Manuscript of this sermon is available for reading services.
Text: Exodus 1:8-22
The shaping of a nation through suffering
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are [a]more and mightier than we. 10 Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and [b]in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and [c]depart from the land.” 11 So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with [d]hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they [e]spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. 13 The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; 14 and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously [f]imposed on them.
15 Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom [g]was named Shiphrah and the other [h]was named Puah; 16 and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see themupon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17 But the midwives [i]feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had [j]commanded them, but let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife [k]can get to them.” 20 So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very [l]mighty. 21 Because the midwives [m]feared God, He [n]established [o]households for them. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born [p]you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive.”
The shaping of a nation through suffering
The opening verses reminded us again last week that we can trust the word of God that His word are sufficient for all of faith and life. The promises given in Genesis that Israel would become a mighty nation were fulfilled during Joseph’s life and in the generations after that while they lived in Egypt.
However the world we live in is not naturally a friend of God. Sinful human nature tends to supress the truth about God and is at enmity with God and those who belong to God and so during the time the Israelites lived as God’s covenant community in Egypt they began to be oppressed by those around them who didn’t know God.
We see that happening in our own country now. The latest thing is the erosion of freedom of speech for example the Canadian couple who spoke out against aspects of multiculturalism were denied the right to speak. Don Brash who promotes equality across the racial divide is denied the platform at Massey University and labelled racist because of it. The media and the vast majority of politicians ignored the prolife presentation on the lawns of parliament last week. Those who oppose homosexuality are accused of hate speech. Parents are denied the right to properly discipline their children and run the risk of a conviction if they do. So there is building oppression against Christian tradition and the danger of persecution here in New Zealand too. But perhaps that’s what is needed. Perhaps too large a part of the church has become too comfortable and has identified more with secular culture rather than Biblical Christianity.
Part of the process of our preparation for heaven is the process of sanctification and spiritual refinement so that we become fit for it. So that then is what this passage in Exodus is all about God shaping a nation through suffering. We’ll look at it in three parts.
Verse 8 says that a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Israel’s lifestyle in Egypt was about to change from prosperity to persecution and back breaking slave labour. For a long time it had been good. Joseph was highly regarded in the land and even after his long life and death the Israelites continued to live in peace and prosperity. But it was never God’s intention for Egypt to become the Promised Land. When Joseph was dying he said to his brothers “God will visit you and bring you up out of the land he swore to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. (Genesis 50:7)
So the political situation was changing. They say that in politics its more about who you know than what you know and this new pharaoh didn’t know Joseph or Joseph’s God and therefore felt no obligation to the Hebrews. In fact the Egyptians were beginning to resent them because they were settled on some of the best land in Egypt and had grown quite large as a nation. So Pharaoh figured he had a problem and his remedy was, “put them to hard labour make them my slaves!”. And so, according to verse 11 the Hebrews built two store cities in Egypt, Pithom and Ramses with the latter including the royal residence of the Pharaohs. Verse 14 says that Pharaoh’s slave-drivers made their lives bitter “with hard labour in mortar and bricks and all kinds of labour in the field, all their labours which they rigorously imposed on them.” Each word in that sentence is like another blow from the slave drivers whip and which each crack of the whip Pharaoh was not only striking out against God’s people but against God himself.
He resented them and he tried to prevent them from fulfilling their calling to freely and joyfully serve the Lord.
If Pharaoh knew God and wanted to serve God, he would have helped not hindered God’s people. Rather he would have been instrumental in helping fulfil the promise of God that his people become a great and mighty nation. The opposite was true, God’s promise filled Pharaoh with fear and loathing.
Pharaoh also resisted God’s plan. The next stage in the shaping of a nation was that they settle in their own land. Pharaoh did everything in his power to prevent his slave labour force from leaving and said, “let’s deal shrewdly with them lest they escape from the land.”
So by resisting God’s promises and plan for his people Pharaoh was resisting God. He is an example of man in rebellion against God and the way he hoped to succeed was to enslave God’s people.
Behind Pharaoh is Satan and its Satan’s strategy to hinder the work of God. The way he often works is through enslaving people to everything and anything but the Lord’s service and to prevent people from worshipping God. In Matthew 22 and the parable of the wedding feast some who were invited to the wedding feast paid no attention and went their way, one to his farm another to his business, too busy farming or making money to serve the Lord. Satan wants to enslave us to our work, our passions and other people’s demands so that we have no time or energy left to worship God. Sometimes it seems to be working If there is a decline in church attendance on the Lord’s day what are people doing instead of serving God they are working for Satan and the tragedy is that while people keep working for Satan they are also being prevented from entering the promised land.
The persecution of the Israelites raises an important question one which has been asked often and that is the question “why?” Jesus asked the same question on the cross when he called out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”
The first thing is that God is not the author of sin and must not be blamed for our suffering. The ones who caused the Hebrews to suffer were the Egyptian kings and commanders. They treated their slaves with barbaric cruelty. They were forced to complete massive building projects; making, cutting, lays bricks supervised by task masters armed with clubs and ready to beat their slaves into submission.. Why did it happen? It happened because of the sin of the Pharaohs who abused the Hebrews. In fact all of our suffering can be traced back to sin either our own or the sins of others of the curse on creation on account of original sin.
That doesn’t mean that suffering is outside of God’s control. He could have prevented it but it was within his providence that the Israelite live in Egypt and become slaves in Egypt. One of the reasons was to help them grow. Look at verse 12. The more the Egyptians afflicted the Hebrews the more they multiplied and spread out. Pharaoh enslaved them lest they multiply. As it says in 1 Corinthians 1:19 God destroys the wisdom of the wise and sets their cleverness aside.”
