A Long Obedience

A Long Obedience

As we saw last week, once Moses and Aaron had spoken with the elders of the Israelites, letting them know everything that the LORD had told Moses and performing the signs God had given them before the people, the elders believed them. And when the elders learned that the LORD, Yahweh, “was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.”[1] Our passage this morning will describe how, having been strengthened by this time of worship, Moses and Aaron then went to Pharaoh as the LORD had told them. It did not go well—which the LORD also had foretold.[2]

So verse 1 of Exodus 5 records how Moses and Aaron obeyed the LORD, stating, “Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.”’” In delivering this message from God, Moses and Aaron were essentially letting Pharaoh know that, in the eyes of the LORD, the Israelite people belonged to him, not Pharaoh. Pharaoh, however, didn’t see it that way. As stated in verse 2, he responded, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” Now a few weeks ago[3] we noted two points about Moses and Aaron making such a request: First, there’s archaeological evidence indicating that such requests by conquered peoples would not have been unusual. But second, given that Pharaoh had all the power—and the Israelites had none—it’s not surprising that Pharaoh should turn down this request. For if Pharaoh’s gods had been behind his gaining the power, wealth, and prestige he currently had, surely this meant that his gods were stronger than the LORD of the Israelite slaves who had no power, wealth, or prestige.

Even so, Moses and Aaron didn’t give up but in faith they then said to Pharaoh, verse 3, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” In this second attempt they noted that they might be at risk of being struck with plagues or sword if they didn’t go and worship the LORD as he had told them. Pharaoh should consider that if the Israelites were struck by plagues or sword, then his work force would be seriously depleted. Yet again, Pharaoh didn’t see it that way, noting that the real economic danger would occur if he did let them go. As stated in verses 4–5, “But the king of Egypt said, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!…. Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.’” Given the considerable size of the Israelite work force—they’re described as being “numerous”—if Pharaoh allowed them to go and worship their God, he would incur a great economic loss for he relied upon them to keep things running smoothly in his kingdom. If he permitted them all to go and worship their God, who would supply the bricks Pharaoh needed? No, it was clear to him that Moses and Aaron sought to harm him by seeking to take the Israelites away from their labor.

Pharaoh’s vexation was made evident not only in his words but in what he did next. As stated beginning with verse 6,

That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

Now although the text doesn’t indicate how many bricks the Israelites were required to make, one commentator notes that “[t]he role of taskmasters is well known from Egyptian texts. An account from the time of Rameses II (13th century B.C.) records that 40 ‘stable masters’ were assigned a quota of 2,000 bricks.”[4] And whereas previously Pharaoh had supplied the Israelites the straw they needed in order to satisfy their brick quota, hereon in he would no longer do so. As one scholar notes, “The bricks of the time were much larger than modern bricks; they were molded of Nile mud with straw to increase their strength.”[5] But the point, of course, is that Pharaoh was clueless about how to motivate people. Making “the work harder…so that they keep working” wasn’t going to produce the intended results because the Israelites were already working at full capacity. Yet at Pharaoh’s command they would not only be required to gather their own straw but also keep producing the same number of bricks. Their work had now become the production line from Hades. In Pharaoh’s mind, this was the punishment the Israelites deserved for their laziness. Not for a minute did he believe the reason they offered for wanting to leave their work, that of obeying their God’s command to worship him. No, in the mind of the king, the Israelites were looking for an excuse to get out of doing their work. Such insolence and deception deserved to be punished. If they thought things were hard before, they hadn’t seen anything yet.

