THE PLAGUES OF EGYPT
EXODUS ix. 13, 14. Thus saith the Lord God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth.
You will understand, I think, the meaning of the ten plagues of Egypt better, if I explain to you in a few words what kind of a country Egypt is, what kind of people the Egyptians were. Some of you, doubtless, know as well as I, but some here may not: it is for them I speak.
Egypt is one of the strangest countries in the world; and yet one which can be most simply described. One long straight strip of rich flat land, many hundred miles long, but only a very few miles broad. On either side of it, barren rocks and deserts of sand, and running through it from end to end, the great river Nile--'The River' of which the Bible speaks. This river the Egyptians looked on as divine: they worshipped it as a god; for on it depended the whole wealth of Egypt. Every year it overflows the whole country, leaving behind it a rich coat of mud, which makes Egypt the most inexhaustibly fertile land in the world; and made the Egyptians, from very ancient times, the best farmers of the world, the fathers of agriculture. Meanwhile, when not in flood, the river water is of the purest in the world; the most delightful to drink; and was supposed in old times to be a cure for all manner of diseases.
To worship this sacred river, the pride of their land, to drink it, to bathe in it, to catch the fish which abound in it, and which formed then, and forms still, the staple food of the Egyptians, was their delight. And now I have told you enough to show you why the plagues which God sent on Egypt began first by striking the river.
The river, we read, was turned into blood. What that means--whether it was actual animal blood--what means God employed to work the miracle--are just the questions about which we need not trouble our minds. We never shall know: and we need not know. The plain fact is, that the sacred river, pure and life-giving, became a detestable mass of rottenness--and with it all their streams and pools, and drinking water in vessels of wood and stone--for all, remember, came from the Nile, carried by canals and dykes over the whole land. 'And the fish that were in the river died, and the river stunk, and there was blood through all the land of Egypt.'
The slightest thought will show us what horror, confusion, and actual want and misery, the loss of the river water, even for a few days or even hours, would cause.
But there is more still in this miracle. These plagues are a battle between Jehovah, the one true and only God Almighty, and the false gods of Egypt, to prove which of them is master.
Pharaoh answers: 'Who is Jehovah (the Lord) that I should let Israel go?' I know not the Jehovah. I have my own god, whom I worship. He is my father, and I his child, and he will protect me. If I obey any one it will be him.
Be it so, says Moses in the name of God. Thou shalt know that the idols of Egypt are nothing, that they cannot deliver thee nor thy people.
Thus saith Jehovah, Thou shalt know which is master, I or they. 'Thou shalt know that I am the Lord.'
So the river was turned into blood. The sacred river was no god, as they thought. Jehovah was the Lord and Master of the river on which the very life of Egypt depended. He could turn it into blood. All Egypt was at his mercy.
But Pharaoh would not believe that. 'The magicians did likewise with their enchantments'--made, we may suppose, water seem to turn to blood by some juggling trick at which the priests in Egypt were but too well practised; and Pharaoh seemed to have made up his mind that Moses' miracle was only a juggling trick too. For men will make up their minds to anything, however absurd, when they choose to do so: when their pride, and rage, and obstinacy, and covetousness, draw them one way, no reason will draw them the other way. They will find reasons, and make reasons to prove, if need be, that there is no sun in the sky.
Then followed a series of plagues, of which we have all often heard.
Learned men have disputed how far these plagues were miracles. Some of them are said not to be uncommon in Egypt, others to be almost unknown. But whether they--whether the frogs, for instance, were not produced by natural causes, just as other frogs are; and the lice and the flies likewise; that I know not, my friends, neither need I know. If they were not, they were miraculous; and if they were, they were miraculous still. If they came as other vermin come, they would have still been miraculous: God would still have sent them; and it would be a miracle that God should make them come at that particular time in that particular country, to work a truly miraculous effect upon the souls of Pharaoh and the Egyptians on the one hand, and of Moses and the Israelites on the other. But if they came by some strange means as no vermin ever came before or since, all I can say is--Why not?
And the Lord said unto Moses, 'Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.'
Whether that was meant only as a sign to the Egyptians, or whether the dust did literally turn into lice, we do not know, and what is more, we need not know; if God chose that it should be so, so it would be. If you believe at all that God made the world, it is folly to pretend to set any bounds to his power. As a wise man has said, 'If you believe in any real God at all, you must believe that miracles can happen.' He makes you and me and millions of living things out of the dust of the ground continually by certain means. Why can he not make lice, or anything else out of the dust of the ground, without those means? I can give no reason, nor any one else either.
