The Goings of God

Studies in the book of Exodus.

J. Alec Motyer

1. THE PERSEVERING GOD (1:1 to 7:7)

IN its care for our spiritual welfare the Bible deals with real situations. A more exact way of saying this is to point out that our Caring God wrote the Bible for us in this way so that through His holy Word He may exercise His own pastoral care over His Church here on earth. We are reminded that the people of God are in this world: "They went down into the land of Egypt" (1:1).

The opening two chapters of the book deal with marriage, birth and death; for the people of God have to face the realities of life here. There is hostility -Pharaoh stirring up his servants and all his people against the people of God. There is also good fortune- Moses is unexpectedly taken into the household of the king, to be brought up as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. And there is also failure - Moses, seeking to exploit the opportunities involved in his special situation, blunders badly. All this is to be found in two chapters.

We notice also that the people of God are presented in their totality and their individuality. We begin with the names of every man who came with Jacob and then we are told that "all that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls". The people of God, total and individual, are found to be deeply embroiled in world affairs, affected by its politics, preoccupied with its cares, hard hit by its hostilities and subject to various degrees of fortune, and in it all they are remembered by God. You may wonder how I can even suggest that God could be capable of forgetting, but the words are: "God heard their groaning and God remembered" (2:24). It is part of the attractiveness of Holy Scripture that it has a delightfully human way of speaking about God.

We can only understand this sudden reviving of memory against a background of forgetfulness. As Moses came to write up the story, he looked back and saw that at this point a line was drawn across the history of God's people: this was the day when God began to act. In retrospect it seemed to him so dramatic and so to involve a change in God's feelings, that he could only describe it by saying: "That was the day when God remembered us". Nevertheless, as he wrote up everything that happened before that date, he had to call the people's attention to the fact that God had never forgotten them. This, then, is the first lesson of these opening chapters of Exodus, namely the persevering ways of God with His chosen people.

God's Ways With His People

The sheer numerical quantity of the people of God struck terror into the Egyptian rulers. They felt that here was a danger within their borders which they must take steps to contain. The new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph was not bound by any obligation to God's people, so he took steps to deal with what he felt was a threat to his kingdom. It was then that he began to discover that this is a people which cannot be destroyed. The narrative from 1:1 to 2:22 shows us:

1. Providential Care

Humanly speaking everything was bent on their destruction yet "the more they afflicted them the more they multiplied, and the more [103/104] they spread abroad" (1:12). This is in accordance with so much else in the Scriptures which is summed up for us in the words of the Lord Jesus: "No one shall pluck them out of my hands". Pharaoh was great and his taskmasters many and strong but no efforts of theirs could ever set aside God's providential care of His chosen people. It is interesting to contrast the two similar phrases: "lest they multiply" (v.10) and "the more they multiplied" (v.12). The king of the world may have been bent on destruction but the King of Heaven overruled with supernatural preservation.

2. Timely Aid

We learn here what is said in another New Testament scripture: "All things work together for good to them that love God and are the called according to his purpose". Pharaoh had a second plan. If he could not crush this people by general oppression he would call the midwives to his aid and attempt to wipe out the men of Israel at birth. His policy of infanticide was, however, set aside by God who in His marvellous wisdom saw to it that the plan was committed to the very people who would frustrate it: "The midwives feared God and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them". So the midwives came under the blessing of God (v.20) and instead of perishing, "the people multiplied and waxed mighty". The Sovereign God saw to it that His own timely aid met the enemy in ways that he never expected and could not cope with.

What was true of the totality of the people of God was equally true for individuals. The individual is in the care of God, as we find when meeting for the first time Moses, the man who is to dominate the remainder of the first five books of the Bible. Here, however, he is not introduced to us in the light of his subsequent greatness but simply as an object lesson on how God looks after the individual among His people. In Moses' case there was special care in relation to divine purpose, but this is not mentioned here. We simply see that the same God who caters for all His people with providential care is also careful to shelter the individual under His preserving grace.

God covered Moses protectively from every threat. His parents married and the child was born at that very time when the royal edict commanded that he must be put into the river. In due time he was put into the river, but the river could not claim this child. As he was lying there, watched by the loving eye of Miriam, who should come along but Pharaoh's daughter! This was no ordinary Egyptian, but a princess from the royal house. The contest was being brought to a particular point: it was the royal house which decreed infanticide and yet it was the royal house which intervened to save the infant. The princess asked for the box which was floating in the river to be brought to her, and when the box was opened the child started crying. In a remarkable act of providence God produced a tender-hearted princess from that savage royal house.