The slave drivers and overseers followed Pharaoh’s command to a tee, telling the people, verses 10–11, “This is what Pharaoh says: ‘I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’” Thus do we see that neither Pharaoh nor his slave drivers and overseers had any interest in what “the LORD, the God of Israel” (verse 1) had to say. The Israelites were to listen to what Pharoah commanded, not God. Consequently, as one commentator observes, “The pharaoh [sic] is now set on a collision course with the God of Israel.”[6] Next, as noted beginning with verse 12, “So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, ‘Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.’ 14 And Pharaoh’s slave drivers beat the Israelite overseers they had appointed, demanding, ‘Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?’” The answer to this question was obvious. They hadn’t met their quota because their work was no longer doable. For how could they possibly produce the same number of bricks as they previously had when they were being supplied with straw? Searching for straw took time. An impossible situation had been created for them, yet they were beaten by the slave drivers, nonetheless. Clearly the ways of the slave drivers hadn’t changed in forty years. As Moses had killed an Egyptian for beating a fellow Israelite forty years earlier and, consequently, had had to flee for his life,[7] so the slave drivers continued to beat the Israelites. They beat them then; they beat them in the forty-year interim; they beat them now; they would beat them in the future if they stayed.

Accordingly, as stated in verses 15–16, “15 Then the Israelite overseers went and appealed to Pharaoh: ‘Why have you treated your servants this way? 16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, “Make bricks!” Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.’” In their appeal to the king, the Israelite overseers spoke truthfully and reasonably. They explained to Pharaoh why it was that they were now unable to achieve their usual assigned brick quota. The beatings they were receiving as a result of this lack was unmerited. The problem was with the request, not with the work the Israelites were doing. Surely any reasonable person would have understood and been responsive to such an appeal.

Pharaoh, however, was not that reasonable person. He didn’t want to hear what they had to say. He didn’t believe them. Therefore, Pharaoh stuck to his guns. As stated in verses 17–18, Pharaoh responded by saying, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.” What were the Israelite overseers to do now? For, again, it was humanly impossible for them to meet their former brick quotas now that they were no longer being supplied with straw. Clearly, they had been firmly lodged between the proverbial rock and hard place by Pharaoh. As stated in verse 19, “The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.’” They were in trouble, indeed.

There was nothing left for them to do but to take out their frustration on Moses and Aaron who had caused all of this trouble and whom they found “waiting to meet them” after they’d left Pharaoh, verse 20. As recorded in verse 21, the Israelite overseers told these spokesmen for God, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Now as we noted earlier, keep in mind that the elders had previously been told by Moses all that the LORD had said. At that time they had not only believed God’s words but had even bowed down and worshiped him as a result of those words. Yet now that their belief was being tested for the first time, the Israelite overseers sought to shoot God’s messengers. Yet the fact of the matter is that if the LORD had looked upon and judged Moses and Aaron as the Israelite overseers taunted, God would no doubt have said to them, “Well done, thou good and faithful servants!”[8] for doing just as he had asked. In point of fact, the real problem was Pharaoh, not Moses and Aaron. Now though the Israelite overseers were wrong in assuming that the LORD would judge the two brothers unfavorably, we can certainly appreciate the frustration they felt in having been made “obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials” who, in their view, Moses and Aaron had “put a sword in their hand to kill” them.

Consequently, when confronted by the Israelite overseers Moses did as he had done from the first time the LORD had revealed himself to him in the burning bush: Moses shared his heart with God. He didn’t pretend to understand this course of events. He simply laid himself bare before his Maker and LORD. As stated in verses 22–23, “22 Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? 23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.’” Again, we’ve seen that God commissioned Moses to rescue his people by leading them out of Egypt. After some initial resistance to such a momentous task, Moses followed the LORD’s instructions. Yet the result of that obedience wasn’t deliverance but oppression. Why, oh why, he asked, had the LORD sent him and brought trouble on his people rather than rescuing them?

This was an excellent question, don’t you think? For, after all, if God had sent Moses to deliver Israel; and Moses had done all that God had asked; then surely the immediate consequence should have been that Pharaoh let God’s people go. But here’s the thing. God had also told Moses that Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Israelites go—at least not right away. As we’ve seen, on at least two previous occasions the LORD disclosed to Moses that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go unless extreme measures were taken. The first time God told Moses that he would need to stretch out his mighty hand before Pharaoh would be compelled to do as he asked;[9] the second time the LORD specified that nothing less than the loss of Pharaoh’s firstborn would result in Pharaoh releasing his people.[10] In effect, the LORD had made clear to Moses from the beginning that he would require of him and the Israelites not a short obedience, but a long one.

