We cannot hear too often that we are at war. It is not our war, but God’s. He began it in the Garden, after we sinned. He waged it against the greatest human kingdoms ever established, the pre-Flood world of man. He continued the war against the world empires from Nimrod at Babel through the Roman Caesars. In their days, he set up the kingdom of his Son, which is growing to fill the earth and will never cease increasing until the great day of his return (Isa. 9:6-7). The enthronement of Jesus Christ does not make God’s war against unbelieving men and nations any less real but far more intense, for a bound Satan remains a malicious and deceptive enemy. The spiritual nature of the warfare and the weapons required to win are clearer now, as is the main goal – nothing less than the bringing of every thought captive to the obedience of Christ and gathering all things under his headship (2 Cor. 10:5; Eph. 1:10).
God remains the governor of the nations, and he will bring down the world empires that spurn the gospel light and reign of his Son. All expressions of rebellion and statism, whether imperialistic or bureaucratic and petty, are malicious manifestations of the old dragon or serpent, the devil. He hates the rule of God over all things, and especially the mediatorial reign of Christ. He stirs men to forget what Jesus Christ has done, to despise his reign, and to harden their hearts against God’s gospel call. His wings have been plucked off, so to speak, and his works destroyed (John 12:31; Heb. 2:14;1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:2-3) by the victory of our Savior at the cross, but he continues to stir up those yet held captive by him to build their own city that is opposed to the city and kingdom of our Savior. We must be ready for the conflict, as the devil is mustering his forces in our day. The present passage reveals how God declared war against the old Egyptian form of Satan’s kingdom and began to win it. It is an alarming expose of an early form of statism. God began the battle by mocking their snake god and then killing their river god. Therefore, although Satan slithers around doing mischief, God fights for us and our Savior has triumphed over the dragon. We must always be ready to resist him and stomp on his head with the weapons God has provided for us (James 4:7; Rom. 16:19-20).
The War God’s Servants Should Expect (vv. 8-10)
A Struggle for Power: Man Against God
Behind everything in the next five chapters is a fierce war not between Moses and Pharaoh but between the true God, Yahweh, and the false gods dreamed up in the dark imagination of men. These false gods – and the Egyptians are known to have venerated and worshipped at least 80 deities – were manifestations of Satan’s kingdom. It is very important to remember this, or the entire drama becomes farcical. Why inflict Egypt with these ten plagues unless there really was a dark power operating beyond the scenes? Today, we think of this in terms of the Book of the Dead, dark rituals, black magic, and mummies coming to life if the right incantation is read. All of this is an attempt to explain away or ignore Satan’s murderous tyranny over men with hocus pocus. As crushed as he is, the devil wants nothing more than for us to laugh or make light of dark powers, “principalities and powers,” and to live presumptuously. These lines teach us to have a care. The evil one may be resisted, but only in faith and only with the weapons God has given to us. Behind all the public battles and manifestations of wickedness, we must learn to recognize the hand of the evil one, who does all he can to blind and murder men, distort the truth, and mimic God’s power and kingdom with his murdering, suffocating statism.
A Demand for Proof: Show Us a Sign
When the Lord sends us out, then, we are to expect opposition. It is bad enough that within us there is a fleshly tendency toward the world so that we feel divided and must make continual application to our Savior for the strengthening of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Yet, we are also at war with the world, which hates us because it hates Jesus Christ. Nothing that reminds unconverted men of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” can be consistently tolerated, especially when the world grows more consistent with its governing principles of unbelief and rebellion against God. The Lord warned that Pharaoh would ask for a sign. He will demand proof, not of your credibility, for he already assumes that you are scamming and that your gods are impotent, or you would not be slaves. No, he will challenge you to a contest of power. You come in the name of your god, he will say to you. Here is my god: me. I am the manifestation of the divine on earth. Why should I forsake myself and my clearly greater power? Show me.
In many ways, the world still makes this demand of those who claim to be the servants of the Most High God. Show us. How are you any different? Everyone has words, but where is the reality of what you claim? As the population expands and cults and truth claims proliferate, we are confronted by this question of power. There is nothing new in this. Paul posed this very issue to the boasting Corinthians: “But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech (words) of them which are puffed up, but the power” (1 Cor. 4:19). Perhaps we should take this issue of power and proof much more seriously inside the church, then we would be ready when challenged by those on the outside. The kingdom of God is a matter of power. Ours is a power religion – not man’s power, institutions, words, and programs, but God’s power renewing us by the indwelling Spirit unto knowledge, obedience, and consecration. Do you and I have this power? Do we love our enemies? Are our families, our men, any purer than the world’s? Are we complaining or praising? “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power” (1 Cor. 4:20). Pharaoh would want to test the power of Moses’ God, and he would soon learn it to his shame and utter destruction. Do we know his power and kingdom in our lives?
