistic against those who love Jesus. Jesus said:
18 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)
In most cases, the unbeliever’s hatred might manifest itself only in a quiet way, such as a behind-the-back whisper, “He’s very religious.” But it is a hatred stemming from hardness of heart nonetheless.
The only way to overcome this hardness is to know Jesus Christ personally. A person might be religious and go to church and still have a hard heart because they don’t really know Jesus personally.
And, if this person is having a hard time coming to know Jesus personally, it’s worth asking why. Generally, you will find that the person has some intellectual problem: Is the Bible true? Did the resurrection really happen?
But, after digging deeper, you will find that the real problem is an attachment to sin. They like doing this or that; in our culture, it’s often a sexual sin or a materialistic ambition that keeps people from receiving Christ.
Disobedience has a way of making a hard heart even harder.
D. Christian Courage
This is what Moses faced when he approached Pharaoh: a hardened unbeliever who, by his disobedience was doomed to become harder and harder until he nearly destroyed himself and his nation.
But Moses had courage, and so should we in the face of the hardened unbelievers. We serve the same God. We serve Christ who, by his grace, has saved us. Doesn’t he deserve our courage and faithfulness?
Spurgeon, in a long quote, encourages us along the same lines:
…I am persuaded that Moses, after he had got over his first little difficulties with the people and recovered from his own diffidence, parleyed not with doubt, but was strong in faith.
There he stood with the wondrous rod, turning waters into blood and slaying all their fish, covering the heavens with blackness, turning the dust into living creatures, bringing hail and grievous murrain, and doing it all as calmly and quietly as he should do who feels that he is the voice of God. How steadily he kept at his work! With what diligence he persevered in it, till at last the tenth plague found Moses unmoved, ready to conduct the people away to the Red Sea and to bring them out into the wilderness!
O servants of God, be calm and confident. Go on preaching the gospel. Go on teaching in the Sunday-school. Go on giving away the tracts. Go on with steady perseverance.
Be ye sure of this, ye shall not labour in vain or spend your strength for nought. Do you still stutter? Are you still slow of speech? Nevertheless, go on.
Have you been rebuked and rebuffed? Have you had little else than defeat? This is the way to success. You shall [pave] the road with the rough flints of your failure.
Toil on and believe on. Be steadfast in your confidence, for with an high hand and an outstretched arm the Lord will fetch out his own elect, and he will fetch some of them out by you. Only trust in the Lord and hold on the even tenor of your way.
(C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 24 [London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1878], 597–598)
II. THE PEOPLE’S HARD HEART
A. The People Complain To Pharaoh
Exodus 5:15 Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?
Exodus 5:16 There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make brick: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people.
The Pharaoh was not the only one with a hard heart. What would happen when the Israelites found themselves, as the saying goes, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire”?
Were they thinking that God would just lead them out of Egypt without any resistance from Pharaoh? Evidently they did.
Once their work got harder, they turned to Pharaoh (probably through official channels instead of in person) and pleaded with him to reverse the decree to make bricks without straw being supplied to them.
Their hearts, although soft at the end of chapter four, seem to be hardening a bit towards the LORD because of the increased persecution. Three times in verses 15 and 16 they identify themselves as Pharaoh’s “servants,” indicating that Pharaoh still had a strong hold over them.
In a sense, this is understandable, they’re just trying to get through a hard life, they don’t need it made any harder.
Yet, on the other hand, look at what they didn’t do. They didn’t rebel against Pharaoh. They didn’t say, “Our God is whom we serve, and he is able to deliver us, and even if he doesn’t, let it be known that we will not serve you!” (cf. Daniel 3:17-18).
They didn’t do any of that because their hearts were hard towards the Lord.
Unfortunately for them, their attempt to appease Pharaoh doesn’t work:
Exodus 5:17 But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the LORD.
Exodus 5:18 Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.
Exodus 5:19 And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish ought from your bricks of your daily task.