We know that God has given all things a law which they cannot break. We know, too, that God will never break his own laws. But what are God's laws by which he makes things? We do not know.
Miracles may be--indeed must be--only the effect of some higher and deeper laws of God. We cannot prove that he breaks his law, or disturbs his order by them. They may seem contrary to some of the very very few laws of God's earth which we do know. But they need not be contrary to the very many laws which we do not know. In fact, we know nothing about the matter, and had best not talk of things that we do not understand. As for these things being too wonderful to be true--that is an argument which only deserves a smile. There are so many wonders in the world round us already, all day long, that the man of sense will feel that nothing is too wonderful to be true.
The truth is, that, as a wise man says, CUSTOM is the great enemy of Faith, and of Reason likewise; and one of the worst tricks which custom plays us is, making us fancy that miraculous things cease to be miraculous by becoming common.
What do I mean?
This: which every child in this church can understand.
You think it very wonderful that God should cause frogs to come upon the whole land of Egypt in one day. But that God should cause frogs to come up every spring in the ditches does not seem wonderful to you at all. It happens every year; therefore, forsooth, there is nothing wonderful in it.
Ah, my dear friends, it is custom which blinds our eyes to the wisdom of God, and the wonders of God, and the power of God, and the glory of God, and hinders us from believing the message with which he speaks to us from every sunbeam and every shower, every blade of grass and every standing pool. 'Is anything too hard for the Lord?'
If any man here says that anything is too hard for the Lord, let him go this day to the nearest standing pool, and look at the frog-spawn therein, and consider it till he confesses his blindness and foolishness. That spawn seems to you a foul thing, the produce of mean, ugly, contemptible creatures. Be it so. Yet it is to the eyes of the wise man a yearly MIRACLE; a thing past understanding, past explaining; one which will make him feel the truth of that great 139th Psalm: 'Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there also.'
That every one of those little black spots should have in it LIFE-- What is life? How did it get into that black spot? or, to speak more carefully, is the life IN the black spot at all? Is not the life in the Spirit of God, who is working on that spot, as I believe? How has that black spot the power of GROWING, and of growing on a certain and fixed plan, merely by the quickening power of the sun's heat, and then of feeding itself, and of changing its shape, as you all know, again and again, till--and if that is not wonderful, what is?--it turns into a frog, exactly like its parent, utterly unlike the black dot at which it began? Is that no miracle? Is it no miracle that not one of those black spots ever turns into anything save a frog? Why should not some of them turn into toads or efts? Why not even into fishes or serpents? Why not? The eggs of all those animals, in their first and earliest stages are exactly alike; the microscope shows no difference. Ay, even the mere animal and the human being, strange and awful as it may be, SEEM, under the microscope, to have the same beginning. And yet one becomes a mere animal, and the other a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. What causes this but the power of God, making of the same clay one vessel to honour and another to dishonour? And yet people will not believe in miracles! Why does each kind turn into its kind? Answer that. Because it is a law of nature? Not so! There are no laws OF nature. God is a law TO nature. It is his WILL that things so should be; and when it is his will they will not be so, but otherwise.
Not LAWS of nature, but the SPIRIT of God, as the Psalms truly say, gives life and breath to all things. Of him and by him is all. As the greatest chemist of our time says, 'Causes are the acts of God-- creation is the will of God.'
And he that is wise and strong enough to create frogs in one way in every ditch at this moment, is he not wise and strong enough to create frogs by some other way, if he should choose, whether in Egypt of old, or now, here, this very day?
Whatsoever means, or no means at all, God used to produce those vermin, the miracle remains the same. He sent them to do a work, and they did it. He sent them to teach Egyptian and Israelite alike that he was the Maker, and Lord, and Ruler of the world, and all that therein is; that he would have his way, and that he COULD have his way.
Intensely painful and disgusting these plagues must have been to the Egyptians, for this reason, that they were the most cleanly of all people. They had a dislike of dirt, which had become quite a superstition to them. Their priests (magicians as the Bible calls them) never wore any garments but linen, for fear of their harbouring vermin of any kind. And this extreme cleanliness of theirs the next plague struck at; they were covered with boils and diseases of skin, and the magicians could not stand before Pharaoh by reason of the boils. They became unclean and unfit for their office; they could perform no religious ceremonies, and had to flee away in disgrace.