Out of the palace which did not hesitate to murder infants on a big scale there came one girl whose heart was moved by a crying baby. By the clever intervention of Miriam, the baby was given back to his parents to be brought up. Right there, in the midst of the Egyptian people whose king had decreed his destruction, the child grew up whom nobody dared touch. "Take this child away and nurse it for me," the princess had said. The preserving providence of God had so surrounded this child's life that no matter how much hostility the neighbours felt and no matter how greatly they detested the Hebrew people, they could not and dare not touch this child. Our God is a God of timely aid.

3. Purposeful Care

We soon find that God's providential care is also a purposeful care. The next thing we are told about this man shows how conscious he was of his vocation. He saw an Egyptian striking an Hebrew and he could not keep his hands off the aggressor. There was that in Moses which automatically reacted violently against helplessness and injustice. He was rather like his adoptive royal mother who had championed his cause in his infancy. Moses needed that kind of heart, for this was part of God's preparation for the man who was to suffer for the rest of his life with a cantankerous and ungrateful people without ever losing heart compassion for them. We see the purposefulness of God with Moses from the very beginning, how He started with this man as He intended to go on with him through his long life of service.

A further incident in the life of Moses shows that he is at it again, leaping to the defence of the helpless: "The shepherds came and drove the daughters of Jethro away, but Moses stood [104/105] up and helped them" (2:17). This involvement in Jethro's household meant that Moses settled down there and spent forty years in caring for another man's sheep. This is a story of apparent failure, but not even failure can take Moses out of the purposes of God who sovereignly presided over it all in order to bring those purposes to pass. So for forty years Moses tended another man's sheep until the day came when God was ready to say: "I will lead My sheep, My people, like a flock by the hand of Moses".

4. The Resource of Prayer

If chapter one shows that God's people cannot be destroyed by any human agency, chapter two makes it very clear that neither can they be delivered by a mere human agency. If Pharaoh cannot destroy them, neither can Moses deliver them. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal" was a lesson learned long ago in the land of Egypt. For all his capacity and for all his authority, Moses was quite unable to be the deliverer of God's people. They could not be destroyed by man and they could not be saved by man.

Mercifully, however, the people possessed a spiritual resource as we learn in the closing verses of this chapter. "It came to pass in the course of many days ... the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage, and they cried" (2:23). Relief was not found in the passage of time, though many days passed.

The Christian never says that time is the great healer. No, the passage of time did not bring relief; it only brought continued bondage. What brought relief was the place and practice of prayer; "and their cry came up unto God by reason of their bondage". The repetition of this last phrase shows that their cry to God originated from a deeply felt sense of need and was also the explanation of God's answer: "their cry came up unto God by reason of their bondage ". The motive for the cry from earth was bondage and the motive for prayer being heard in heaven was also bondage. Our very necessities are in themselves an appeal to God and a guarantee that He will hear us.

The next two verses give a four-fold explanation of why such prayer is efficacious. It is because God hears. Then it is because God remembers. He remembers His covenant, which simply means that God had made a solemn promise. He had said that He would be a God to Abraham and to his children after him, and He actually went on oath to that effect. Pharaoh challenged Him, saying: "These are my people and I will destroy them", but God could not allow this, for they were His people and He was pledged to them. God always remembers His promises and never departs from them. We are then told that God saw. We should notice that though the covenant was associated with Jacob, God saw them as Israel. He always looks at His people in the light of what He has done for them by grace. He does not see them in connection with their sinful inheritance in Jacob but in connection with their inheritance of grace in Israel. God always looks upon His people through the spectrum of grace.

Fourthly we are told that God took knowledge of them. Scripture says crisply and abruptly: "God knew". This means that God knew all about it. He looked down on their situation and He knew what it was; not just that He had information about it but that He deeply felt its agonies. The needs of God's people and their circumstances go right through to His heart. For those Israelites there was One on the throne touched with the pangs of their sufferings, and that was why prayer proved effective.

We now turn to the steps which God took to answer these agonised prayers, and as we move into chapter three we leave the consideration of God's persevering ways with the totality of His people to be concerned with one man and what God did for him.

