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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 4

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-12

Moses Excuses Himself

Exo 3:13-14

The wisdom of Moses is seen in the nature of the inquiry which he proposed. He was resolved not to go a warfare at his own charges. Every man should know upon whose business he is going in life. Who is sending me? is an inquiry which a man should put to himself before venturing upon any course that is doubtful, hazardous, or experimental. Moses wished to be able to identify the personal authority of his mission. It was not enough to have a message, he must also know the name of the Author. There are some doctrines which are independent of personality; there are others which depend upon personality for their authority and beneficence. Amongst the latter are all religious doctrines and appeals. The Giver is greater than the gift. The Speaker is greater than the speech. To know the Speaker is to have deep insight into the meaning of the words spoken. The answer returned to Moses was the sublimest reply ever made to reverent inquiry. God announces himself as Personal, Independent, Self-existent. There is no word to qualify or limit his personality it is, so to speak, pure being it is infinite life it is the fountain out of which all other lives start on their little course. Mark the comprehensiveness of the name. It relates not only to being, but to character, to self-completeness; it is the ONE life which can live without dependence and without society. The element of sublimity must be found in religion; the measure of the sublimity is the measure of the condescension. A man proceeding to his work under the influence of such a revelation as was granted to Moses must be superior to hardship and triumphant in the presence of difficulty. A man's inspiration should always be in excess of the duty which is imposed upon him. The inspired man descends upon his work and conducts his service with an overplus of power; but he whose inspiration falls below his duty toils fretfully and unsuccessfully, and eventually becomes the prey of the spirit of the hireling. It is here that the Christian worker actually triumphs in his labour, and rejoices even in persecution and tribulation: God the Holy Ghost is in him, and so the whole tone of his life is infinitely superior to the influences which seek to distract his attention and baffle his energy. In the absence of God the Holy Ghost, Christian service becomes a toil, and ends in failure and mortification: but under the influence of the life-giving and light-giving Spirit of God, sorrow itself is turned into joy.

Notwithstanding this revelation, Moses was unable to overcome his infirmity; he still doubted, as well indeed he might, in the presence of such a vocation as had probably never been addressed to man. Let us listen to his excuses, and we shall see how unbecoming it would be on our part to sneer at a man upon whom the Divine burden pressed so heavily. Moses himself was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision, nor did he doubt the authority with which he had been charged; but a difficulty presented itself from the other side. Moses thus puts the case:

"And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee" ( Exo 4:1 ).

Human distrust is a difficulty which every preacher, teacher, and holy labourer has to encounter. All great movements are carried by consent of parties. God himself cannot re-establish moral order without the concurrence of the powers that have rebelled against his rule. Moses had difficulty to fear on the side of Israel, as well as on the side of Pharaoh. His message was to be addressed, in the first instance, to the children of Israel. The tidings of their proposed deliverance might be too much for their faith. They had been the sufferers of so many terrors and disappointments, they had been so long buried in the darkness of despair, that the gospel of emancipation might appear to them to be but a mocking dream. What if they should hear the message of Moses, and treat it in a spirit of unbelief? The suggestion of Moses was not at all unreasonable. He will work none the less effectively for putting these preliminary inquiries, provided he does not carry them to the point of excess. So long as they come out of a humble and reverent spirit, God will answer them with gracious patience; but should they become degraded into mere excuses, or discover a cowardly spirit, the patience of God will become a flame of judgment. After all, the spiritual labourer has less to do with the unbelief of his hearers than with the instruction and authority of God. We have to ascertain what God the Lord would have us say, and then to speak it simply, distinctly, and lovingly, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. The preacher must prepare himself for having doubts cast upon his authority; and he must take care that his answer to such doubts is as complete as the authority itself. God alone can give the true answer to human doubt. We are not to encounter scepticism with merely ingenious replies and clever arguments, but in the power and grace of the living God.

Moses, having being furnished with signs by which to convince the children of Israel that he was the messenger of God sent to redeem them from the oppression of Egypt, might be supposed to be fully qualified for his mission. Surely, there is now an end of inquiry and debate upon his part. Not so, however; Moses fell back upon his own unworthiness.

"And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say" ( Exo 4:10-12 ).

