Exodus 4:1 Then Moses answered and said, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’”
We continue where we left off in the previous study. After the Lord told Moses what he needed to say to the elders of Israel, and what message to deliver to Pharaoh, it seemed that all of Moses’ questions should have been answered. The Lord even said that He would give the Israelites favor in the eyes of the people of Egyptian (Exodus 3:21), in spite of the fact that Pharaoh was expected to stubbornly refuse God’s request. But God even had an answer for that, as He promised to stretch out [His] hand and strike Egypt with all [His] wonders which [He] will do in its midst; and after that [Pharaoh] will let [Israel] go (Exodus 3:20). So really, Moses had nothing to worry about.
Up until this point, Moses had asked many questions and the Lord had patiently answered each of them. Suddenly, Moses wasn’t really asking a question, rather, he was suggesting an alternate scenario. Hadn’t God already said that the elders of Israel would listen to Moses (Hint: re-read Exodus 3:18)? Obviously, Moses hadn’t already forgotten that. His memory, even at the age of eighty, was still pretty good. In fact, one thing that he no problem remembering was that the last time he tried to lead the Israelites, it didn’t turn out too well. It was one of those things that would be hard to forget. The disappointment from that day was always somewhere in the back of Moses’ mind, and it seems like it displayed itself in the way he was responding to what God was telling him.
Matthew Henry wrote, “Present discouragements often arise from former disappointments.” We get easily discouraged, and maybe it helps to understand how that discouragement is coming from the way we dwell on past failures. We need to forget our old disappointments and failures so that we don’t end up doubting the word that God is giving us today. We can keep our eyes directed ahead. Paul wrote about pressing toward a goal: I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14). When we do this we can leave the disappointments behind us. Moses didn’t do this, and in his discouragement he allowed his doubts to enter the conversation.
Exodus 4:2 So the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.”
That seems like a strange exchange. God could have just asked, “Do you see that rod in your hand?” Instead, He asked Moses what he thought it was. It was a piece of wood. To Moses, it was a dead branch that he used on the job as a walking stick, nothing more, nothing less. In Moses’ hand, what good would a wooden rod be in the presence of the king of Egypt? What difference would it make to an audience of skeptical Hebrew elders, who at one time didn’t recognize Moses’ authority when he stood before him in the uniform of an Egyptian prince? Moses saw it as an example of his limitations.
Like Moses, we mostly see things as they are in the natural, nothing more, nothing less. We can understand how we would use something, and how far we can go before that something no longer serves any purpose. You may even view your own life this way, especially concluding that there is nothing special about you. But when God wants to perform a work, He doesn’t need anything (or anyone) that is already special. Maybe the next time God asks you what you have available for Him to make use of, don’t say that you don’t have anything special. Just know that whatever you do happen to have, in God’s hands it becomes special!
Didn’t Jesus take five loaves and two fish and feed thousands? When He asked His disciples what they had, they answered that “they only had just” those few items. What they should have answered is that between the little bit in their hands and what Jesus was about to do with it, they had lunch for everyone.
Exodus 4:3 And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.
Moses expressed his doubts a few verses ago, suggesting that the people would not actually listen to him. Remember, God had settled that issue (the people would listen) already. This miracle of the rod turning into a snake was something for Moses, not the people of Israel. Moses needed a sign. Was that wrong?
Some of the scribes and Pharisees in the crowd asked Jesus for a sign, and He responded to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:39).” Moses was not the person that Jesus was talking about. The scribes and Pharisees were not interested in seeing Jesus as God, they were looking for ways to challenge Him. Moses was different. He was challenged by his own limitations and he needed a sign that the Lord could use to show Moses that God would overcome those limitations. In the Pharisee’s case, they weren’t interested in exercising their faith in Jesus. In Moses’ case, yes, he had doubts, but he wanted to believe the Lord.
The Lord knows what we need. Jesus performed many miracles, and they were not for the unbelieving religious leaders’ benefit. They were for us who believe that God is who He says He is. Jesus said, “I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me (John 5:36).” His miracles were not intended to create faith, but to bear witness that God was behind the work. Moses needed that witness, because it would draw his attention away from his own limits and towards God’s power.
Exodus 4:4-5 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail” (and he reached out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand), 5 “that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”
In other words, “Moses, here is a special credential that you can show anyone that asks to see proof that you are doing what I told you to do.” It’s an interesting symbol. Imagine if Moses was ever standing in front of a doubter, and then he tosses this stick on the ground. It turns into a snake, and then starts hissing and chasing the doubter, who jumps out of the way! Moses then reaches his hand down and grabs the snake before it bites someone. Do you think that demonstration might help some doubter believe that Moses had been given some authority? A rod is symbol of authority. The Lord showed Moses that when his rod was empowered by God’s power, it had teeth! Of course, God had already told Moses the people would listen to him. The snake miracle and the meaning of it were for Moses’ benefit.
