When Satan finds that he cannot destroy the people of God with the fury of a Nero, he will seek to hold them in his power with the caresses of a Constantine. The methods are different, but the end result is the same: God is robbed of His people. Thus if Satan was unable to frustrate the purpose of God with the violence of Ex. 1 in the destruction of Israel’s children, then he turns to the far more subtle diplomacy of Ex. 8–10 by which he seeks to retain Israel in his power. It is the difference between his manifestation as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5: 8) and his role as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11: 14). Herodotus records that the ancient Egyptians used to capture crocodiles by putting clay into their eyes. It is the same subtle way that Pharaoh endeavoured to deal with Moses following Jehovah’s demand through the prophet to “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Ex. 7: 16).
Pharaoh’s first attempt at throwing the clay was rather coarse and crude: “Go, sacrifice to your God in the land” (Ex. 8: 25). This is often the first sly suggestion that Satan will make as he attempts to blind the awakened soul. It means ‘If you are determined to be religious you don’t need to cut yourself off from the religions of this world. There are plenty of places of worship and methods of worship in Egypt to suit every possible disposition. Feel free to choose any one of them as long as you do not separate from them’. To separate from them would be to condemn them, and Satan cannot abide such intolerance. Thus Pharaoh does not seek to hinder the Israelites from worshipping Jehovah as long as Jehovah is placed on a level with Amun–Ra, Thoth and Osiris––and once thus placed on a level with the Sun, the Intellect, and the Hidden Life, God’s glory is sure to be presently reduced to the level of Anubis (the jackal), or even Scaraboeus (the beetle).
Why go into the desert when Egypt had every device imaginable conducive to the expression of religion? Where else could such grandeur and solemnity in religion be found? It was adorned all the way down from the Second Cataract of the Nile to the Delta with the most magnificent temples the world had ever seen. The Karnak was approached by an avenue nearly two miles long of vast granite Sphinxes, the temple itself huge enough to hold thirty churches, and its central hall large enough to contain a couple of cathedrals. Where has there ever been a more imposing and gorgeous ceremonial, a more venerable and learned priesthood, a more majestic ritual? Egypt was the place above all others to be religious in, especially when it showed itself so ‘tolerant’ as to admit a new deity.
This first proposal of Pharaoh has been a test for God’s people all down the ages. The first disciples of Christ had to turn their backs on Jerusalem’s glorious temple when the spiritual ‘Egypt’ of Judaism had captured it and made it their house instead of God’s. With God no longer to be found there the faithful elected to worship in the caves and dens of the earth. Later on there came a time when the spiritual Egypt, this time in the form of Romanism, proposed to the people of God that they should mingle their worship with the revived Babylonish idolatry. Once again there was a remnant who had the fidelity to prefer the bleak mountain sides and caverns of Scotland, or the Vaudois valleys to the magnificence of St Peter’s Cathedral and its like, as those who preceded them had preferred the catacombs to Jerusalem’s temple, or the “waste, howling wilderness” (Deut. 32: 10) to the Karnak of Thebes. The same principle and choice arises in the history of every converted soul. Which will you have: a sensuous religion without God, or God without sensuous religion? You cannot have both, though Pharaoh proposes that you should––but that is only his clay, coarse and crude it may be, but effective enough to blind you. Do not make the mistake of regarding these lessons from Exodus as only being relevant to a bygone age. They are as relevant now as ever they were, for Pharaoh is still on the throne. As the god of this world he presides over a rich and impressive array of religion calculated to allure and deceive, the crowning masterpiece of which is Christendom. How solemn the Lord’s rebuke to the assembly in Pergamos: “I know where thou dwellest, where the throne of Satan [is]”, and again, (speaking of Antipas, God’s martyr), “who was slain among you, where Satan dwells” (Rev. 2: 13). This is Israel enslaved in Pharaoh’s land, the people of God denied to Jehovah, the Church wedded to the world. All around us we see it––not only in Rome and Canterbury, but in many a small chapel or meeting hall. It is the “Christianity” of politics instead of preaching, revelry instead of reverence, ritual instead of reality. “Wherefore come out from the midst of them, and be separated, saith [the] Lord” ( 2 Cor. 6: 17). Only in the desert, away from Egypt, outside this world–system, can God be truly served and worshipped. Be not deceived: you cannot sacrifice to God in Pharaoh’s land!
Pharaoh’s second attempt was much more skilful––clay of better quality, more plastic and adhesive. He says “I will let you go that you may sacrifice to Jehovah your God in the wilderness; only, go not very far away” (Ex. 8: 28, my emphasis). Now that seems a fair enough proposal. Why should one travel further than is necessary? Anyway who is to determine the precise distance? All distance is relative. Reasoning thus the soul will find itself in a new Haran, not in Ur of the Chaldees but not in the promised land either (Gen. 11: 31)––a kind of borderland of spiritual life, a land of earthly worship and fleshly associations, a land of doubt and danger. It is a poor condition of soul when a Christian only seeks to “go not very far away”––separate in measure, but only as far as to quieten conscience, not on account of fidelity to the Lord. Pharaoh can tolerate this because you are still within his reach, still within the circle of his power. It is a dangerous position to be in––like walking on the edge of a precipice to see how near you can go without falling over. An eccentric man looking for a coachman asked some of the candidates how near they could drive to the edge of an adjacent cliff. Some of them said they could go within the breadth of a small coin. At last came one who said he would go as far away from it as ever he could: this was the man who got the job. God’s people ought not to be scarcely distinguishable from the world. His commandment is for a rigid and definite separation: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is … to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1: 27). Demas was a companion of Paul yet seemed fascinated by the delights of the “present age” (2 Tim. 4: 10). It wasn’t long before the spiritual Pharaoh had him back in his power. Satan is a patient worker––the soul that is “not very far away” will be enticed back little by little by things that seem harmless in themselves. The question is often not simply “Is it wrong?” but “Where does it lead me?”