Moses has now descended from the high level of the argument, and narrowed the case into one of mere human personality. He has forgotten the promise, "Certainly I will be with thee." The moment we get away from Divine promise and forget great principles, we narrow all controversy and degrade all service. Self-consciousness is the ruin of all vocations. Let a man look into himself, and measure his work by himself, and the movement of his life will be downward and exhaustive. Let him look away from himself to the Inspirer of his life, and the Divine reward of his labours, and he will not so much as see the difficulties which may stand ever so thickly in his way. Think of Moses turning his great mission into a question which involved his own eloquence! All such reasoning admits of being turned round upon the speaker as a charge of foolish if not of profane vanity. See how the argument stands: "I am not eloquent, and therefore this mission cannot succeed in my hands," is equivalent to saying, "I am an eloquent man, and, therefore, this undertaking must be crowned with signal success." The work had nothing whatever to do with the eloquence or ineloquence of Moses. It was not to be measured or determined by his personal gifts: the moment, therefore, that he turned to his individual talents, he lost sight of the great end which he was called instrumentally to accomplish. How sublime is the rebuke of God! Cannot the Maker of man's mouth touch with eloquence the lips which he has fashioned? What is human eloquence but the expression of Divine music? Pedantic rhetoricians may fashion rules of their own for the refinement of human speech, but he who waits diligently upon God, and whose purpose is to know the will of God that he may speak it to men, will be entrusted with an eloquence rhythmic as the sea, and startling as the thunder. Rhetoric is the gift of God. Eloquence is not a merely human attainment. The secret of convincing and persuasive speech is put into the hearts of those who forget themselves in their homage to God and truth. Moreover, God condescended so far to the weakness of Moses as to find for him a coadjutor in his mission to the children of Israel and to the king of Egypt. Aaron could speak well. Moses was a thinker; Aaron was a speaker. Aaron was to be to Moses instead of a mouth, and Moses was to be to Aaron instead of God. Thus one man has to be the complement of another. No one man has all gifts and graces. The ablest and best of us cannot do without our brother. There is to be a division of labour in the great work of conquering the world for God. The thinker works; so does the speaker, so does the writer. We are a chain; not merely isolated links; we belong to one another, and only by fraternal and zealous cooperation can we secure the great results possible to faith and labour. Some men are fruitful of suggestion. They have wondrous powers of indication: but there their special power ends. Other men have great gifts of expression; they can put thoughts into the best words; they have the power of music; they can charm, fascinate, and persuade. Such men are not to undervalue one another; they are to co-operate as fellow-labourers in the kingdom of God.

Here we leave the region of the miraculous and come into relations with which we are painfully familiar. Man excusing himself from duty is a familiar picture. It is not a picture indeed; it is a personal experience. How inventive we are in finding excuses for not doing the will of God! How falsely modest we can become! depreciating ourselves, and putting ourselves before God in a light in which we could never consent to be put before society by the criticism of others. Is not this a revelation of the human heart to itself? We only want to walk in paths that are made beautiful with flowers, and to wander by streams that lull us by their own tranquillity. Nerve, and pluck, and force we seem to have lost. In place of the inventiveness of love we have the inventiveness of reluctance or distaste. It should be our supreme delight to find reasons for co-operating with God, and to fortify ourselves by such interpretations of circumstances as will plainly show us that we are in the right battle, fighting on the right side, and wielding the right weapon. The possibility of self-deception is one of the most solemn of all subjects. I cannot question the sincerity of Moses in enumerating and massing all the difficulties of his side of the case. He meant every word that he said. It is not enough to be sincere; we must have intelligence and conscience enlightened and enlarged. Mistakes are made about this matter of sincerity; the thing forgotten being that sincerity is nothing in itself, everything depending upon the motive by which it is actuated and the object towards which it is directed. The Church is to-day afflicted with the spirit of self-excusing: it cannot give, because of the depression of the times; it cannot go upon its mighty errands, because of its dainty delicateness; it cannot engage in active beneficence, because its charity should begin at home; it cannot enter into ardent controversy, because it prefers the comfort of inaction. Churches should not tell lies to themselves. The first great thing to be done is for a man to be faithful to his own heart, to look himself boldly in the face, and speak the clear truth emphatically to his own consciousness.

Verses 1-31

Moses Before Pharaoh

Exo 4:21

There are of course many difficulties, by us insoluble, in connection with the sovereignty of God. This must be distinctly recognised, and no man must expect to have all mysteries dwarfed to the measure of his own understanding. The greatest of all mysteries is God himself, yet we are not therefore to doubt his existence, or to deny his loving providence. The mere fact of any question being mysterious does not in any way affect its truthfulness. There are mysteries which are against reason, and there are mysteries which are above reason. It is in full view of these principles that we discuss this difficult subject.

