THE INQUEST OF PHARAOH
Based on a Sermon by Clovis G. Chappell
”But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Exodus 9:16 ESV
In Exodus 14:19 we read these words: "And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore."
It is a rather ghastly, grewsome and sad sight. There they lie, the soldiers of the once proud army of Egypt. They are in all sorts of positions, these dead men. Some have their heads pillowed peacefully upon their arms as if in sleep. Others have their hard faces half buried in the sand.
They are very much alike, these corpses. But here is one that is different. Look at the rich costume in which it is dressed. Look at its bejewelled fingers. There is no crown on its head. There is no sceptre in that limp hand. Yet it is easy to guess that this corpse was once a king. Yes, this is the body of Pharaoh, the one-time ruler of Egypt. But here he lies today among the lowliest of his soldiers. He is sprawled in un-kingly fashion on his face as if the sea had spit him out in sheer nausea and disgust.
And now comes the big question that we want to consider. How did it come about that this famous Egyptian is here? He was once a king, you remember. He was ruler over the proudest nation on earth. And here we find him dead. He died away from home. He died a violent death.
Let us hold an inquest over him for a moment and see how he came to die. He did not leave Egypt and march into the Red Sea for that purpose. He never intended that life should end for him in this way. Neither is he here because his enemy Israel has proven stronger than himself. What is the cause? The question is answered by the voice of God.
We read it in Exodus 9:16, "for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power."
Now notice what this strange text says. Without the least vagueness it says that God raised this man Pharaoh up that He might show His power to him and in him as we learn also from the Epistle to the Romans. And that purpose He accomplished. This ghastly royal ruin has not been thrown on this shore by the hand of man. As we look at him we see in him a monument of the power of God. And strange to say, he is not a monument of God's power to save and to keep and to make use of, but of God's power to thwart and to disappoint and to wreck and to utterly destroy. And in his destruction God tells us that He has achieved His purpose.
You will agree with me that this is an amazing statement. The teaching seems to be that God has raised this man up that He might glorify Himself by making a complete and utter wreck of him. Can that be true? We agree, I suppose, all of us who believe the Bible, that God has a plan for every life. All nature tells of a planning God. All revelation teaches it also. We have the message direct from the lips of the Lord, "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." (John 20:21)
But in admitting that God plans every life, can we believe that He plans for some to go wrong and for others to go right? Can we believe that He plans for one to become a Judas and the other a John? Is it the purpose of God that one will develop into a Moses and the other right at his side will grow up into the miserable and distorted wreck that we call Pharaoh? In other words, is Judas as much a part of the plan of God as John? If so we are of all men most miserable because we have a wicked God.
But we know that this is not the case. God never planned that any man should go wrong. He is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pe 3:9) “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) He loved Moses, but He loved Pharaoh no less. And Judas was as dear to God's heart as John. And whatever failure they made of their lives, and whatever failure you and I make of our lives, we do not make because God forces us to do so. In whatever way we go wrong, we do not do so because God planned that we should. We do it because of our own willfulness and wicked rebellion against God.
In other words, (and there is mystery in this,) though God plans your life and mine, He does not force us to enter into His plan. Fathers and mothers may have an idea of this. Many parents have made beautiful plans for their children only to have those plans despised. Our children are not ourselves. They have independent wills. They have the capacity for entering into our purposes for them and thus bringing us joy unspeakable. They also have the capacity for despising those purposes and breaking our hearts.
How, then, do we explain this strange text, "for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power"? Because it is a fact that this death in the Red Sea was not an accidental death. It is a fact that this corpse here on the beach is not here by mere chance. This king was flung here by the power of a disappointed and grieved and rejected God. He lies here dead on the shore according to the deliberate plan and purpose of God. But while this is true, we need to keep this big fact in mind: Though Pharaoh lies here according to the purpose of God, this was not God's first and highest purpose for him. But Pharaoh resisted and rejected every noble and worthy purpose that God had in his life.
Do you remember that story in Jeremiah? One day the word of the Lord came unto the prophet Jeremiah saying, "Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." (Jer 18:2) And Jeremiah went down and heard the message. Arrived within the Potter's house, three objects at once drew his attention. There was a man working: the Potter. There was the instrument with which he worked: the wheel. And there was the substance upon which he worked: the clay. In the Potter's hand the clay was misshapen and ugly. The cup was not yet finished in the Potter's hand. But there was a place where it was finished, and that was in the mind of the Potter. The Potter could already see the finished product. He was trying to make the cup according to the ideal that he had in his mind.
But we read that the cup was spoiled in the making. That is, there was something in the clay that resisted the Potter. Now, what did he do with the spoiled cup? We would have expected him to throw it away, but he did not. He made it again. And what good news that is for failing and sinning people like ourselves. How glorious that, when we resist God's purpose and all but wreck ourselves, He will make us again. Truly we would be a hopeless race but for the fact that we have a mighty God who is able to remake us even when we have rebelled against Him and have thwarted His blessed plans for us.
