God Must Demand our Obedience But Ultimately Wants Our Hearts

To Know God is to Love Him?

Christians in American commonly think that the reason people don’t love God is because they don’t know him. Many who are “spiritual but not religious” seem to feel similarly. Such a god is a universally positive, universally lovable, universally tolerant being that is only not worshiped or obeyed or sought after because of human ignorance. What this implies is that evil is more a lack of information, communication and understanding than rebellion. 

This idea is attractive because it assumes that as we learn more and know God better then conflicts will melt away and finally one day heaven and earth will be one with no lives lost. That’s a very nice idea, but it isn’t one that the Bible seems to embrace.

That idea also runs up against the problem that personal beings make choices and these choices matter. One way to eliminate the problem of God caring about our choices is to have a god who makes no choices, therefore he won’t cross any of our decision. The downside of such a god would of course be that this god could not in any way critique any human choice or partake in history which is full of choices. Such a god couldn’t say “killing your neighbor is wrong and I won’t tolerate it”. For such a god something that we see as evil would be not be to he-she-it.

While I understand that this view has its adherents, I do wonder about how faithful it can be lived. I know no one who doesn’t actually believe that good and evil exist on at least some level. Having a will seems to entail taking a position on not only what is good or evil for oneself, but what is good or evil in general.

Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher today in fact owns this view. For any of us who have opinions, which is all of us, the presence of any god who picks and chooses is a threat.

Thomas Nagel “The Last Word” pg. 130

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility towards certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper– namely the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. This cosmic authority problem is not rare and I doubt that there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God. 

When God Shows Up

The story of the book of Exodus is a story of Yhwh revealing himself in an increasingly intrusive manner. Some people will like this god, and others will hate him. In Exodus 8 we have a story of Pharaoh being increasingly exposed to Yhwh and the dynamic that is involved.

In Exodus 6 Pharaoh said “who is Yhwh that I should obey him”. Chapter 8 will be his progressive introduction and it is an introduction that Pharaoh will not appreciate. In fact repeatedly during the interchange Yhwh states that the reason for all of this will be that Israel, Egypt, Pharaoh and the world may know that Yhwh is the creator God who makes demands on the entire world. This was as shocking and offensive a statement for the ancient world as it is today. 

Begrudging Acknowledgment

In the plague of frogs Egypt is threatened with a molestation and a nuisance. While Pharaoh’s magicians can too produce the nuisance, what they are unable to do is to mitigate the molestation. What Pharaoh is forced to do is to humiliate himself by asking Moses to undo the frog invasion. Moses rubs in the point by giving Pharaoh the opportunity to chose when the invasion will end. Moses cries out to the LORD on behalf of slave-holding Egypt and the frogs die.

The pattern we would hope for from Pharaoh would be misery-deliverance-gratitude but instead we have misery-deliverance-hardening. Pharaoh now knows who Yhwh is, knows his power, knows that he is working through Moses, but will not obey or worship.

What is Obvious to Others

With the plague of gnats or lice the magicians finally acknowledge that what is happening to Egypt is beyond them, but Pharaoh won’t listen to them either.

What we see in this progression is that Pharaoh’s resistance to God’s demand that he release his slaves is increasingly irrational. Pharaoh is increasingly consumed by himself and his own ego and is not able to do what is moral, reasonable and in the best interest of his people. Evil is finally irrational and self-defeating and Pharaoh is well down this road.


When faced with the plague of the flies Pharaoh attempts to bargain. He is hoping he can both cling to his rebellion and make peace with Yhwh. While he is unwilling to worship he hopes that by having Israel compromise their worship Pharaoh can have it both ways. He attempts to lure Moses a bit to his side while he again asks Moses to bargain for him. Moses sees what is happening and warns him not to do as he has already done three times, which was to relent only when the heat is on and then when the pressure is off return to his hardness and rebellion.

Pharaoh and the Devils

In James 2:19 James notes that demons believe in God and tremble. Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on this passage called “True Grace Distinguished from the Experience of Devils”. The devils as Edwards call them have perfect doctrinal knowledge of God and perfect fear of the power of God and that fear, according to stories of Jesus casting out demons can be effective in gaining momentary compliance from the devils in particular cases.

