The Death of the Firstborn, pt. 1
by Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)
1And the Lord said unto Moses, “Yet will I bring one plague more upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence: when he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether. 2Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.” 3And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
4And Moses said, “Thus saith the Lord, ‘About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: 5And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that [is] behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. 6And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more. 7But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that ye may know how that the Lord doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.’ 8And all these thy servants shall come down unto me, and bow down themselves unto me, saying, ‘Get thee out, and all the people that follow thee’: and after that I will go out.” And he went out from Pharaoh in a great anger.
9And the Lord said unto Moses, “Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” 10And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land. (AV)
The contest between Pharaoh and Jehovah was almost ended. Abundant opportunity had been given the king to repent him of his wicked defiance. Warning after warning and plague after plague had been sent. But Egypt’s ruler still “hardened his heart”. One more judgment was appointed, the heaviest of them all, and then not only would Pharaoh let the people go, but he would thrust them out. Then would be clearly shown the folly of fighting against God. Then would be fully demonstrated the uselessness of resisting Jehovah. Then would be made manifest the impotence of the creature and the omnipotence of the Most High. “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21). “For the Lord of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? And His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:27). No matter though it be the king of the most powerful empire upon earth, “Those that walk in pride God is able to abase” (Daniel 4:21). Pharaoh might ask in haughty defiance, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?” He might blatantly declare, “I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). But now the time had almost arrived when he would be glad to get rid of that people whose God had so sorely troubled him and his land. As well might a worm seek to resist the tread of an elephant as for the creature to successfully defy the Almighty. God can grind to powder the hardest heart, and bring down to the dust the haughtiest spirit.
“And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Yet will I bring one plague more upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence; when he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether’” (vs. 1). “One plague more”. The severest of them all was this, directed as it was against “the chief of their strength” (Psalm 78:51). A mightier king than Pharaoh would visit the land of Egypt that night. The “king of terrors” would lay his unsparing hand upon the firstborn. And with all their wisdom and learning Pharaoh and his people would be helpless. The magicians were of no avail in such an emergency. There was no withstanding the Angel of Death! Neither wealth nor science could provide deliverance. Those in the palace were not one whit more secure than the occupants of the humblest cottage. Longsuffering God had surely shown Himself, but now His holy anger was to burst forth with irresistible might, and bitter and widespread would be the resulting lamentations.
“Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold” (vs. 2). This and the verse that follows are to be regarded as a parenthesis. The night on which the first-born were slain came between the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Nisan. And yet in Ex. 12:3 we find the Lord telling Moses to instruct Israel to take them every man a lamb on the tenth day of the month. Similarly, here in Exodus, the body of the chapter is concerned with what took place on the Passover night, verses 2 and 3 coming in parenthetically as a brief notice of what had happened previously.
That which is recorded in verse 2 has been seized upon by enemies of God’s truth and made the ground of an ethical objection. The word “borrow” implies that the article should later be returned. But there was no thought of the Israelites giving back these “jewels” to the Egyptians. From this it is argued that God was teaching His people to practice deception and dishonesty. But all ground for such an objection is at once swept away if the Hebrew word here translated “borrow” be rendered correctly. The Hebrew word is “Sha´al”. It occurs 168 times in the Old Testament, and 162 times it is translated “ask, beg or require”. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the O.T. f.) gives “aites” (ask). Jeromes’ Latin version renders it by “postulabit” (ask, request). The German translation by Luther reads “Fordern” (demand). The mistake has been corrected by the English Revisers, who give “ask” rather than “borrow”. While the substitution of “ask” for “borrow” removes all ground for the infidel’s objection that Israel were guilty of a fraudulent transaction, there is still a difficulty remaining — felt by many a devout mind. Why should the Lord bid His people “ask” for anything from their enemies? In receiving from the Egyptians, they were but taking what was their own. For long years had the Hebrews toiled in the brick-kilns. Fully, then, had they earned what they now asked for. Lawfully were they entitled to these jewels. Yet we believe that the real, more satisfactory answer, lies deeper than this. Everything here has a profound typical meaning. The world is greatly indebted to the presence of God’s people in it. Much, very much, of the benevolence practiced by the unregenerate is the outcome of this. Our charitable institutions, our agencies for relieving suffering, are really byproducts of Christianity: hospitals, and poor-houses are unknown in lands where the light of the Gospel has not shone. When, then, God took His people out of Egypt, He made its inhabitants feel the resultant loss. In like manner when the saints are all raptured at the descent of Christ into the air, the world will probably be made to feel that all true blessing and enlightenment has departed from it.
“And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians” (11:3). This was the fulfillment of the promise made by the Lord to Moses at the burning bush: “And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty” (3:21). And it was also the fulfillment of one of the promises which Jehovah made to Abraham four hundred years earlier: “And also that nation, whom they shall serve will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance” (Genesis 15:14).
