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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 5

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-5



Exodus 5:1-5

Having secured the adhesion of the Israelitish people, Moses and Aaron sought an interview with the Egyptian monarch who was now in possession of the throne. According to the bulk of modern authorities, and according to our own views of Egyptian history, this was Menephthah,the son and successor of Rameses II. Menephthah was a weak prince, whom events had favoured, and who had been thus led to have an exalted opinion of himself. A great invasion of Egypt had occurred at the beginning of his reign, which had been met and completely repulsed, not by his own skill or valour, but by the skill and valour of his generals. Menephthah himself had pointedly avoided incurring any danger. He claimed to be in direct communication with the Egyptian gods, who revealed themselves to him in visions, and pleaded a distinct command of Phthah as preventing him from putting himself at the head of his army. Still, he counted as his own all the successes gained by his generals, and was as vainglorious and arrogant as if he had himself performed prodigies of valour Such was the temper of the king before whom we believe that Moses and Aaron appeared. There would be no difficulty in any Egyptian subject, who had a prayer to make or a petition to present, obtaining an audience of the monarch, for it was an accepted principle of the administration that the kings were to hear all complaints, and admit to their presence all classes of the community.

Exodus 5:1

And afterward. The interposition of some not inconsiderable space of time seems to be implied. Menephthah resided partly at Memphis, partly at Zoan (Tanis). Moses and Aaron may have had to wait until he returned from his southern to his northern capital. Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh. Aaron was, no doubt, the sole spokesman, but as he spoke for both, the plural is used. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel. Literally, "Thus saith Jehovah, God of Israel." Pharaoh would understand Jehovah to be a proper name, parallel to his own Phthah, Ra, Ammon, etc. Let my people go. The rationale of the demand is given in Exodus 8:26. The Israelites could not offer their proper sacrificial animals in the presence of the Egyptians without the risk of provoking a burst of religious animosity, since among the animals would necessarily be some which all, or many, of the Egyptians regarded as sacred, and under no circumstances to be killed. The fanaticism of the Egyptians on such occasions led to wars, tumults, and massacres. (See Plutarch, 'De Isid. et Osir.,' § 44.) To avoid this danger the "feast" must be held beyond the bounds of Egypt—in the adjacent "wilderness."

Exodus 5:2

And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord? Rather, "Who is Jehovah?" Either Pharaoh is actually ignorant, or he pretends to be. The former is possible, since Jehovah was a name but little employed, until the return of Moses to Egypt. The latter, however, is more probable. That I should obey his voice. Why am I to obey his voice? What is your Jehovah to me? What authority has he over me? He is, at best, your god, not mine. I know not Jehovah. I acknowledge him not. He is not within the range of my Pantheon. Neither will I let Israel go, i.e. "nor even, if he were, would I consent to such a request as this from him." The Pharaohs assumed to be themselves gods, on a par with the national gods, and not bound to obey them.

Exodus 5:3

And they said. Moses and Aaron are not abashed by a single refusal. They expostulate, and urge fresh reasons why Pharaoh should accede to their request. But first they explain that Jehovah is the God of the Hebrews, by which name the Israelites seem to have been generally known to the Egyptians (See Exodus 1:15, Exodus 1:16, Exodus 1:19; Exodus 2:6, Exodus 2:7.) Their God, they say, has met with them—made, that is. a special revelation of himself to them—an idea quite familiar to the king, and which he could not pretend to misunderstand and he has laid on them an express command. They are to go a three days' journey into the desert—to be quite clear of interruption from the Egyptians. Will not Pharaoh allow them to obey the order? If they do not obey it, their God will be angry, and will punish them, either by sending a pestilence among them, or causing an invader to fall upon them with the sword. The eastern frontier of Egypt was at this time very open to invasion, and was actually threatened by a vast army some ten or fifteen years later.

Exodus 5:4

The king makes no direct reply to this appeal, but turns upon his petitioners, and charges them with an offence against the crown. Why do they, Moses and Aaron, by summoning the people to meet together, and exciting their minds with vague hopes, "let the people from their works." This is damage to the crown, whoso labourers the people are, and he, the Pharaoh, will not have it. "Get you—all of you, people and leaders together—to your appointed tasks—your burdens."

Exodus 5:5

The people are many. This is added as an aggravation of the offence charged in the last verse. The people are numerous. Therefore the greater damage is done to the crown by putting a stop to their labours. With these words the first interview between the Israelite leaders and the Egyptian monarch ends. Moses and Aaron, we must suppose, retired discomfited from the royal presence.


Exodus 5:1-5

God's will often opposed by the great of the earth, and his servants rebuffed.

Encouraged by their success with the elders and with the people (Exodus 4:29-31), Moses and Aaron would stop boldly into the presence of Pharaoh. It was, no doubt, known that they represented the feelings of an entire nation, a nation moreover of whom the Egyptians had begun to be afraid (Exodus 1:9, Exodus 1:10). The courtiers would treat them, at any rate, with outward politeness and respect. They knew also that God was on their side, and would ultimately, if not at the first, give them success. Under these circumstances they made their request boldly and with much plainness (Exodus 5:1 and Exodus 5:3). But they were met with the most complete antagonism. Pharaoh was in his own eves not only the greatest king upon the face of the earth, but an actual god. If we are right in supposing him to be Menephthah, he was the son of a king who had set up his own image to be worshipped side by side with those of Ammon, Phthah, and Horus, three of the greatest Egyptian deities. He viewed the demand made of him as preposterous, and had probably not the slightest belief in the power of Jehovah to do him harm. Who was Jehovah? and what had he to fear from him? A god—if he was a god—who had not been able to prevent his people from becoming a nation of slaves. He therefore treated the petition of Moses with absolute contempt. And so it has ever been, and will ever be, with the great of the earth. They are so exalted above their fellows, that they think "no harm can happen unto them." They do not set themselves to inquire what is really God's will, but determinately carry out their own will in their own way. Even when they do not openly blaspheme, like this Pharaoh, and Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:29-35), and Herod Antipas (Luke 23:11), they ignore God, reject the just demands of his ministers, refuse to be guided by their advice. Thus his servants are ever being rebuffed. They ask that slavery should everywhere cease, and are told that in some places it is a necessity. They plead against the licensing of vice, and are bidden not to interfere with sanitary arrangements. They ask for laws to restrain intoxication, and are denounced as seeking to lessen the national revenue. They cry for the abolition of vivisection, and are held up to ridicule as sickly sentimentalists. All this is to be expected, and should not discourage them. Let them, like Moses and Aaron, continually repeat their demands; urge them, in season and out of season. They may be sure that they will triumph at last. "The Lord is on their side;" they need not fear what flesh can do against them.


Exodus 5:1-21


"I know not Jehovah," etc.: Exodus 5:2. We now come face to face with the king. As the king here becomes very prominent, we will keep him conspicuous in the outlining of this address.

I. AUDIENCE WITH THE KING. This is a convenient moment for introducing Pharaoh as the terrestrial representative of the Sun, as the vicegerent of Deity upon earth. Does it seem wonderful that men should receive a man in this capacity? But millions of professed Christians in this nineteenth century so receive the Pope. We will take the suggestions of the story in the time-order of the narrative. We have—

1. A lesson in courage. The two went to their audience with the king at the peril of their lives. Some might have remembered Moses. Their demand touched the honour and revenues of the king. Courage in facing responsibility is the lesson; leave consequences to our poor selves to God.

2. A suggestion as to the method of evangelic grace. Jehovah here calls himself for the first time in relation to the nation, as distinguished from the man Jacob, "the God of Israel." A crowd was just becoming a State and a Church, when Jehovah calls himself their God. First he is their God: then all possibilities are before them. Their history begins well. So now: first adopted children, and then the obedience of children.

3. A warning against want of catholicity. The tone of Pharaoh is that of the vicegerent of Deity, as against a tutelary god he deigned not to acknowledge. But he was wrong even on the principles of enlightened pagandom, which was forward to acknowledge the gods of all nations. Compare the policy of imperial Rome.

4. Teaching as to gradation in God's demands. Here may be discussed the nature and propriety of the first demand for three days' absence. Looking at things after the events, it may appear to some that here was a demand which concealed the real intention, viz. to return no more. But this would be to impeach the veracity of God! The demand really was for "a whole day's prayer-meeting," with a day to go, a day to return. In the desert, as in consideration of Egyptian feeling; but probably within the frontier, for there were Egyptian garrisons in Forts of the desert of Sinai. A moderate demand! One that Pharaoh might well have complied with. Compliance might have led to further negotiation; and this Pharaoh might have stood out in history as co-operating in the deliverance and formation of the Church of God. Instead of that he set himself against the small demand, and was unready for the greater (Exodus 6:11) when it came. And so we see him through the mist of ages, "moving ghost-like to his doom." It is a picture of the method of God. He asks first for the simple, reasonable, easy etc. etc.

II. ORDERS FROM THE KING. "The very same day!" Such is the restlessness of the tyrant-spirit. The orders were addressed to the "drivers," Egyptians, and to the "clerks" of the works, Hebrews. Note the large employment of "clerks," as evidenced by the monuments. The appointment of these "clerks" would contribute much to the organisation of Israel, and so prepare for the Exodus. As to the orders—explain them. Bricks a government monopoly; witness the royal mark on many to this day. Same number of bricks as before, but people to gather in the corn-fields the straw (in harvest only the ear cut off) previously allowed by the government, chop it, and mix it with the clay. Terrible cruelty of these orders-in-council in such a climate.

III. OBEDIENCE TO THE KING. For the sake of vividly and pictorially bringing up the condition of the people, note the time of straw-collecting: time of harvest—end of April; then a hot pestilential sand-wind often blows over the land of Egypt for fifty days; the effects on health, tone, skin, eyes (in the land of ophthalmia), of so working in blazing sun, in clouds of dust, in hopeless slavery. They return to the horrid brickfields; fail; fierce punishments, as to this day in the same land.

IV. EXPOSTULATION WITH THE KING, The "clerks" of the works constitute a deputation to the king, perhaps by virtue of a "right of petition." The king accuses them of being "idle." To understand this, think of the gigantic public works, the terrific labour, the perishing of thousands, the likelihood that such a taunt would spring to tyrannical lips. The king refuses, perhaps threatens the lives of the "clerks." See verse 21—"to put a sword," etc. Here again, that which seemed most against the people made for them. The treatment of the "clerks" brought them into sympathy with their enslaved brethren. Israel closed its ranks. The fellowship of suffering prepared for the companionship of pilgrimage. There was, too, a present blessing. Spiritual feelings were quickened, heaven came nearer, the pitying love of God became more precious. One can imagine such scenes as those in which the slaves of the Southern States, through horrid swamps and over mighty rivers, in the dead of night "stole away to Jesus."

