Let My People Go!

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’ Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.'” Exodus 5:1-2

Let my people go! This was the insistent demand of the God of Israel, but Pharaoh neither knew nor acknowledged the God of Israel. As supreme ruler in Egypt he was worshiped as a god himself and the religion of the Hebrew slaves must have seemed crude and unsophisticated next to the extravagance of Egyptian worship. As sovereign ruler in Egypt Pharaoh acknowledged no claim upon the Hebrew people other than his own. They were mere slaves, his to exploit as he saw fit for the extension of his own kingdom.

The arrogance of the rulers of the world is revealed in their determination to implement their own plans, whether by force or by manipulation. The common people are nothing more than pawns in their power struggles. Despite their insatiable lust for power the kingdoms of this world are all passing away. All power on earth is ultimately subject to the sovereignty of the God of Heaven. The LORD declares: Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One . . . The One enthroned in heaven laughs and scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, AI have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. Psalm 2

The short-lived dominion of earthly rulers is entirely subject to the One whose kingdom is everlasting and who rules over the entire universe. Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21)

Even the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was according to the sovereign purpose of the Almighty God:

Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Exodus 9:13-16

We may marvel at Pharaoh’s stubborn and arrogant defiance against the will of Almighty God, but we must not forget the rebellion of the Israelites themselves to God’s purposes. No one is more highly esteemed among the Jewish people than Moses, but he did not receive opposition from Pharaoh only. After four hundred years in Egypt, the Hebrew people had been in slavery for so long that they had virtually given up all hope of being delivered. The idea of absolute freedom was way beyond their expectations and they would probably have happily settled on a compromise with Pharaoh. Many perceived Moses to be a trouble maker rather than a redeemer. His own people opposed his forthright and confrontational challenge to the world system, because it brought the wrath of Pharaoh upon them and only added to their woes. Moses’ direct challenge left no room for compromise with Pharaoh! True, uncompromising worship of the God of Israel has always been a stench to the rulers of this world. Those who have compromised with the rulers of this world do not want the status quo to be disturbed by religious fanatics, which is just how the Hebrew foremen regarded Moses, the one whom God had sent to be their redeemer. They accused Moses and Aaron saying, ‘May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword into his hand to kill us.’ (Exodus 5:21)

Moses was only a shadow and type of the true Redeemer and Deliverer of Israel. Real deliverance was promised through the Messiah who came to set his people free from their bondage to sin but, as the prophet Isaiah foretold, he was despised and rejected by the majority of Israel. Every year at Pesach the Jewish people celebrate their emancipation from bondage and oppression, but few realise their real condition of bondage to sin or recognise their need for deliverance.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ John 8:31-34

Jesus too posed a threat to the political status quo of his time. The religious leaders and chief priests had already compromised with Rome and they feared that his popular following might be perceived as a threat to the Roman authorities, who were quick to suppress any resistance, and might result in further curtailment of their own authority.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. AHere is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ John 11:47

Like Moses, they did not perceive Jesus as their Redeemer, but as their chief troublemaker! The true worshipers of the God of Israel, who have been redeemed through the blood of Jesus the Messiah are still regarded as a bad odour to those who want to compromise with the world. Religious fundamentalism has been tainted by ungodly religious fanatics using violence to achieve their aims so that tolerance and compromise with the world is now regarded as a virtue.

We are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one they are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

Although the Israelites experienced the miraculous deliverance out of slavery in Egypt, that entire generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, perished in the desert without ever enjoying the benefits of their freedom. They perished because of their lack of faith. Instead of trusting in God to lead them to the Promised land, they murmured, rebelled and complained to Moses that they were better off in Egypt! That same tendency exists among the company of the redeemed to this day. Only the faithful few joyfully follow the Redeemer on the narrow path which leads to everlasting life. Many believers look back with longing to the pleasures of Egypt when they are brought into the wilderness to be tested.

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Exodus 16:2-3

What is true freedom? People may convince themselves that they are free to choose how they worship God and to set their own moral standards, but the more we exercise our free will, the less likely we are to submit ourselves to the will of God. The worldly concept of freedom is not the freedom that is revealed in Scripture. The Israelites were not delivered out of Egypt in order to exercise their freedom of choice – The LORD said ‘let my people go, SO THAT THEY MAY WORSHIP ME!’ We are truly set free from our slavery and bondage to the god of this world when our hearts desire is to worship God above all else.

Those who have no sincere desire to worship the LORD in spirit and in truth, remain in bondage. They substitute manmade rules and regulations for God’s commands. Their religion conforms to the expectations of this world which permits them to enjoy all that ‘Egypt’ has to offer. There is no genuine desire to be separate. They do not want to be led into the ‘desert’ where they may worship God. Their hearts remain where their treasures are, in Egypt and they are reluctant to leave everything behind and to live as sojourners who do not consider this world as their home. Instead they put all their effort into storing up treasures on earth.