A Test of Obedience: Do What I Say
One sure way we can know that God has taken his great power and begun to reign in us is that we are obedient to him. Obedience is both an invitation to Christ to come and dwell with us, and the great proof that he does dwell with us and that we love him (John 14:21-23; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 1:3-8; 1 John 5:3). The Lord called and encouraged Moses. He reminded Moses of his covenant promises and pledged that his power would go with him and bring his people out of Egypt. Now, Moses and his personal struggles recede into the background. They are not mentioned again. Moses, with Aaron, became God’s servants by obedience (v. 10). The Spirit has given us some insight into the weak man whom the Lord used to deliver his people, but the main player in this drama is the Lord himself. We must learn to think in these terms. It is not the men, but the Lord who sends them. In heaven, there shall not be a “Martin Luther Club” or “Society of Saint Augustine.” God will be all in all. The Lamb will be all the glory. This is his story, and if we would play a more joyful and fulfilling part in it, we must learn to obey him quickly. He is always with us on the path of obedience. From this point forward, Moses is simply the mouthpiece of God, God to Pharaoh. He gave himself to obedience, and he became fit for the Master’s use. If we would be God’s servants, there is no different path for us.
The Snake Cult of Egypt
To appreciate the conflict that is about to occur between warring walking sticks and serpents, we must understand that the snake cult completely dominated Egypt. The people were fearful of snakes, worshipped snakes, especially the snake-goddess Wadjet, and sought out those who knew enchantments to tame snakes. This is well-documented. What is perhaps a little less known is that the snake or serpent was the symbol of the Pharaohs’ power. At his inauguration, he would say:
O Great One, O Magician, O Fiery Snake!
Let there be terror of me like the terror of thee.
Let there be fear of me like the fear of thee.
Let there be awe of me like the awe of thee.
Let me rule, a leader of the living.
Let me be powerful, a leader of spirits.
The well-known symbol of Pharaoh’s power was his headdress, which was ornamented with the crested cobra, poised to strike. The compelling aspect of this snake cult is that the Egyptians would have chosen as their symbol of power the very image that personified the devil. It was undoubtedly a self-conscious satanic worship in some instances. In a sense, at his coronation, the Pharaohs sold their souls to the devil – to the worship of dark power as symbolized by the serpent. This must not be missed in the conflict that follows: God against Pharaoh, God against the Serpent-God of Egypt, God against Satan. Satan used the Egyptian fears to turn them into the rankest of idolaters and committed statists, all inspired by the devil, with whom the Pharaohs were in a very clear alliance. They worshipped the dark powers symbolized by the serpent, and Satan is the venomous leader of that power. Jesus Christ crushed his head, and the crushing humiliation and defeat of Egypt and the deliverance of his people was an important stepping stone to the ultimate victory he won at the cross and continues to win over the old worm, now bloodied, cast out of heaven, and able to be resisted by faith.
God versus the Old Serpent (v. 10)
Behold! My Power!
Moses and Aaron were now committed to obeying the Lord. They returned to Pharaoh’s court and did as the Lord commanded. When Pharaoh refused to obey God’s word and demanded a sign from them. Aaron threw down his rod. Was this Moses’ rod or Aaron’s? I do not think it matters very much, for in the first of the three rounds of plagues, it is Aaron’s rod that is mentioned, while in the last round, it is Moses’ rod. It was not the stick, as if Moses’ had a magic wand. It was the power of God. This question is not important at all in comparison to what the Lord was revealing by Aaron’s actions. Unlike the Egyptian sorcerers and charmers, Moses and Aaron did not enter into trances, or strip naked, or work themselves into a frenzy – all of which regularly occurred in the very prominent snake-charming practices of ancient and not so ancient Egypt. They simply threw the walking stick upon the ground, and it instantly became a tannin. At 4:3, the word for serpent is nakash, which is the common word for snake or serpent, but here it is tannin, a word that stresses strength and ferocity. Some have even suggested it may have been a crocodile, as the word is sometimes translated dragon or large reptile. For my part, I think it was a large and aggressive serpent, likely a cobra. Nothing less than the power of God could effect such a change in a simple piece of wood
This is the exact situation that confronts us with each of the plagues. Reduce them to natural phenomena, as critics of Scripture do, or even enhanced natural phenomena, and you are left with little that can explain Pharaoh’s responses, the willingness of the Egyptians to give their wealth to the Israelites, or the fearful confession of Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The supernatural, as we call it, is certainly related to the natural, and a miracle is either a suspension of nature’s normal workings, as when our Lord walked upon water, going against them, as when the sun’s shadow regressed ten degrees in the days of Hezekiah, or unleashing them as in the worldwide Flood. He revealed to Pharaoh the dazzling truth that he is the Lord of nature, the only legitimate power there is, and that his power requires no conjurer’s tricks but that he exercises his power on behalf of his servants and to testify to the truthfulness of his word. You had better listen, Pharaoh. You are faced with my power, and you will either submit or die.