"In that hour, when night is calmest,
Sing they from some Sacred Psalmist,
In a voice so sweet and clear
That I cannot choose but hear.

"And the voice of their devotion
Fills my soul with strange emotion;
For its tones by turns are glad,
Sweetly solemn, wildly sad."

[Adaped from LONGFELLOW.]

V. CONSEQUENCES TO THE AMBASSADORS OF THE KING OF KINGS. Moses and Aaron, somewhere near the palace, were waiting to know the result of the audience of the "clerks" with the king. The "clerks," irritated and angry, turned on the God-given leaders: verse 21. [Note in the Hebrews the expression "to stink in the eyes," and the fact that pungent odours do affect the eyes! A dreadful trouble to Moses and Aaron!

In conclusion, observe—

1. The cruelty that is ever incident to sin. "Man's inhumanity to man" a universal fact. "The dark places of the earth are full," etc.; so places alight with modern civilisation. The incidents of any gin-palace! There is, too, a cruelty of word and manner. Soul-wounds deeper than sword-gashes. No cure save under the sanctifying power of the Cross of self-abnegating love.

2. The pain that attends all emancipations. The first efforts of Moses and Aaron led to nothing but disaster. See Hebrews 6:9. So with the agony of emancipation in America. So always and everywhere. So with reforms within the Church. So with crises of soul-history.

3. The discouragement that may fall to leaders.

4. The encouragement we all have. Note here—

(1) The appointment of the "clerks;"

(2) The personal danger into which they came;

(3) The uniting all Israel into a fellowship of grief that they might dare the desert. All this came out of the oppression; but tended to salvation. Our darkest experiences rosy be our best friends.

5. Through what sorrow all come to the final emancipation.—R.


Exodus 5:1-23

The people of Jehovah detained and oppressed by the representative of the prince of this world; no doubt as to the strength of the latter—is it possible for his spoils to be wrested from him? The strong man armed has thus far kept his palace (Luke 11:21), and his goods (cf. Revelation 18:13) have been in peace, so far as outward disturbance is concerned. Now comes one who claims to be the stronger. What may be expected to. happen?


1. The tyrant. Picture the king. Wholly self-satisfied, worshipped as a god, absolute ruler over the lives of thousands. Surrounded by obsequious servants—none to contradict him, none to disobey. Enthroned in palace. Enter—

2. The envoys. Two men—one grown old in slavery, one for forty years a shepherd, looking now at all this pomp as a man who dimly recalls some dream. Does he think of what might have been, perhaps he himself seated upon the throne (cf. Hebrews 11:24)? Greater honour to be the unknown envoy of Jehovah than to be the Pharaoh who receives his message.

3. The message. Strange words for such a king to hear

(1) a command, not a request. The sender of the message speaks as to a servant.

(2) The slaves of Pharaoh claimed as the people of Jehovah; his right denied to the possession of his goods.

4. The reply. The demand met by a contemptuous refusal Who is Jehovah? I know not Jehovah!" If the message is authoritative, yet the envoys are sufficiently humble—they even plead with him that, for the sake of the people, he will grant them permission and opportunity to sacrifice (Exodus 5:3). All to no purpose; the strong man is secure in his possessions and means to keep them in his grasp.

II. HOSTILITIES COMMENCED.—Pharaoh, was not quite so indifferent as he seemed. If there is to be war, he will gain such advantage as may be gained by making the first hostile movement. His slaves at any rate shall be taught that rebellion is not likely to be successful. Effect of his policy:—

1. On people. So long as he had been undisturbed his goods were in peace; now that he is disturbed the miserable peace of his chattels is disturbed too. [Man in prison, treated with greater rigour on the rumour of an attempted rescue.] Early spring, just after the corn has been cut; chopped straw needed to mix with the clay in brickmaking; let these discontented rebels gather their own. Israelites obliged to scatter themselves over the country; all complaints stifled with blows. Result, Exodus 5:20, Exodus 5:21, great discouragement and distrust of Moses and Aaron. "This comes of interfering." Six months' worse tyranny than ever.

2. On himself. Six months to realise the success of his policy; feels more secure than ever; heart is harder; pride greater (cf. Romans 2:4, Romans 2:5).

3. On Moses. Exodus 5:22, Exodus 5:23. Disheartened, but only for a little; repulsed by Pharaoh, suspected by the people, he is driven back on God; like the giant who gained strength each time he clasped the ground, so becoming more invincible with each new overthrow, finds God his refuge and his strength also. God is pledged to secure final victory. The slaves must be freed; not because they can win freedom, but because God has promised to free them. Apply, from our Lord's parable, Luke 11:21, Luke 11:22, Satan the strong man who has many slaves. His power seems at first to increase when moved by the rumour of redemption we attempt to follow the dictates of our Deliverer (cf. Romans 7:9-11). Content with slavery, there is quietude; trying after freedom we find trouble and affliction. [Illustr. A habit, not hard to endure, but hard to break. The chain of sin is easy to wear; they only know how fast it holds who try to struggle free of it.] Cf. again Romans 7:1-25. with St. Paul. as with Israel; the bondage seemed worse than ever when the hope of freedom was the most alluring. In either ease the ground of hope, not in the sufferer, but away outside him. God prompts to the struggle against the oppressor, but he does not let victory depend on us; that rests with him. The promise to deliver is contained in the call to freedom. It is not, "I will help you when you are strong," nothing said about our strength at all; confidence rests on the fact that God. is Jehovah, the changeless One (cf. Exodus 6:2; Malachi 3:6). Let Israel obey Moses, and God must redeem them from Pharaoh. Let us obey Christ, and God must redeem us from the power of Satan.—G.


Exodus 5:1-4

A first interview.

Accompanied by Aaron, Moses passes again through the hails of the Pharaohs from which he has been so long a stranger. Kings, courtiers, and people are different; but all else gates and pillars, courts, corridors, and reception-rooms—how unchanged since first he knew them! The feelings of the quondam prince must have been strangely mingled, as, after forty years of exile, he trod the familiar pavements, and looked upon the old splendours. But the narrative, absorbed in its mightier theme, has no word to spare for the emotions of a Moses. The long contest between Pharaoh and Jehovah is on the eve of its commencement, and the interest centres in its opening scene. It is this which occupies the verses before us.

I. THE REQUEST (Exodus 5:1, Exodus 5:3). Behold Pharaoh on his throne of state, while the brothers stand before him delivering Jehovah's message. The request preferred to him was—

1. Eminently righteous and reasonable. No monarch has a right to deprive a people of the opportunity of worshipping God according to their consciences. If he does, the people have a right to protest against it. Pharaoh could not be expected to understand the modern views of rights of conscience, but even by the light of his own time people were entitled to be permitted to worship their own gods, and to honour them by appropriate festivals. But not only had Pharaoh deprived the Hebrews of their liberty, and ground them to the earth by cruel oppression—both offences against righteousness, but he had taken from them, we may be certain, the opportunity of observing in a proper manner the festivals of their God. Moses and Aaron would have been within their rights, even without Divine command, had they demanded that the whole nation be set at liberty. Much more when they only asked that they be allowed for a brief space to retire into the wilderness, there, unmolested by the Egyptians, to sacrifice to the Lord.

2. Supported by Divine command. "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel." Pharaoh, it is true, could plead that he did not know Jehovah; but when he saw these men's sincerity, and how they dreaded incurring their God's anger (Exodus 5:3), it was his duty to have inquired further. The evil was that he did not care to know. He treated the whole matter with impious and disdainful contempt.

3. Unaccompanied by signs. Moses and Aaron had no occasion to exhibit signs. Pharaoh was not in a mood to pay the slightest attention to them. He did not even dispute that this was a bona fide message from Jehovah, but took the ground of simple refusal to obey it. Yet there may have been a reason for working no miracles at the opening of the conflict. God proceeds with men step by step. The first appeal is to be made, not to the king's fears, but to his sense of fairness, his humanity, and feeling of religion. He must be convicted on this lower ground before sterner measures are used to coerce him to submission. It might be true that purely moral considerations would have little effect upon him; but if so, this had to be made manifest. God deals with men first of all in the open court of conscience, and it is there—in the region of ordinary morals—that hardening usually begins.

II. PHARAOH'S REPLY (Exodus 5:2). It was, as already stated, a haughty and angry refusal, showing total disregard of the rights and wishes of the Hebrews, and setting Jehovah at defiance. The king's disposition, as brought to light in it, is seen to be—

1. Proud. He probably regarded the request of the brothers as an instance of astounding audacity. Who were they, two slave-born men, that they should presume to ask from him, the lord of mighty Egypt, that the people be allowed to rest from their labours? His pride may have blinded him to the righteousness of their demand; but it could not lessen his responsibility. We are judged, not according to the impression which righteous and merciful appeals make upon us—that may be his—but by the inherent righteousness of the appeals, and by the effects which they ought to have produced.

2. Headstrong. Before venturing so defiantly to scout Jehovah and his message, it would surely have been well for Pharaoh to have inquired a little further into the character and powers of this Being of whom the Hebrews stood so much in awe. He had not the excuse which many moderns would plead, that he did not believe in gods or in the supernatural in any shape. Pharaoh had no right, from his own point of view, to scout the possibility of "the God of the Hebrews" having met with them; and neither, so far as appears from the narrative, did he, though he chose to regard the story as a fiction. Many reject the Gospel, never having given its claims their serious attention; but this will not excuse them. They cannot plead that, had they believed it to be true, they would have acted otherwise. Their sin is that in their headstrongness they will not trouble themselves to inquire whether it is true.

3. Profane. After all, what Pharaoh's reply amounted to was this, that, let Jehovah be who or what he might, he (Pharaoh) set him at naught—would not obey him. The message might or might not come from a God, he did not care. Thus he "set his mouth against the heavens" (Psalms 73:9), and "exalted himself above all that is called God" (2 Thessalonians 2:4)—not an uncommon phase of pride. But the presumptuously wicked will do well to remember that, if Pharaoh thus exalted himself, it was to his own destruction. His very pride was a challenge to Jehovah to destroy him.—J.O.


Exodus 5:1-5

God's demand and Pharaoh's answer.


1. Its modesty. They merely ask liberty to depart on a three days' journey into the wilderness.

2. It was asked in good faith; it was not a cover for escape. God would give deliverance; but that was left in God's hand; and meanwhile they asked only for liberty to worship him.

3. Its reasonableness: they could not sacrifice the sacred animals of the Egyptians before their faces.

4. Its necessity. Pharaoh might not know Jehovah, but they knew him, and must serve him, "lest he fall upon us with the pestilence or the sword." The demand of the Church still is liberty to serve God in his own appointed way. It must be had. Luther's "God help me; I can do no other! We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).