What is more, in his omniscience, in his all-knowingness, God had disclosed the very same thing to Abraham—to Abraham from whom he had created the nation of Israel—that this time of exile by his people would last four-hundred years, saying, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.”[11] Therefore,

before Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s child of promise, was born;

before Jacob, Isaac’s son whose name would be changed to Israel, was born;

before Jacob’s twelve sons who would comprise the nation of Israel were born;

before any of the Pharaohs who had engaged with Abraham’s descendants—including Joseph—were born;

before Moses was born,

God had told Abraham that the nation that would descend from him, God’s nation that would become Israel, would be “strangers in a country not their own” and would be enslaved there; and would be mistreated there. For four hundred years. But God would “punish the nation they serve[d] as slaves.” And, afterwards, they would come out “with great possessions.”

The challenge then—for Moses, for Aaron, for the elders of the Israelites, and for us—is how to cultivate the requisite skills to obey God not for a short time but for a long time? The answer lies in getting to know God and, knowing him, seeking to become like him. The Apostle John, who described himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved,[12] understood and taught this, saying, “[Beloved,][13] let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”[14] If God who made us is love, it’s in knowing him and experiencing his love that we can learn that he is trustworthy and worthy of our emulation. It’s in cultivating a relationship with our loving God, in laying bare our hearts before him as Moses did, that we’ll be able to obey him not for the short term, but for the long term; not for a short while, but for all eternity for it is as we get to know his love by praying to him, by his indwelling Holy Spirit, and by his written and risen Word, that we learn that his commands are ever for our good and are thereby enabled to develop a long obedience.

Our New Testament passage from 1 Corinthians 13 provides a helpful summary of what love is and what it looks like in practice. It’s a helpful summary of the qualities we are to develop and exemplify if we are to love as God loves and live lovingly as he created us to. As stated in verses 4–8a:

Love is patient,

love is kind.

It does not envy,

it does not boast,

it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others,

it is not self-seeking,

it is not easily angered,

it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil

but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects,

always trusts,

always hopes,

always perseveres.

Love never fails.

These representative—for this list isn’t exhaustive—attributes of love are how we can develop a long obedience.

And if, as John teaches, God is love, then in writing this portion of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul could have just as easily placed God’s name at the front of each of these statements. For indeed,

God is patient,

God is kind.

God does not envy,

God does not boast,

God is not proud.

God does not dishonor others,

God is not self-seeking,

God is not easily angered,

God keeps no record of wrongs.

God does not delight in evil

but rejoices with the truth.

God always protects,

always trusts,

always hopes,

always perseveres.

God never fails.

And the evidence that God is all of these things can be found in the fact that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to take away our sins by dying in our place. And because Jesus, too, is God, we can similarly say:

Jesus is patient,

Jesus is kind.

Jesus does not envy,

Jesus does not boast,

Jesus is not proud.

Jesus does not dishonor others,

Jesus is not self-seeking,

Jesus is not easily angered,

Jesus keeps no record of wrongs.

Jesus does not delight in evil

but rejoices with the truth.

Jesus always protects,

always trusts,

always hopes,

always perseveres.

Jesus never fails.