Exodus 4:6-9 Furthermore the Lord said to him, “Now put your hand in your bosom.” And he put his hand in his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, like snow. 7 And He said, “Put your hand in your bosom again.” So he put his hand in his bosom again, and drew it out of his bosom, and behold, it was restored like his other flesh. 8 “Then it will be, if they do not believe you, nor heed the message of the first sign, that they may believe the message of the latter sign. 9 And it shall be, if they do not believe even these two signs, or listen to your voice, that you shall take water from the river and pour it on the dry land. The water which you take from the river will become blood on the dry land.”
With the authority question settled, God demonstrated to Moses that his hand would be used to bring curses to Egypt, and then to remove them. Again, Moses provided something that he had (his hand), and God provided His power to do the work.
Exodus 4:10 Then Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Oh boy! Having received the call, the anointing, and the visible demonstrations of God’s power to overcome all external obstacles, Moses was still blocked by something: his own infirmity. Perhaps he stuttered, or mumbled, or spoke with a lisp. Whatever it was, to Moses it was a show stopper.
How crazy is that! Moses was worried about not being a commanding presence? In Acts 7:22 Stephen said of Moses, “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.” In Deuteronomy 32 we read a song that Moses sang to the people of Israel just before he passed the baton to Joshua. That song starts with, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. 2 Let my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew.” Moses had words to speak, given to him by the Lord, and they were mighty. They fell on ears like rain and refreshed like dew. Yet he was ashamed of some speech impediment.
This makes me sad. Too many times people who have some great oratory gift are held up in high esteem, as if the gift of public speaking is what makes them worth listening to. Paul was apparently a horrible public speaker. This is what was said about Paul, “For his letters are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible (2 Corinthians 10:10).” Paul wasn’t bothered by this, or by those who boasted in their own abilities (such as being able to captivate an audience). 2 Corinthians 10:17-18 But “he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” 18 For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends.
Many times the Lord purposely “commends” those who don’t appear to be well-suited for the task. They are often appointed to be messengers, yet they lack artistry and gracefulness and all of the other “advantages” we somehow believe are necessary to mark a good speaker. God just loves to use the foolish to confound those that think they are wise, and the weak to shame the strong. Why does He do this? Read 1 Corinthians 1:27. So “that no flesh should glory in His presence (1 Corinthians 1:29).”
The Lord’s response to Moses is very interesting!
Exodus 4:11-12 So the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? 12 Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.”
The first question, “Who has made man’s mouth?” is a no-brainer. “Obviously, Lord, you made our mouths and if we thought about that for a moment, we can easily see that you can use any mouth you want to deliver any message you want.” He used the mouth of a donkey to speak to Balaam. Jesus said that God doesn’t even need mouths, because apparently rocks are capable of crying out, “Hosanna to the King.”
The next question, however, should stop you in your tracks. “Who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord?” Does that mean the Lord created some people mute (unable to speak), or deaf, or blind? It sounds like He is saying that He does. This can hard for some people to take, because we have it in our heads that God is not responsible for anything “bad.” I have often heard James 1:17 quoted, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights,” and then heard this verse used to explain that if something doesn’t appear to be a “good or perfect gift,” then it must have come from somewhere else (usually blamed on Satan). But how can we reconcile that teaching with what God told Moses (and us) in Exodus 4:11?
It says in Psalm 139:14 that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works.” Does this verse somehow only apply to people born without birth defects? David was the author of that Psalm, and we know that he was put together pretty well physically, so perhaps he was only speaking for himself? Does that then mean that someone born blind can say, “I am not wonderfully made, what an awful work You performed, Lord.” We know in our hearts that this cannot be true.
What about people who get damaged along the way? Lose their sight or hearing by an accident. Lose limbs. Or end up paralyzed from the neck down. What then? Is the work God has performed in their life not so marvelous? Not everyone who gets cancer gets it from a life of smoking and drinking.
This is a hard thing for most people. It is so hard to reconcile what we perceive to be “wonderful and marvelous” (and what we perceive to be the opposite) with a very real statement just made by God in His Word: “I, the Lord.” I’m going to use that statement to create some sentences that might be hard to take, but they are very real. They MUST be true, because God declared it in His Word. These are things that God can say:
- I, the Lord made someone mute.
- I, the Lord made someone deaf.
- I, the Lord made someone blind.
- If you are someone who has some sort of physical or emotional infirmity from birth or accident, then God can say, “I, the Lord made you that way.”
Everyone struggles with this, and usually the question becomes, “But why, God?” God didn’t offer Moses an explanation, and He doesn’t offer us one either. He just declares two unarguable facts: (1) He makes people the way that they are; and (2) He is the Lord. That second fact means that He takes responsibility for it, but He is not accountable to anyone, certainly not you and me.