1. Its presumption. He did not know Jehovah, and therefore the message was a lie! Unbelief makes the bounds of its knowledge the bounds of truth and possibility. The pretensions of modern agnosticism.

2. It was a refusal of justice; it was a resolve to continue oppression. Unbelief is the brother and helper of wrong-doing.

3. It was made with reproach and insult. They were encouraging idleness and sedition: "Get ye to your burdens" "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also."

4. The rage of the wicked is often the best commendation of God's servants. It is a testimony to their faithfulness.—U.


Exodus 5:2

Pharaoh's first response: his answer in word.

Moses and Aaron, somehow or other, have found their way into Pharaoh's presence. All things, so far, have happened as God said they would happen. The very brevity and compactness of the record at the end of Exodus 4:1-31. is an instructive comment on the way in which Moses had mistaken comparative shadows for substantial difficulties. The actual meeting of Moses with Israel is dismissed in a few satisfactory and significant words; as much as to say that enough space had already been occupied in detailing the difficulties started by Moses in his ignorance and alarm. It is when Moses and Pharaoh meet that the tug of war really begins. Moses addresses to Pharaoh the commanded request, and is met, as was to be expected, with a prompt and contemptuous defiance. Observe—

I. PHARAOH, IN HIS REJOINDER TO MOSES, PUTS A QUESTION WHICH GOD ALONE CAN PROPERLY ANSWER. "Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice to let Israel go?" This was evidently in Pharaoh's opinion a question which needed no answer at all. It had nothing interrogative about it, except the form. Taking the form of a question, it served to express more forcibly Pharaoh's defiant spirit. There was, in his opinion, really no need to consider or confer at all. "Am I not the great Pharaoh, successor to many great Pharaohs before me? Is not my power accepted and undisputed far and wide?" He could not so much as comprehend any danger unless it took the form of physical force; and not only so, but a form plainly visible—near, threatening, overwhelming. If only some great king had been approaching—strong with the strength of a large and victorious army—to demand the liberation of Israel, Pharaoh would not so have spoken. To him the invisible was as the unreal. Pharaoh listens to Moses, and what does he hear?—a claim that seems to dispute his supremacy, from this new deity, whose image he has never seen, whose name mayhap his priests have told him is not that of any deity worshipped in Canaan of which they have ever heard. Certainly it looks a large claim upon the first presentation of it, small as it is in comparison with what is to follow. This, then, is what he hears, and the audacity and presumption of it are not diminished by what he sees. There stand Moses and Aaron, completely devoid in person and surroundings of anything to impress the king with the peril of refusing their request. Surely if the men who say they are sent look so contemptible, the unseen being from whom they say they come may be safely neglected. Such is the reasoning, silently powerful, if not openly expressed, of those who despise and reject the claims of God. Christ is judged of, not as he is in himself, but by the superficial aspect of Christians. Because they are often low in station, or inconsistent in life, or lacking in disposition and ability to make much outward show, the world thinks that there is little or nothing behind them. It' is the folly of only too many to take Pharaoh's stand. For the right reception of the things of God we need all possible humility and openmindedness; what then is to be done, if upon the very first approach of religion, we pooh-pooh it as mere superstition, folly, and delusion?

2. This was a question to which Moses could have given a very effective and alarming answer if only he had been allowed opportunity. Moses, fresh from the revelations and sanctities of Horeb, could have told Pharaoh such a story of the workings of Jehovah as would have been enough, and more than enough, to guide the steps of a right-minded listener. Not only his own personal experience; not only the sight of the burning bush, the rod transformed, the leprous hand, the blood where water ought to be; but also the fulness, the terrible fulness of Jehovah's power in the earlier days of the world, were within his reach to speak about. He could have told Pharaoh very admonitory things concerning Sodom and the Deluge if only he had been willing to listen. We may well believe that the effect of Pharaoh's defiant attitude would be to send Moses away striving to refresh and sustain his mind with the evidences, so available and so abundant, that in spite of this proud king's contempt, Jehovah, in his vast power and resources, was indeed no vain imagination. When the proud and self-sufficient ask this Pharaoh-question, it is for us to make such answer as may be reassuring to ourselves; not to doubt our own eyesight because others are blind, our own heating because others are deaf.

How few sometimes may know, when thousands err.

The truth which we may not be able to make even probable to others, we must strive so to grasp and penetrate, that more and more it may be felt as certain and satisfying to ourselves.

3. Thus we see how the Lord himself needed to deal with this question. Knowledge of God is of many kinds, according to the disposition of the person who is to be taught, and according to the use which God purposes to make of him. Pharaoh was evidently not going to be a docile scholar in God's school—one who comes to it willing and eager, thirsting for a refreshing knowledge of the living God. But still he had to be a scholar, willingly or not. He had to learn this much at least, that he was transgressing on the peculiar possessions of God when he sported with Israel in his despotic caprice. It is for no man to say that his present real ignorance gives assurance that he will never come to some knowledge of God. It may be as pitifully true of the atheist as it is encouragingly true of the godly, that what he knows not now, he will know hereafter. Now he knows not God, but in due time he will know him; not dubiously, not distantly, but in the most practical and it may be most painful and humiliating manner. Pharaoh says, with a sneer on his face, and derision in his voice, "Who is Jehovah?" That question is duly answered by Jehovah in signs and plagues, and the last answer we hear anything about on earth comes unmistakable and sublime, amid the roll of the Red Sea's returning waters.

II. But Pharaoh not only puts this defiant question; HE UTTERS A MOST DETERMINED RESOLUTION WHICH GOD ALONE CAN ALTER. "Neither will I let Israel go." What then are Israel's chances for the future? There was every certainty that, if left to himself, Pharaoh would go on, tyrannous and oppressive as ever. From a human point of view he had everything to help him in sticking to his resolution. His fears, if he had any—the wealth which he and his people had gained from the incessant toils of Israel—the great dislocations and changes which would have been produced by even a temporary withdrawal of Israel—all these things helped to a firm maintenance of the resolution. It was a resolution which had strong and active support in all the baser feelings of his own breast. It is just in the firmness and haughtiness of such a resolution, revealing as it does the spirit of the man, that we get the reason for such an accumulation of calamities as came upon his land. Here is another significant illustration of the manifold power of God, that he could break down so much proud determination. There was no change in Pharaoh's feeling; no conversion to an equitable and compassionate mind; he simply yielded, because he could not help himself, to continuous and increasing pressure, and God alone was able to exert that pressure. Pharaoh here is but the visible and unconscious exponent of that dark Power which is behind all evil men and cruel and selfish policies. That Power, holding men in all sorts of bitter disappointments and degrading miseries, virtually says, "I will not let them go." Our confidence ought ever to be, that though we can do nothing to break this bitter bondage, God, who forced the foe of Israel to relax Iris voracious grasp, will by his own means force freedom for us from every interference of our spiritual foe. It was Pharaoh's sad prerogative to shut his own heart, to shut it persistently, to shut it for ever, against the authority and benedictions of Jehovah. But no one, though he be as mighty and arrogant as a thousand Pharaohs, can fasten us up from God, if so be we are willing to go to him, from whom alone we can gain a pure and eternal life.—Y.

Verses 6-9


Exodus 5:6-9

Rulers are not always content simply to refuse inconvenient demands. Sometimes they set to work with much ingenuity and worldly wisdom to prevent their repetition. This is especially the case where they entertain a fear of their petitioners. The Spartans removed Helots, who had earned their freedom, by the Crypteia. The massacre of St. Bartholomew was caused by the Huguenot demand for freedom of worship and the difficulty of repressing it. The Pharaoh now is not content to let things take their course, but devises a plan by which he hopes to crush altogether the aspirations of the Hebrew people, and secure himself against the recurrence of any such appeal as that which had been made to him by Moses and Aaron. The Israelites had recently been employed chiefly in brickmaking. They had had to dig the clay and temper it, to mix it with straw, and mould it into the form of bricks; but the straw had been supplied to them. The king determined that this should be no longer done; the Israelites should find the straw for themselves. It has been estimated that by this change their labour was "more than doubled." (Canon Cook.) It was a not unreasonable expectation that under this system popular meetings would cease (Exodus 5:9); and that Moses and Aaron, not being backed up by the voice of the people, would discontinue their agitation.

Exodus 5:6

The same day. Pharaoh lost no time. Having conceived his idea, he issued his order at once-on the very day of the interview with the two leaders. It would be well if the children of light were as "wise" and as energetic on all occasions as the children of darkness. Taskmasters and officers. The word translated "taskmaster" here is not the same as the expression similarly rendered in Exodus 1:11; and it is thought not to designate the same class. The sarey massim of the former passage are thought to be general superintendents of works, few in number and of high rank, the nogeshim of the present place to be subordinates, numerous and inferior in position. Both of these classes were probably Egyptians. The "officers" (shoterim) were undoubtedly Hebrews. They were especially employed in keeping the tale of the bricks, and seeing that they reached the proper amount. Literally, the word shoterim means "scribes," and is so rendered in most passages.

Exodus 5:7

Straw to make brick. Straw was used in Egypt to bind together the clay, or mud, which was, of course, the main material of the bricks.

, to raise crops of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:5), to catch fish (ibid.), and attend public meetings (Exodus 4:30, Exodus 4:31). They had, in fact, had time which they could call their own. Now this was to be so no more. The Pharaoh, however, misrepresents and exaggerates, speaking as if their forced labours had been a mere nothing, and mere want of occupation had led them to raise the cry—"Let us go and sacrifice." It would have been far nearer the truth to say, that the severity and continuousness of their labours had made the notion of festival time, during which they would cease from their toils, generally popular.

Exodus 5:9

Let there more work be laid upon the men. Rather, as in the margin, "Let the work be heavy upon the men." Let the tasks set them be such as to occupy all their time, and not leave them any spare moments in which they may be tempted to listen to mischievous talkers, like Moses and Aaron) who flatter them with vain (literally, lying, words. Pharaoh, no doubt, imagined that the hopes raised by the two brothers were vain and illusive. He was utterly blind as to the course which events were about to take.


Exodus 5:6-9

The picture of a tyrant-crafty, energetic, and unsparing.

Scripture contains abundant portraitures, not only of good, but also of bad men, the Holy Spirit seeming to be as desirous of arousing our indignation against vice as our sympathy with virtue. Portraits are given us, as more effectual than precepts or general descriptions, appealing as they do to our feelings and imagination rather than to our intellect. The dramatic exhibition of a Pharaoh, an Ahab, a Sennacherib, a Judas Iscariot, is calculated at once to strike the soul and to remain indelibly impressed upon it. Here we have the portrait of a tyrant, characterised especially by three qualities—

1. Craft or cleverness;

2. Energy; and

3. Mercilessness.

(1) Pharaoh's craft is shown, first in the skilful way in which he "turns the tables" upon Moses and Aaron, stopping their mouths with the charge that they are "letting the people from their labours," and "endamaging the king." (See Ezra 4:13.) Secondly, it is shown in the rapidity and ingenuity of his thought—"More work must be laid upon the Israelites—let them be given no straw." Thirdly, it is shown further on in his attempts to secure the return of the Israelites by the detention of their children (Exodus 10:10) or of their cattle (Exodus 10:24).