Don’t you want to get to know such an awesome and wonderful man?! Don’t you want to get to know such an awesome and wonderful God?! For the greatest example of Jesus being all of these things is found, of course, in his suffering, dying, and rising from death in order to place upon himself the sins of all who believe and receive him. The Apostle John understood this well for after teaching that God is love, he went on to declare, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 [Beloved],[15] since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”[16]

Dear brothers and sister, God has shown his love for us by sending his Son to die on behalf of all who believe in him in order that we might live in and through him and him alone. John calls us to exemplify this behavior in the way in which we love one another. In this, he is teaching just what Jesus taught. John records how Jesus said to his disciples, “34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”[17] And John records how Jesus taught them a second time, saying,

15 If you love me, keep my commands…. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.…. 23 Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.[18]

Keeping Jesus’ commands; talking with him, that is, praying to him and laying bare our hearts before him; following his example; reading and obeying his Word are all ways in which we can get to know him. These are all ways in which we can get to love him. These are all ways in which we can become like him. And, in knowing, loving, and becoming like him, we’re able to cultivate the long obedience that is needed to live out our earthly lives.

Now unlike Moses, we’re not being asked to lead God’s suffering people out of Egypt; nor are we being asked to go to a powerful and cruel leader in order to do so. But we, like Moses, are asked to have a long obedience, whatever the task at hand:

Our long obedience may entail sacrificing the enjoyment of otherwise good activities for the enjoyment and privilege of joining with God’s people to worship him each week as his Word teaches[19] as an expression of our love for him and each other;

Our long obedience may require us to speak a difficult truth to someone knowing that this truth is for their good;

Our long obedience may require us to seek forgiveness of another when we realize we’ve done or said something that is hurtful—or to grant forgiveness when asked.

But whether a specific act or the day-to-day activities of working outside of or from the home; or running a household; or raising children; or going to the bank; or doing a leisurely activity; or purchasing groceries; or talking with our neighbors; or otherwise caring and being responsible for the people and tasks God’s placed in our care, by our long obedience we are to do so in a manner that is loving. For the goal of our lives is to know, love, and emulate God; the goal of our lives is to know, love, and emulate Jesus, to such a degree that we can say,

I am patient,

I am kind.

I do not envy,

I do not boast,

I am not proud.

I do not dishonor others,

I am not self-seeking,

I am not easily angered,

I keep no record of wrongs.

I do not delight in evil

but rejoice with the truth.

I always protect,

always trust,

always hope,

always persevere.

I never fail.

Granted, these are lofty goals for we, unlike God, do fail. But if with the help of God and one another we seek to cultivate these qualities, then we’ll be well on our way to learning to obey him not in the short run, but in the long. For as Paul states in verse 13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Let us pray.

Benediction: Colossians 3:12–14: 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

[1] Exodus 4:29–31: 29 Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, 30 and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, 31 and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

[2] Exodus 4:21: The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.

[3] See sermon preached on July 25, 2021, God Inexhaustible! on Exodus 3:11–22.

[4] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Exodus 5:6–7. The note goes on to observe, “The walls of Rekhmire Chapel in Thebes (15th century B.C.) bear a famous scene that depicts the process of brick making in Egypt.”

[5] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Exodus 5:7. Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Exodus 5:7 similarly states, that straw was “[c]hopped and mixed with the clay as binder to make the bricks stronger.”

[6] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Exodus 5:10.

[7] Exodus 2:11–15: 11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” 14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

[8] A statement taken from the Parable of the Bags of Gold told by Jesus in Matthew 25:14–30.

[9] Exodus 3:19–20: 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.”

[10] Exodus 4:21–23: 21 The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’”

[11] Genesis 15:13. See also Acts 7:4ff:“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

[12] All occurrences of this description are found only in the Gospel of John. See John 13:23: One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.; John 19:26–27: 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.; John 20:2: So [Mary Magdalene] came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”; John 21:7, 20: 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water…. 20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”)

[13] NIV translates the Greek, Ἀγαπητοί, as “Dear friends” but I believe a better translation is “Beloved.”

[14] 1 John 4:7–8.

[15] NIV translates the Greek, Ἀγαπητοί, as “Dear friends” but I believe a better translation is “Beloved.”

[16] 1 John 4:9–12.

[17] John 13:34–35.

[18] John 14:15, 21, 23–24.

[19] Hebrews 12:24–25: 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.