When we read a story, we have a tendency to attempt to identify with at least one person in the story. Usually, we seek to identify with the protagonist or the hero, thinking about what sort of courage one would need to have to overcome the obstacles necessary to reach the story’s conclusion.
We do this when we read the narratives of the Bible as well. As we see the narratives unfold, who has not wondered what Noah’s experience was like building an enormous boat to fill with animals? Who hasn’t wanted to be Elijah calling down fire on the altar of God to defeat the prophets of Baal? During the Advent season, we often ponder the faith of Joseph and Mary as they, the young couple from the hinterlands, take on the task of raising God’s own Son.
So we might do with Moses in the plague narratives of Exodus. We might wonder if we would have the courage to face down the most powerful man on earth (who unashamedly and explicitly thinks of himself as some sort of divine person). Then, as we read the repeated display of the power of God in the land of Egypt, we rightly point out that Pharaoh is something less than rational. Time and again Moses and Aaron declare what will come to pass (which steadily increases in severity), and time and again it happens. Yet, the repeated refrain is that Pharaoh’s heart becomes hardened.
Pharaoh is one of those easy narrative players in the Bible to ridicule. Here he is, proven powerless repeatedly, and he desires to continue on in his stubbornness and rebellion. Even when he admits in Exodus 9:27 that he’s been wrong, what we really see is temporal remorse for the consequences he’s suffering rather than repentance and submission to God. He’s received proof enough that the LORD, who he did not know or regard (5:2) is real and active and in control of his world, but his pride has not submitted itself to bow to God. The reality is stark, but so is Pharaoh’s stubbornness. If there was ever a picture of what Paul discusses in Romans 1:18-25, it is the Pharaoh of Exodus.
While we want to think of ourselves as Moses, or perhaps Aaron in this narrative of history, we probably can more readily identify with Pharaoh. How did we hold onto our sin, harboring hard hearts despite knowing the reality of God’s saving work in Jesus? How were we willing to grip the armrests of our own little thrones saying, “God may have dominion everywhere, but not here!”? Outside of Christ, we are Pharaoh. This is the gospel summons that we speak to the world—do you see God in his glory? He is making himself known, and we have every reason to believe him. Will you submit yourself to him, or will you deny the reality that is plainly seen around you? Do you not see all the goodness that is in Christ; wouldn’t you desire him rather than the brokenness and emptiness of the world?
In Pharaoh, and in the lives of unbelievers, we see what sin has wrought—the complete irrationality of rebellion. It as if a man were standing shaking his fist at a tidal wave. The defiance may seem compelling to the warped perspective, but in the end, it is swallowed up by the sheer power of what is coming. The summons of Exodus 9 is that God has made and is making himself known in the world (9:16)—do not run from him, but run to him. Everyone who calls upon his name are saved (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). Do not exalt yourself and bear his judgment, but exalt Christ that the judgment earned by your rebellion should be counted against him.