God's Ways With His Servant

The whole section from 3:1 to 7:7 works according to a pattern. Firstly there is the sequence of Vision, Reassurance and Failure. The same pattern is repeated with one significant difference, for this time it is Vision, Reassurance and Success. Such sequences lead us to ask what is meant by Vision and what turns Failure to Success.

The answer to this first question is that the essential preparation of an individual for service consists in his knowing God by reason of dealings in the secret place between God and his soul. This is not put forward as a suggestion but what is clearly shown in the times when God came to Moses as a solitary individual and spoke to him in secret. Moses' preparation for service had its point of origin and its most effective lessons there in the secret place, where he came to know God through His revealing action. It [105/106] was not a case of the cleverness of Moses but the revelatory action of God.

God took away the veil and showed Himself to Moses; that is where service begins. The second question relates to the difference between the failure the first time round and the success at the end of the second pattern. What was it that made the key difference? The vision was the same; the reassurance was the same; in the first case Moses failed, whereas in the second he triumphed. Let us investigate further.

The pattern begins with vision, and we commence chapter three to find Moses in the way of revelation as he diligently carries on with humdrum affairs. Did not the Lord Jesus say that when we are faithful in a very little thing, it is then that much authority will be given to us? Moses is an object lesson of this truth: he was faithful in keeping another man's sheep in a desert place, and found great authority committed to him by God. Here he was given a threefold revelation, a revelation of God, of the people's need and of his own vocation in the meeting of that need.

"An angel of the Lord appeared to him as a flame of fire out of the midst of the bush. And he looked and behold the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed" (v.2). It is one of the odd things of life that this is so often called the passage of the burning bush when the words clearly tell us that the bush did not burn. Let us get it right; the bush was not burning but it was God Himself who was the flame of fire. In this way God was saying to Moses: "I am the Living God -- living in the most absolute sense." Did you ever know of a fire which did not need fuel? Every fire known to man feeds upon fuel. Here, however, was an undying flame which needed no fuel. And wonder of wonders, this most gracious living God has come down to indwell the most ordinary thing and make it effulgent with His own radiance. The vision was that of the undying flame of God in a meagre desert bush.

The vision stressed the holiness of God. Where God is, holiness is. And it meant that God revealed Himself as the faithful God -- "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." He is the God who continues faithfully and patiently with His chosen people. Moreover He is a caring and delivering God (vv.7 & 8). This, then, was the first revelation, the vision of the holy, faithful and caring God, presencing Himself with sinners. And on the basis of this, God opened Moses' eyes both to a need and to a call. Moses, however, was unwilling to hear that call and needed a long session with God about it. So we pass to the matter of Reassurance.

Moses made five separate excuses; but before we look at them we should register that God did not accept them, but He did pledge Himself to remedy the complaints. Here they are:

1. Inadequacy. "Who am I" (v.11). To this God replied: "But Moses, I never said that you were anybody! It is not you that matters, it is I! I will be with you in all My living power, in all My holiness, in all My faithfulness and in all My determination to be a Deliverer."

2. Ignorance. The excuse of ignorance of what he should say when he met the children of Israel. "What shall I say?" (v.13). God immediately reassured him that if ignorance was the trouble then he could not have come to a better place for that to be remedied. He only wanted to know one thing, but God told him three. He wanted to know what he should say about God, and the Lord told him not only about Himself, but about His plans (vv.16-18) and about the course of events (vv.19-21) and even about the ultimate outcome (v.22). He loaded Moses with information. If you are ignorant, then the Lord is the very One to put you right. How amply He meets our needs and our excuses!

The central point about the revelation of Himself is contained in the words: "I AM THAT I AM" (v.14). Many years ago I was present at a Women's Meeting, not to speak but to listen to a speaker. To my delight she chose to speak on Exodus 3:14, so I sat back with eagerness, ready to learn more about this verse which had often exercised me. The substance of the address went like this: "Dear friends, what needs have you got?" She then began to outline what might be the needs of a typical gathering of women on a Monday afternoon.

She continued: "Now look at those needs. Here they are, one, two, three, four five ... Name each of your needs and then in respect of everyone of those needs, listen to God saying: 'I am that! -- I am!'" In some ways this is laughable but yet it conveys the sense of what God said. Whatever the need, He is the answer. Is there a need? Then He affirms: "I am THAT! I am!" This is the message and the theology which God sent Moses to declare [106/107] in Egypt. The people needed salvation, so He would be their Saviour. Whatever the need, the great Yahweh offered Himself as the answer. I am that! I am!

