May 16, 2018
One of the toughest questions we struggle with is this, “Why God?” When I helped bury a 16 year old as a Youth Pastor, the question was, “Why did God take my son this way? He wanted to be a missionary.” When my friend Jeff lost four of his high school friends in a car accident, hundreds of people were asking, “Why? “Why such a senseless loss of innocent lives?” When I buried a young mother in Canada, the question was: “Why did she have to die so young and leave her children behind?” When I was in my second role as a Lead Pastor and a young couple lost their son in childbirth, again the question was “Why?” “Why did my child have to die?” “Why couldn’t God have prevented this?” That has always been the toughest question ever posed to me. For no matter how I might try to answer it, there was no way I could ever replace the child that was lost. There was no way I could ever heal the heart that was broken. Only God can do that. But at the same time, these questions are part of a bigger question we all ask, “Why does God allow so much suffering in the world?” “Why does God allow evil to have its way when He has the power to stop it? “Why?”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But this morning as we enter the story of God in the book of Exodus, these same questions were on the hearts and minds of every Israelite as a new Pharaoh turned their fortunes from a life of blessing to a life of abject suffering. Why would God allow them to suffer so greatly at the hand of Pharaoh? Why would God allow innocent children to be taken from them? Why God? What are you up to? Well, that’s what we are going to look at today as we begin the book of Exodus. For if you’ve ever asked “Why God?” then let me encourage you to open your Bible to Exodus One, where God’s Word begins to shed some light on why God sometimes allows His people to suffer.
Now the book of Exodus doesn’t begin with suffering, but quite the opposite. For in the introduction of this book, what we have instead is The Blessing On God’s People. After all, as we walked through the story of God in Genesis, we saw how God worked through a series of unique circumstances to unite Joseph with his brothers and bring Jacob’s entire family to come and settle in the best land of Egypt. And it was there in the land of Goshen that God blessed His people. And it was here that God began to fulfill His promise to Abraham to make his offspring into a great nation. And it was here that God’s original blessing upon Adam and Eve, “to be fruitful and multiply,” became a reality through Israel.
Listen to God’s blessing as I read: And these are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventyin all; Joseph was already in Egypt. Now Joseph and all his brothersand all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them. Exodus 1:1-7 Life was good. They were prospering. God’s promise was coming to pass. They were becoming a great nation. However, everything is about to change with a regime change in Egypt. For up to this regime change all was well, but now with a new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, we are introduced for the first time to The War on God’s People Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must dealshrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” Exodus 1:8-10
Let me make three observations that reveal this war on God’s people: First, has to do with the new Pharaoh. This Pharaoh is the first king of a new dynasty. As with any regime change, he had no obligation to respect the wishes of his predecessors with regard to these foreigners. It has been hundreds of years since Joseph was alive. He had no experience with Joseph, no desire to learn the history of Joseph, and had no reason to give favor toward this prolific colony of foreigners. Instead, as soon as he comes to power, one of the first things he does is to conspire with his advisors on how to pacify and use these foreigners to Egypt’s advantage.
The second observation is this: When he says, “let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they… escape from the land” we learn that Pharaoh sets himself up as the obstacle to the exodus. This is key to the book of Exodus. Even though they are numerous, Pharaoh will not allow Israel to leave, and by doing so, sets himself in opposition to God’s plan to bring Israel back to the land of promise.
The third observation is this: Pharaoh wants to put an end to their prolific growth. He doesn’t want them to “become even more numerous.” And with that decision, Pharaoh puts himself in opposition to God’s purposes for Israel to be fruitful and to multiply. In short, Pharaoh is the very picture of man in rebellion against God. As he takes power he makes war on God’s people: for He is opposed to God’s people, resists God’s plan and has rejected God’s promises.
That’s just the thing about being Pharaoh. For the Pharaoh of Egypt was not a private individual; rather, he represented the entire nation of Egypt, including their gods. To be specific, Pharaoh claimed to be the incarnate Son of Re – the sun god – who was the primary deity in the Egyptian pantheon of gods. This meant that the struggle between Israel and Egypt was not about politics but about religion. Therefore, in conspiring against Israel, Pharaoh chooses to go to war with God. And so we have Phase One of His War.