Pharaoh’s response was not very encouraging. He told them that they are lazy for wanting to go worship the LORD, and that they will meet the quota of bricks despite the lack of a supply of straw.
Unbelievers do not understand Christians at all. For them, the idea of serving the Lord is laziness.
For example, as a pastor, many unbelievers I meet (and even some Christians), think that my job is cushy and easy.
When they find a Christian who is unwilling to work on Sunday, their first thought, whether spoken or not, is one of laziness and foolishness.
But it extends to more than just work, they see Christians as weak in other ways. J.I. Packer explains this further:
The secular world never understands Christian motivation. Faced with the question of what makes Christians tick, unbelievers maintain that Christianity is practiced only out of self-serving purposes.
They see Christians as fearing the consequences of not being Christians (religion as fire insurance), or feeling the need of help and support to achieve their goals (religion as a crutch), or wishing to sustain a social identity (religion as a badge of respectability).
(James Montgomery Boice, Romans: The New Humanity, vol. 4 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991–], 1509)
So Pharaoh denies the Israelites an opportunity to worship God and he makes their lives more miserable. When they failed to meet their quota (and how could they without a steady supply of straw?), they would be beaten.
B. The People Complain To Moses
Appealing to Pharaoh brought no results for the Israelites, so who do they turn to next? They go where they should have gone in the first place, to their God-ordained leaders.
Exodus 5:20 And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh:
Exodus 5:21 And they said unto them, The LORD look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.
Now Israel’s hard heart is evident. They don’t come and ask Moses to pray to God, or to help them understand why this was happening to them. They simply complain.
Here we see the beginning of an entire Old Testament full of Israelites complaining. Their hardened hearts would be a thorn in Moses’ side throughout the book of Exodus.
Other prophets would hear the complaining of the Israelites and suffer from the persecution from their own people. Eventually, the Israelites would crucify Jesus Christ himself—all because of hard hearts.
Stephen, in the book of Acts, would say of them:
51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. 52 Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: (Acts 7:51–52)
C. Moses Complains To The Lord
Moses, however, had a soft heart. He doesn’t understand what is happening either, but he knows where to turn to complain:
Exodus 5:22 And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me?
Exodus 5:23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all.
“Okay Lord,” he prays, “This isn’t going the way I thought it was going to go. I did what you said, but things have gotten worse, not better. So why? Why Lord?”
Why did the Lord make it so hard for them to leave? They were already in the worst possible situation. What do we do when obeying God makes things worse?
A woman refuses to marry any man who isn’t a solid Christian and ends up being an old maid.
A man refuses to work on Sundays, but ends up being fired.
Parents faithfully train their children in that they should go and in the end, they depart from it.
We share the gospel with a new friend, they suddenly start finding excuses not to be around us.
This is where Moses was at. He had boldly and faithfully confronted Pharaoh, and what happened? Pharaoh clamped down hard on the Israelites and the Israelites blew up in Moses’ face.
Moses was upset, but his heart wasn’t hard. Moses was questioning, but he wasn’t being stiff-necked. Many godly people have come like this to the Lord:
2 And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? (Genesis 15:2)
11 Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. (Job 7:11)
1 Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, 3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (Matthew 11:2–3)
46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
It’s okay to bring our complaints to God—what is wrong is when we hard-heartedly bring our complaints to everyone else but God.
Here we see what to do when God doesn’t make sense: we run to him. We plead with him. We rest in him.
What we must avoid doing is allowing our hearts to be hardened like the Israelites did. Writing to Christians, the author of Hebrews says:
8 Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: 9 When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years. 10 Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. 11 So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.) 12 Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. 13 But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:8–13)
Despite the hardness of their hearts, despite the forty years of wandering that Israel was sentenced to, did God give up on them? No, that’s the amazing thing about God’s grace…he uses us despite our sin.
God may discipline and set aside his people for a time, but anyone is always welcome back into his arms. His grace, the hymn goes, is greater than our sin.