After plagues of thunder, hail, and rain, which seldom or never happen in that rainless land of Egypt; after a plague of locusts, which are very rare there, and have to come many hundred miles if they come at all; of darkness, seemingly impossible in a land where the sun always shines: then came the last and most terrible plague of all. After solemn warnings of what was coming, the angel of the Lord passed through the land of Egypt, and smote all the first-born in Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh upon his throne to the first-born of the captive in the dungeon; and there arose a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house in which there was not one dead. A terrible and heart-rending calamity in any case, enough to break the heart of all Egypt; and it did break the heart of Egypt, and the proud heart of Pharaoh himself, and they let the people go.
But this was a RELIGIOUS affliction too. Most of these first-born children--probably all the first-born of the priests and nobles, and of Pharaoh himself--were consecrated to some god. They bore the name of the god to whom they belonged; that god was to prosper and protect them, and behold, he could not. The Lord Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews, was stronger than all the gods of Egypt; none of them could deliver their servants out of his hand. He was the only Lord of life and death; he had given them life, and he could take it away, in spite of all and every one of the gods of the Egyptians.
So the Lord God showed himself to be the Master and Lord of all things. The Lord of the sacred river Nile; the Lord of the meanest vermin which crept on the earth; the Lord of the weather--able to bring thunder and hail into a land where thunder and hail was never seen before; the Lord of the locust swarms--able to bring them over the desert and over the sea to devour up every green thing in the land, and then to send a wind off the Mediterranean Sea, and drive the locusts away to the eastward; the Lord of light--who could darken, even in that cloudless land, the very sun, whom Pharaoh worshipped as his god and his ancestor; and lastly, the Lord of human life and death--able to kill whom he chose, when he chose, and as he chose. The Lord of the earth and all that therein is; before whom all men, even proud Pharaoh, must bow and confess, 'Is anything too hard for the Lord?'
And now, I always tell you that each fresh portion of the Old Testament reveals to men something fresh concerning the character of God. You may say, These plagues of Egypt reveal God's mighty power, but what do they reveal of his character? They reveal this: that there is in God that which, for want of a better word, we must call anger; a quite awful sternness and severity; not only a power to punish, but a determination to punish, if men will not take his warnings--if men will not obey his will.
There is no use trying to hide from ourselves that awful truth--God is not weakly indulgent. Our God can be, if he will, a consuming fire. Upon the sinner he will surely rain fire and brimstone, storm and tempest of some kind or other. This shall be their portion too surely. Vengeance is his, and vengeance he will take. But upon whom? On the proud and the tyrannical, on the cruel, the false, the unjust. So say the Psalms again and again, and so says the history of these plagues of Egypt. Therefore his anger is a loving anger, a just auger, a merciful anger, a useful anger, an anger exercised for the good of mankind. See in this case why did God destroy the crops of Egypt--even the first-born of Egypt? Merely for the pleasure of destroying? God forbid. It was to deliver the poor Israelites from their cruel taskmasters; to force these Egyptians by terrible lessons, since they were deaf to the voice of justice and humanity-- to force them, I say--to have mercy on their fellow-creatures, and let the oppressed go free. Therefore God was, even in Egypt, a God of love, who desired the good of man, who would do justice for those who were unjustly treated, even though it cost his love a pang; for none can believe that God is pleased at having to punish, pleased at having to destroy the works of his own hands, or the creatures which he has made. No; the Lord was a God of love even when he sent his sore plagues on Egypt, and therefore we may believe what the Bible tells us, that that same Lord showed, as on this day, a still greater proof of his love, when, as on this day, he entered into Jerusalem, meek and lowly, sitting on an ass, and going, as he well knew, to certain death. Before the week was over he would be betrayed, mocked, scourged, crucified by the very people whom he came to save; and yet he did it, he endured it. Instead of pouring out on them, as on the Egyptians of old, the cup of wrath and misery, he put out his hand, took the cup of wrath and misery to himself, and drank it to its very dregs. Was not that, too, a miracle? Ay, a greater miracle than all the plagues of Egypt. They were physical miracles; this a moral miracle. They were miracles of nature; this of grace. They were miracles of the Lord's power; these of the Lord's love. Think of that miracle of miracles which was worked in this Passion Week--the miracle of the Lord Jehovah stooping to die for sinful man, and say after that there is anything too hard for the Lord.