In the progression of miraculous signs given to Pharaoh to persuade him to let the Israelites go, God left the most painful sign for the end; when the pharaoh had, finally, refused to respond to every earlier inducement. Pharaoh was given ample time and many testaments – many opportunities to accede to God’s demand. But each time, he hardened his heart and deliberately chose not to believe and not to obey.
At this point, God used a terrible sign – the one He knew would not be refused. But He left this until last. Like the people of Noah’s time and the Israelites after this time, God continually gave warning after warning: He made things very clear. When nothing else had worked, destruction came – although this destruction was also a natural consequence of their own actions. God obviously doesn’t want His children to suffer, but He will let them if they give Him no other choice. If they cannot come to Christ through the gentler, ‘nicer’ ways, then He will allow harsher events to do that work.
Blessed are those who are not compelled to be humble.
Salvation through Christ
This last sign given to Pharaoh wasn’t arbitrary violence, though. It was a significant and holy sign.
The Israelites, who sacrificed animals symbolic of our Saviour and spread the blood on their doorposts, symbolic of taking upon them His name and salvation through atonement, were saved from death, symbolic of the salvation of God through Christ.
The Egyptians’ children – the eldest – died because they were not protected by the atoning blood of Christ, symbolic of the spiritual death which comes to those who reject His mercy and don’t have its protection from the full extent of the law. In this, we can see not only a serious message for Israel about deliverance and Christ, but also one for the Egyptians. They were allowing themselves, and their children, to be subject to the full extent of the law, by not accepting Jesus Christ and following after idolatrous gods with no power to save. As their eldest children died physically, so would they all die spiritually, if they continued in this way.
I want to point out here that the Egyptians had at least one cult, recorded in Abraham’s record, in which they offered their own children as sacrifices to their heathen gods. They’d spread this to the area where Abraham was born, so that it affected not only their own people, but others as well. I don’t know if it operated in the time of the Exodus, but it was in their history. Perhaps there was a lesson here for them as well?
It’s also good to remember that physical death for children, although seen as tragic here, because they’ve only had short lives, can also be seen as a mercy. Mortal life is unremittingly hard, although also wonderful and, of course, essential. To take children out of it, while tragic to us here, is also merciful. In gaining physical bodies, they’ve fulfilled an important element of this life’s purpose. But they are saved from needing to endure the many hard things that those who grow older do. In considering who in the land actually died, though, if it was all of the eldest, this would mean adults and children. We could also see mercy in these souls being taken from a land steeped in wicked traditions.
Their king had been given every opportunity to avoid this disaster. He had been told, explicitly, what would happen – this time as well as all the rest. His deliberate disbelief in the reality and power of God – deliberate hardening of his heart, which saw those signs and told him the truth – meant that he refused to save his own people. As they were exposed to the full extent of the law in this situation, and not protected, as the Israelites who did believe and followed God’s exact instructions, so sinning and ignoring these realities exposes all people, including their children, to the realities of life without God’s merciful intervention (even while God still turned this into something as merciful as possible, as explained above). Accepting Christ’s way covers us with protection from that full harshness of law.
This is a serious lesson for the Israelites of the deliverance of God through Christ. That He saves them, when there is no other power that can. That He is their deliverer, forever, from sin and Satan. That they should always, always remember this and Him.
What we can learn
In doing as the Israelites and applying the saving power of our Saviour’s atonement to our sins, weakness/es, and difficulties, we need to also be ready to leave Babylon, and venture out into the wilderness, being led to the Promised Land of Zion, both temporally and eternally.
We must always be ready to follow the Lord’s command, as different as it might (and will) be to apparent realities and dominant beliefs and practices around us. We must also be prepared to leave the bondage of sin, and find the promised land of spiritual peace and renewal God offers to lead us to – without, ideally, wandering in the wilderness first for far longer than the journey might take, were we to believe Him outright, and meekly and trustingly follow His laws and Spirit, obeying immediately.