To these two cunning propositions Moses answers with that calm dignity which comes from resting in faith upon God’s commandment, with an unwavering purpose untroubled by the anger and opposition of Pharaoh. “We will go three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to Jehovah our God, as He shall command us” (Ex. 8: 27). That is the shortest distance that must separate Israel from Egypt: three days––death and resurrection. “Three days journey” carried them to the other side of the Red Sea, that Red Sea where God’s righteousness is vindicated––where Justice strikes and Mercy saves. It is the type of the Cross, where in an infinitely larger sense judgement was executed and salvation accomplished, and which ends for the disciple the course of Egypt, and begins that of the wilderness. In that Cross the world is crucified to him and he to it (see Gal. 6: 14).
Pharaoh’s third crafty proposal was that the adult Israelites might go from Egypt, but they must leave their children behind them: “And Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh. And he said to them, Go, serve Jehovah your God. Who are they that shall go? And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters; with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we have a feast of Jehovah. And he said to them, Let Jehovah be so with you, as I let you go, and your little ones: see that evil is before you! Not so: go now, ye [that are] men, and serve Jehovah! for it is that ye have desired. And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence” (Ex. 10: 8–11). By such an arrangement this astute diplomat knew full well that he would have them all back in his power sooner or later. If the Hebrews had gone without their children, their hearts would have remained in Egypt, while their bodies were in the wilderness. Not only would this be miserable for them, but it would be insulting to God for bodies are no use to Him without hearts––dumb, driven cattle are better than that. God’s purpose was to bring them entirely out of Egypt, and to fix all the objects of their interest and affections outside its borders, to “deliver us out of the present evil world” (Gal. 1: 4) and to set our “affection on things above” (Col. 3: 2 AV). Pharaoh’s purpose by contrast is to fix the objects of their love and interest in the old kingdom of sin and condemnation, and so keep them tethered to it as securely as if bound by chains.
Of course, there is the general principle here of the displacement of the centre of attraction––the attachment of the interests and sympathies of God’s people to worldly allurements of any sort. However, it is worthy of notice how often the Devil hinders the growth, and thwarts the usefulness of even the most devout and earnest by the special means before us, namely, their children. If he can only get possession of them as hostages, then he can wreak havoc. The Scriptures are not short of examples of how he has used his power: Jacob distressed by Simeon and Levi, David weeping over Absalom, Aaron silenced by the sight of his sons struck dead before the altar. The spiritual Pharaoh also got possession of Eli’s sons, and so, though an aged and devoted servant of God, he has to bear the rebukes of a child, to have the ministry of his life closed in disaster, and to remain a perpetual example of the evil effects of a man’s neglecting his own home (1 Sam. 3–4). We must learn––hard lesson though it is––that zeal in the highest duties will not exempt us from the evil results of neglecting the lowest.
When a third compromise is rejected, Pharaoh makes his last proposal, thereby exhausting the resources of diplomacy: he will let the children of Israel go when, how, and where they like, but they must leave their flocks and herds behind “And Pharaoh called Moses and said, Go, serve Jehovah; only let your flocks and your herds remain; let your little ones also go with you” (Ex. 10: 24). Now this proposal appears innocent enough––it seems a mere matter of their surrendering a little property. Moses’ answer, however, reveals the subtle and deadly nature of the overture: “And Moses said, Thou must give also sacrifices and burnt–offerings into our hands, that we may sacrifice to Jehovah our God. Our cattle also must go with us: there shall not a hoof be left behind; for we must take thereof to serve Jehovah our God” (Ex. 10: 25, 26). He regarded the cattle, and so did Pharaoh, not merely as so much property, or food supply (for they ate manna in the wilderness), but as the sacrificial means of approach to Jehovah. In fact they were so many types of CHRIST. Thus the enemy wants us to go into the wilderness without Christ!
This is peculiarly the compromise put forward by Satan at the present time. The coarser and cruder attempts of the enemy against the people of God have more or less failed, and he is now ready to surrender everything if he can but deprive us of the sacrificial Christ. He will let us have the Christ of the manna, but not the Christ of the Passover. Thus there is a fashion of religion rapidly growing that pretends to receive and reverence our Lord in His heavenly life here on earth, but rejects and treats with slight and repugnance the doctrine of His sacrificial death, vicarious suffering and atoning blood. There are some stern and terrible words in John’s Gospel as to this. In chapter six, where we have the Son of God set before us as the Antitype of the manna, we are told “Unless ye shall have eaten the flesh of the Son of man, and drunk his blood, ye have no life in yourselves” (v53). That is, except you receive into the soul and appropriate, as food is received and appropriated by the body, the Son of Man in His blood–shedding and death, you have no spiritual life at all. This is stated here in contrast with the manna which was the wilderness food of the redeemed––the earthly life of Christ––and the connection is that unless the Israelites had eaten the Passover sacrifice before starting, they would never have lived to get to the wilderness at all. Despite what some teach, this passage has no connection with the Lord’s Supper, except that in the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper we profess it all. It is the appropriation of the work of Christ at Calvary for ourselves as individuals. Nor is it a continuous matter like the manna; the tense is, “unless ye shall have eaten”––that is, once for all appropriated the death and atonement of the Son of Man.
Now we know that Moses was able to resist all the compromises put before him––compromises that, despite the appearance of fairness and decency left all the advantages with Pharaoh. Yet the god of this world is still seeking to blind the Lord’s people and the question that needs to be faced is whether we are wise to this. Compromise with the world––however much it may be dressed up––robs us of our blessing and is dishonouring to God. Oh may we be alive to these things lest the enemy get an advantage!