(2) Pharaoh's energy appears in the immediate steps that he took to carry his plan out by giving orders for the withholding of the straw without any diminution in the tale of bricks, "the same day" (Exodus 5:6). Finally,

(3) his mercilessness is seen, first, in his refusing a very moderato request (Exodus 5:1, Exodus 5:2); secondly, in his meeting the demand for a relaxation of labour by an addition to it; thirdly and especially, in his making such an addition as was impossible of performance, and involved a continued series of punishments (Exodus 5:14-21). Pharaoh did not perhaps know the exact amount of misery which he was inflicting; but he was reckless in respect to it—he did not care what it might cost; the sighs and the groans of a whole nation were as nothing to him; and he adds insult to injury by the reproach (Exodus 5:8 and Exodus 5:17)—"Ye are idle, ye are idle."

Exodus 5:7

Bricks without straw.

The requirement of "bricks without straw" is not always made by a tyrannical king. All employers of labour who expect certain results without allowing sufficient time for them, and then complain that the work is scamped, are guilty of it. So is the father who expects his son to turn out a great scholar, without giving him the necessary books and the necessary instruction to make him one. So is the mistress who scolds her cook for not sending up a first-rate dinner, yet grudges every penny for the kitchen expenses. There are congregations which demand perpetual sermons of a high quality, yet do not either provide their pastors with sufficient money to buy books, or allow them sufficient leisure time for reading them. There are incumbents who act similarly by their curates, mercantile men who, mutatis mutandis, act so by their clerks, officials of all kinds who so treat their subordinates. The demand for bricks without straw is, unfortunately, far too common a demand. Let this note be set against it, that it is Pharaonic and tyrannical.

Exodus 5:9

Vain words.

There can be no doubt that "vain words" are unworthy of attention, deserve contempt, are foolish, unjustifiable. But what are "vain words'? What is the test whereby we are to know whether words are vain or not? Simply, the issue of them. Pharaoh thought that the promises of deliverance wherewith Moses and Aaron had excited the people were "vain words." Sennacherib described similarly the words of trust and confidence in God uttered by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:20). The Athenians thought the same of St Paul's words concerning the resurrection (Acts 17:32). But we know that, in none of these cases, were the words uttered "vain." The event justified or will justify them. When words then are uttered by any grave authority, especially if they are uttered in the name of God, we should hesitate to call them "vain." We should await the end. Full often, what the scoffer has called "vain words" turn out "words of truth and soberness"—words which tell with terrible force against those who have despised and rejected them—words which to have heard and despised is condemnation in the sight of the Almighty.


Exodus 5:4-10

Increased cruelty.

View Pharaoh's conduct as illustrative—

I. OF THE VIEW WHICH A WORLDLY MAN TAXES OF RELIGION. "Ye are idle" (Exodus 5:8). This way of putting the matter was partly a pretext—a tyrant's excuse for adding to burdens already sufficiently heavy; but it had so far a ground in Pharaoh's real way of viewing things, that he doubtless regarded the desire to go and sacrifice as an idle, foolish notion, one which would not have come into the people's heads had they been worked hard enough, and which it was his interest to drive out again as soon as possible. Observe in this—

1. A total incapacity to understand the origin of religious aspirations. Pharaoh had no better account to give of them than that they sprang from idleness. They were the fruit of a roving, unsettled disposition. The cure for them was harder work. This is precisely how the world looks on religion. It is the unpractical dream of people whose working faculties are not in sufficiently vigorous exercise. Of a true thirsting of the soul for God the world has not the slightest comprehension.

2. A total want of sympathy with these aspirations. Indulgence in them would be idling—a foolish and profitless waste of time. It is not idling to watch the markets, to speculate on stock, to read novels, to attend the Derby, to run to theatres, to spend evenings in the ball-room, to hunt, fish, shoot, or travel on the Continent, to waste hours in society gossip; but it would be idling to pray, or worship God, or engage in Christian work, or attend to the interests of the soul. To snatch an hour from business to attend a prayer-meeting would be reckoned egregious folly, and as little are the hours at one's disposal when business is over to be spent in such "foolishness." Even the Sabbath, so far as it cannot be utilised for pleasure, is deemed a day "wasted "—a weariness (Amos 8:6; Malachi 2:13).

3. A total disregard of the rights of others in connection with these aspirations. Thoroughgoing men of the world neither take pains to conceal their own contempt for religion ("vain words," Exodus 5:9), nor trouble themselves with any scruples as to the rights of others. They will, without hesitation, take from the religiously-disposed their opportunities of serving God, if these stand in the way of their own interests. Gladly, had they the power, would they turn the Sabbath into a work-day for the many that it might become (as on the Continent) a play-day for the few. Their own domestics and workpeople are over-driven, and unscrupulously deprived of Sabbath and sanctuary privileges. Where even the plea of humanity is disregarded, the plea of religion is not likely to be allowed much weight.

II. OF THE ALARMS FELT BY A TYRANT AT THE UPRISING OF FREE ASPIRATIONS IN THE SUBJECTS OF HIS TYRANNY. Pharaoh shrewdly foresaw the consequences of a further spread of these new-fangled ideas among the people. The request to go and sacrifice would not be long in being followed by a demand for freedom. Despotism and the spirit of liberty cannot coalesce. The tyrant knows that his power is put in peril the moment people begin to think for themselves—to cherish dreams of freedom—to be moved by religious enthusiasms. His rule can only be maintained at the cost of the extinction in his subjects of the last vestige of mental and spiritual independence. If a spiritual movement like this which sprang up in Israel begins to show itself, it must be stamped out at once, and at whatever cost of suffering and bloodshed. Whatever tends to produce such movements is looked on with hostility. This applies to all kinds of despotisms—civil, ecclesiastical, industrial, social. Hence, under despotic governments, the gagging of the press, suppression of free institutions, restriction of liberty of speech, ostracism of men of public spirit, and opposition to progress and to liberal ideas generally. Hence the antagonism of the Roman Church to learning and science, with the baleful effects which have followed from that antagonism in countries where her influence is supreme (see Laveleye on 'Protestantism and Catholicism in their Bearings upon the Liberty and Prosperity of Nations'; and histories of the Reformation in Spain and Italy). "It has been wittily said, that in Madrid, provided you avoid saying anything concerning government, or religion, or politics, or morals, or statesmen, or bodies of reputation, or the opera, or any other public amusement, or any one who is engaged in any business, you may print what you please, under correction of two or three censors' (McCrie). Hence the antipathy of the slave-drivers of industry—those who grind the faces of the poor, making their profit out of their poverty and helplessness—to the diffusion of intelligence among the masses. Hence, in slave-holding countries, the laws against teaching slaves to read, etc. The-slave-holder cannot afford to encourage the spread of intelligence, of anything which will enable his slave to realise his manhood. But tyranny of this kind is self-condemned.

1. As unnatural. It requires the extinction and suppression of everything noble and good in human nature. It sets itself in opposition to intelligence, freedom, progress, religion, and all holy and spiritual aspirations.

2. As inhuman. In consolidating its dominion, it stoops to perpetrate the grossest cruelties. Think of the work of the Inquisition! Think of the blood that has been shed on the shrine of civil liberty! Think of the George Harrises of slavery! "What business had his slave to be marching round the country, inventing machines, and holding up his head among gentlemen? He'd soon put a stop to it. He'd take him back, and put him to hoeing and digging, and see if he'd step about so smart?" ('Uncle Tom's Cabin.') See also,

3. Its weakness. Tyranny of this kind cannot endure. Under the influence of ideas from without, a mental and moral awakening is certain to come some day, and the tyrant's power is doomed.

III. OF THE PITILESS CRUELTY OF WHICH MEN GET TO BE CAPABLE IN THE PURSUIT OF INIQUITOUS ENDS: Exodus 5:6-9. Pharaoh was determined to keep the Hebrews in slavery; and so, to suppress this new spirit of discontent which had broken out among them, he must heat their furnace sevenfold, and heap cruelty on cruelty. He may have urged the plea of state necessity, and justified himself by the reflection that less severe measures would not have served his purpose—that he was driven to cruelty by the logic of events. A vain plea in any case, and one which only a heart rendered callous by a long course of inhumanity could have brought itself to entertain. Yet Pharaoh was thus far right, that, once a career of iniquity has been entered upon, events take the matter out of the sinner's hands, and leave him no alternative but either to abandon his evil courses, or be driven on from one cruelty to a worse. And, contemporaneously with the movement of events, there is going on a hardening of the heart, which makes the cruelty possible. It is wonderful what pitiless deeds men get to be capable of, who have others in their power, and who acknowledge no higher law than their own interests. We have only to recall the iniquities of the slave-trade, connived at by many of our most respectable merchants; the inhumanities attendant on the employment of women and young children in mines and factories, as brought to light by Parliamentary Commissions; the former semi-brutal condition of agricultural labourers; the underpaying of needle-women; the horrors of the "sweating system;" the instances of cruelty and rapacity exhibited in the emigration trade, which are described as "among the most atrocious that have ever disgraced human nature" (Chambers's 'Encyc.'); the reckless disregard of the lives of sailors in their being sent to sea in heavily laden and untrustworthy ships (Plimsoll)—to see how far, even in a civilised country, the thirst of gain will carry men, under circumstances where they can count upon impunity, and evade the censure of public opinion. A Pharaoh could hardly do worse. "Small manufacturers, working with insufficient capital, and in times of depression not having the wherewith to meet their engagements, are often obliged to become dependants on the wholesale houses with which they deal; and are then cruelly taken advantage of … He (the manufacturer) is obliged to work at the wholesaler's terms, and ruin almost certainly follows … As was said to us by one of the larger silk-hosiers, who had watched the destruction of many of his smaller brethren—'They may be spared for a while as a cat spares a mouse; but they are sure to be eaten up in the end … "We read that in Hindostan, the ryots, when crops fall short, borrow from the Jews to buy seed, and once in their clutches are doomed. It seems that our commercial world can furnish parallels" (H. Spencer).


1. To avoid the beginning of a course of injustice.

2. To guard against the hardening of the heart by cruelty.

3. To have an open ear to the cry of the oppressed, and a readiness to support every righteous measure for their protection and relief.