He made it again. Yes, but notice this. “He reworked it into another vessel." (v.4) He changed his plan for this next vessel. He realized that he could not make it according to the fine ideal that was in his mind for the first vessel. That one refused to realize the best, therefore he made it into another vessel. He sought to make it become the second best.
There is a great truth here that we are prone to forget, and that truth is this, that having rejected and resisted God for days and months and years, God cannot make of us what He could have made if we had entered into His plans from the beginning. If you reject God's best for you, then He tries to get you to realize His second best. If you reject this, then He seeks to bring you to the next best. As some here have been reading recently, there is great blessing in seeking the Lord early.
Now, suppose, the clay upon which the Potter was working had been spoiled again. Again, he would have undertaken to have made it into another vessel. But all the while that clay would have been becoming less and less plastic. All the while it would have been becoming more and more difficult for the Potter to shape it according to his purpose.
And so, the time would inevitably come when it would no longer be capable of being shaped by his hand at all. Then what would be the result? Step outside the Potter's house and you are in the Potter's field. About you lie broken crockery and shattered earthenware. Why is it there? Not because the Potter made vessels for the senseless purpose of breaking them to pieces. They are there because there was something in the clay that so resisted the hand of the Potter that he was able to make nothing of them but these shattered and misshapen and broken wrecks.
Now this is the story of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. God had a noble purpose in this man's life to begin with. He gave him every opportunity. He brought to bear all that infinite love and mercy could bring to bear to get Pharaoh to be a good man. The reason Pharaoh ended as he did was not because God did not love him and did not do His infinite best to save Him. It was because Pharaoh resisted and resisted, rebelled and rebelled until at last he threw himself a corpse on this distant seashore. And the message we hear from his clammy lips this morning is this, "Look at me and see what a terrible thing it is to rebel against God. Behold me and see the tragic failure of the man that persistently throws himself in wicked madness against the Lord Almighty."
Look now how hard God tried to make something of Pharaoh. In the first place, He gave to him a great and faithful minister. Pharaoh had the privilege of knowing Moses. But he threw himself away, is what Pharaoh did. He chose God's worst instead of God's best, but he did not do it because he did not know better. Neither are you wasting your life because you do not know better. If you have not had a teacher as great as Moses, you have yet been faithfully warned, and in your sin you are without excuse.
God gave Pharaoh a chance to cooperate with Him, to help Him in saving Israel and making her into a great nation. Moses' first word to Pharaoh was this, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go." (Ex 5:1) Now, Pharaoh's answer to this demand was haughty enough. He answers, "Who is Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord." (Ex 5:2) And he didn't, though he might have known Him. But God did not throw him away after this one chance. On the contrary, He gave him ample opportunity to know Him.
With this end in view God brought His infinite power into play. Wonder after wonder He worked in the presence of Pharaoh by the hand of Moses. At first these wonders were imitated by the magicians. These pretenders, by their cunning, made it easy, at least for a while, for Pharaoh to resist God. They helped the King to close his royal eyes to the truth. They helped him to start with intent on his course of rebellion.
But the magicians were soon outdone. Moses began to perform wonders that they could not imitate. And they themselves were forced to believe in the presence and might and reality of God. And they who had helped their king to go wrong, turned to him with this acknowledgment on their lips, "This is the finger of God." (Ex 8:19) But it is easier to lead a man astray than it is to lead him back. It is easier for you, by your godless and worldly life, to lead your children to despise Christ and the Church than it is to lead them back after they have gone astray. Pharaoh listened to the magicians when they counseled him to do wrong, but he turned a deaf ear to them when they counseled him to do right.
Then followed that series of plagues upon Egypt that were always preceded and always followed by this demand of God spoken through the lips of Moses, "Let my people go, that they may serve me." (Ex 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3) You see what God was demanding of Pharaoh. It is the same that He demands of you and me: obedience--that is all. He is commanding us to surrender ourselves to Him, to enter into His purpose. And the one thing that God wanted was the one thing that Pharaoh did not want. But he was becoming afraid and so he proposed a compromise.
In his fright he tells Moses that he will obey. He will let the people go. That is, he said, "I will let part of them go. I will let the men go. Leave the children here." (Ex 10:10) Pharaoh knew that as long as he kept the children in Egypt, he would keep Israel in bondage. And the devil knows today just so long as our homes remain without Christ, just so long will the world remain without Christ. Let us beware of the schemes of the devil and endeavor to enlarge the kingdom of God starting in our own homes.