I Ridicule Your Pretensions!
To rise higher, God mocked and practically laughed out loud at the pretention and superstition of the Egyptian court and its Pharaoh-cult. You serpent worshippers, you followers of Wadjet, this is what I think of you. It reminds one of his later humbling of Nebuchadnezzar, but it will not fare so well for Pharaoh, for Nebuchadnezzar humbled his heart. Still higher, God was mocking the devil. He chose to take the form of a serpent in Eden, and ever he has chosen to worm away at God’s purposes and people. It was the devil who was the true captor of God’s people in Egypt. It was the devil who was afflicting and trying to murder them under unbearable burdens. He wanted to kill the seed of Abraham and the promise of the Messiah, which he knew well. Genesis 3:15 never ceased ringing in his ears. But here is the God of heaven, the Angel of the bush, mocking him and all his dupes. You have no idea what I am about to do to you, but before I begin to do it, I want you to know in what disdain I hold you. All your pyramids, black arts, secret oaths and spells – into the dust with you! I am about to trample you under my feet and deliver my people.
We must be careful not to impute to God the way we express our emotions. At the same time, we are told that he holds all the heathen in derision and laughs at them (Ps. 59:8). Compared to his majesty, all the nations, all the most powerful, are but a drop in a bucket, less than nothing. He does what he will in the armies of heaven (Dan. 4:35). If only we could recover Nebuchadnezzar’s sense of his nothingness before God’s power, and he was likely the most powerful ruler in the history of the world. And we now have far more reason, to be settled so completely under God’s rule and confident of his favor that we can look out upon the hosts of hell and laugh. Jesus Christ has triumphed over all the powers of darkness and made an open mockery of them. He has all the power. He has cast out the devil and crushed his head. We must fight, to be sure, against the wiles of the devil, and be ready at all times to use God’s armor, but we do so not from a position of uncertainty or imminent defeat. We are on the side of the laughing God, who throws his enemies in the dust and mocks all their claims to power.
Satan the Mimicker (vv. 11-12)
Man as God: the Heart of Satan and Statism
Satan is a lying spirit, a deceiver, the father of lies. He is also a murderer (John 8:44). He knew the promises of God to the seed of the woman. He did not know God’s plan to humble Pharaoh and judge Egypt, but had he known, he would still have done all in his power to blind Pharaoh and resist the power of God. He cares nothing for men, but he hates God, especially his sovereign authority and word. Remember that God’s word is life, and Satan has completely rejected his word. His existence is malice, misery, and death. He is the snake that receives no worship from his slaves but only designs their misery and death. Thus, he took the bait. He stirred Pharaoh to resist God’s word and power. This is the heart of unbelieving man and of all worldly kingdoms that will not submit to God’s word: to assert their will and power against God. Their cry has always been: “We will not have this man to rule over us” (Luke 19:14). They would rather die than submit to God. If they cannot have life and prosperity and pleasure on their terms, they prefer a hell without God – at least until they arrive there and experience the full implications of his biting, gnawing judgment without hope of release or mercy of any kind.
A Real but Limited Power
In waging his doomed war against God, Satan has a real but limited power. He inspires his servants to resist God, and so Pharaoh called in his “wise men and sorcerers” to meet power with power. With their enchantments or fire, they set out to duplicate Moses’ sign and thus negate the force of Moses’ commands in the name of his God. Snake-handlers were common in Egypt, including the ability to lull serpents into such a rigid form that they had the appearance of sticks or rods. Perhaps this is all that occurred: an illusion of “serpents into rods,” with the usual frenzy and incantations on the part of the enchanters. This is all that is required from the text, but it may also be that Satan gave his servants power to work “lying wonders (2 Thess. 2:9), so that their “rods became serpents.” These are deceitful works, by no means equivalent to God’s direct power in turning sticks into actual serpents. They were able to duplicate two of the other plagues, giving Pharaoh an excuse to think of Moses as another sorcerer. By no means, however, did he represent a power that was to be feared and obeyed. Pharaoh was devoted to power religion and the manipulation of magical powers for his own purposes. Moses apparently had no greater power than his own magicians. If his power and his God were greater, why were the Israelites his slaves? Wicked men and rulers believe that “might makes right,” and they can judge only by the appearance of things. Their blindness leads them to misjudge and increases God’s judgments upon them.