4. See in Pharaoh's tyranny an image of the pitiless tyranny of Satan. He, too, is absolutely merciless in the power he obtains over us. His service is one which grows increasingly more rigorous. He, too, would have us make bricks without straw, driving us on by our lusts and passions in pursuit of ends impossible (in his service) of attainment. More acute than Pharaoh, be gets the sinner himself to believe that it is "idle" to sacrifice to God, and by this means lures him to his service, where he soon binds him in chains more terrible and galling than any which earthly tyrant ever put upon his slaves.—J.O.


Exodus 5:6-14

The increase of trouble for God's people no proof of the failure of his purpose.

I. THE DEMANDS OF GOD PROVOKE THE WRATH OF THE UNGODLY. The mad persistence of Pharaoh in his injustice is marked—

1. In his haste: his commands were issued "the same day."

2. In the severity of the decree: they should find their own straw, and yet deliver the same number of bricks.

3. In his determination to have his commands obeyed. It is not meant to be an idle threat: the overseers are "straitly charged." When God's word is resisted the soul is inflamed to greater evil. The unregenerate spirit is the same everywhere. God's claim has only to be pressed home to be repelled in the same fashion.

II. THE WAY TO DELIVERANCE SOMETIMES LIES THROUGH DEEPER TROUBLE. Israel's case was now harder than it was before (Exodus 5:11-14), and solely because God had arisen to fight for them: but it was the last struggle of a doomed foe. It is thus—

1. In the Church's struggle with the world of unbelief: God's message is met with scorn, repression, and opposition of science falsely so called. But these shall vanish away like smoke, and their utterances and deeds will at last be the monuments of their infamy.

2. In the contest with the dominion of sin in the soul. The might of sin is felt most when the Spirit's call is first heard; but God has said, "Let my people go," and the wrath of the enemy will soon be swallowed up in his destruction.

3. In the breaking of the yoke of death. When God's call is heard, "Come up higher," we wrestle in pain and mortal weakness with the dread adversary. He seems to triumph. But the last tie that bound us is broken, and we bid an eternal farewell to the bondage and the grief.—U.

Verses 10-14


Exodus 5:10-14

The command of Pharaoh gone forth—no straw was to be provided for the Israelites, they were themselves to gather straw. The taskmasters could not soften the edict; they could only promulgate it (Exodus 5:10, Exodus 5:11). And the Israelites could only choose between rebelling and endeavouring to obey. To rebel seemed hopeless; Moses and Aaron did not advise rebellion, and so the attempt was made to carry out Pharaoh's behest (Exodus 5:12). But experience proved that obedience to it was impossible. Though the people did their best, and the native officers set over them did their best, and the Egyptian taskmasters hurried them on as much as possible (Exodus 5:13), the result was that the tale of bricks fell short. Then, according to a barbarous practice said to be even now not unknown in Egypt (Kalisch), the native officers who Had not delivered in the appointed "tale of bricks" were bastinadoed, suffering agonies for no fault of their own (Exodus 5:16), but because the people Had been set an impossible task.

Exodus 5:10

The taskmasters … went out, i.e. quitted the royal palace to which they Had been summoned (Exodus 5:6), and proceeded to the places where the people worked. The vicinity of Zoan was probably one great brickfield. Thus saith Pharaoh. The exact words of Pharaoh. (Exodus 5:7) are not repeated, but modified, according to men's ordinary practice in similar cases.

Exodus 5:11

Get you straw where ye can find it. Straw was not valued in Egypt. Reaping was effected either by gathering the ears, or by cutting the stalks of the corn at a short distance below the heads; and the straw was then left almost entirely upon the ground. Grass was so plentiful that it was not required for fodder, and there was no employment of it as litter in farmyards. Thus abundance of straw could be gathered in the cornfields after harvest; and as there were many harvests, some sort of straw was probably obtainable in the Delta at almost all seasons of the year. To collect it, however, and chop it small, as required in brickmaking, consumed much time, and left too little for the actual making of the bricks.

Exodus 5:12

The people were mattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt. The expression used is hyperbolical, and not to be understood literally. A tolerably wide dispersion over the central and eastern portions of the Delta is probably intended. Stubble instead of straw. Rather, "stubble for the straw." Teben, the word translated straw, seems to he properly "chopped straw" (stramenta minutim concisa, Cook). The Israelites, who had been accustomed to have this provided for them, gathered now long stalks of stubble in the fields, which they had subsequently to make into teben by chopping it into short bits.

Exodus 5:13, Exodus 5:14

The taskmasters hasted them. The Egyptian overseers, armed with rods, went about among the toiling Israelites continually, and "hasted them" by dealing out blows freely on all who made any pause in their work. The unceasing toil lasted from morning to night; yet still the required" tale" could not be produced; and consequently the native officers, whose business it was to produce the "tale," were punished by the bastinado at the close of the day not giving in the proper amount. Kalisch observes—"Even now the Arabic fellahs, whose position is very analogous to that of the Israelites described in our text, are treated by the Turks in the same manner. Arabic overseers have to give an account of the labours of their countrymen to the Turkish taskmasters, who often chastise them mercilessly for the real or imputed of. fences of the Arabic workmen."


Exodus 5:10-14

A blind obedience to the commands of tyrants not laudable.

The Egyptian taskmasters seem to have carried out their monarch's orders to the full, if not with inward satisfaction, at any rate without visible repugnance. They published abroad the orders given without in any way softening them (Exodus 5:10, Exodus 5:11), harassed the Israeli people all day long by "hasting them" (Exodus 5:13), and bastinadoed the Israelite officers at night (Exodus 5:14). How different their conduct from that of the midwives, when another Pharaoh sought to make them the instruments of his cruelty! Weak women defied the tyrant and disobeyed his commands. Strong sturdy men were content to be his slavish tools and accomplices. But so it is often. "Out of weakness God perfects strength." He "makes the weak things of the world to confound the strong" And the consequence is, that the weak, who show themselves strong, obtain his approval and the enduring praise of men, like the midwives; while the strong, who show themselves weak, are condemned by him, and covered with everlasting obloquy, like these taskmasters.

Exodus 5:14

Vicarious suffering.

Vicarious suffering is a blessed thing only when undergone voluntarily. In all other cases it is unjust, oppressive, cruel At the English court under the early Stuarts there was a boy who had to receive all the punishments deserved by the heir-apparent. This was a piece of detestable tyranny. The execution of children for the offences of their parents, which prevailed under the judges (Joshua 7:24, Joshua 7:25) and the kings of Israel (2 Kings 9:26) was still worse; and bad not even the show of justice about it, since it was not accepted in lieu of the parents' suffering, but was additional to it. The Oriental system of punishing "head men" for any offence or default of. those under their jurisdiction, goes on the idea that they can and ought to prevent such sins of commission or omission. But this idea is not in accord with facts. Frequently they cannot; sometimes they neither can nor ought. In all such cases the punishment inflicted is an injustice; and the system itself must consequently be regarded as no better than an organised and licensed tyranny. Yet large tracts of Asia and Africa groan under it. "How long, O Lord, how long?"


Exodus 5:10-15

Bricks without straw.

Tyrants seldom lack subordinates, as cruel as themselves, to execute their hateful mandates. Not only are these subordinates generally ready to curry favour with their lord by executing his orders with punctilious rigour, but, when they get to know that particular persons are in disfavour, they find a positive delight in bullying and insulting the unhappy victims, and in subjecting them to every species of vexatious interference. The callous taskmasters entered heartily into Pharaoh's plans—withheld from the Israelites the straw, while requiring of them the full tale of bricks, and then mercilessly beating the officers for failing to get the people to accomplish the impossible. View in their behaviour—

I. A PICTURE OF THE NOT INFREQUENT TREATMENT OF MAN BY HIS FELLOW-MAN. Society abounds in tyrants, who, like Pharaoh's taskmasters—

1. Demand the unreasonable.

2. Expect the impossible. And the unreasonable in extreme cases is one with the impossible.

3. Are insolent and violent in enforcing their unreasonable demands. The workman, e.g; is scolded because he cannot, in a given time, produce work of given quantity and quality, though production to the extent required is shown to involve a physical impossibility. The public servant is abused because he has not wrought miracles in his particular department, though perhaps he has received neither the material nor the moral support to which he was entitled. The clergyman is blamed for deficiency in pulpit power, while endless calls are made upon him for work of other kinds, which dissipate his energies, and eat into his time for study. The wife is rated by her husband, because comforts and luxuries are not forthcoming, which his wasteful expenditure in other directions prevents her from obtaining. With like unreasonableness, buyers in commercial houses are rated because, they cannot buy, and sellers because they cannot sell; and it is broadly hinted to the latter that if means are not discovered for effecting sales, and disposing of perhaps worthless goods, the penalty will be dismissal. And there are worse tyrannies behind. Most iniquitous of all is the system of exacting work from the necessitous, which imposes an unnatural and injurious strain upon their bodily and mental powers, while renumerating it by a pittance barely sufficient to keep soul and body together. The straw of which these bricks are made is the flesh and blood of living human beings—the fibre of despairing hearts. In short, bricks without straw are asked wherever work is required which overtaxes the strength and capability of those from whom it is sought, or where the time, means, or assistance necessary for accomplishing it is denied. To rage, scold, threaten, or punish, because feats which border on the impossible are not accomplished, is simply to play over again the part of Pharaoh's taskmasters.

II. A CONTRAST TO THE TREATMENT WHICH MAN RECEIVES FROM GOD. Unbelief and slothfulness, indeed, would fain persuade us of the opposite. Their voice is, "I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown," etc. (Matthew 25:24). And it may be pleaded in support of this that God's demands in respect of obedience go far beyond the sinner's powers. He inherits a depraved nature, yet he is held guilty for its actings, and the demand stands unchanged, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," etc. (Deuteronomy 6:5). The standard by which he is judged is that of absolute holiness, while yet it is admitted that he is naturally incapable of a single holy thought or resolve. But in this way of putting matters various things are forgotten.

1. The law of duty is a fixed quantity, and even God, by an act of will, cannot remove a sinner from under its obligations.

2. There is an obvious distinction between natural and moral inability. The hardened thief cannot plead his incorrigible thievishness as an excuse for non-fulfilment of the duties of honesty. It is his sin that he is thievish.

