Exodus 4:18-31 - Listening

February 23, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 4:18–4:31

[Text: Exodus 4:18-31] “Listening”

In this last half of chapter 4, we see Moses’ return from Midian to Egypt. And in each scene of this movement, we hear YHWH speak and act in authoritative ways. He’s sending Moses as his representative to bring God’s people out of slavery and into life with him. But Moses is nearly killed on the trip back by YHWH himself.

[Pray – Almighty God, you have spoken to us through your Son. Let your written Word now be spoken and heard by each of us. Give us ears to hear and hearts to understand, that we may not refuse your calling or ignore your voice.  May we all be taught by you through your powerful Word. Bring our every thought captive to obeying Christ, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.]

[Read Exodus 4:18-31]

Henry Nelson was a war veteran and a Chemical warfare instructor. It was his job to train men to protect themselves and think with a level head in the presence of deadly nerve agents. He knew how to put on a protective suit as quickly as possible so that skin and lungs wouldn’t be overwhelmed by deadly gases. And the pictures he’d seen – he knew what those poisons could do to a man. But when his building was being fumigated with hydrogen-cyanide gas to kill pests, he ignored the warning signs, pushed through the barricaded door, and walked into his apartment.

The people who couldn’t stop him immediately called for help, but when the rescuers came it was too late. Through their gas masks in the deadly fog they saw Henry’s body on his living room floor, two blankets in his arms. He’d heard the warnings and seen the signs. He was trained and knew what could happen. But he ignored it all for a couple of blankets and went to his death.

The need to listen is an obvious reality. But ever since I was little, listening to that which is truly important – like the warning from my folks just before the spanking came – listening has always been a struggle.

In this transitional passage, we hear God saying to Moses, “It’s time to go back to Egypt.” And Moses listened. He took the staff of God in his hand – the staff with which he would do the signs proving that God had sent him – he took the staff and his family and started off. By the end of the section he’s back in Egypt with his brother, Aaron. Together they’re delivering the word of YHWH that he’s visited his people to save them just like he’d promised.

In every scene of this passage, the word and actions of YHWH are seen as authoritative – they always demand a response from people. He says, “Go” and Moses needs to listen. He gives a message to which Pharaoh would do well to listen. He acts and Moses’ wife responds; we could say she “listens between the lines” to know what she’s supposed to do. And when God’s word is delivered to the slaves in Egypt, Israel listens and worships the God who visited them to rescue them.

But beneath the surface of this passage are some deep questions that expose a dangerous situation. What happens when we don’t listen to God? And what are the consequences? If God speaks and I don’t listen – will I be like Henry Nelson, ignoring his word to walk to my own death because I preferred lesser things?

Because God says, “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. Don’t say things that bring harm to others.” But what if gossip is my favorite past-time? God says, “Don’t be jealous of what others have. Be content with what I give you.” But he can’t really expect me to do that if my car keeps breaking down or my job isn’t making me happy, can he? God says, “Don’t put anything ahead of me.” But what if I do? What if I’d rather be comfortable than obedient; in control instead of dependent on him? What if I’d rather wealth give me security instead of resting in the God who made me and takes care of me? Are there really consequences for living like that?

For Pharaoh, ignoring the word of God would cost the life of his firstborn son. Now, there’s an elephant in the room that we’ll have to talk about with Pharaoh. We’ll talk about why he’s held responsible for ignoring the word of God if (as v.21 says) YHWH himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t listen. But just as importantly, we’ll have to talk about the fact that Moses is nearly killed by YHWH because he, like Pharaoh, ignored the word of God. It seems here that there is a consequence for ignoring God’s word – it’s death.

This problem of listening (and “listening” in the Bible always includes obedience to the word spoken) – this problem of listening is going to be a theme not only in Exodus but throughout the Story of Redemption. We heard it in the beginning when God told our first parents, “Don’t eat from that one tree. If you eat it you will die.” And then they ate anyway.

Through that act of rebellion against the word of God (this thing we call “sin”), death came into the world and from that point on our hearts didn’t work right. If we heard God speak, we wouldn’t listen. Our hearts would be inclined against him. We’d stop our ears to our own harm.

But even then, God promised that sin and death would not have the last word in this Story. He made a covenant – a relationship founded on his promise – to have mercy on his people. He would forgive their failure to listen. And so, because of that covenant, even in this story we see grace and hope at work. Because even though we fail to listen, we may live in God’s covenant of grace because blood was shed.

So, let’s look at the two central scenes of this passage, looking at Pharaoh and Moses to see the way of death and the way of grace. In this we’ll see why death would come to the house of Pharaoh but spare the family of Moses.

In vv.21-23, we see God’s instructions to Moses about what to do and say in front of Pharaoh. Moses is to perform the miracles God instructed/empowered him to do as proofs of his authority to speak on God’s behalf. They’re supposed to get Pharaoh’s ears ready to listen.

