Our Idols Can't Save Us (Exodus 7:14-24)

Henri Nouwen cites an old tale of ancient India — as translated from Sanskrit — to make a point similar to the one I want you to get from today's sermon. So let me begin with that story of four men, follow it with a reading from Exodus, and show you how I think the two are related.

First, the story . . .

Four royal sons were questioning what specialty they should master. They said to one another, "let us search the earth and learn a special science." So they decided, and after they had agreed on a place where they would meet again, the four brothers started off, each in a different direction. Time went by, and the brothers met again at the appointed meeting place, and they asked one another what they had learned. "I have mastered a science," said the first, "which makes it possible for me, if I have nothing but a piece of bone of some creature, to create straightaway the flesh that goes with it." "I," said the second, "know how to grow that creature's skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones." The third said, "I am able to create its limbs if I have the flesh, the skin, and the hair." "And I," concluded the fourth, "know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete with limbs."

Thereupon the brothers went into the jungle to find a piece of bone so that they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion's, but they did not know that and picked up the bone. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking its heavy mane, the ferocious beast arose with its menacing mouth, sharp teeth, and merciless claws and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.
Now, the biblical text . . .

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Pharaoh's heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. Say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, "Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness." But until now you have not listened. Thus says the Lord, "By this you shall know that I am the Lord." See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.' " The Lord said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt — over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water — so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.' "

Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river (Ex.7:14-24).
The Plagues and the First Commandment

After Yahweh appeared to Moses at the burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh, it was inevitable that a contest of wills would begin. The divine will was pitted against an arrogant human will. Want to guess who won? Before we get too glib, however, it might be wise for us to confess our own tendency to wage contests of will against God. We sometimes prefer to be crushed than to yield!

By the way, let me make a brief comment about an issue that always puzzles Bible students when we work through these early chapters of Exodus. Calvinists and Arminians tussle with each other here. Did God decide Pharaoh's reaction to these plagues? Did he harden Pharaoh's heart? Or did Pharaoh harden his own heart out of his own free will?

I suspect anyone who knew Pharaoh could have told you the outcome of what I called a "contest of wills." Pharaoh never gave an inch to anybody. He was the supreme ruler of Egypt. He didn't bow his knee or his will to anyone. Why, he didn't even have to bow to the gods of Egypt, for he was their peer rather than their supplicant. He was worshiped as "divine Pharaoh" by his subjects.

Yahweh got the same response from Pharaoh by saying, "Let my people go!" that Mrs. Pharaoh would have gotten by saying, "Take this stinking trash out!" Nobody tells Pharaoh what to do! He doesn't put trash on the curb. And he doesn't release slave laborers. Period. End of story.

So what hardened Pharaoh's heart? God's demand or Pharaoh's predictable nature? Yes! It is the same answer you would give to the question: Who/what hardened Pharaoh's heart about the trash — Mrs. Pharaoh or Mr. Pharaoh? Her demand or his pride? Yes! Isn't that what we're dealing with here? I don't think Moses was thinking about or writing to our modern debates over free will. He was just telling us what always happens when an irresistible force comes up against an immovable object.

Before the first plague was performed, Yahweh told Moses, "Pharaoh's heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go" (Ex.7:14). Present tense. "Pharaoh's heart ishardened." The events to follow weren't going to be done to discover the condition of his heart but to reveal it. So when the text swings back and forth between "Yahweh hardened Pharaoh's heart" and "Pharaoh hardened his heart," there's nothing terribly mysterious or complex going on. Pharaoh is being shown for who he is, has been, and will be for his whole life — an arrogant, despotic, unbelieving man. God is exposing him; Pharaoh is exposing himself. God is presenting the demand; Pharaoh is reacting in character.

In a nutshell, the plagues about to be unleashed against the water, soil, air, and other elements of nature in Egypt are proof positive that Yahweh alone is sovereign over all things. He rules over all creation and moves it to his desired ends. More specifically still, however, each plague in turn appears to have been directed at a specific Egyptian deity in order to establish the claim with which the Decalogue begins: "I am the Lordyour God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me" (Ex.20:2-3). The same thing is repeated later in Israel's shema: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut. 6:4-5).

