Let’s face it. This chapter is problematic for God. On the surface, it doesn’t make Him look very good, does it? What can you say about a God that goes around killing children? (Oh, I wish I had a little more time to write about death today, but I’m sure it will come in time. It’s a large Bible... )
In the past, I have heard commentators on this chapter not only lament the fact that God does this extreme thing to begin with, but that He does it when Pharaoh has so hardened his heart that one wonders if he’s even capable of turning around now. Well, for starters, that’s part of the point. God has given us the freedom to choose, and we have the power to do just that — even the power to so harden ourselves to truth that we will sacrifice what is most important to us in life. Add to this the Egyptian understanding that the firstborn was merely an extension of oneself, and Pharaoh demonstrates that he is so hell-bent on defying God that he doesn’t care if he gets destroyed in the process.
Isn’t that a perfect picture of sin?
Now, I wish I had a lot of time to write about God’s wrath and what it is, because some people have the (mistaken, I believe) notion that God’s wrath involves lightning bolts and hellfire and such things. But, at the very least, stick with me until we get to Romans 1. Paul perfectly describes God’s wrath in that chapter! It is God’s giving up. (Okay, I gave it away.)
God giving up. Hmmm... doesn’t that perfectly describe the choice God was faced with when it came to Pharaoh? When He is confronted with somebody so stubborn, so unyielding that he is willing to destroy himself in order to not give in, what is left that God can do? In the ultimate scenario (the final death of the wicked), He will give up and leave those people to the results of what they have chosen. There will be no point in His continued efforts to win them over... just as there would have been no point in having another 50 plagues.
But that giving up, that "wrath" comes very slowly for God. It is the last resort, the final step, and He certainly doesn’t want things to get to that point. Just like He didn’t want the firstborn of Egypt to die.
How do we know He didn’t want the firstborn of Egypt to die? Because it was the very first thing He warned Pharaoh about. Have you ever realized that? It was the very first plague God informed Pharaoh about and the very last plague that actually occurred. In Exodus 4, God gave Moses these instructions: "Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'" (vs 23)
Long before the Nile turned to blood, long before the gnats, the flies, or the frogs, God warned Pharaoh about what would happen if he hardened his heart. Now, I believe that God used Pharaoh as an example of what happens when we slowly reject His Spirit to the point where we are no longer able to listen to Him. God didn’t want that to be the example. He wanted Pharaoh to hear Him and respond. Time after time, He communicated with Pharaoh in a way that would help Pharaoh understand that the gods he thought were real were, in fact, figments of his imagination and that the God who was speaking to him was the one true God.
Unfortunately, Pharaoh refused to listen. But we can learn this about God: that He makes every imaginable, every possible effort in the fight to break through to us. He wants us. And, if we force Him to, there will come a point where He gives up and stops fighting for us. But that takes a very. long. time.