Looking at human history generally in relation to Divine sovereignty, three things are clear: First: That all nations are not equally honoured. This difference amongst the nations, let it not be considered trite to say, is not made by the Bible, or by any system of theology; it is simply a matter of fact, whatever may be our views respecting either God or the Bible. One nation is highly civilised, another is in the lowest condition of barbarism; yet all the nations are under the government of the same gracious God. Every day the sun sees some nations worshipping the true Spirit, and others bowing down before idols; yet all people, let it be repeated, are under the government of the same Creator. This is pointed out as a mere matter of fact, and as presenting the gravest possible difficulties, whatever may be the theological or philosophical theory by which we regulate our observation of human affairs.

Second: That all individuals are not equally endowed. We are all men, and yet no two men are alike. In every history you find the great man and the little man. The poetic dreamer and the prosaic clown; the daring adventurer and the self-regarding coward; the child of genius and the creature of darkness; yet all claim to be men, and all may theoretically acknowledge the same God and Redeemer. These are facts with which we have to deal whether we open the Bible or not, whether we acknowledge a system of Divine Providence or not, whether we are atheists or saints.

Third: That Divine judgment is regulated by Divine allotment. Here we open the Bible, in which we find that to whom much is given, from him shall much be required, and that it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for nations which have enjoyed a fuller revelation of Divine purpose and requirements. The heathen are a law unto themselves. Five talents are expected to produce more than two. The Divine plan of judgment therefore is not arbitrary, but moral. If we lose hold of this principle, we shall see confusion where we might see the order of righteousness. First of all, and last of all, it must be our settled and unalterable conviction that God must do right, or he is no longer God. Everything must perish which opposes this law. We are not, however, to look at incomplete cases, and regard them as final criteria by which to test the wisdom and righteousness of the Almighty. In many cases we shall have to repress our impatience, and calmly to wait until fuller light is granted.

So much for general principles; let us now look at the particular instance before us, and in doing so we must at the outset clearly mark the limits of the ground which it occupies. The children of Israel were under the sovereign control of the king of Egypt. In some sense he had property in them. They were his bondsmen, delivered into his hands, and subject to his government. His relation to them was distinctly that of a political ruler; not based upon theological antipathies. He did not maltreat the Israelites because of their religious opinions. Pharaoh was a king, and it was strictly in his royal capacity that he dealt with the question of Israelitish bondage. Suddenly, to himself, Moses and Aaron proposed in the name of the Lord God of Israel that Pharaoh should let the people go to hold a religious feast in the wilderness. Pharaoh was of course startled. As a pagan he did not acknowledge the name or government of the God of Israel. A political petition was addressed to him, and he dealt with it on political grounds. It was not a spiritual question which was proposed to Pharaoh. It was not a question which involved his own personal salvation, or his own relation to the great future; it was purely, simply, and exclusively a political question. It was, therefore, within this sphere that the Divine action was taken, and that action is fitly described as a hardening of Pharaoh's heart. We do not attempt to modify the words, or in any sense to gloss them over; we accept them in their plain and obvious signification. The question now arises, what the meaning of that hardening was, and what useful results accrued from a process which appears to us to be so mysterious. We have already laid down the fundamental and eternal principle that God must do right, and that, consequently, however mysterious may be the processes through which he moves, his purpose is infinitely just. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart, as involving the development of a merely political scheme, may amount in effect to no more than this, "I will delay the process; this request shall not be granted at once; and I prolong the process in order that I may bring out lessons for Pharaoh himself, for the children of Israel, and for mankind at large: were Pharaoh to let the children of Israel escape from him at once, the result would be mischievous to themselves; therefore, in mercy, not in anger, I will harden Pharaoh's heart." This is eminently reasonable, and has been found to be so in our own experience. When men have snapped at their blessings, and instantly secured all their purposes, they have undervalued the advantages which have been thus realised. There is a hardening that is really merciful. "God cursed the ground for man's sake." Instead of the word cursed, insert the word hardened, and you will see what is meant by a hardening process taking place at the suggestion of a merciful disposition. God hardened the ground for man's sake; God hardened Pharaoh's heart for the sake of all parties involved: by delaying the result, he urged and exemplified lessons which could not have been successfully inculcated in any other way.

