Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Plagues and God’s Fame

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.


Jon Gleason said...

Hi, Larry. I'm only half-persuaded.

God is showing His power to those who are hardened for redemptive purposes -- just not theirs.

What He did there was written for our benefit (I'm sure I got that from the NT somewhere :)). It was, at least in part, to teach us the last two words of your sentence -- "Him only." That's redemptive, isn't it?

I agree that the main motif of the Bible is primarily doxological. I disagree when you say it is not primarily redemptive. It's a false dichotomy -- it is both. We are saved that we might be to the praise of His glory.

That's my take on it, FWIW.

Larry said...

Thanks Jon for reading and commenting. I agree that what you say is "redemptive," but I think that is, IMO, that gets pretty loose with "redemptive" terminology.

I think your last statement highlights my concern. It is true that we are saved to the praise of his glory. But there are untold millions who are not saved, and they do not fit into the redemptive motif other than as some sort of foils. The plagues were to make God's name famous, not to redeem Israel. And Pharaoh was hardened by God in order to do that. So God was primarily pursuing his glory, not redemption in those acts.

Same with the heavens and the glory of God. There is no redemptive truth in the heavens except in a most secondary or even tertiary way of testifying to the existence of God. But that has more purposes than redemption.

So I think the main motif cannot be both doxological and redemptive. I think, based on Ephesians 1 that you cite, that redemption serves doxology.

Jon Gleason said...

Thanks, Larry.

"The plagues were to make God's name famous, not to redeem Israel."

We certainly agree on that statement. Obviously, God could have removed Israel without the plagues.

I would suggest that God was making His name famous for redemptive purposes, and we see multiple statements to that effect. Redemption serves doxology which serves redemption which serves doxology.

If the only Scriptural statement about the plagues were in Exodus itself, then we could perhaps say it was about showing His glory to the Egyptians, judgment, etc. But the rest of the Bible tells us it was about His relationship with His redeemed people as well.

Or to put it another way, viewed in isolation the plagues appear to be doxological, but in the whole flow of God's working with Israel, the redemptive aspect is strongly present.

Maybe I AM being too loose with "redemptive" -- or maybe we think too narrowly about it. Over the last few years, I've been growing more and more to think it is the latter. But maybe we're drifting into something that is best described as being about words with little profit.

Unknown said...

Hello Larry,
[pause and wait for McLean Stevenson reference to take full effect...].

Was studying this with one of the men of our church, and we discussed this on very similar lines.

As far as finding Christ--we do need to say that God saw fit to use the plagues to bring about the final deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and thus maintain His covenant reliability, and continue His plan to bring His Messiah into being, don't we? IOW, redemption would not occur if Israel is not released? Would it be saying too much to see "redemptive" in that?