3. Depraved beings are condemned for being what they are (evil-disposed, cruel, lustful, selfish, etc.), and for the bad things which they do, not for the good things which they ought to do, but are now incapable of doing. The devil, e.g; is condemned because he is a devil, and acts devilishly; not because it is still expected of him that he will love God with all his heart, etc; and because he fails to do this. But the true answer, as respects God's treatment of mankind, is a very different one. The sinner is not to be allowed to forget that if he has fallen and destroyed himself, God has brought him help. The very God against whom he has sinned desires his recovery, and has provided for it. He has made provision in Christ for the atonement (covering) of his sins. He asks nothing from him of a spiritual nature which his grace is not promised to enable him to accomplish. God presents himself in the Gospel, not as the sinner's exacting taskmaster, but as his friend and Saviour, ready, however multiplied and aggravated his offences—though they be as scarlet and red like crimson—to make them as the snow and wool (Isaiah 1:18). True, the sinner cannot renew his own heart, but surely he is answerable for the response he makes to the outward word, and to the teachings and drawings of the Spirit, who, given his submission, will willingly renew it for him. True also he cannot, even in the gracious state, render perfect obedience, but over and against this is to be put the truth that perfect obedience is not required of any in order to justification, and that, if only he is faithful, his imperfections will, for Christ's sake, be graciously forgiven him. And the same just and gracious principles rule in God's actings with his servants. Service is accepted "according to what a man hath, and not according to that he hath not' (2 Corinthians 8:12). No making bricks without straw here. The servant with the two talents is held only responsible for the two, not for five (Matthew 25:23). Justice, tempered by grace, is the rule for all.—J.O.

Verses 15-19


Exodus 5:15-19

Smarting under the sense of injustice, the Israelite officers "came and cried to Pharaoh" (Exodus 5:15), supposing that he could not have intended such manifest unfairness and cruelty. They were conscious to themselves of having done their utmost, and of having failed simply because the thing required was impossible. Surely the king would understand this, if they pointed it out, and would either allow straw as before, or diminish the number of the bricks. But the king had no desire for justice, and did not even pretend to it. He asked for no particulars, ordered no inquiry into the ground of complaint; but turned upon the complainants with the cuckoo cry—"Idle, idle yourselves—else ye had no time to come here; go, work—go, work." Then the officers felt that they were indeed "in evil case" (Exodus 5:19)—the king was determined not to do justice—no hope remained—they must be beaten again and again, until they died of the punishment (Exodus 5:21).

Exodus 5:15

Came and cried. The shrill "cry" of Orientals when making complaint has often been noticed by travellers, and is probably here alluded to. To Pharaoh. See the "Introductory paragraph" at the beginning of the chapter, where it has been noticed that complainants had free access to the presence of Egyptian kings.

Exodus 5:16

They say to us. Or, "they keep saying to us." The participle is used, which implies continuance or repetition. The fruit is in thine own people. Literally, "Thine own people is in fault," or "sins."

Exodus 5:17

Ye are idle, etc. Compare Exodus 5:8. Pharaoh is evidently pleased with his "happy thought." It seems to him clever, witty, humorous, to tax overworked people with idleness; and equally clever to say to religious people—"Your religion is a mere pretence. You do not want to worship. You want a holiday." We may remark further that idleness and hypocrisy were two sins of the deepest dye, according to Egyptian notions.

Exodus 5:18

Go therefore now and worki.e. "Off with you to the brickfields at once, and get to your own special work of superintendence, which you are neglecting so long as you remain here. It is useless to remain. I reject both of your requests. Straw shall not be given; and the tale of bricks required shall be no less."

Exodus 5:19

The officers … did see that they were in evil case. See the "Introductory paragraph" to this section, and comp. Exodus 5:21.


Exodus 5:15-18

A wicked man's persistence in wrong-doing.

Pharaoh when he first gave the order to withhold straw (Exodus 5:7), may not have known the amount of misery he was causing. He may have meant no more than to give the people full occupation, and so prevent such gatherings as that from which Moses and Aaron had come (Exodus 4:29-31), when they appeared before him with their demands. He may not have realised to himself the idea that he was setting his bondsmen an impossible task. But now this fact was brought home to him, and he was asked, as a matter of simple justice, either to let straw be furnished as before, or to allow some diminution in the number of the bricks. It can scarcely be doubted that he knew and felt the demand made to be just. There were the officers before him with the wheals upon their backs. Would they have incurred the severe punishment, could they by any possibility have avoided it? Pharaoh must have known that they would not. But he would not relent. As he had begun, he would continue. He had been mere cruel than he meant; but he did not care—it was only Hebrews and bondsmen who had suffered; what mattered their agonies? So he dismisses the complainants with jeers and scoffs: "Ye are idle, ye are hypocrites; go, work." So bad men almost always go on from bad to worse by a "facile descent;" severity deepens into cruelty, unkindness into injustice, religious indifference into impiety. Stop, then, the beginnings of wrong-doing. Principiis obsta. Crush the nascent germs of vice in thy heart, O man! Master them, or they will master thee!

Exodus 5:16

Sufferings, even at the hand of lawful authorities, not always deserved.

"Thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people." Punishment often visits the wrong back. Kings commit injuries or follies, and their subjects suffer. Employers are greedy of gain, and their "hands" must work overtime, go without sleep, trench on the Sunday rest. Wholesale tradesmen adulterate goods, and retail traders are blamed and lose custom. Justice itself is often at fault, and punishes the wrong person—sometimes by a mere mistake, as when the wrong man is hanged for a murder; but sometimes also through a defect in the law itself which judges have to administer; as when Christians were delivered to the wild beasts for not sacrificing to the divinity of the emperor, or Protestants were burnt at the stake for denying transubstantiation. It is not to be assumed that the law is always right. The law of any country at any time is only the expression of the will of those who are in authority at the time, and has no more divinity or sacredness about it than they have. Those who transgress the law will, of course, be punished for it; but that fact proves nothing as to their good- or ill-desert. The greatest benefactors of mankind have had to set human law at defiance, and to endure its penalties. Their answer to the authorities who persecute them might constantly be, "Thy servants are beaten, but the fault is in thine own people."


Exodus 5:15-20

Unheeded expostulation.

Pharaoh's treatment of the officers of the children of Israel, when they appeared before him to expostulate with him on his cruelty, betrays his consciousness of the injustice of his cause.


1. By refusal to listen to reason. The Hebrews had reason on their side, and Pharaoh had not. And because he had not, and knew it, he would not hear them, would not enter into any argument with them. This is the sure mark of a weak cause. People are usually willing enough to defend any of their doings which they think defensible. But when causes are indefensible, and they know this, they do not care to have the light let in upon them. "Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved" (John 3:20).

2. By clutching at flimsy and trumped-up pretexts. "Ye are idle; ye are idle; therefore ye say," etc. (Exodus 5:17). Pharaoh knew as well as any that they were not idle, but it served his purpose to put forward this pretence.

3. By falling back in the end on the right of the strong hand (Exodus 5:16). This is the tyrant's unfailing resort. If he cannot argue, he can compel. If he cannot justify his courses, he can fall back upon his power to enforce submission. His might is his right. Pharaoh had the power, and he meant to use it, so the Israelites might save themselves the trouble of expostulating. This sort of authority, resting on force, without support in righteousness or reason, is necessarily precarious. It can, in the nature of things, only last so long as the power to compel remains with it. No throne is so insecure as that propped up on bayonets.


1. Reacts injuriously upon the moral nature. The refusal to listen to expostulation was a new stage in Pharaoh's hardening. Besides fortifying his determination to brook no interference in his courses, and strengthening the cruelty of his disposition—anew called into action by the increased oppression of the Hebrews—it necessarily reacted to deprive him of a fresh portion of his moral susceptibility. This is the Nemesis of sin; it leaves the sinner less susceptible with each new appeal that is resisted; it darkens while it indurates; not only strengthens him m evil courses, but increasingly disqualifies him for perceiving the truth and reasonableness of the dissuasives that are addressed to him. Pharaoh's hardening still moves in the region of ordinary morals (see on Exodus 5:1-4). The first step in it was the recoil of his pride and wilfulness against what he knew to be the righteous demand of Moses and Aaron. Another step is the rejection of this righteous appeal.

2. Exposes the tyrant to the just judgment of God. The Hebrews were helpless to resist Pharaoh, but there was Another, whose question, "Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?" he would not be able so easily to set aside. God was keeping the account, and for all these things would yet call him to judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:14); while the king's temporary success in his ways, building him up in a presumptuous selfconfidence, and confirming him in his boast of superiority to Jehovah, was a further step in his hardening—a ripening for destruction.

3. Is a fresh call for God to interfere on behalf of the oppressed. This new wrong, instead of leading the Israelites to despair, should only have lent fresh vehemence to their prayers, for it gave them a new plea with which to urge their cause. "For shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry to him day and night, though he bear long with them" (Luke 18:7).—J.O.


Exodus 5:4-18

Pharaoh's first response: his answer in deed.

Pharaoh has given a proud verbal refusal to the request of Moses: but he is not contented to stop with words. The first result, discouraging and discrediting of Moses' application, is still further to increase burdens and hardships already scarcely tolerable.

I. CONSIDER HOW THIS ADDITIONAL SEVERITY TO ISRAEL ORIGINATED—that is, how it originated as far as Pharaoh's part in it was concerned. It came through his utterly mistaken notions as to Moses and Israel. Pharaoh, as an alert politician, was bound to inquire how it was that Moses had been led to prefer this request; and he came to the conclusion that the people had too much leisure time—did their work far too easily—and thus left an opportunity for the success of any designing demagogue, such as he judged Moses to be. And, indeed, Pharaoh's conjecture showed a very plausible appearance of shrewd insight into human nature. All such readers of this narrative as utterly disbelieve the reality of Divine intervention and supremacy in human affairs, will say that Pharaoh was not far wrong; whereas he was utterly wrong. Moses went into the presence of Pharaoh because the power of God constrained him. He would have gone anywhere to escape the task, if only he could have done it with safety and self-respect. Pharaoh little knew what a profound sense of unworthiness dwelt in the breast of Moses. Other feelings might come and go, mount to flow and sink to ebb; that remained, more penetrating and subduing the more he had to do with God, and the more he had to do with Israel Pharaoh was also utterly mistaken as to the people. The request for liberty had not come from them. They of their own accord and carnal judgment would never have thought of such a request. As soon might the helpless victim of a raging beast of prey turn to it with a real expectation of mercy. The prisoner may devise many plans of escape: but he would reckon it a mere provocative of more painful and stringent captivity, if he addressed to his gaoler a formal request for liberty. Pharaoh then, in his ignorance of God, proved ignorant and mistaken in the whole of his policy. Every view is mistaken, egregiously mistaken, that leaves out the thought of God as a living, intimate, ever-watchful Power.