What we are seeing is that Pharaoh is of a similar category of the devils as Edwards calls them. He knows Yhwh’s power, bargains with Yhwh like the demons in legion bargain with Jesus to be cast into the swine, but his enduring position is against Yhwh and if he holds to that enduring position it will cause his destruction and the destruction of the people and the land he is supposed to protect and help to flourish.

What Hell Is

CS Lewis comments that the door to hell is locked from the inside. Hell is the place where God finally relents and says to demonic and human rebellion “OK, your will be done. I won’t force you to shudder or comply any longer to my requests and demands. Have a space all to yourselves to do with, and to each other, as you please.”

What that space will look like will be what this world looks like, the strong advantaging themselves over the weak with no one to save them.

Pharaoh is still in the foothills of hell and so far not beyond the intercession of Moses for him. Moses’ warning is that he turn around and go no further on the path of his relationship with Yhwh.

Set a Ransom Between My People and Your People

Exodus 8:20–23 (LEB)

20 And Yahweh said to Moses, “Start early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh. Look, he is going out to the water, and you must say to him, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “Release my people so that they may serve me.” 21 But if you are not about to release my people, look, I am about to send out flies among you and among your servants and among your people and in your houses; and the houses of Egypt will fill up with the flies and also the ground that they are on. 22 But on that day I will distinguish the land of Goshen, where my people are staying, by there not being flies there, so that you will know that I am Yahweh in the midst of the land. 23 And I will put a distinction between my people and your people; this sign will be tomorrow.’ ”

Verse 23 in most English translations says “I will put a distinction” but Robert Alter notes quite rightly that this Hebrew word everywhere else is translated “ransom”. For example in Deuteronomy 24:18 it says “remember you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD ransom you from there.”

The presence of the LORD in the land means the flies won’t molest his people. What the flies do to the land at the end of the chapter is devastating.

Exodus 8:24 (LEB)

24 And Yahweh did so, and a severe swarm of flies came to the house of Pharaoh and the house of his servants and in all the land of Egypt; the land was ruined because of the flies.

What is happening in the story of the conflict between Yhwh and Pharaoh is nothing less than Yhwh exerting his claim over creation. He is saying that ultimately creation belongs to him, to either uphold and bless or to take away and destroy. While he is normally generous and patient with human rebellion his ultimate desire is to ransom it from rebellion and live within it. The land that he lives within will thrive, while the land that he forsakes will be devastated by chaos and uncreation.

Wanting God to be clear to this world like he was to Pharaoh

At this point a number of us might be very energized by what we’ve been hearing. The lines are clear. Oh, wouldn’t it be great if Yhwh came down again and drew clear lines against those things that he doesn’t like and won’t tolerate. THEN at least things would be clear, it would be those on God’s side and those against and all those against would perish.

This is exactly the thought of the people in Judea in the first century. Some were out in the desert sure that when God finally came with plagues to waste Rome and Roman sympathizers. This seems to be something similar to what John the Baptist expected from the coming Messiah. It seems that part of Jesus’ problem with the religious community was that he was perceived as NOT doing what Yhwh did to Pharaoh, he was soft on empire Rome. Jesus comes and the Exodus readers were confused by the narrative.

Adapting the Narrative

Yhwh with Pharaoh establishes the baseline of the narrative that God has ideas and makes choices about this world. Yhwh owns the creation and while he is patient and accommodating (overly so for many of our tastes) he will ultimately claim his rights to it and only those in alignment with him will enjoy the fruit of his creative and ordering power.

For those of us with our own ideas, this presents a problem. Either simply submit to him out of fear of retribution, or go it alone with Pharaoh and the devils. While Yhwh shows God’s rightful claims, Jesus addresses our hearts. Jesus himself falls under the judgment of God. Jesus turns our narrative form misery-deliverance-hardening to misery-deliverance-gratitude.

James will point out that the devils and Pharaoh only comply with Yhwh when the heat is on and when their self-preservation demands it. All Yhwh can finally get of them is fear based compliance and it seems that his is less than what Yhwh wants. While Yhwh finally needs compliance, what he ultimately wants is loving fellowship and the threat of violence alone will not achieve that.

This is why Jesus comes, not simply to convince us that it is in our self-interest to obey Yhwh, but it will be our delight to know him and to love him. This comes, however, at the expense of our revolt and our desire to have the world without him.

Are you merely compliant, of do you want God because you love Jesus?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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