Then Pharaoh offered a second compromise. He said, "I will let you and the children go, but you must leave your cattle and your sheep. You must leave all your flocks and your herds." (Ex 10:24) That is, you may go into Canaan if you must, but leave your business in Egypt. And the devil today is perfectly willing that you and I be just as pious and prayerful as we want to be on Sunday, provided we forget all about such things on Monday. He is willing for you to be devoutly religious if you will only confine your religion to the church. But a religion that does not permeate and purify and uplift and sanctify business and business relations is not the religion of Jesus Christ.
And then Pharaoh offered a third compromise. He said, "I will let the people go, but they must not go far." (Ex 8:28) Why was that? For the very human reason that he wanted the privilege of getting them back. He said, for instance, "I will obey God, but I do not want to promise to make my obedience permanent." You have seen plenty of instances of that. Here is a man who has decided to be a Christian, but he won't become a member of the church. He wants to see how things go first. Such a man is already making provision for going back. "Take up your bed," (Mk 2:9) said the Master to the paralyzed man whom He had healed. He wants us always to make a complete break with the past.
But the plagues grow worse. Pharaoh is becoming more and more frightened. While he is scared he promises again and again that he will obey the Lord unconditionally. There was a terrible storm, you remember. The hail stones fell like shrapnel and the lightning dropped from the clouds and terror gripped the King's heart. And he sends for Moses. When Moses comes he tells him, trembling, "I have sinned this time. I will let the people go." (Ex 9:28) But when the storm ceases and the sun shines out, he becomes ashamed of his weakness. He is so ashamed that he forgets altogether the promise that he made when the fear of death was on him.
This is a sad side of human nature, yet we dare not shut our eyes to it. There are some perhaps listening to me at this very moment who have acted for all the world as Pharaoh acted. And they have done so with all the light that he had and far more. I do not know of a man that is in greater danger of being ultimately lost than that man who never cares for religion except when he is scared. Because the truth of the matter is that a man of that kind does not care for goodness or for God at all. Not even in his moments of most abject terror does he want to be truly saved. He simply wants to escape the results of his sin. He does not want to pay the penalty for wrongdoing. He wants to defeat the ends of justice. He is not interested in being good and pure and true. He is simply interested in keeping out of hell.
How patient God was with Pharaoh. We are amazed at it until we think how infinitely patient He has been with ourselves. By storm, by black night, by adversity after adversity, God is doing His best to fight Pharaoh back from the Red Sea. He is doing all He can to turn him away from committing suicide in body and suicide in soul. But Pharaoh, as some of ourselves, seemed absolutely set on damnation. He seemed completely bent on working out his own utter destruction.
After the king had broken one vow after another and lied and lied and lied again, God brought the last dark providence into his life. He made one final effort to save him from his ruin. Pharaoh was called to kneel by the coffin of his first born. And his hard heart seemed to soften at last. By the grave of the Crown Prince he made a solemn vow that he would obey God. And he set about putting the vow into execution at once. And the children of Israel were not only allowed to go, but they were hurried out of Egypt.
At last, at last, we say, with what infinite expense the man is brought to obey. But behold, barely a moment passes by till he forgot his vow and turned back to the old life again. See what a grip sin gets on us. How blind we become if we persistently refuse to follow the light. So Pharaoh brushed his tears out of his eyes, gathered his army and set out after the departing children of Israel.
We can imagine the bustle and hurry of the setting out; the look of hatred on the king's face as he comes within sight of his one-time slaves. He laughs a grim laugh as he sees their predicament. They are shut in on either side. The sea is in front and he and his army in the rear. What a sweet revenge he is going to have.
But look. Something has happened. There is a path through the sea. These hunted slaves are marching in. But it doesn't matter. Wherever Israel can go, the Egyptians can go. So, he and his army march in behind. They keep the Israelites in sight. Now in the distance they see that the last Israelite has reached dry land.
And then there is a great shriek that is quickly choked. The waters have come together again. The sea waves roar about these struggling soldiers like liquid hate. The King is forgotten. His men are madly trying to save themselves. A jeweled hand flashes in the light for a moment. There is an oath, a cry for help, and then silence. And the hungry sea has its prey.
Pharaoh, why are you here? And if those dead lips could speak he would say, "I am here because I persistently refused to obey God. He offered me the best and I despised it and despised it again until at last He threw me here. He did it because I made it impossible for Him to do anything else."
And as we look at this wreck, this fallen king, think of how different the story might have ended. This man might have had a part in the making of a great people. He might have been associated with Moses in giving to the world a new nation. He might even now be in the fellowship of Moses among the sons of God.
For the difference between this man and the great man Moses is not in the fact that God purposed evil for the one and good for the other. It is in this, that one was obedient to the heavenly vision, that one could say, "The grace that was bestowed upon me was not in vain," and the other resisted and kept resisting until he overran every barrier that God put in his path and plunged headlong into destruction.
“The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty.” Num 14:18