I Will Swallow You Whole (v. 13)
God Declares War against Egypt
Then, an amazing event occurred. Aaron’s rod swallowed their rods. God thus dropped the gauntlet upon Pharaoh and Egypt. Their snakes were impotent before his power. Their gods were impotent before him. He swallowed whole their gods. He swallowed Pharaoh’s headdress, his symbol of power, and removed it from the courtroom. This should have immediately seized the heart of Pharaoh and his servants. They were committed to power religion, and here was a power far greater than theirs. The Lord exposed their deceits and announced their deaths. He declared war against Pharaoh’s tyranny and death to the persecutors of his people. Their staff of power was broken, eaten alive by God’s power.
And thus, we see God’s decree and intention against all the false and pretentious powers that set themselves up against his authority. This theme will continue throughout Scripture. The history of God’s dealings with world empires and spiritual dominions is one humbling after another, from Nimrod’s Babel, through Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, to Rome’s Caesars, to modern-day nations that increasingly see themselves as the only power on earth. God does not now usually work so dramatically to humble them, for he has given the definitive sign that the snake is defeated. He has raised his Son from the dead. He has established in the earth a new kingdom and power. He changes no more rods into serpents but dead men into living men, hateful men into loving men, and weak men into proclaimers of his holy word. This is the way our enthroned Savior now strikes the nations and rules them with a rod of iron. He sends out his powerful word, blesses its proclamation to bring regeneration and faith, and builds the church of his Son into the highest mountain. Whatever men and states may claim about their power, God has broken their staff when he exalted his Son. We have nothing to fear from them. One little word will fell them: the word of God proclaimed, obeyed, and loved by his professing people. The little stone cut out of the mountain without hands has smashed the satanic root of statism, the great beastly kingdoms that arise from the abyss of Satan’s murdering malice (Dan. 2:44-45). Christ’s kingdom will grow to fill the earth. This is the great power of God. To resist him and to reject his Son and gospel brings death.
Pharaoh Hardens His Heart
God had warned Moses that Pharaoh would harden his heart, and this is exactly what that doomed man did. He could not admit the presence of a greater power than his own, a word greater than his will. He refused to yield. He signed his death warrant. The ten plagues or signs that followed grew in intensity. The Lord mocked and defeated all the Egyptian gods of the water, land, and finally sky. Miracle without regeneration, however, will not open blind eyes or break an unrepentant heart. Some men who watched Lazarus walk out of his tomb immediately returned to Jerusalem and began plotting to kill Jesus Christ! All of the thousands he fed in Galilee refused to come to him for the true bread. Only the power of God can do the greatest miracle of all: to raise dead men to new life. Before so many signs that God has performed in history, many of which are recorded and easily consulted in his Word, we must give heed. God has repeatedly warned against all forms of statism, trusting in human governments, and militarism. He has judged and smashed the image of world rebellion when he set up the kingdom of his Son (Dan. 2:44-45). We must tremble, for God is the only governor of the nations (Ps. 22:27), and he has proclaimed “DEATH TO ALL TYRANTS.” He also proclaimed death to Satan. Our Savior swallowed sin and death at the cross. He is the wisdom and power of God, the only name of salvation and life. He is the only giver of peace, righteousness, and justice on earth. Let us confess and adore and obey. This is the day of his power and reign (Ps. 110:3). All other powers will be broken and brought to ruin.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What are some “power proofs” that demonstrate the truth/authority of our Christian witness?
2. What is the ultimate proof of our “legitimacy” as Christ’s disciples and ambassadors?
3. At what levels did the “rod into serpent” bear witness to God’s sovereignty over Egypt?
4. How was this really a conflict between God and the devil?
5. How were the Egyptian sorcerers able to turn their rods into serpents?
6. How is statism satanic? American statism?
7. Why was Pharaoh’s heart not softened?
8. What warning against and challenge to modern statism do we find in this chapter?