In today’s reading the plagues continue: livestock, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. The plagues reap destruction on their food supplies and on their bodies. God declares to Pharaoh His purpose for sending the plagues: “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16)
Once again, Pharaoh continues his predictable response: plague comes, Pharaoh says he repents and will let them go, the plague is lifted, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let them go.
All of the plagues are bad but the 9th plague is of particular interest: darkness. In my younger days I sang with a choir and performed Handel’s Messiah. I was given the privilege of singing the bass recitative: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…” (If you’ve never listened to it check it out: “For Behold…The people that walked in darkness”, Philippe Sly, Julian Wachner – YouTube )
The next year I was in college at George Mason University and we sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt and I sang the bass recitative “He sent a thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt.” Nearly 40 years later I still have vivid memories of our first performance of this, I was battling strep throat and spent the whole day nursing my throat with honey, lemon and salt water so that I could sing my solo that night (check it out here: Israel in Egypt, HWV 54, Pt. II: Part II: He sent a thick darkness over all the land (Chorus) – YouTube) In fact you might want to listen to the entire Oratorio Israel in Egypt by GF Handel.
In both of these Handel works with the Biblical texts and colors them with the accompanying music. You can almost feel the darkness. What does three days of thick darkness feel like? How disoriented would it be for an entire nation to be blanketed in darkness?
Jesus later used darkness to get Saul/Paul’s attention. Saul was blinded for three days (Acts 9:9) until Ananias prayed over him and the scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored. Paul responded by literally “seeing the light” and he become a lifelong follower of Jesus Christ. He immediately got up and was baptized into Jesus Christ.
What happened after Pharaoh came out of three days of darkness? You guessed it, his heart was once again hardened. It was harder than ever. After 9 plagues, 9 times God gave him a chance to repent after seeing God’s power at work. 9 Times Pharaoh had the chance to proclaim God’s greatness to all the earth. 9 times Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Psalm 103 reminds us that:
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
God balances His love and desire to see justice for the oppressed with his compassion and gracious love for the oppressor. In the story God loves both His oppressed people Israel represented by Moses and He loves His children mired in pride and power who oppress his people, the Egyptians represented by Pharaoh. God demonstrates His patience to Pharaoh by giving him 9 chances to repent. God also demonstrates His love and faithfulness to Israel by limiting Pharaoh.
Peter later picks up this same theme in II Peter 3:9-10- “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”
God was patient with Pharaoh, “Love is patient”. But God was also merciful to Israel, God’s love and patience have limits. Pharaoh was about to discover the limits of God’s patience. It would cost him and all of Egypt their firstborn sons.
How will America and the world respond to our current “plague” the Covid-19 Pandemic? Will we soften our hearts and repent and turn to God and forsake our sins and put our full faith and trust in God? Or will we harden our hearts again? How much longer will God be patient and give opportunities to repent? When will God finally say- it’s time to fully and finally set my people and all of the earth free from this dreaded curse of sin and death? It’s time to bring about the final judgment?
I don’t know and you don’t know. But learn the lesson from Pharaoh and don’t test the limits of God’s patience and mercy. May the scales fall from our eyes, may the thick darkness of sin and unbelief that covers our land be lifted.