So where does that leave us? Truthfully, it ends up being a huge challenge to someone’s faith. If you honestly struggle with this, then you are not alone. I do too. How could God allow so many children to be born with disabilities? It’s not like it is their fault. They had no opportunity to sin and bring consequences on themselves. Even their moms could be innocent. It just sometimes happens. There is no explanation. Oh, people try and explain it, and then they try and come to some sort of terms with it, and try to find some peace in it. But no matter how you look at it, none of the views from the human perspective will satisfy you. There will be no peace there, just questions without answers.
It always comes back to God doing something that we can’t understand, and then not explaining to us “why” He did it or allowed it. Without any explanation as to “why” God says, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).”
God says to the disabled person, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are an example of my marvelous work!” God claims in His Word that He is fair and just, without explaining why some people suffer more than others. If we say that we can believe these things that God tells us only when we see “good things” happening, or only when we understand why someone has to suffer, then what kind of faith is that? It would be a pretty cheap example of faith.
But what if you could overcome the challenge to your faith posed by unexplained suffering and disability present for no apparent reason? If your faith can survive that challenge, it would indeed become an unshakeable faith in God, and you would actually come in to a deeper and closer relationship with Him. Hebrews 11:6 Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
But isn’t sickness and disease and disability a result of sin having entered creation? Yes, that is true. But read John 9:1-12. [Take a minute and read that passage, I'll wait.]. While the disciples were interested in connecting the dots between a man’s blindness and someone’s sin, Jesus said that wasn’t the point. The purpose that God chose to cause a man to be born blind was that “the works of God should be revealed in him.” Revealed in whom? Jesus was pointing to the blind man when he said that. The blind man’s life was intended demonstrate the works of God. God could demonstrate His healing power only by ministering it to a person who needed healing. What is the point of “healing” the eyes of a man who can already see?
We always have questions. But asking how, why, what, when, where and all that stuff is missing the point. It should always be “Who?” and the answer is “I, the Lord” and then we should just believe Him for what He is about to do, whatever that is. Sometimes it is healing. Sometimes it is demonstrating His power in weakness. The marvelous work declared in Psalm 139:14 is the work of God revealed in an imperfect human life.
Exodus 4:13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.”
Seriously, by this point God has fully addressed every last concern. Moses might have started with a lack of confidence about his lisp or stuttering, but God basically said, “Look Moses, I made you that way on purpose. That should be good enough for you.” But it wasn’t good enough for Moses, and he stooped all the way to a whining, “Can’t you just send someone else?”
I guess we could look deeply into why Moses might have done that, but maybe that shouldn’t be necessary. We all can relate to this, and the simple answer when we find ourselves doing it is, “Stop it! Just stop it!”
Exodus 4:14-16 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.15 Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. 16 So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.”
God is patient with us; He will reason with us, He will work with us as long as necessary. But don’t be mistaken about that “as long as necessary” part. God knows our weaknesses and our limitations better than we know ourselves. So He also knows when we are just being stubborn. Be careful at that point. God can become displeased with us, and then He might consider that we have gone too far. Moses went too far, here. God’s plan for Moses was for Moses alone to be a spokesman. God didn’t need Aaron’s help, and I’m sure He resented that Moses insisted on using a crutch when God had so powerfully shown Moses what He could do with Moses alone. In fact, Aaron would just get in the way and things would not run as smoothly as they otherwise might have (golden calf, anyone?).
It’s unfortunate, but true. Too often the Lord asks me to go a certain distance and I stop short. Or, God asks me to reach high and I pull back short of the mark. This actually limits the work of God! It restricts the amount of power that He would work in my life. How much power has God needed to pull back from my life because I shrink back from what He is asking me to do? If I insist on using my crutch, God won’t grab it and throw it away. By His grace He will find a way to work around it, but it is a limited work. God is asking me to throw my crutch away. Proverbs 3:5-6 instructs me to trust in the Lord, and lean not on [my] own understanding. Resorting to my own understanding about God’s ways is just like leaning on a crutch, and it keeps me from moving freely in the way God would want.
Exodus 4:17 “And you shall take this rod in your hand, with which you shall do the signs.”
The Lord still drew the line, though. This part was not open for argument. God intended for Moses to represent the authority God had placed on him, not anybody else. If Moses had tried to argue this one, it wouldn’t have worked. Why not? I guess it is back to the answer, “I, the Lord.”
Exodus 4:18-20 So Moses went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said to him, “Please let me go and return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 Now the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.” 20 Then Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the rod of God in his hand.
Moses took leave of his father in law (and boss), received assurance from God that his enemies in Egypt were gone, gathered his wife and kids, and they started their journey. Moses kept that rod in his hand. I guess there was no way he was comfortable letting that thing out of his sight! It was dangerous. What if one of the kids was playing with it, dropped it and it turned into snake?
