Exodus 5:1-6:13 - The God Who Lets His People Make Bricks Without Straw
March 2, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 5:1–6:13
[Text: Exodus 5:1- 6:13] “The God Who Lets His People Make Bricks Without Straw”
Things were looking up for Israel. The word of YHWH had come telling them he’d seen their affliction. And YHWH himself had sent Moses as their appointed deliverer. When they heard, they bowed their heads, worshipping YHWH with thankful hearts that he’d come to rescue them. But they were about to learn that the God who saves may yet allow his people to make bricks without straw.
[Pray – God of mercy, you promised never to break your covenant with us. Amid all the changing words of our generation, speak your eternal Word that does not change. Then we may respond to your gracious promises with faithful and obedient lives; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.]
[Read Exodus 5:1-23]
You don’t have to be around a church very long before you hear someone use the phrase “Gospel.” It’s the “Good News” of Jesus; the announcement that his kingdom has arrived. It’s the announcement that there is forgiveness to be had through his death; the announcement that through him we have peace with God and one another. It’s the announcement that the mercy and grace of God comes to us simply by faith – God freely gives us what we could not earn when we rest in Jesus, trusting him to rescue us.
The announcement of Jesus’ arrived kingdom tells us that God’s purpose in Jesus has already begun to re-shape reality. For his people and his creation, the Curse that came because of our rebellion is being undone. And God, who made all things, is making all things new in Christ.
So, what do you tell someone when they set their hope in Jesus and life gets harder for them? What do you say when their sin seems bigger and harder than ever to control? What do you say when grief is piled upon grief? When one month of under-employment turns into seven? When one death is followed by another? When their cancer comes back; when their body fails? What do you say to someone finding it harder and harder to be a faithful spouse or parent because they realize how hard it really is to sacrifice for the sake of others? What do you tell them when they’ve believed redemption has come in Jesus but their life feels like they’re making bricks without straw?
For that matter, what do you tell yourself? We might hear the announcement of the Gospel, that in Christ God is making all things new. But when things get harder instead of easier, it’s hard to believe that what he says is true. When we set our hope in Jesus and things seem to go from bad to worse, how are we supposed to think or feel or act?
Ancient Israel found themselves dealing with that question. Moses found himself wondering the same thing – if God is really working, then why are things getting worse? If God really came to save, then why did he let his people be given an impossible task?
“Ah,” some may say, “but he didn’t! It was Pharaoh who put that burden on God’s people!” Well, not so, according to Moses. In v. 22-23, Moses understands that beneath the actions of Pharaoh (which he calls evil) – beneath his actions is the work of God that brought this evil (or “trouble”) to Israel. No matter how we might try to get around it, it was Israel’s God who let this burden fall on their shoulders.
So, Moses asks, “Why…Why?” And we often ask, “Why, why?” But the good news of this passage is that our God is big enough to let us ask these questions. And in this word we hear that no matter what our circumstances may say and no matter how intensely we question whether or not God is really on the move – the truth is that he is. The doubts and fears of his people don’t stop his work and before this story is done, we’ll see it – painful though it is, making bricks without straw is a part of God’s saving work.
In this first meeting between Moses and Pharaoh, we’ll focus on three things: (1) the lie that says God isn’t working, (2) the truth God brings us back to, and (3) the hope we have when it’s hard to believe. And through this word we’ll see the confidence we can have in God even though he might let us suffer like Israel.
So, first, let’s look at the lie that says God isn’t working.
When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, they delivered the message God instructed them. “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (5:1)
But Pharaoh immediately rejects this word. And from this point on we see the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. He assumes the role Egyptian faith had given him – the role of a god – and will not bow to any other deity. He will not listen to YHWH, the God of slaves.
In v.3, Moses and Aaron say that to fail to listen and obey would leave them in a dangerous position. From what Moses experienced in the last chapter (he was nearly killed by YHWH himself for his failure to listen to the demands of the covenant), this word functioned as a warning of sorts for Pharaoh. It’s as if to say, “Listen and obey or face the consequences. This YHWH is not one to be taken lightly.”
But Pharaoh’s will is set. And he is completely unreasonable – interpreting a request to worship as idleness and setting impossible burdens on those already crushed and oppressed. In vv.5-9 he delivers his judgment. No straw will be given to Israel, but their quota for bricks remains the same. Not only will he give them no time to worship. He doubles their burdens.
And most importantly, listen to Pharaoh at the end of v.9 – “Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.” That’s what Pharaoh thinks of Moses’ message from YHWH; it’s a lie. It’s as if he says, “You might have heard that your God has seen you and come to rescue you. You might have heard that he’s powerful and claimed you for himself. You might have heard these things from Moses – but they are lies one and all. There is no god but me.”
From what happens next, it’s easy to see how Pharaoh’s words would have seemed true. In v.10, the word of the god called Pharaoh came to Israel. “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. Go and get your straw yourselves…but your work will not be reduced in the least.” And when the inevitable happens and Israel can’t meet their quota, the foremen of Israel are beaten and asked (v.14), “Why have you not done all your tasks of making bricks today and yesterday, as in the past?”