The Lord God of Israel alone is worthy of worship. There is no other god. The so- called "gods" or "deities" of the pagan nations are nothing.

Our Penchant for Idolatry

Human beings seem to have a penchant for creating and worshiping idols. There is a huge empty space in the human heart that only God can satisfy, but it will be filled with something! If not God, then the elements of the natural world he created — water, sun, stars. Thus Egypt worshiped the Nile and Ra, god of the sun; thus moderns swim, sun, and pursue the occult as our preoccupations. The weekend cabin is the alternative to worship for some. Their toys on the lake mean more to them than God, worship, or a spiritual community. A beautiful body and its sensual display mean more than purity.

But isn't it a stretch to say these things have become "gods" or "idols" to people? Only if you define idolatry so narrowly as to embrace carving an image, bowing before it, and calling it "god." I think it is more on target to say that anything a person makes his or her life priority, looks to for the meaning and significance of life, and by which that person is defined and his priorities determined is that person's god.

Augustine claimed this about idolatry: "Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used or using anything that is meant to be worshiped." If he is correct, then I can name the idols before which many people prostrate themselves: money, possessions, power, sex, fame, intelligence, drugs, political offices, company promotions, computers, cars. Why the list of things people have made more important to their lives than God, righteousness, and eternity is probably endless. Some people have even made an idol of their church or denomination and their lists of legalistic rules about religion.

Our Suffering

When we turn the tables on God and creation — using people and valuing things, enthroning ourselves and forgetting God — it is idolatry. My friend Steve Brumfield is onto a good characterization of idolatry when he asks, "Know the difference between God and Steve Brumfield?" After a pause, he answers for you: "God has never waked up in the morning thinking he was Steve." That's it. That is the essential nature of idolatry. And idolatry always creates suffering.

Each of the ten plagues in its turn showed how powerless the nature-gods of the Egyptians were. The first plague was against the Nile, and the ninth was against the sun — the two most popular nature-gods of the Egyptians. Neither they nor the lesser deities of Egypt could withstand Yahweh's power.

It makes one think of Isaiah's denunciation of idolatry in his day:

[The person who worships idols] cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, "Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!" The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, "Save me, for you are my god!"

They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?" (Isa. 44:14-20).
Why couldn't they see how foolish that was? Their hearts were hard! Like Pharaoh with his priest-magicians, they have seen enough phony signs and heard enough pleasing lies that they prefer deception over reality, falsehood over truth. According to Paul, Satan — the masterful deceiver, counterfeiter, and liar — "uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved" (2 Thess. 2:9-10). He hoodwinked Pharaoh. He deceived and damned Judas. And he's taking lots of other people down the same path of suffering, death, and eternal loss.

Money and power turn heads; they don't give meaning to life, keep you from getting sick and dying, or have any value at the Judgment. Beauty and sex are pied-piper gods of our time; they have yet to save anybody from getting old, feeling lonely, or being used up and tossed aside for somebody else. Alcohol and pornography lure the unsuspecting; they never tell them the fate they have in store for them.

And that's what takes us back to the Nouwen story with which I began. We human beings have discovered how to create what can devour and destroy us. Dreams and goals can consume us. Power and influence can make us arrogant. Intelligence, looks, or titles can make us contemptuous of biblical wisdom, godly people, and righteous behavior. Possessions can wind up possessing us. Unless God is more important to me than anything else — no, everything else — then I just don't know who he is and will never find out who I was meant to be.

Conclusion

Jesus made the same outrageous demand of Christians that he had earlier made of the Israelites: We are to have "no other gods" and must give our hearts, minds, and bodies to him alone. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," he said. "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Here are Paul's words on the matter: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:19b-20).

Has the life you have created for yourself turned on you? Is it devouring you? Is it killing you? By dying to those things, you can begin now to live in him. The idols we have created for ourselves cannot save us. The role of Savior belongs to Jesus. Jesus alone. I plead with you to accept him, follow him, and find your life in him.

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[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1972), pp.5-6.

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