3. Ineffectiveness. Moses went on to plead ineffectiveness: "They will not listen to me" (4:1). This is answered by three signs. "Ineffective in relation to resources? What have you got? For if you will throw what you have got in your hand down in front of Me, it will become a powerful thing." So God answered Moses' ineffectiveness by pointing to Himself as the God of transforming power. "Ineffectiveness of your person? You are quite right about that. Put your hand into your bosom and feel your own heartbeat.

Now take out your hand and look at it. It has the contagion of leprosy from your heart. In your inner man you are all wrong. Now repeat the action and you will find that the leprosy has all gone." God is the One who can remove all inner defilement and make His servant into a new man. "Ineffectiveness in the face of the enemy? Go and draw water from the Nile. Go to the very place where the life of Egypt is beating, the very thing they worship as a god. Go there and take water from that river and watch me turn their life into death!" He is the God of conquering power who can face the enemy and bring all his power to nothing. Objection not sustained!

4. Incapacity. "Oh Lord, I am not eloquent" (4:10). To this objection the Lord gave the answer that would apply in principle to any incapacity which we might plead: "Who made that organ, that capacity which you complain is so inadequate for the purpose? Am not I your Creator who made your mouth as it is? How then can I leave you without a word to speak? I, who made your mouth, will be with that mouth and teach you what you shall speak."

5. Unreadiness. This was the last of Moses' objections and it made God angry with him. "Oh Lord, send by the hand of him whom Thy wilt send" (4:13). How the Lord hates unbelief! To think that He had given Moses so many reassurances and yet the man would not trust Him! But if the anger of the Lord was kindled grace prevailed, so that along with the anger came a kindly accommodation. "Well, Moses, go you must, because I insist upon it; but if you feel that you cannot go alone, I will arrange for Aaron to go with you."

With this gracious reassurance Moses went. The next section of the chapter makes it clear, though, that God went with him. God is not like a lake-side hirer of boats who allocates someone for Boat No. 9, pushes him out and leaves him to get on with it. That is not the Bible idea of vocation. God determines what shall be done. God determines the servant who shall be chosen to do it. And then God goes with him.

We see that there were three ways in which God exercised this pastoral supervision over His servant. Firstly He taught him a lesson concerning Divine leadership. Moses went back to ask permission of his father-in-law and was just receiving that permission when God rudely interrupted this conversation, saying: "I beg your pardon, Moses, but it is I not Jethro who is doing the sending: Go, return into Egypt" (v.19). God must remain in charge of His own work.

The second lesson related to divine righteousness: "the Lord met him and sought to kill him" (v.24). What an odd incident! The Lord was fighting against His chosen servant. We must look into this. The Lord was fighting against him because his son Gershom had not been circumcised. This is the clear lesson of the passage. As soon as the lad was circumcised He (the Lord) let him (Moses) alone" (v.26). It is dangerous to go on God's business in a state of disobedience. There was Moses going to the covenant people to speak to them in the name of the covenant God and to pledge them covenant promises, and yet he was going in a state of covenant disobedience.

Nothing could therefore go on; Moses could not set a foot in Egypt or take up the work of God, until that had been put right. Now what about Zipporah? Well, I am afraid that we are all led astray by that unfortunate translation of her words: "a bloody bridegroom". We are bound to regard this as though it were a term of rebuke and even of abuse. Not so! The Revised Version renders it " A bridegroom of blood", but even that is not accurate enough. "A bridegroom of bloods" (in the plural) is what the Hebrew says, and it implies a bridegroom of shed bloods. Zipporah knew the cause of God's anger, and since her husband was incapacitated, she herself took the knife, circumcised the boy and touched Moses with the blood of circumcision to associate him vitally with this act of obedience.

No sooner had he been touched by this blood that he was restored to her from his death-bed. She cried [107/108] out in gladness: "Look, our marriage has started all over again! You are my bridegroom again, restored to me by the shed blood!" What an indication of her love for Moses and the happiness of their home together: He is her bridegroom, restored to life, restored from death, because she brought him into the place of obedience.

The third lesson which God gave Moses in this final session of briefing and pastoral care concerned divine graciousness "The Lord said to Aaron, Go out into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went and met him" (v.27). What a thrill that must have been to Moses! In those days there was no post, no telegraph, no means of communication; and yet Aaron made the rendezvous just as God had promised. Grace had gone on before, grace had provided the one human welcome to prove that God was on his side.