When the foremen complain to Pharaoh, they find no sympathy and no relief. And so, they understood their situation. They were in trouble (v.19). And in them we hear the lie of Pharaoh taking root in their hearts. Like the serpent who deceived our first parents in Eden, Pharaoh’s lie called God’s faithfulness into doubt. It’s the lie that always makes us afraid that God isn’t really working to save, the lie that always makes us think we’re on our own. So, when the foremen see Moses, they say, “YHWH look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” We can hear the unbelief in their hearts, undoing the hope they had when Moses first arrived. They couldn’t see how that hope could be true, so they believed the lie that said they couldn’t be saved. Today they were making bricks without straw and tomorrow - tomorrow they’d be dead.
Even Moses isn’t immune from it all. He obviously has his doubts about all this. But I want you to notice how Moses is different from the rest of the people. The people turn against Moses in their unbelief. But Moses turns his questions to the LORD himself. You can hear the groaning in his voice when he speaks in v.22. But he is groaning in the right direction.
He says, “O YHWH, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”
In Moses’ questions, we hear him asking about today and expressing doubts about tomorrow. He knows that nothing happens apart from God’s will (though he blames the evil on Pharaoh and rightly so). So, he says, “Why…Why?” because he can’t see how things can be as they are and God be faithful, too. How can this be what deliverance looks like? How can God be in the process of delivering his people from slavery when their burden just increased!?!? Isn’t the opposite supposed to happen? Isn’t it supposed to get easier? Moses groans like one who’s searching for light in a dark place.
Here is where you and I can learn from Moses. When questions about today come and fears for the future rise. When doubts about God’s promised deliverance come – what do we do? We groan and groan in the right direction, taking our questions to God.
What is it that makes you believe the lie that says God isn’t working in this world to rescue his people? What circumstances are you facing that seem to confirm it as true? Maybe it’s rumors of war in Ukraine or threats against religious freedom here. Maybe it’s an ongoing struggle with secret sin (which, by the way, will always remain an unconquerable struggle until it is no longer secret – talk to your brothers and sisters who can be ministers of Christ to you), maybe it’s a broken relationship, or a grief renewed, or something as ordinary and terrifying as uncertainty about tomorrow – all these things can make us question the word of God that says he is making all things new in Jesus. They make us feel as if the Gospel can’t be true because if it was things wouldn’t be this way.
But from this word, we hear that suffering and salvation are not strangers. In his work of redemption, God does lets his people make bricks without straw. So, we need to groan to him, telling him of our fears and struggles. And then we need to listen because the only thing that can defeat the lie is the truth.
And the truth is what God gives to Moses. That’s the second thing to hear in this text – the truth to which Moses is returned in chapter six. God tells Moses the truth that can undo the lie.
[Read Exodus 6:1-13]
Before we get into the details here, I want to point out what God does when Moses groans and listens. Or, rather, I want to point out what God doesn’t do to Moses. He doesn’t berate Moses. He doesn’t shame Moses for asking such questions. Throughout the Story of Redemption, this is how God deals with his people who come asking honest questions, struggling to believe him when circumstances would lead them away. He is gentle. He is big enough to handle their doubts and fears. We hear it in the Psalms. And we hear it in Jesus, too. To the proud who ask questions to trap him, he is severe. But he is always gentle with the struggler who asks and listens and trusts him like a child who doesn’t know all the answers.
So, he speaks and tells Moses the truth. He carries Moses back to the Story of Redemption, back to the promises God already made. Ultimately, God carries Moses back to himself, to strengthen Moses and renew his hope in the face of lies and bricks without straw.
Because no matter what the circumstances said, they were about to be held in contrast with what God was about to do. Pharaoh called their hope a lie, but Pharaoh himself would soon send Israel out of Egypt. He would drive them out because he was soon to meet the God of Israel whom he did not know. Pharaoh and the Egyptians would come to know YHWH, according to 7:5. But they would only know him as Judge when he came in judgment against them. Israel, on the other hand, would know him more fully – as he truly is. They would know him as their God by covenant and as their Redeemer.
That’s the truth to which we see YHWH returning Moses. In the first part of chapter 6, YHWH takes Moses back to the covenant relationship God established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He takes him back to the promises he’d made to them and re-affirms his intentions toward his people. Listen to how he counters the lies of Pharaoh and the fears of Israel. Not only will their lives be spared, but God will give them himself to repay their suffering. Despite appearances, God is still on the move.
Three times he says, “I am YHWH,” using the name that always calls the reader back to the covenant. Here, he reminds Moses (and all Israel) that “he is the God of the covenant who will act in a decisive way on behalf of his people.” He underscores that reality through the repetition of the first-person singular “I,” saying, “I will bring you out” (v. 6); “I will deliver you” (v. 6); “I will redeem you” (v. 6); “I will take you to be my people” (v. 7); “I will be your God” (v. 7); “I will bring you into the land” (v. 8); and “I will give it to you for a possession” (v. 8). Their suffering made even Moses question whether these things were true. So, God gave Moses his word to bolster his faith in him, so that no matter how things seem, Moses can keep going back to this truth. It’s the truth that undoes the lie: God is working. And what God promises he does. And what he begins he finishes. He promised redemption and redemption was coming. And nothing in this world could stop him – not even the unbelief of his people.