As well as multiply the persecution against the Hebrews had the effect of preserving them as a close-knit community. Had they continued to prosper unhindered in Egypt they may well have melded into Egyptian society and lost their identity as God’s special people. They did at least to some extent begin to take on the superstitions and idolatry of Egypt. The making of the golden calf at the foot of Mt Sinai later on was something they learned in Egypt. When they grumbled in the desert on their way to Canaan they longed for their old Egyptian way of life. But God wasn’t about to let his people be absorbed into the Egyptian way of life. They were his chosen people and were meant to be a light to the nations. God achieved this separation by allowing Pharaoh to enslave them.
Similarly in the early church God enabled the persecution of Christians and the martyrdom of Stephen to scatter the church throughout the region. That had the effect of spreading the Gospel according to Acts 8:1. The church often experiences spiritual and numerical growth through hardship because suffering and hardship show us our need for salvation. Had they not been enslaved in Egypt the Israelites might never have wanted to leave Egypt had become their home they were well settled in the land of Goshen and elsewhere. Slavery made them want to get out.
That then is the purpose of suffering to help us want to get out. In that sense it is redemptive which is also why Jesus was crucified. It was through his sufferings and death that Jesus accomplished our salvation.
That then is also the pattern of the Christian life. It says in 1 Peter 2:21 that Christ suffered for you leaving you an example that you might follow in his steps.” We may suffer hatred and persecution. Christians often do. Yet suffering produces growth. Romans 5:3& 4 says that we rejoice in our sufferings because suffering brings about perseverance and perseverance proven character and character hope.
I recently heard about an elderly Christian man in his 90s who suffered for a long time with an illness that caused many visits to the hospital. One morning his wife was unable to wake him and decided to call the ambulance. The man then opened his eyes and said to his wife don’t call the ambulance just leave me here, I’m going to be with my Lord” and then he passed away.
Its suffering which makes us long for our salvation.
3 Antilife- prolife
Pharaoh realised that slave labour wasn’t really achieving his goal of totyal subjugation of the Israelites because the Hebrews continued to increase in number and started to spread out across the land so he devised a new strategy. He turned from slavery to slaughter. He commanded two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah to make sure that every baby boy born in Egypt was killed at birth. No doubt Pharaoh was worried that Israel with is burgeoning population would in time become a military threat. One way to prevent that is by selective genocide. Limiting the number of young male fighters kill them when they are little.
It brings to mind Revelation 12 and the image of the dragon standing in front of a woman about to give birth ready to devour the new born child. That image represents Satan’s attempts to destroy God’s work of salvation throughout history. Pharaoh tried infanticide, Haman almost succeeded in annihilating the Jews in Persia, Herod had all the baby boys under 2 in Bethlehem killed in his attempts to destroy the Christ child. But God said right after the fall that the serpent would strike at the heel of the seed of the woman, he would bruise the serpents head
In Revelation 12 a battle raged in the heavenly realms and Satan was defeated and thrown down to earth. And on earth Shiprah which means beautiful and Puah which means splendid; these two women lived up to their names and their calling to deliver babies and preserve life and not take innocent life. These women it says, “feared God.” Perhaps they were familiar with God’s word to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of a man by man shall his blood be shed for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6) They knew that God is the Lord of life so didn’t do as Pharaoh commanded but let the baby boys live.
It reminds us again when man’s laws contradict God’s laws then we must put God first.
As it turned out the king of Egypt found out about it and summoned the midwives to his palace. He asked the midwives “why have you done this thing?” The truth is that they hadn’t done anything and certainly hadn’t committed any crime but for those who are a law to themselves if you defy them then they take it as a personal offense.
Well Shiprah and Puah were face with an ethical dilemma. If they made it clear that they were defying Pharaoh, they would certainly be killed.
Instead the answer they gave was a good example of dealing with an ethical dilemma in a way that pleases God. They said that the Hebrew women were more vigorous than the Egyptian women and give birth before the midwives can get to them. On the face of it, it seems they broke the 9th commandment but did so in a way that promoted the kingdom of God since Israel was to be the instrument in God’s hand to further his kingdom on earth. Israel was the nation from whom the Christ child was to come.
Their answer seemed to satisfy Pharaoh for the moment but more importantly it pleased God. Verse 20 says that God was good to the midwives and because they feared God he established households for them. It shows again how much better it is simply to obey God rather than listen to those who hate God and are enemies of the church. The outcome is always better if we obey God even if suffering and danger are involved.
Sometimes we are also forced to make a stand. Will I take on this job which involves Sunday work? Will I have this baby I don’t want and am not ready for yet? Will I get serious with this person I like and want to be in a relationship with but who isn’t a Christian? Will I lie or cheat or steal in order to cover up sin or to get my own way?
When such challenges come what will you do? What will you say? The beautiful and splendid thing is to say I am a Christian and I want to follow Christ.
In conclusion then we can see how God shaped the nation Israel in Egypt through a period of intense persecution. They grew closer together, separate from the Egyptians and they grew numerically. They also began to realise that they needed to get out of slavery in Egypt. They needed salvation. In the case of the midwives they realised that it is better to obey God than obey sinful man.
It also helps us realise that suffering in the life of the Christian can have a good effect. Suffering produces character and character produces hope and hope doesn’t disappoint. It helps is look more to God and the future. We come to see that while we must for now live in the world, we belong to Christ and are not of the world but are looking forward to our promised land.
It also show us that behind the conflict and trials is the spiritual battle a battle which God and his people will win. Satan always fights against Christ and his church. He thought he’d won when Christ was crucified but on the third day Christ rose victorious over sin and death. His promise to all who trust and obey is that we will have the victory with Him in the end, amen.