The people of Israel were in Egypt long enough for a king to arise who did not know Joseph. They also were fruitful. Exodus 1:7 says:
But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. ()
“They multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” In other words, they were mighty, and they had become a great nation. Also, “the land was filled with them.” They had become very numerous and spread throughout the land of Egypt. However, they did not assimilate. They did not become one people with the Egyptians. They still had their Israelite identity.
As time passed, a new king came to power who did not know Joseph. He either did not know the history or did not consider it relevant. Whatever the case, he no longer respected nor honored the special place the descendants of Israel held in Egypt. Therefore, Exodus 1:9-10 says:
And he said to his people, "Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." ()
Let’s consider the motives he expresses. He says, “Lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” In this statement, two motives are expressed. First, the Egyptians feared defeat at the hand of their enemies. Second, they feared economic loss. They feared the power and numbers of the Israelites.
The Egyptians’ solution to the Israelites’ power and numbers was to deal shrewdly with them. “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them.” Fear of loss and fear of imagined dangers were the stated motives for plotting against the people of God. If Pharaoh had remembered Joseph, he might have been saved from making this mistake. When Joseph interpreted the king of Egypt’s dream, he started out by telling Pharaoh, “It is beyond my power to do this, but God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.” () From that point on, it is evident that Joseph talked about God a lot. He explained to Pharaoh that his dreams were from God. He told his brothers that God was at work when Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt.
The Egyptians were the descendants of Ham (Genesis 10:6, Psalm 105:23) As mixed up as their religious practices were, they still had in their collective memory the account of the flood and the notion of the one true God. Joseph preserved life by his deeds in Egypt and by his presence and life gave testimony to the one true God. His descendants and people, the Israelites, continued to give testimony to the one true God. So, in essence, the Egyptians were setting themselves up to oppose God, because in the Israelites’ cultural narrative, they were God’s chosen people. Opposition similar to the Egyptians’ is common and is still the case. Psalm 2 says:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed. ()
When Jesus was handed over to be crucified, it was the same power at work in the hearts of men. John 13:2 says, “During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him…” () The Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus’ popularity, and the Roman leaders were fearful of uprising and rebellion. These different powers colluded together to crucify the Son of God, but behind it all was the prince and power of the air.
Psalms 2 asks why the nations rage and plot against the Lord’s anointed. This question is fit for any age. Egypt is a good example. They thought they were dealing shrewdly or wisely, but they were motivated by their fear and their greed and so they acted very foolishly.
Consider, with me, what the text says they did. Three verses explain what the Egyptians did. Exodus 1:11, 13-14.
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.
So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. ()
Two things stand out because of their repetition in these verses, “ruthlessly” and “work as slaves.”
The phrase “work as slaves” is one word in the Hebrew text, which means to labor and also has the meaning of slavery or serving. God created work, and labor is not a bad thing. However, Exodus 1:11 says, “They set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens.” The purpose of the taskmasters was to afflict them. They were forced to labor, and they were forced to work for the benefit of others or to serve. Service can mean labor for the benefit of another. Voluntary service is a good thing, but slavery or forced service is thievery. Egypt boasted of its mighty cities Pithom and Raamses, but whose labor were they? We said they feared economic loss and were motivated by greed and the result is seen in the evil of slavery and theft.
The other word that stands out because of repetition in these verses is “ruthlessly.” Strongs explains the Hebrew word used as:
From an unused root meaning to break apart; fracture, i.e. Severity -- cruelty.
I want to bring up a few verses related to this subject. I think of Psalms 18:25 that says, “With the merciful you show yourself merciful.” () Our Lord Jesus also said, “"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” () Ruthlessness, severity or cruelty are not virtues, and God does not speak kindly about such practices. James 2:13 is a case in point. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” () To be in power or authority over another person is an awesome responsibility and not to be treated lightly.
The Egyptians seized power and control because they feared the Israelites were too strong for them. They ruthlessly used the Israelites out of fear. But, look at what Exodus 1:12 says.
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. ()
You will notice that the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. Their fear led them to actions that only increased their dread.
They desired gain, so they enslaved the Israelites. They were afraid, so they were ruthless. The results will be shown as the Israelites leave a country decimated by plagues. However, the effect on the Israelites is outlined in Exodus 1:12. “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.”
Stress and challenges are necessary for all living things to grow. If you want to grow big muscles, you must lift heavy things. This is why exercise is both necessary and effective.
Consider with me the spiritual principle involved. It is expressed succinctly in James 1:2-4.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. ()
God’s purpose is that we might be lacking in nothing. However, the route to this state lies through trials of various kinds. This principle also is taught in Hebrews 12:5-7.
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? ()
God does not allow testing because He hates us, or is angry with us. He allows testing because He loves us.
At times, it seems as if the testing we are going through is more than we can endure. We will see this in the book of Exodus as the Egyptians ratchet up their persecution of the Israelites. Another important spiritual principle is involved here. The Scriptures say:
The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. ()
God will not allow the temptation to be more than you can endure. There is an important point to be made here. Tests and trials come. Tests and trials differ from the consequences of sin. God warns us not to sin and tells us that sin leads to death. Testing and trials will strengthen us. Consequences can destroy us.
In today’s text, the Israelites are experiencing testing and trials; The Egyptians are ruthless, and they are looking at consequences. Trials usually come in a way that leaves us wondering what the reasons for the testing might be, but consequences are clear. God warned the Egyptians, “Let my people go, or I am going to bring plagues on you.” The problem with consequences is that they are always greater than we understand and affect way more than we ever expect. If we ignore God’s warnings like we will see the Egyptians do, the consequences will go way beyond what we anticipate.
Testing, unlike consequences, only serves to make us stronger. The more the Israelites were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread. This is true also of the history of the Church. The more the Church has been persecuted, the more it has multiplied and spread.
Consider with me what Psalm 105 says about the events in Exodus.
And the Lord multiplied the people of Israel until they became too mighty for their enemies. Then he turned the Egyptians against the Israelites, and they plotted against the Lord’s servants. ()
The Psalmist says the Lord turned the Egyptians against the Israelites. The Bible tells us that the Lord cannot be tempted by evil nor does He tempt anyone (James 1:13). Therefore, God is allowing something that is in the hearts of people to grow and lead them to the natural conclusion. This is also what happened with our salvation, as the believers prayed in Acts concerning the events in Jerusalem:
…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. ()
Jesus willingly gave His life. From the human side, He was betrayed. Judas was responsible for that. He was brought to trial. The Jewish leaders were responsible for that. He was condemned. Pilate was responsible for that. However, God’s hand and plan had predestined these things to take place. Greed was a motive. Fear was a motive. And, along with other motives, people were moved to ruthlessly persecute the Lord of Glory. God caused these things to work together for our salvation.
In Exodus, God was working things towards the deliverance of His people from Egypt.
In our day, God is working things toward the consummation of the ages. He is working things toward the day when Jesus returns. Greed and fear and human folly will play a great role. The world and the devil are ruthless, and consequences will be without mercy, but the trial of believers will only serve to multiply and spread them.
In your life, greed and fear have consequences. Those that fear you will persecute you. Those controlled by greed will take advantage of you. However, God will keep the trial from ever being more than you can handle, and in the end will bring you to glory with all His children. Because He is at work so that you will be perfect and complete lacking in nothing.