Look at 6:9. Although Moses believes and speaks the truth that can undo the lie, the people can’t hear him. “(T)hey did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”
They couldn’t believe anything but the lie in that moment. The truth was just too impossible. After 400 years of slavery, and now with an impossible task in front of them, the lie was too strong and the circumstances too dark. They couldn’t see how the truth could be true.
But here we come to the last point. What is the hope we have when it’s hard to believe? Look with me at vv.10-13.
God saw their unbelief and their broken spirits, “So the LORD said to Moses, “Go in, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the people of Israel go out of his land.” But Moses said to the LORD, “Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?”
It seems Moses still had his doubts. His words express his felt weakness and feelings of inadequacy.
“But the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge about the people of Israel and about Pharaoh king of Egypt: to bring the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” (6:13)
God saw the unbelief of his people. They didn’t trust him fully. They were believing the lie instead of the truth. They were listening to their circumstances instead of his promises. And he doesn’t stop saving them. He sent Moses back to them, charging him to bring the people out of Egypt and into life with him.
That’s the God of the Bible; he’s the one who saves people who are weak and faltering in their faith. He’s the reason why we can still have hope even when we can’t see how. We don’t have hope because “maybe my suffering will end.” It might not. We don’t have hope because we know things will get better. They might not. We certainly don’t have hope in some “word of power” foolishness that says, “If you just have enough faith, then God will fix your problems.”
We have hope because we have a faithful God whose purposes to save a people for himself cannot be stopped. The God who committed himself to redeem his people in Jesus and make all things new will do it. And he gives the gift of faith to his people, so that we might hear the truth of Jesus and believe it. Our faith may be small and weak as we hear the lie again and our circumstances support it. My faith can feel so small when I’m making bricks without straw.
But thankfully it is not our faith that saves us, that is, it isn’t about how pure our faith is or how strong it is. Our faith doesn’t save us – Jesus does. And the smallest, weakest faith that looks to him, God has given to lead us out of death and into eternal life with him.
In Mark 9, Jesus met a father whose son had a demon. For years it seems, this demon had tried to destroy his son, throwing him into water and fire. He had a hard time believing things could be any different. Even when he knew he had to talk to Jesus, there was doubt about what even Jesus could do. He said to Jesus, “…if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus heard that. “’If you can!” he said, “All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father…cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”
Such weakness. Such honesty about his own heart. It’s the groaning of one who can’t see how things can be different but knows who can make things right if he wills it.
And Jesus wills it. He sends the demon from the boy saying, “…never enter him again.” But when the demon leaves, the boy was like a corpse. Everyone around said, “He is dead.” Jesus had rescued the boy from the demon, but it like it was too much. What did the father think in that moment, seeing his lifeless son on the ground? Did he regret asking Jesus for help? Did he regret trusting him? I don’t know, but I know what Jesus did. “Jesus took (the boy) by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”
When the Spirit of Jesus begins his work of redemption in our lives, things may often pass from initial hope to dark doubt. Because sin gets bigger, not smaller. Relationships and our walk through life gets harder, not easier.
So what do you tell a brother or sister in Christ who is struggling? What do you say to your own soul when you feel like you’re making bricks without straw?
Tell them they’re not alone. Tell them this isn’t strange. Tell them and tell yourself to groan – but groan in the right direction, to the God of helpless mourners suffering beneath the Curse of Sin. And then act as if there is a faithful God who will do what is right (Genesis 18:25), going back to the truth and enduring in faith. Go back to the truth of the Gospel, praying for justice and relief. Go back to the truth God revealed in Jesus, speaking that truth boldly. Your words might not do anything – that is up to God. But your role is that of a witness, simply saying what is true, what God says is true. Christ died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. And when he does he will make all things new.
[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]
I put the thoughts of my friend on the front of the bulletin. He said, “I’m starting to see much of the failure in my faith in Jesus and who he is for me is about tomorrow. What will happen tomorrow? And usually the answer to that question reverts to a negative. There is no sense…or little sense of Jesus being there for tomorrow. Even though the Bible is rife with him telling me he would be.”
In God’s word we hear our promised redemption has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And although the fullness of that has not yet arrived, here in front of you is the sign and confirmation that what God promises is true. Here is the proof that the sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Jesus died for our sins and was raised to raise us up to new life with him. And when we repent and believe that Good News, we have the sure hope that although we now make bricks without straw – our God remains faithful and true.
[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.”
 ESV Study Bible - see note on Exodus 6:3-8.
 Matthew B. Redmond, found at http://mattbredmond.com/2014/02/27/thursdays-random-thoughts-72/