This is very blessed. No word of God can fail. For many long years the Hebrews had been a nation of slaves, and as they toiled in the brick-kilns there were no outward signs that they were likely to leave Egypt “with great substance”. But the people of God are not to walk by sight, but by faith. How this fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham should show the certainty of Him making good all His promises to us! “And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians” (11:3). Herein Jehovah manifested His absolute sovereignty. From the natural standpoint there was every reason why the Egyptians should hate the Israelites more than ever. Not only were they, as a pastoral people, an “abomination unto the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34), but it was the God of the Hebrews who had so severely plagued them and their land. It was therefore due alone to God’s all-mighty power, moving upon the hearts of the Egyptians which caused them to now regard His people with favor. Similar examples are furnished by the cases of Joseph and Potiphar (Genesis 39:3), Joseph and the prison-keeper (Genesis 39:21), Daniel and his master (Daniel 1:9) etc. Let us learn from these passages that when we receive kindness from the hands of the unregenerate it is because God has given us favor in their sight.
“And Moses said, ‘Thus saith the Lord, “About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt”’” (11:4). Moses was still in the Court. Chapter 11:1-4 should be read straight on from 10:28, 29. The seeming interval between the two chapters disappears if we read 11:1 (as the Hebrew fully warrants) “the Lord had said unto Moses.” God’s servant, then, was still in Pharaoh palace, though the king and his courtiers were unable to see him because of the “thick darkness” which enveloped the land of Egypt. If further proof be required for this the 8th verse of our chapter supplies it, for there we read, “And all these thy servants shall come down unto me, and bow down themselves unto me, saying, ‘Get thee out, and all the people that follow me: and after that I will go out. And he went out from Pharaoh in a great anger’”. The fourteenth day of Nisan had arrived, and after delivering the Divine ultimatum, Moses left forever the palace of the Pharaohs’. “And Moses said, ‘Thus saith the Lord, “About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it anymore”’” (11:4-6).
How this reminds us of that solemn word in Romans 11:22, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness!” In exempting His own people from this heavy stroke of judgment we behold the “goodness” of the Lord; in the slaying of all the firstborn of the Egyptians we see His “severity”. But why, it may be asked, should the “firstborn” be destroyed? At least a twofold answer may be returned to this. It commonly happens that in the governmental dealings of God, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. In the second place, Romans 9:22 teaches us that the “vessels of wrath” are made by God for the express purpose of showing His wrath and making known His power. The slaying of the children rather than their parents served to accomplish this the more manifestly. Again, the death of the first born was a representative judicial infliction. It spoke of the judgment of God coming upon all that is of the natural man; the firstborn like “the first-fruits” being a sample of all the rest. But why slay the firstborn of all the Egyptians, when Pharaoh only was rebellious and defiant? Answer: It is clear from Exodus 14:17 that the rank and file of the Egyptians were far from being guiltless.
“But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue against man or beast: that ye may know how that the Lord doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel” (11:7). Marvelous example was this of the absolute sovereignty of Divine grace. As we shall yet see, the Israelites, equally with the Egyptians, fully merited the wrath of God. It was not because of any virtue or excellence in them that the Hebrews were spared. They, too, had sinned and come short of the glory of God. It was simply according to His own good pleasure that God made this difference: “For He saith to Moses I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Romans 9:15).
And this was no isolated instance. It was characteristic of the ways of God in every age. It is the same today. Some are in Christ; many are out of Christ: sovereign grace alone has made the difference. There can be only one answer to the apostle’s question “who maketh thee to differ from another?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) — it is God. It is not because our hearts (by nature) are more tender, more responsive to the Holy Spirit, than the hearts of unbelievers; it is not that our wills are more pliable and less stubborn. Nor is it because of any superior mental acumen which enabled us to see our need of a Savior. No. Grace, distinguishing grace, sovereign grace, is the discriminating cause. Then let us see to it that we give God all the glory for it!
“But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue”. Striking proof was this that every creature is beneath the direct control of the great Creator! It was nighttime when the Angel of death executed God’s sentence. Moreover, “thick darkness” shrouded the land. On every side was the weeping and howling of the Egyptians, as they discovered that their firstborn had been smitten down. Moreover, there was the movement of the Israelites, as by their hundreds of thousands they proceeded to leave the land of bondage. There was, then, every reason why the “dogs” should bark and howl, yea, why they should rush upon the Hebrews. But not a single dog moved his tongue! An invisible Hand locked their jaws. Just as Babylon’s lions were rendered harmless by God, when Daniel was cast into their den, so Egypt’s dogs were stricken dumb when Jehovah’s people set out for the promised land. What comfort and assurance is there here for the believer to-day. Not so much as a fly can settle upon you without the Creator’s bidding, any more than the demons could enter the herd of swine until Christ gave them permission.
(This study will continue in the next issue.)
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