But if Moses thinks those words will bring about a quick rescue – as if Pharaoh would see the miracles and immediately let Israel go – that won’t be the case. Right from the start, YHWH tells Moses how this is going to go. YHWH says, “But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” So when Moses delivers the word of God to Pharaoh saying, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son” – when Moses delivers that message, Moses already knows what Pharaoh is going to do. Pharaoh won’t listen. And as he tried to keep God’s firstborn son, Israel, the judgment on him will take away his firstborn son.

So, now we’re to the elephant in the room. This is the classic question of God’s sovereignty versus man’s responsibility. Or how we normally ask it, “How can God punish Pharaoh if God hardened his heart? Is that really fair? Isn’t that unjust?”

Look, these are hard questions. But what helps me is to explore one of the assumptions behind them. I think one of the assumptions we often make is that Pharaoh was starting from a neutral position toward God. It’s like we think, “Well, if Pharaoh was really given the choice between Israel and his firstborn son, if God hadn’t hardened his heart, he would have chosen to let Israel go. After all, that’s the rational choice." We assume that Pharaoh would be naturally inclined to listen to God because it was in his best interest.

But what makes us assume that Pharaoh started off as neutral toward God? If anything, the testimony of the Scriptures is that no human being is neutral toward God at any time. Actually, our natural inclination after the Fall is rebellion – to reject God’s word and substitute our own. So, my new assumption has to be that Pharaoh was already opposed to God. Which means that when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart he was simply dealing with Pharaoh as he found him. Pharaoh began with a hard heart and God simply hardened it.

Steel is terribly hard. I mean, if I get hit in the face with a slab of steel I’m pretty sure I would cry. It is naturally hard. But it can be hardened. By repeatedly heating it, then rapidly cooling it in various liquids, steel can be significantly hardened. In the coming weeks, we’ll see how the word of God kept coming to Pharaoh and the plagues would put him the fire. But as soon as a plague passed, as soon as things cooled down, Pharaoh’s heart would be harder than it was before. And only when God took the life of Pharaoh’s firstborn son was he compelled to listen and obey. But even then his heart would remain hard and he would pursue Israel to the Red Sea.

So, yes, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Romans 9:17 tells us that he did so to more fully display YHWH’s power and to make YHWH’s name known in the earth. Yes, God is 100 percent sovereign. But God didn’t do anything that Pharaoh himself didn’t want. So, Pharaoh (like every human) is 100 percent responsible. If Pharaoh didn’t want to listen, then God would ensure that he didn’t. If anything, that is more just and fair because God didn’t do anything against Pharaoh’s will.

So, in this question of God’s sovereignty versus man’s responsibility, the Scriptures consistently say that both are 100 percent true. God is fully sovereign and humanity is fully responsible. It’s both/and (not either/or). We’ll see it throughout the coming chapters. Yes, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And yes, Pharaoh hardened his heart because he didn’t want to listen. So, God gave him exactly what he wanted.

And that’s the danger for us. Because our hearts are naturally inclined to not listen to God, the danger for us is that God may actually give us what we want. If we don’t want to listen to him; if we’d rather go after things that aren’t him, he may just give us those things and not give us himself. And if he is Life, then we’ll be left with death.

But things go very differently for Moses. Why? The answer can only be understood in the context of the covenant of grace – this relationship with God based on his promises and simply received by those who don’t deserve it. Let’s look at Moses and see the grace of God at work.

When God established the covenant with Abraham, he gave Abraham a sign that what God promised, God would do. We see it in Genesis 17; it’s the sign of circumcision. God said, “This is my covenant...: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (v.10). So important was this sign that God also said, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (v.14).

From what Zipporah does when YHWH shows up to kill Moses (vv.24-26), we see that Moses hadn’t listened to God. Moses hadn’t circumcised his son. Moses was a covenant breaker. And rather than punish the child, God shows up to take the life of Moses himself. Because if the appointed representative wouldn’t listen and keep the requirements of the covenant, then the justice of God demanded his death.

Circumcision – from Abraham throughout the history of Israel – circumcision was always about the promise of God to cleanse his people from their sin. It was an outward sign of what God did inside them when they trusted him. It was a sign and a confirmation that he would cut out their hard hearts and give them new ones that would listen to him and begin to respond properly to him. So, Moses’ failure to embrace that sign wasn’t just about ignoring some ritual. It was about ignoring the promise of life God made to rebels who believed him.

Pharaoh’s rebellion was so open, so much more overt. His unwillingness to listen to the word of God was obvious. But in Moses we see the subtlety of what a hard heart does. It hears the word of God and may answer part of it, but not all of it. But we see that in the end, Moses and Pharaoh are on the same level. Moses’ failure to listen was just as deadly as Pharaoh’s – or would have been had it not been for his faithful wife.

Because Zipporah seems to understand what is required. And she acts, circumcising her son and putting his blood on Moses. When she did, the LORD let him alone. Through bloodshed the covenant was kept and Moses who’d failed to listen was spared.

For Moses and the Israelites who walked out of Egypt and heard this story for the first time the importance of listening to God would have been impressed upon them. He was the Creator and their Redeemer and he had rights over them they couldn’t deny. In the exodus, he had visited his people (as v.31 says), coming to them as YHWH who always keeps his covenant with his people. Soon after this, he was going to meet with them at Sinai and speak to them. He would speak and gave them his Law, the Ten Commandments, telling them how to live with him and with each other. And when he spoke they needed to listen.