So far, the question is not a moral one, except in the degree in which all questions have more or less of a moral bearing. It has been supposed by some that in the case of this exercise of Divine sovereignty, the sum total of Pharaoh's wickedness was increased. This, however, was by no means the case. There is the greatest possible difference between wickedness being focalised, and wickedness being increased. Let us then assume that it was altogether a moral question, and show that the sovereignty of God did in no wise add to the iniquity of Pharaoh. It is possible for a man to become virtuous in one direction, that he may concentrate his wickedness in another. Here, for example, is a man who has been notoriously indolent, intemperate, or otherwise evil-disposed; by some means that man becomes energetic, self-controlled, and apparently attentive to some discipline which has a good moral effect upon him; looked at outwardly, it is evident that a beneficial transformation has taken place upon him. What, however, is the reality of the case? The man has actually put himself under discipline, that he may prepare for a prize-fight! He has made his very virtues contribute to the purposes of his vice. Instead of his wickedness being distributed over large spaces of his life, it is gathered up and expressed in one definite act. Even, therefore, were we to suppose that the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh involved moral consequences, it would by no means follow that the sum total of his wickedness was thereby increased. It would only show that wickedness in its intensity; it would focalise the scattered energies of the bad man, and show their fierceness in one supreme act.

As the history proceeds, we see that the political situation enlarges itself into a spiritual problem. Pharaoh sees the wonders of the Lord, and feels the terribleness of his scourge Under the influence of fear, he makes a promise unto Moses and Aaron that if the Lord will withdraw his hand, he will let Israel go. Thus the question becomes moral as well as political. Pharaoh makes a promise, and therefore implicates his honour and his conscience. It is to be observed, too, that the promise was made in connection with a special request for religious supplication on the part of Moses. Thus Pharaoh said, "Entreat the Lord, that he may take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may do sacrifice unto the Lord." Thus the ground is entirely changed. By some means or other the moral nature of Pharaoh has been touched, and the consequence is a pledge on his part to permit Israel to do sacrifice. But was Pharaoh faithful to his word? Was he not in reality trying to turn the moral into the political, and so to get out of an honourable pledge by an unworthy strategy? It would appear that this was really the case, for "when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them;" "And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them, I have sinned this time: the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord (for it is enough) that there be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer." Did Pharaoh fulfil his promise? No! "When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants." Thus it is clear that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and whatever may be the mystery of Divine sovereignty in this matter, Pharaoh himself is distinctly charged with the responsibility of his own obstinacy. There was undoubtedly a Divine action in the process; but that Divine action did not involve the spiritual destiny of Pharaoh Applying these lessons to ourselves as sinners, I have now to teach that Jesus Christ tasted death for every man, and that whosoever will may avail himself of the blessings secured by the mediation of the Saviour. If any man excuses himself on the ground that God has hardened his heart, that man is trusting to an excuse in the most solemn affairs of his being which he would not for a moment tolerate in the region of his family life or commercial relations. We must not be sensible in ordinary affairs and insane in higher concerns. Were a servant to tell her mistress that she is fated to be unclean in her habits, that mistress would instantly and justly treat her with angry contempt. Were a clerk to tell a banker that he was fated to come late every morning, and go away early every afternoon, the statement would be received as a proof of selfishness or insanity. Were a travelling companion to tell you to make no attempt to be in time for the steamboat or the train, because if you were fated to catch it there would be no fear of your losing it, you would treat his suggestion as it deserved to be treated. Yet men who can act in a common-sense manner in all such little affairs, sometimes profess that they will not make any attempt in a religious direction, because they believe in the doctrine of predestination or fatalism. Wicked and slothful servants, they shall be condemned out of their own mouth! "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." "Whosoever will, let him come." "Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out." "How often would I have gathered you, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!" In presence of such statements as these, it must be the very consummation of blasphemy to turn round upon God and say, "I wanted to be saved, but thou didst harden my heart and condemn me to hell."


The taskmasters were Egyptian bailiffs or general managers; the officers were Hebrews, and had each the charge of a certain number, of whom, and their work, they had to keep account (hence called Shoterim or Writers ). When recently in Egypt, I saw this very system still in operation on a road which the Viceroy was constructing. A Turkish officer superintended so much of the road; under him was an Arab, generally a sheikh of an adjoining village, whose duty it was to mark out to his people what they had to do, and to keep strict account how it was done; and under him was a miscellaneous company of men, girls, and boys, working in a state of semi-nudity, under the discipline of the stick. The stick served a double purpose: laid along the road, it marked out how much was to be done within a given time; laid on the backs of the unfortunate fellaheen , it painfully reminded them, that, whether able for it or not, their full tale of task-work must be completed.

A European who has not been in the country can hardly imagine the extent to which the stick is used in Egypt. The natives seem almost to glory in it as an ancient and venerable institution. "The Moslems have a proverb that 'the stick came down from heaven a blessing from Allah.'.... To 'eat stick,' as a sound thrashing is technically termed, is submitted to with a degree of sang froid quite astonishing to European nations, and is no at all degrading in the eyes of the Egyptian." W. L. Alexander, D.D.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 4". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/exodus-4.html. 1885-95.
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