Phase One: Enslave God’s People So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly. Exodus 1:11-14
By enslaving the Israelites, Pharaoh was trying to make a theological point: The Hebrews would not serve their own God – they would work for him. They would not be free to go to the land of God’s promise – they would stay right where they were.
Now the text tells us they oppressed them with forced labor, violent labor, and treated them ruthlessly. So how bad was it? How ruthless was their oppression? What was the extent of their suffering? Listen to this explanation of this horrific spiritual warfare given by Philipp Ryken. He says, “Satan likes nothing better than to torment God’s people, and he used Pharaoh to persecute the Israelites for their faith. There is ample evidence that the Egyptians treated their slaves with barbaric brutality. It was state-sponsored terrorism, for slaves were considered Pharaoh’s property. Once they were marked with his royal seal, Pharaoh’s slaves were organized into huge work gangs, concentrated in labor camps, and then forced to complete massive building projects – all under the strict control of their masters. Consider the following ancient text, which describes an Egyptian master traveling down the Nile to inspect his slaves: “Now the scribe lands on the shore. He surveys the harvest. Attendants are behind him with staffs, Nubians with clubs. One says to him: ‘Give grain.’ ‘There is none.” He is beaten savagely. He is bound, thrown in the well, submerged head down. His wife is bound in his presence. He children are in fetters.” This kind of crueltythe Israelites suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. They were treated “ruthlessly,” or more literally they were “broken down.”
Pharaoh literally broke down the people of God through harsh and bitter labor so they would not have the numbers or the energy to rebel. And it looked as though Pharaoh’s plan had succeeded. Except for one thing: But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread. In fact, the more numerous the Israelites became, the more God’s promise was being fulfilled. This annoyed Pharaoh so that he amped up his cruelty against Israel. But God was with His people and they were becoming a great nation in spite of Pharaoh.
But Pharaoh would not be deterred. Along with making life a living nightmare, he proceeds to phase two of his war. What is phase two? Phase Two: Engage Midwives to Kill the Baby Boys The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” Exodus 1:15-16
Pharaoh turns from slavery to slaughter. He is now not just anti-God, but anti-life. And he enlists the help of the very people who were experts at bringing life into the world: midwives. They were to go to Hebrew women during childbirth, and as soon as they discovered that the child born was a male, they were to murder him. What a diabolical plan. This is pure evil at its worst. So what happens next?
The midwives, however, feared Godand did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Exodus 1:17 The midwives are the hero in this story. These two women refused to listen to the king. Instead, they feared God. And because they feared God more than Pharaoh, they did a beautiful and splendid thing. In fact, that’s what their names mean: Shiphrah means “beautiful one” and Puah means “splendid one.” Here then, is the first act of civil disobedience. Pharaoh gave them a direct order, and they disobeyed it. Pharaoh was the most powerful man in the world. He could have them executed with the wave of a hand. But Shiphrah and Puah dared risk their lives for the babies, all because they feared God. Isn’t it fitting we get to tell their story on Mother’s Day?
After all, think of what these women did for us. Because they rescued the babies, we will be raised from the dead. How so, you ask? Without these heroines, you do not have Moses; you don’t have the Exodus, or David, or Mary or Jesus. This makes Shiphrah and Puah two of the greatest women of the Bible. They let the boys live!
Of course it didn’t take long for news of this to get back to Pharaoh. And we read, Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” Exodus 1:18
The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” Exodus 1:19 Now we don’t know if these two women were just telling a lie, stating a fact or were simply making sport of Pharaoh by suggesting that the Hebrew women were hardier than Egyptian women. What we do know is that God had favor on these women, for their faith in God had allowed them to stand valiantly against the face evil to save the lives of Hebrew boys at the risk of their own lives. And here is the result: So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own. Exodus 1:20-21
So now for a second time, Pharaoh’s schemes fail to stop the plans of God. A pair of amazing women outsmarts him, and God’s purposes for Israel continue: The people increase and become even more numerous.