What more could a man want? "Moses, let Me be your Leader. Moses, above all things keep right with Me by obedience. Moses, I am with you in grace." With that background Moses went on into the land of Egypt -- only to meet with total and unmitigated failure! "Moses returned to the Lord and said, O Sovereign One, why have You treated Your people so badly? Why ever did You send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has afflicted the people, neither have You delivered Your people at all" (5:22-23). Total failure!

God's Ways With His Failures

The reason for Moses' failure was partial obedience. God gave him very precise directions and he ignored or changed them. He was told to bring a delegation of the elders (3:18) and he only brought Aaron (5:1). He was told to come tactfully, and he came like the blast of an east wind. He was told to say: "The God of Israel has met us" and he said: "Thus saith Yahweh, the God of Israel". He was told to make an interim request for a three-day journey into the wilderness, and he made an absolute demand for release. In one sense he did what God told him to do, but in another sense he utterly failed in the matter of obedience. As a result Pharaoh hardened the people's bondage and their elders came and cursed Moses in the name of God.

Partial obedience, the partial obedience of one man, gave the enemy victory over the whole people of God. It brought the people -- not Moses but the people -- into severer trial and hardship, and it fragmented fellowship to such a degree that the elders came to Moses and said that they did not want anything more to do with him. Just the partial obedience of one man did all this. It always does. It gives power to the enemy, it brings suffering to the Church and it breaks up fellowship. In spite of the vision and the reassurance, Moses ends this phase in complete failure. Now we pass through the pattern for the second time with further Vision, further Reassurance and then Success.

Look what Moses did with his despair, he went back to the Lord (5:22). That is how to deal with failure. Satan will always have us hug our failure to ourselves, slinking into a corner, well out of sight and succumbing to a sense of condemnation. The example of Moses tells us not to do that but to bring our failure right out into the light in the presence of God. Go back to the Lord and tell Him all about it. Verbalise the calamity. "Neither hast thou delivered thy people at all!" That is what Moses did with his failure; now see what God did with it. This is simply beautiful: "Now shalt thou see what I will do!" What is more, God pointed to Himself, opening Moses' eyes to a new revelation, a saving revelation: "I am JEHOVAH" (v.2).

God met Moses with strong hope. "Now," He said, "Now that I have got you to the place of utter despair, I can really show you My power. At last -- now -- I have you where I want you and so there is every ground for strong hope." The renewed vision consisted in the most wonderful statement of the meaning of the divine name (6:2-8). This passage begins and ends with the majestic assertion: "I am Jehovah" and contains within it seven verbs by which God pledges Himself to action. "I will bring you ... I will rid you ... I will redeem you ...". On the basis of His great name of Saviour, the Lord thunders out His repeated "I will" again and again, giving Moses a renewed vision of Himself in all His living power as the ever-present Saviour. It is in this passage that the verb "to redeem" is used for the first time in its characteristic biblical sense.

The Vision is followed by Reassurance. Moses was still conscious of his weakness and inadequacy, and stressed again his weakness as a speaker (v.12). He had rightly diagnosed this central point in the matter of his weakness; it was in the realm of speech that he felt so incompetent, and in fact it does seem that when he went to Pharaoh he said all the wrong things. [108/109]

So as he went back to God he asked: "What can You do with a man of uncircumcised lips?" And God told him what He could do and He told him not once but twice: "The Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge" (v.13), and the Lord said: "See I have made you a god to Pharaoh and Aaron shall be your prophet" (7:1). God gave Moses a double reassurance on the point where he was most conscious of personal weakness. He set up for Moses a whole system of communication to meet him in this place of cardinal need.

And what then? No more failure now! Moses is going to have an unbroken career of success and never to fail again until that last unfortunate action of the double smiting of the rock. The reason is to be found in the response to this renewed Vision and further Reassurance: "And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded them, so did they" (7:6). The words ring in a constant refrain from now onwards: "As the Lord commanded Moses"; the failure had at last found the secret of success.

In chapter two Moses found that it was inadequate if he went simply with personal resources to be a deliverer. In chapter five he found it inadequate to go even at the call of God to be a deliverer. But in chapter seven he had at length learned the lesson that victory and success attend the way of the man who is obedient. "As the Lord commanded, so did they." That was the key to the whole enterprise of the exodus.

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