II. CONSIDER THAT ALL THIS CRUEL TREATMENT DID NOTHING AT ALL FOR PHARAOH. If it had done anything, however little, to delay the final disaster, it would have been something to say: but it did nothing at all He treated Moses as a mere politician, and Israel as being only in a state of incipient insurrection. If such had been the reality of things, then his policy, however damnable for its cruelty, would have merited at least this admission, that there was a real adaptation of means to ends. But Pharaoh was as yet utterly unconscious of his real enemy. His mind was in a state of darkness, deep as that outward darkness which later overspread his land. All his efforts, summed up and stated in the largest way, simply came to this—that he was making very bitter the temporal life of a fleeting generation. But he himself had not arrested by a single step the advance of a righteous and omnipotent God. Struggling against the visible Moses and the visible Israel, he knew nothing of how to resist the invisible God. A man may rage about, putting out all candles and lamps, leaving us for awhile in darkness, but he has not retarded the sunrise by even the minutest fragment of time. This is our glory and our comfort, if we have the spirit of Christ dwelling in us, that we are contending against one who has only carnal weapons. We are not allowed to take carnal weapons; they are of no use to us; and never should we forget that they are of no use to those who are against us. Pharaoh did not delay God's liberating work; that work went on in all the majestic ease of its divinity, amid the smitings of the oppressor and the wailings of the oppressed. Making bricks without straw was mere child's-play compared with the enterprise on which Pharaoh was now embarked. He might as well have gone out with the sword and spear against the pestilence and the famine, as against Israel with a mere increase of oppression and cruelty.

III. THIS ADDITIONAL CRUELTY SHOWED THE IMPERATIVE NEED OF DIVINE INTERVENTION. If Pharaoh was powerless to delay the advance of God, he was very powerful to shut out interference from any other quarter. Help in God, sure and sufficient help, but help only in God, was one of the great lessons which all these painful years were meant to teach Israel. Pharaoh had unmistakable power of the human, despotic, might-makes-right sort over Israel. As the inquisitor by an easy nod signifies to give the thumbscrew another turn, so Pharaoh had only to send out his royal wish, and all the taskmasters had Israel at once in fresh agony. And just so we have to be taught by a bitter experience that as Christ is a Saviour from sin, with all its fatal fruits, so he is the only Saviour. The first attempt at a real protest and resistance against sin brings out all its power. Though the sinner's miseries do not begin when Christ the accredited deliverer makes his first approach in deliver, there is nevertheless a distinct accession to them. Christ cannot challenge the power of sin in any of us without rousing up into intense activity the evil already working in our breasts. Pharaoh was not really a more powerful ruler after the visit of Moses than he was before; but the disposition and power then became manifest. The hearts of the generation in the midst of which Christ lived and died were not of exceptional malignity or obduracy. The generation immediately before and the generation immediately after, would have treated him in exactly the same way. But it was necessary for him to draw out sin into a full revelation of its hideous potency, in order that it might be made perfectly clear that none but himself could deal with it. True, Pharaoh was glorying in what was only a fabric of delusions and a refuge of lies; but, frail though it was, no breath of man had strength enough to blow it down. None but God could make the effectual and dissipating storm to descend upon it.—Y.


Verse 15-6:1

The troubled find consolation in God only. The three cries.

I. ISRAEL'S EXPOSTULATION WITH PHARAOH (15-19). They complain to him of the wrongs they suffer; but he who does not hear God will not listen to man.

1. It was reasonable to expect that their remonstrance might lead to redress. Pharaoh's decree might have. been issued under momentary irritation.

2. They came with humility and modesty. They brought no railing accusation. They used no threats. They did not even make. a silent show of their strength. And yet the only outcome of their appeal is deeper grief, more utter hopelessness (19). They who have no hope but in man will find little to sustain them.


1. They spoke truth. The demand, for liberty of worship had been seized by Pharaoh as a pretext for more oppressive measures.

2. They did not speak the whole truth. God and his purpose were kept out of sight. They were counted as nothing. How often is this done in our despondency and murmuring!

3. Their reproaches, though met by silence and grief equal to their own, brought no help to them. There is as little help in upbraiding friends for failure as in spreading their injustice before foes.


1. He "returned to the Lord." He did not seek in unburden his soul even to Aaron. The first step to help is to seek God's presence.

2. The holy boldness of his prayer. The grieved spirit is poured out. There is nothing kept back. God does not complain of our boldness, but of our restraining prayer before him.

3. God's answer (Exodus 6:1).

(1) This very failure shows God's truth (Exodus 4:21).

(2) God shall fight for them: "Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh."

(3) Pharaoh's wrath and power will serve only to make their deliverance perfect. He will "drive them out of his land." Israel found no consolation; Moses does.—U.

Verses 20-21


Exodus 5:20, Exodus 5:21

On quitting the presence of Pharaoh, the officers of the Israelites, burning with the sense of the injustice done them, and deeply apprehensive with respect to their own future, found Moses and Aaron waiting in the precincts of the court to know the result of their application. It need cause no surprise that they poured out their pent-up indignation upon them. Were not Moses and Aaron the sole cause of the existing state of things? Did not the extreme affliction of the people, did not their own sufferings in the past, did not their apprehended sufferings in the future, originate wholly in the seductive words which the two brothers had addressed to them at the assembly of the people? (Exodus 4:29-31). Accordingly, they denounced, almost cursed their officious would-be deliverers (Exodus 5:21). "The Lord look upon you, and judge" between you and us, whether the blame of this whole matter does not lie upon you, its initiators—you have made us to be abhorred in the sight of Pharaoh, and of the Egyptians generally you have brought us into danger of our lives—the Lord judge you!"

Exodus 5:20

Who stood in the way. Rather, "who waited to meet them." It was not accident, but design, that had brought the two brothers to the spot. They were as anxious as the officers to know what course Pharaoh would take—whether he would relax the burthens of the people or no—whether he would have compassion or the contrary.

Exodus 5:21

They said unto them. The officers were too full of their wrongs to wait until questioned. They took the word, and, without relating the result of their interview, implied it. The Lord look upon you, and judge, they said, meaning "the Lord (Jehovah) consider your conduct, and judge it" not exactly, "condemn it and punish it" (Keil and Delitzsch)—but "pass sentence on it," "judge whether it has been right or not." We make this appeal because ye have at any rate done us a great injury—ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh. (Note the mixed metaphor, which shows- perhaps rather that "in the eyes" had lost its original meaning, and come to signify no more than "with" or "in respect of," than that the literal meaning of making a person's savour to "stink" did not occur to the writer.) Nay, ye have done more—ye have put a sword in the hand of his servants to slay us. That is to say, "ye have armed them with a weapon wherewith we expect that they will take our lives." Either they will beat us to death—and death is a not infrequent result of a repeated employment of the bastinado—or when they find that punishment unavailing they will execute us as traitors. On the use of the bastinado as a punishment in Egypt, see Chabas, 'Melanges Egyptologiques,' 3me serie, vol. 1. pp. 100-6.


Exodus 5:21

The servants of God liable to reproach from friends no less than enemies,

Moses and Aaron had borne the reproaches and scoffs of Pharaoh (Exodus 5:4-8) without flinching. It was natural that an enemy should revile them. Pharaoh might tax them with idleness and insincerity in religion, if he pleased. The stab did not penetrate very deep, nor cause a very grievous smart. But when their brethren turned upon them and uttered reproaches, it was different. Then the wound went to the heart; the pain was bitter, scarce endurable. It made them misdoubt themselves. Had they really not acted for the best? Had they been self-seeking, or vainglorious, or reckless, or even injudicious? Such thoughts will always occur even to the best men, if on their plans seeming to have miscarried their friends reproach them. The best men best know their own frailty, and how easy it is for man to mar God's work by his own imperfections. It requires a very brave soul to bear up against the reproaches of friends, especially when there seems to be a ground for them. The more careful therefore should friends be not to reproach God's servants causelessly, or unless they can point out where they have been wrong. Actions are not to be always judged by their results, or, at any rate, not by their immediate results. Moses and Aaron had done quite right; they had obeyed God; they were bound to act as they had acted. It had not pleased God to give success to their efforts as yet. The officers should have had patience, should have prayed to God for relief, but should have forborne from reproaching the innocent.


Exodus 5:20-23

Murmuring and faith.

The Israelites were naturally sorely disappointed at the issue of the interview with Pharaoh; and with the unreasonableness so often seen in those whose expectations have received a check, they turned on Moses and Aaron, and accused these innocent men of being the authors of their misfortune. Moses and Aaron themselves were almost as dumbfounded as their accusers at the turn events had taken; but one of them, at least, behaved with wisdom. The Israelites accused men: Moses took his complaint to God, and opened up to him all the soreness of his heart. This portion of the narrative suggests the following reflections:—

I. GOD'S PROVIDENCE OFTEN ASSUMES AN ASPECT OF GREAT MYSTERY TO US. It did so to Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 5:22, Exodus 5:23). They had concluded that now that God had taken up their cause, their trials and sorrows were at an end; but in entertaining so comfortable a hope, they found they were deceived. The first step on the road to the promised deliverance had plunged them into a worse plight than ever. They had almost felt the breath of liberty on their cheeks, when suddenly their hopes are dashed from them, and the situation darkens till in its pitiless rigour it becomes well-nigh unendurable. So God's providence is often to the godliest a sore and perplexing mystery. It is not merely that things are not going as we wish, or as fast as we expect—this need not surprise us, though oftentimes it does—but that Jehovah seems acting contrary to his own perfections, to his character, to his revealed purpose, to the promise on which he has encouraged us to trust. The wicked prosper; the righteous are afflicted (Psalms 37:1-40.; Psalms 73:0.). Prayers seem unanswered, and the hopes we had begun to cherish, the expectations we had built upon his Word, are bitterly disappointed. The race seems to the swift, and the battle to the strong of this world, while "waters of a full cup are wrung out" to the saints whom God has pledged himself to bless and to protect. This is what distresses us, and the distress is not surprising.

II. THE MYSTERY WHICH MEETS US IN GOD'S PROVIDENCE ACTS AS A TEST OF CHARACTER. It drove Moses to prayer, but the multitude to murmurings and reproaches. As this storm burst over Israel, the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed (Luke 2:35). Doubters would curse themselves for trusting to one whom, they would declare, they had always suspected of deceiving them; the timid would be heard reiterating, "We told you it would come to this; we saw it from the first!" while the profane would break out into open blasphemies, and the superficial crowd—those who had been most carried away by the enthusiasm—would groan and weep in utter disconsolateness, and pour out rash accusations against Heaven and against Moses and Aaron, who had brought them into all this trouble. Yet with foolish inconsistency they would call on the God they were mistrusting to judge between them and the men who had brought to them his message (Exodus 5:21). Comp. Christian and Pliable at the Slough of Despond in 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Mystery in God's providence, in itself a moral necessity and inevitable, is thus used by him for important ends in the testing and disciplining of character. It brings to light our weaknesses; sifts the chaff from the wheat; educates us to trust; convinces us of ignorance; disenchants us of illusive hopes; leads us to prayer and wrestling with God. Thus it prepares us for further discoveries of the Divine wisdom when the time comes for the veil being removed, and educates us for higher service.