Exodus 4:21-23 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23 So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”’”
At this point, the Lord told Moses that those miraculous signs would be performed in front of Pharaoh. You would think that seeing a stick turn into a snake would leave an impression. But God said of Pharaoh, “No, he will not let the people go.” God said that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. What does this mean? Does it mean that Pharaoh was manipulated by God, unfairly? Does God harden people’s hearts so that they won’t believe Him? I don’t think so. The Pharaohs had, for many decades, hardened their own hearts towards the Israelites. This particular Pharaoh was no exception. He was a hard man, ignoring their suffering and their cries. He had zero compassion towards them. His heart wasn’t going to get any harder. So what was hardened? Matthew Henry suggested that God “hardened his heart against the conviction of the miracles, and the terror of the plagues.” I think this is a great way of thinking about this. Pharaoh wasn’t going to be impressed by demonstrations of God’s power, and all God did was to turn that little dial in Pharaoh up a bit.
God likened Israel to His son. It was not a request for Pharaoh to let a bunch of slaves go. It was a request that Pharaoh let one of God’s own children free. One the one hand, Pharaoh had no right to detain anybody’s servants. How much less of a right to hold God’s child? If you wonder how God views any person’s enslavement to the world and to sin, this is your answer. It affects God deeply. As far as what Pharaoh needed to hear, it was, “You hurt my kid, I’m gonna kill yours.” Don’t be messin’ with an angry dad!
Exodus 4:24 And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him.
This sounds really strange. God just told Moses, “Go to Egypt.” Then along the way, God started to kill him? Moses and his family were apparently stopped at an encampment, essentially a place along the way to rest for the night. At that point, Moses started to die, and we are told that God was responsible for this. What was going on?
The best explanation I have ever heard is that Moses had a bit of a problem. He had two boys, and they had not been circumcised. That was a big no no for the Hebrew people. God’s covenant with Abraham required Abraham and all of his male descendants to be circumcised as a mark of the covenant. The physical sign of circumcision was a reflection on a spiritual identification that the Hebrews were God’s covenant people. Circumcision didn’t make them spiritual, but it was done to reflect that they were, in fact, spiritual heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. But Moses neglected to circumcise his boys.
Why? Likely, Moses and Zipporah, his wife, didn’t see eye to eye on circumcision. For each baby, on the eight day, Moses might have said, “Honey, time to circumcise the lad,” and she replied, “You are not laying a knife on my baby!” Moses let it go. Twice. Maybe more, because maybe he reasoned with her often, and each time she said, “No way!” Eventually, he gave in and let it go.
But God didn’t let it go. Those boys needed to be circumcised, and it was Moses’ responsibility to see that it would be done. God had put it on Moses heart often to do something about it, and he was disobedient. Finally, literally steps away from assuming a spiritual leadership role over all of Israel, God had no choice to be threaten Moses’ life.
Exodus 4:25-26 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” 26 So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision.
Moses was dying, so there was nothing he could do. Zipporah must have recognized what was going on, and she knew what needed to be done. She circumcised one of the boys, and God let Moses out of the death grip. But Zipporah was bitter. She didn’t want her boys circumcised before, and she certainly didn’t want to be forced to do it herself. Moses probably circumcised the other boy (it doesn’t say who did it) and then very likely he sent Zipporah and the boys home to Jethro.
I think that Moses by now understood that God meant business. God is serious about the calling He puts on people, and God is serious about sanctification. In other words, when God tells someone about a sin issue, He expects something to be done about it. At some point, that sin issue is going to conflict with the calling, and something is going to give. The cost of procrastination for Moses was pretty high. His wife was so mad she ended the trip and went home, taking his sons with her. They do make up later, though!
Exodus 4:27 And the Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him on the mountain of God, and kissed him.
Moses had stopped at Mount Horeb to spend time with the Lord, and Aaron was sent out to meet him there.
Exodus 4:28 So Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord who had sent him, and all the signs which He had commanded him.
Now that Aaron was part of the ministry team, he was briefed on all the important details. I imagine Moses actually showing Aaron the miraculous signs, maybe the first time without any warning. Just chuck the stick at Aaron’s feet and watch him jump when the stick turns into a snake! Anyway, that is what I would have done to my brother.
Exodus 4:29-31 Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel. 30 And Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses. Then he did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped.
Just like God said, the elders of Israel heard the message and believed. On top of that, they were moved to worship God, because they saw in Moses an answer to prayer. Forty years earlier, Moses was a man standing in his own strength and righteousness, and he could not deliver the people. They didn’t recognize him. But now, Moses stood in his own humility, surrounded by God’s strength and power. The people understood that only someone who had been called by God could do the signs that Moses showed them. They had been praying for deliverance, and this time, they could see that God had sent someone to deliver them. They bowed their heads and worshipped.