Thoughts from Doug Knox.
Defeat, Not Failure
Background reading: Exodus 5-6
Recently I suffered a defeat in my ministry that has left me wondering about my abilities, my direction, and even my calling. Some good friends have given me wise counsel, but while the wound is fresh, I concentrate on personal study and Bible reading. So far, three truths have become evident. One, my own mistakes have contributed to the defeat. Two, in spite of my mistakes, the defeat probably was inescapable. And three, my circumstances do not spell failure. God still reigns over both me and the situation. One of the places where encouragement has emerged is from my current devotional reading in Exodus. I have found I am not alone.
Some of God’s greatest works come after what appears to be our deepest failures. An example of this occurs just prior to his deliverance of Israel from Egypt. If we were writing the story of Israel’s rescue from Egyptian slavery, we probably would allow at least some encouraging news at the beginning, like an inspirational moment. As the story stands, the LORD sends Moses and Aaron to the Pharaoh, knowing full well that they will fall flat on their faces. In Exodus 3, the LORD tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and ask for three days leave so that the people can sacrifice to their God in the wilderness. Then he drops the bomb. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19). In the original language, the opening phrase is emphatic. The LORD knows with certainty that Pharaoh will refuse to budge.
Now we come to Exodus 5, where Moses approaches Pharaoh. The contrast between the two men could not be greater. One is an unknown prophet from the desert who says he represents the creator of the universe, and the other is the most powerful monarch in the Near East, a man who believes he is a god.
At the beginning of the chapter, Moses introduces his God to Pharaoh. “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a fast for me in the wilderness’ ” (Exodus 5:1). On the surface the demand is a simple one. Any god would claim the right to his people’s worship. Of course, Pharaoh objects. “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Even though Pharaoh phrases his challenge as a question, his words are dismissive. He does not care who the LORD is. All he cares about is his own image as the reigning god of the Egyptians. Moses ignores the challenge and moves to the issue. “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest he fall on us with pestilence or with the sword” (Exodus 5:3). The answer goes to the heart of Pharaoh’s question, “Who is the LORD?” He is the God who has chosen Israel to be his people, and because he has become their God, he owns the right to claim their allegiance. Pharaoh does not care. He claims that the people have too much time on their hands, and in a show of spite, withholds straw from their assigned task as brick-makers. Meanwhile, he insists they continue to meet the quotas.
The Bitter Taste of Defeat
The Israelite foremen bring their complaint to Moses, and Moses takes it to God. “O LORD, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Exodus 5:30). Defeat hurts.
The incident looks like a failure, but Pharaoh has done only what God said he would do. The LORD tells Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will drive them out of this land” (Exodus 6:1). Here are nine statements that God makes regarding who he is and what he is about to do. The statements run in sequence from Exodus 6:6-8, and begin and end with the declarations, “I am the LORD.”
I am the LORD.
- I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
- I will deliver you from slavery to them
- I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.
- I will take you to be my people.
- I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
- I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
- I will give it to you for a possession.
- I am the LORD.
The LORD utters these words just before he begins the final Shock and Awe campaign against Egypt--the ten plagues that will humiliate Egypt’s gods, destroy the land, and ultimately dethrone Pharaoh by taking out his son. Sometimes the darkness eats us alive, and God is nowhere to be seen. Do not think that all is lost. Sometimes the darkness must be dark in order for the light to be most welcome.
Defeat, Not Failure
The Moment of Truth
We all have seen movies where a hero so far outclasses his opponents that we know in advance that any confrontation will be a rout. Since the audience knows the outcome, the script writers often build a sense of anticipation by staging a verbal confrontation before the actual fight. The hero, usually outnumbered, approaches quietly and asks for his opponents’ cooperation. Of course the opponents laugh at his offer. One man against the team is lunacy. The hero counters with an offer of clemency. If they cooperate, he will let them go. Again, the opponents laugh off the offer. They guy must be nuts. By this time, the audience begins to think the opponents might be right. The hero stands alone in front of a group of men who outnumber him, outweigh him, and appear to overpower him. Meanwhile the hero waits for the others to make their move. When they do, he mops the ground with them. When we see that happening, we get the picture. We should have realized that the hero possesses resources that no one knew he had. The fight was a rout from the beginning.
God’s Display of Power
A very similar scene occurs in Exodus, just prior to the LORD’s deliverance of his people from Egyptian slavery. After the LORD calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, Moses and his brother Aaron approach Pharaoh. Pharaoh, obsessed with his own self-image, laughs at the two men and scorns their God. He sends Moses and Aaron away in humiliation. But Moses and Aaron’s failure is the cue for the LORD to work. He tells Moses what he has said from the beginning. “Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:4-5). God is about to display his power through a series of plagues. From this point on, the LORD’s dealings with Pharaoh will be confrontational, and they will continue until God shatters him.
Waiting for What?
At this time, Moses and the Israelites have yet to witness the LORD’s bone-crushing power. They do not understand the authority behind God’s earlier double declaration “I am the LORD” (Exodus 6:6, 8). They will have to wait until he claims all the territory that the Egyptian gods currently occupy. When the LORD unleashes his power against Egypt, he attacks their gods. Each plague either directly or indirectly challenges one of the Egyptian gods. The plagues begin in Exodus 7 and run through chapter 10. The first nine plagues do more than destroy Egypt. They de-create their world. In Genesis 1, God creates the light, followed by plant life, and then by animal life. The plagues against Egypt destroy the animal life, then the plant life, and finally rob the nation of light itself. The ninth plague calls for “darkness to be felt” (Exodus 11:21). The message is clear. If your gods are so great, then let them do what the LORD has done.
The Tenth Plague
When the tenth and final plague arrives, it stands apart from the rest. Here the LORD takes out every firstborn in Egypt, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill” (Exodus 11:5). This judgment is aimed at Pharaoh, who claims to be a god. When the leader of the land loses the next reigning god, the weight is too much. He drives out the Israelites from Egypt.
Deliverance and Trauma
We know that the plagues were traumatic for the Egyptians. They were supposed to be. But a close reading of the plague cycle in Exodus 5-12 reveals that deliverance is traumatic for Israel as well. First, Israel is called to witness God’s astounding judgment against Egypt while they escaped. Those who put blood on their doorposts survived. Their children lived, while their neighbors wailed over their losses. The Israelites would live with the understanding that God had chosen them, but the cries of mourning from the Egyptians they would leave behind would remain in their memories for the rest of their lives. Second, Israel’s deliverance is also violent. Before Zero Hour, the LORD gave instructions for their last meal in Egypt. It is to be the first Passover meal, a memorial celebration consisting of better herbs, roast lamb, and yeast-free bread. The menu remembers Israel’s bitter years of slavery. The meal also looks to their deliverance. “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste” (Exodus 12:11). The people literally would eat and run. They were about to become a free people, but they would have to flee for their lives when Pharaoh would be ready to cast them out.
The High and Necessary Price for Deliverance
The awful price for their freedom had to be what it was. Something that precious would remain unappreciated unless it would come at a cost. This is right, however, because their freedom was costly. We place the highest value on that which costs us the most. Sometimes the most traumatic events become God’s most valuable work in our lives.