For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. (Exodus 9:14-16)
Ross Blackburn in The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus (New Studies in Biblical Theology), says this:
While Israel’s liberation is crucial in Exodus, the Lord’s words [in Exodus 9:14-16] make it clear that liberation is not the reason for the succession of plagues.This is not to downplay the Lord’s compassion for Israel or his remembering his covenant, but simply to say that neither of those things accounts for the manner in which the Lord overcame Egypt and released Israel. … It is the Lord’s desire to be known throughout the land that accounts for the plagues, and therefore the narrative of chapters 5-14 (pp. 40-41).
Here, I think Blackburn (in this paragraph at least) hits on something very significant with respect to the message and motif of the Bible, namely, that the plagues were not primarily about redemption but about demonstration. God was not first and foremost freeing his people. There were other, more direct, and less painful ways to do that. God was rather showing off. He was flexing. He was demonstrating his power.
And significantly, he was demonstrating his power to people who did not believe, and in fact, were never going to believe because he had already hardened their hearts (Exodus 4:21).Yes, it was designed (and cited often in the OT) as a reminder to Israel of God’s power to deliver and rule, and as a motivation for faithful obedience and worship. Yes, it also called people from other nations to faith (such as Rahab in Joshua 2). But the purpose is bigger. It was for all nations, not just one or two, to see his power. And that is perhaps one reason it is recorded for posterity.
So God was not directly redeeming anyone through the plagues. He was bringing incredible disaster, pain, and suffering in order to make himself famous and fearful.
Thus, I do not see how we can accept the idea that redemption is the main theme in light of passages like this that are only secondarily related to redemption.
The main motif of the Bible is not how God redeems people. The main story line is not primarily redemptive. It is doxological, or to put it more laymen’s terms, the Bible is about the fame of God demonstrated among all nations, through his power, his ruling providence, his deliverance of some of the people, and his judgment of the rest. It is ultimately about how God wins—by redeeming his chosen people and destroying all the rebels.
So let me put it a dangerous way that many won’t like: Redemption is a means to an end. It is not the end.
The end of all things is the fame and glory of God in all his creation. He brings about this end through a variety of means, including little things, big things, painful things, joyful things, judgmental things, affirming things, destructive things, redemptive things.
Redemption is a means by which God glorifies himself. Ephesians 1 makes this explicit.
Now the plagues can certainly be preached redemptively, Christotelically in a variety of ways. Perhaps chief among them is not to find Christ in the plagues, but to find judgment in the plagues:
“If God does this to Pharaoh in all of his power, what do you imagine he will do to you? In fact, we don’t have to imagine it. He has been gracious enough to tell us what he will do, and when He does it, you will long for the days of flies, boils, hail, darkness, and the death of one child.
But in true gospel fashion, God has provided the satisfaction of his own judgment by judging Christ, not for the hardness of Pharaoh, but for the hardness and sinfulness of our own sins. He has poured out on Jesus all of the judgment that we deserve. And by his grace he softens hearts rather than hardens them. And he calls you to trust in Christ as your stand-in, rather than standing in the face of God’s judgment for yourself.”
But notice how I did not find Christ in the plagues. He is not one of the flies. He blood doesn’t fill the Nile. The spear of Calvary doesn’t lance the boil. And he doesn’t die as the firstborn of the house.
Christ stands in relation to the text as the one who spares us from the final judgment of God, and he does it, not when we paint blood (his or any other) on the doorposts of our hearts. He does it by dying for us. We need only trust him only.
Yes, I said that intentionally: We need only trust him only.
Faith alone in Christ alone is the answer to God’s judgment. Else you face it on your own.