Jesus said, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ Matthew 6:19-21

Those who perished in the desert were really enslaved in the realm of their minds because even after they had miraculously crossed the Red sea, their hearts remained in Egypt. True freedom is not determined by circumstance or location – it is in the attitude of our hearts. True faith in the God of Israel is intended to set us free from bondage to this world and to sin. Jesus said that true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. John 4:24

For us to grow to spiritual maturity as children of God, the LORD desires to wean us from our sense of dependency upon the things of this world. The kingdom of God is not of this world. In order to be set free so that our hope is in heavenly things which are yet to come, we need to realise the vanity of trusting in temporal things which are passing away.

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore. Psalm 131:1-3

After the LORD delivered his people out of Egypt he deliberately led them into the desert and caused them to hunger. He did this to humble and to test them in order to know what was in their hearts, whether or not they would keep his commands. His purpose was to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Deut.8:1-5) The LORD wanted them to learn to trust in Him for all their needs and to accept His discipline as children of God. This is a lesson to us. We need to be weaned from this ungodly world in order to live self controlled lives, no longer gratifying the desires of our sinful nature. The apostle Paul exhorts us to be careful to follow God’s commands by continually renewing our minds with his word: …offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.(Romans 12:1-2)

The LORD reminded the Israelites how he provided and cared for them during their forty-year sojourn in the desert: ‘Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell.’

Likewise Jesus encouraged his followers to trust his Father to supply all their material needs with these words: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? . . . So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Mt. 6:25, 31-33

The philosophy of the world is very different. We live in a society which is self-centred, which places an extremely high value on personal goals and which measures success largely by material prosperity. There is unrelenting pressure on us to conform to worldly expectations which demands an excessive devotion to work at the expense of all else. When the Israelite foremen tried to reason with Pharaoh they were met with the following rebuttal:

“Lazy, that’s what you are – lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go sacrifice to the LORD.’ Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.” Those who do not conform to the pattern of this world are considered to be failures or dropouts in the eyes of the world.

The apostle Paul warned us not to be taken captive through the empty philosophies of this world, which depend on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col.2:8) Most people are completely enslaved to worldly principles and philosophies and are convinced that success depends entirely upon their own efforts. People forget their dependency upon God as the provider of all good things. The LORD expressly warned the Israelites: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.’ Deuteronomy 8:17-18

In a fiercely competitive world there is a continual demand for increased productivity while at the same time reducing production costs. The demands of ever-increasing targets combined with financial pressures keeps us enslaved to the world system. This is no different to the policy introduced by Pharaoh. People are held captive in the ‘rat race’ by economic pressures as well as by their desires for worldly riches. Our minds can become so engrossed with the cares of the world that we have neither the time nor energy left to worship God. Paul, writing to Timothy, warned him of the trap of greed:

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6:9)

The god of this world is always trying to seduce believers away from their pure and sincere devotion to Christ. (2 Cor.11:3) If we are not careful the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth will choke the fruitfulness of the word of God in our lives. (Matthew 13:22) Our true attitude becomes evident by our actions. If we pay homage to this world by devoting all our heart, soul, mind and strength to its service then we demonstrate by our actions that we are still enslaved by it.

The LORD’s demand is simple; ‘Let my people go so that they may worship me.’ God’s people are required to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, in a world which is constantly demanding all of our attention and energy. The world’s response to making the worship of God our first priority is exactly like that of Pharaoh. Instead of heeding the appeal of Moses to let the Israelites go to worship their God he gave orders to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people to increase the burden:

“You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.” Exodus 5:6-9

This is typical of the attitude of this world which relegates the worship of God to last place, perceiving it as an insignificant, trivial waste of time which has no place or bearing upon the ‘real’ world. The worship of God is regarded as a private matter which must not intrude into other peoples’ lives. Believers are caught between the demands of Pharaoh and the demands of God. Employers do not recognise the worship of God to be our highest priority and expect dedication to our work to come first. God has commanded that we worship Him only and that we love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength while at the same time the world is demanding all our heart, soul, mind and strength just to stay afloat. Many believers find themselves so pressurised by the demands of work that they neglect the gathering together with other believers to worship God.

While we are in this world we are expected to earn our daily bread just like everyone else, but God has first claim upon our lives and our highest priority is to worship Him. As the Westminster catechism puts it, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God.” We cannot serve both God and money. If our economic circumstances dictate how we worship God then we are enslaved by the world and it will be impossible to worship God with all our hearts, mind and strength.

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Matthew 6:24

If we worship the God of Israel, then we will find that the god of this world and the people of this world are hostile towards us. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.’ (John 15:19) To those who thought that they could compromise with the world the apostle James wrote: You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (Ch.4 vs.4)

Our faith is demonstrated by what we do, not what we claim to believe. Let us show our faith in our Saviour and Redeemer by remembering that the reason we have been set free is to worship Him!