But did they? No. Have we?

Israel’s story is so much like mine. They would listen for a little while then go do whatever they wanted. My heart so often works the same way. In God’s word I hear him tell me how life works best and I don’t want to listen – at least that’s what my thoughts and actions say even if I don’t say it out loud. Like Pharaoh, it sometimes looks like outright rebellion. At other times it’s like Moses, failing to listen and believe completely.

It tells me that what God’s word says is true – I really do have a hard heart. And so I have to agree with him that the consequence is fair – I do deserve death. Whether a rebel outside of the covenant like Pharaoh or a covenant breaker like Moses, what ignoring God’s word gets for us is death.

But then there’s grace. And in the covenant God provides once again for his people. He sent his only Son to shed his own blood so that God’s people might live. He sent the Son who always listened and always obeyed God. And in Jesus, God has once again visited his people to rescue us from the fate we deserve; more than that, to give us life in him.

And he did it by pouring out his own blood on the cross. As Paul says (in Colossians 2:11) Jesus’ crucifixion was his circumcision. And the blood of the covenant he shed, when put on us by the Holy Spirit, is the cutting off of our sinful, rebellious natures. When we look to Jesus in faith, simply resting in him, then his blood is put on us. And his faithfulness is counted as our faithfulness; his perfect listening and obedience is counted as our perfect listening and obedience. Do you hear that? We who have not truly listened to God a day in our lives are safe in Jesus. YHWH isn’t seeking our lives because he took the life of Jesus in our place.

When we hear that God has visited his people once again, the response of faith – the listening response – is the same as what we see in Israel when Moses and Aaron finally arrive. “And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.”

Believing Worship. We hear and believe and worship this God who is faithful to his promises. We give thanks to this God who sent his Son to die in the place of hard-hearted rebels like us. We worship this God who counts Jesus’ death as our own and gives his word that for those who trust in him, the new life of the risen Christ is ours, too. It’s the new life that comes with a new heart and new ears that are able to listen and learning to obey him.

That’s what this salvation is all about. God isn’t just giving us a clean slate. He’s giving us so much more – he’s giving us himself and leading us into life as it was meant to be where we listen to God and obey him. It’s what’s called the “Third Use of the Law.” First, God’s law breaks us like a hammer because it confronts our hard hearts, showing us that we don’t listen to God. Second, the law acts like a fence, restraining evil in the places where it is embraced. But at the same time it can act in a third way. For those who trust in Jesus, the law of God we hear in his word becomes a good guide for life. With gratitude to God we learn to listen to his law and his commands for us in Christ.

And so, assured of our forgiveness because Christ put his blood on us, we can hear God say, “Don’t put anything ahead of me.” And although I still don’t listen, even though I still disobey, I can repent of that sin and believe the Gospel once again and say, “Okay, God, I want to live that way. What idol needs breaking? Approval from men? Power? Comfort? Control? Tell me how much better Jesus is than these things. I want to listen.” We can hear Jesus say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And although I’m still deeply selfish, I can repent and believe the Gospel and say, “Okay, Jesus, I want to live that way. Help me to count others as more important than myself, just like you did for me.”

You have to understand something; as you do this you’ll see just how deep the sin goes. Our hearts are more deeply sinful than we can imagine. But God isn’t surprised. And his grace in Christ is more abundant than our sin! And his love for those who believe is powerful enough to keep us and bring us to himself.

Pastor Francis was a friend of mine in Africa. He pastored a small Presbyterian church on top of a hill, just above a trading post. In his little town was a witch doctor still at work, controlling dark spirits and placing/removing curses for a fee. We may hear such things and laugh suspiciously, but Pastor Francis did not laugh. He prayed. He prayed that this man would stop running away from God; that God would unstop his ears so this man could hear the good news of Jesus. And one day God did.

The witch doctor came to church and heard to the Gospel. And for the first time, he listened. That very day, he heard God say to stop putting trust in his books of spells and listen to Jesus instead. And he took his books – worth thousands of dollars and which had made him thousands of dollars – and he burned them all. By the work of God’s Spirit he was ready to listen to the God who made the heaven and the earth and who’d sent his Son to die for a witch doctor.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Listen to him and you will find in him the grace that leads to new life.

[Pray – Father, our hearts are prone to listen to anything or anyone but you. But you sent your Son to rebels like us, to subdue us and cause us to listen to his words of life. For that gift we praise you, O Father of Mercies. And for the gift of your word where we hear you speak and see your Son, we praise you. Holy Spirit, continue to give us ears to hear the Good News of Jesus and to follow after him with grateful hearts, learning to listen and obey the One who died in our place. May our ears be ever at the ready and our hands and feet ready to act and our mouths ready to speak. For the honor of your Son and in him we pray. Amen.]

[Benediction, from Numbers 6]

“The LORD bless you and keep you;

the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

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