III. THE MYSTERY WHICH ENSHROUDS GOD'S PROVIDENCE ARISES FROM OUR PARTIAL AND IMPERFECT COMPREHENSION OF HIS PLAN. Had God's purpose been simply to get Israel out of Egypt in the easiest way possible, and with least cost of suffering to the people, the permission of this new cruelty would indeed have been inexplicable. But it is not in this way, or for such ends, or on these terms, that God Conducts the government of his world. The error of Israel lay in looking on this one little bit of an unfinished work, and in judging of it without reference to the whole design of which it was a part. For God's purpose was not merely that the people should be delivered, but that they should be delivered in such a way, and with such accompaniments of power and judgment, as should illustriously glorify his own perfections, and print the memory of his goodness on their hearts for ever; while, as regards Pharaoh, his desire was to glorify his power upon him (Exodus 9:16), and make him an example to all after ages of the folly of resisting the Almighty. This being the end, it was obviously indispensable that events should not be unduly hastened, but allowed, as far as possible, to take a natural course. Time and scope must be given to Pharaoh to develop his real disposition, and the development must not be prematurely interfered with. The people must be led by a way they knew not, and in paths they had not known; the way chosen could not be the absolutely shortest, but must include many turnings and windings, and even seem at times to be bending backwards; but the end would be "to make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight" (Isaiah 42:16). And this is truly the explanation of all our difficulties with regard to Divine providence. It is not God who is at fault, but our own haste and shortsightedness, that perceive not all the ends he has in view, nor how wonderfully he is working towards those ends by the very circumstances which perplex and baffle us. We know but "in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). The thoughts of Infinite Wisdom cannot all be made plain to us. The little that is before us we see, but how much lies beyond which is involved in the hiding of his power! (Habakkuk 3:4.) Our walking must be "by faith;" not "by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).—J.O.


Exodus 5:19-21

Thoughtless smiters of a brother in adversity.

This whole chapter particularly abounds in illustrations of human ignorance and error. We have seen in what dense darkness was the mind of Pharaoh; and under what utter misapprehensions he multiplied the sorrows of Israel. Now we are introduced to the leaders of Israel, treating Moses with equal injustice, because they are not able to see the difference between the human instrument and the Divine hand that holds it. No more than Pharaoh can they pierce through Moses to the mighty God behind him. It says in Exodus 4:31, that when the people saw the signs they believed; here is conduct which shows for how little their faith counted. As soon as they were set to make bricks without straw, their faith utterly vanished. Yet surely the truth of God remained. Present human cruelty, let it press ever so hard, cannot alter past manifestations of Divine power. The God who gave his Son the parable of the Sower was prepared for such a lapse into unbelief on the part of his people. His signs were like the seeds which found no depth of earth; when persecution arose because of the message of Moses, the people were straightway offended. Consider—

I. IN WHAT A STATE OF MIND MOSES WOULD BE WHEN THESE OFFICERS ATTACKED HIM. We know from his own language (Exodus 4:22, Exodus 4:23)what his state of mind was after the attack; but even before it he must have been a prey to deep grief and gloomy apprehensions. We may be sure that when these officers came upon him, they did not find proofs of indifference and carelessness in his face. lie must have been very popular just after he had wrought the signs; as popular as Jesus was after he had fed the five thousand. Aaron, doubtless, had been instructed by him to enlarge on the history of Abraham, IsaActs and Jacob, and bring out into the boldest relief the terms of the Divine promises. Thus the confidence and expectation of the people—a reception altogether beyond his hopes—would lift him also into a confidence and expectation all the more precious because of his previous despondency. And now, as he sees the condition of his brethren, that despondency is more painful than ever. No imagination of ours can exaggerate the perplexity and sadness into which Moses would be thrown.

II. THUS WE ARE CALLED TO NOTICE THE INDIFFERENCE OF MOSES' BRETHREN TO HIS PAINFUL POSITION. He thought a great deal more upon their Sorrows than they did upon his. The grief of selfish people, in the reckless abandonment with which it speaks and acts, furnishes as painful evidence as we can find of the extent to which human nature has fallen from its first estate. It is a greedy, insatiable feeling. It is an awful thing to consider that the very concentration of our thoughts on our own sufferings makes us to increase the sufferings of others. Why, even when others are to blame, we might safely leave them to the observant, unforgetting God, to their own consciences, and to the ultimate harvest which every doer of wrong must reap; and very often they are not to blame at all. If only these smarting Israelites had been able, in a right spirit, to look at the heart of Moses, they would have seen occasion for supporting him with the greatest tenderness, gratitude, and patient endurance. What right had they to complain of Moses? lie had told them a coherent, straightforward story, given them the signs; and they, in return, had believed him for the very works' sake. If there is any time when we should be slow to speak, it is in our sorrow. We do well then to be silent, until such times as God has purged out of our minds all selfish desires and groundless expectations. When all these are gone, and the truth which he alone can plant is also ripened, then we shall be able to say, "It was good for us to be afflicted;' at present Israel said that it was bad—as bad as bad could be—and Moses was the convenient person on whom they could lay the blame.

III. THESE OFFICERS HAD NOT INSIGHT ENOUGH TO LOOK BEYOND FIRST CONSEQUENCES. They could not look through the pain of the present to a future which was only attainable through that present. Thus the disciples spoke in deep perplexity and disappointment concerning their missing Master as if he had vanished like a dream,, of the night. "We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel. So they spoke, not having appreciated his recent word, "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone." We shall do well to consider in every enterprise, that first consequences are very deceptive. When they bring hardship we must not, therefore, turn back; when they bring pleasure, we must not therefore conclude that still greater pleasures lie beyond. Israel had no right to make any assumptions whatever as to the first consequences of Moses' visit to Pharaoh. The true and only safe position for Israel to take up was this: "Here are these signs; they are signs that Jehovah has sent Moses, and is with him; let us accept them in full and patient reliance." A man does not dispute the truth of the finger-post which points him into the right road, because soon after he has passed it he comes to a worse bit of travelling than any he has had before. There is a profound and admonitory generalisation in that way of indicating Christian experience which puts the Slough of Despond so early in the pilgrim's journey: and if first consequences that bring hardship are to be mistrusted, surely we must be even more cautious when the first consequences are full of pleasure. Though we be told to remember our Creator in the days of our youth—his claims, his expectations, and his judgment-day—the danger is that we shall only too easily forget all this, and remember only that we are strong, ambitious, able to enjoy, and with abundant opportunities for enjoyment. We must always mistrust the mere pleasure of our senses; the pleasure of tastes and likings. Liking a thing is never a sufficient reason for doing it; disliking never a sufficient reason for refusing to do it. God appeals to our prudence, to our conscience, to our pity, to our fears, but never to our tastes. And. be it ever remembered, that there is one first consequence which never deceives nor disappoints those who put themselves in the way of it. Do that which is right in the sight of God, and there is an immediate and pure pleasure at the heart, which all the waves and. billows of adversity cannot wash away. For instance, we cannot believe for a moment that Moses regretted his compliance with the commands of Jehovah. They had been clear and imperative, steady and unrelaxing in their pressure on his conscience. The pain from the reproaches of Israel was bad enough; but it would have been a far worse pain, if he had sought to flee from the test of the burning bush, and, Jonah-like, bury himself with his sheep in the very depths of the wilderness.—Y.

Verses 22-23


Exodus 5:22, Exodus 5:23

The two brothers made no reply to the words of the officers. Perhaps their hearts were too full for speech; perhaps they knew not what to say. Whatever faith they had, it did no doubt seem a hard thing that their interference, Divinely ordered as it was, should have produced as yet nothing but an aggravation of their misery to the Israelite people. They could not understand the course of the Divine action. God had warned them not to expect success at once (Exodus 3:19; Exodus 4:21); but he had said nothing of evil consequences following upon their first efforts. Thus we can well understand that the two brothers (and especially Moses, the more impetuous of them) were bitterly grieved and disappointed. They felt their cup of sorrow to be full—the reproaches of the officers made it overflow. Hence the bitterness of the complaint with which this chapter terminates, and which introduces the long series of precious promise, contained in the opening section of Exodus 6:1-30.

Exodus 5:22

Moses returned unto the Lord. We are not to understand that Moses had forsaken God and now "returned" to him but simply that in his trouble he had recourse to God, took his sorrow to the Throne of Grace, and poured it out before the Almighty A good example truly, and one which Christians in all their trials would do well to follow. Lord, wherefore, etc. The words, no doubt, are bold. They have been said to "approach to irreverence." But there are parallels to them, which have never been regarded as irreverent, in the Psalms: e.g. "O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why does thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?" (Psalms 74:1) "How long wilt thou hide thyself? Where are thy former lovingkindnesses? Wherefore hast thou made all men for nought?" (Psalms 89:46-49), and the like. Kalisch seems right in saying that "the desponding complaint of Moses was not the result of disbelief or doubt, but the effort of a pious soul struggling after a deeper penetration into the mysteries of the Almighty."

Exodus 5:23

He hath done evil to this people. See above, Exodus 5:7-9, and Exodus 5:14. Pharaoh had increased the burdens of the whole nation, and in this way "done evil" to them. He had also brought the punishment of scourging on a number of the chiefs. Neither hast thou delivered thy people at all. The promised deliverance (Exodus 3:8, Exodus 3:20) had not come—there was no sign of it—the people was suffering under a more cruel bondage than ever.


Exodus 5:22, Exodus 5:23

The religious soul takes its griefs straight to God.

When our hopes are disappointed, when matters fall out otherwise than as we wish, when our enemies resist us, and our friends load us with reproach, how sweet to have a safe refuge whither we may betake ourselves, even the besom of our most loving God! "Truly God is loving unto Israel." His hand may be slack, "as men count slackness;" but it is not crippled or paralysed—it is always "mighty to save." Worldlings take their difficulties and their troubles to counsellors whom they deem wise, or to friends whom they regard as powerful, or to subordinates whom they think to be crafty, but never to God. The religious soul's first instinct in deep trouble is to seek solitude, to fly from man, and to pour out all its grief before the Lord. It will even venture, like Moses, to expostulate—to ask to be shown the reason why God has disappointed it and troubled it—to demand "Why is thy wrath so hot? ' and "When wilt thou comfort me?" It does not doubt but that in the end all will be right, that God will do as he has promised; but it wants to be sustained, upheld, comforted as to the intermediate time—to be assured that God "has not forgotten to be gracious" that he is still nigh at hand, that he "will not leave it nor forsake it."

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Exodus 5". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/exodus-5.html. 1897.
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