But once again, Pharaoh will not be deterred. If these midwives will not do his dirty work, he will enlist all of Egypt to do it. So comes Phase Three in Pharaoh’s fight against God’s people: Enlist all the People to Murder the Hebrew Boys Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” Exodus 1:22
This final attempt to kill the male offspring of God’s people shows us just how much the war against God’s people is actually a war against God Himself; for this overt hostility reminds us of what was predicted way back in Genesis 3:15, where we read of the enmity between the triumphant seed of the woman over the opposing seed of the serpent. This final verse of Exodus one reveals to us that Pharaoh embodies the role of Satan, the Serpent. In fact, when you research the archaeological records, Pharaoh appears with the snake on his crown. The snake is the mythical Uraeuscobra worn by gods and kings and symbolized the power and dominion on fertility and prosperity of the land. And with that we see that Pharaoh embodies the serpent role by enlisting all of Egypt in the murder of innocents. So the battle begins in earnest. But God’s plan will prevail. For out of this river of death will come one who will deliver all of Israel.
But before this deliverance takes place, God’s people will suffer greatly at the hands of Pharaoh. They will continue to be enslaved, oppressed and treated brutally.
And it is this oppression of the Israelites that will continue through the next 13 chapters that brings us back to our original question of “Why, God?” Why does God allow His people to suffer with such open hostility and violence? Could God have prevented his people from ever falling into slavery? Could God have prevented Pharaoh from killing the Hebrew boys? Of course He could have, but that was not His plan. It was through God’s providence that the Israelites had come down to Egypt, and it was by His providence that they became slaves there…
In fact, God had many reasons for allowing His people to suffer. First, God allowed His people to suffer to help them grow into a great nation: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread”(1:12). The irony is that this was exactly the opposite of what Pharaoh intended to happen.
Secondly, God allowed His people to suffer to help them preserve their identity as a God’s people. Charles Spurgeon comments: “In all probability, if they had been left to themselves, they would have melted and absorbed into the Egyptian race, and lost their identity as God’s special people. They were content to be in Egypt, and they were quite willing to be Egyptianized. To a large degree, they had begun to adopt the superstitions, and idolatries of Egypt; and these things clung to them, in after years, to such a terrible extent that we can easily imagine that their heart must have turned aside very much towards the sins of Egypt. Yet, all the while, God was resolved to bring them out of that evil connection. They must be a separated people; they could not be Egyptians, nor live permanently like Egyptians, for God had chosen them for Himself, and he meant to make an abiding difference between Israel and Egypt.” God was going to get them out of Egypt, but allowed this suffering to get Egypt out of them!
Finally, God allowed His people to suffer to show them their need of salvation. Dan McCartney makes this brilliant observation about Israel’s suffering. He writes, “God saw the suffering of his people and then delivered them. But why did he allow the suffering to happen in the first place? Could he not rather have prevented it? McCartney answers by raising this question: “If he had done so, would the Israelites have ever desired to leave Egypt?” It was hard enough to get them to leave even when they were suffering. What we forget is that Egypt was the only home they had ever known, and it was not without its luxuries; so it took slavery and suffering to make God’s people cry out for their deliverance.
You see, even though God appeared to have abandoned them in their suffering; even though God seemed to be silent in their suffering, God had a plan for their suffering. We know that plan now. But what about us? Could it be that God allows us to suffer so that we might grow? Did you know the greatest growth of Christianity in the last 100 years happened in Communist China when the Church was under severe persecution? During that time Christianity grew through underground house churches to over 60 million people.
Could it be that God allows suffering to get the world out of us? In James 4:4, God’s Word says, You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. James 4:4 Sometimes God allows us to suffer so that we might set our hearts on the things of His kingdom rather than the things of the world. Sometimes God allows us to suffer so He can get Egypt out of us.
Finally, could it be God allows suffering so that we might look to Jesus for our salvation? That we might learn to trust in Him, follow Him and find our hope and life in Him? Maybe the reason we go through trials and troubles on this side of heaven, is not that God is absent from our difficulties, but that God wants something more for us then what we want for ourselves.
Now these are not all the reasons why God allows suffering, but they can help us gain some perspective when life is too hard to handle. And obviously, these reasons can never fully answer why God allows children to suffer and even die. But one thing we can take away from this – is that no matter what hurt, hardship or loss you have experienced, God knows, God Cares, and God will help you if you call on Him. For the Bible tells us: The Lord is close to the broken heartedand saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18
And again, A bruised reed he will not break, anda smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. Matthew 12:20
So today, if you are still asking, “Why God?” Keep asking, because He knows your heart is broken and He wants to save you.