In wrestling with God’s providence, one thing we particularly struggle with is God’s timing. We want God to change things NOW, and we do not understand why God seems to be so laggard, so willing to let evils persist or even intensify without addressing them. We need to remember that God is neither passive nor laggard. How He is working is as important as what He intends to accomplish.
We can see this in the first encounter Moses and Aaron had with the Israelites in Egypt and then with Pharaoh. The meeting with the Israelites went well; that with Pharaoh did not. When Moses engaged God at the burning bush, his three questions centered on the Israelites not heeding his voice, as had been the case forty years earlier when he sought to lead the Israelites. Yet Scripture records that “Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel. And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses. Then he did the signs in the sight of the people. So the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped” (Exod. 4:29-31). That was easy.
When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, they asked him to allow the Israelites to go three days journey into the wilderness (probably about a week round trip) to worship the LORD. This was just as the LORD commanded (Exod. 5:1 cf. 3:18). Pharaoh responded to the request contemptuously: “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (Exod. 5:2). Such a response was inevitable: Pharaoh led a civilization that by that point had been in existence for more than 1,500 years, and which held to an ideology centered on the permanence of the existing order of things. Moreover, the LORD was not part of the pantheon of Egyptian gods, and Pharaoh himself was considered a near divinity. From Pharaoh’s perspective, the request was absurd and reflected laziness on the part of the Israelites. Thus, he increased their burdens. The Israelites reacted with bitterness toward Moses and Aaron for getting them into the situation in the first place, and Moses and Aaron, in turn, cried out in anguish to God, asking why the people had not be freed. They should not have been surprised though—God had told Moses beforehand that Pharaoh would refuse the request, indeed because the LORD Himself would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4:21). Things had turned out exactly as God said. Freeing the Israelites was not going to be easy.
The reaction Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites is typical of the expectation we often have that if we just say a short prayer or make some small deference to God, then he will make everything all better quickly, like a parent kissing a child’s scrape. But that is not how the LORD typically works. Why was the LORD making it harder? Certainly the greater Pharaoh’s resistance to releasing the Israelites, the greater God’s glory when He does free them. But that is probably not the full reason. God is in the process of working on shaping people even as He is working toward a particular end result.
First, Moses and Aaron needed to grow in trusting Him if they were going to lead the people. Their initial response notwithstanding, the fact that God told them Pharaoh would resist their request and that that is exactly what came to pass strengthens the credibility of God’s word. In the ensuing confrontation with Pharaoh, they do not come back to the LORD and make that same complaint again.
Second, God is working on Pharaoh. God’s purpose is not only in His glory, but He is bringing judgment upon Egypt. Covenantally, God had promised to Abraham that He would bless those who bless His people and curse those who cursed His people. Pharaoh and Egypt were convinced of their own superiority and their ability to act toward God and toward His people with impunity. They were due for the LORD’s judgment and the harder Pharaoh’s heart became, the more clearly the righteousness of God’s judgment will be seen. Through the confrontation with Pharaoh and Egypt, God is demonstrating His superiority over the kings of the earth who stand in resistance and rebellion toward Him.
And that is a relevant lesson for God’s people as well. While they acknowledged the LORD as their God, having been in Egypt as long as they had they probably saw Him as merely just one of a host of gods, albeit one who historically had been favorable toward them. In this sense, they acted as if God was their mascot. He was not. Pharaoh’s rhetorical question was, in a sense, their question as well: Who is the LORD, that they should obey Him? They needed to realize that that the LORD was the only true God, sovereign over all of creation—and for that reason, they should obey Him. By making things harder, God was setting up the situation and shaping the attitudes of those participating in it. With His people, He was shaping them to obey Him, and with His enemies He was showing Himself as the God to be feared. The process God was working through met these supplementary goals. As we struggle with things in our lives, the process that the LORD works through He is using to shape our attitudes as well, that we will truly become a people who will honor, glorify, and obey Him.