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Believers in their Lowest Condition
“And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel: but they hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:1-30)
May God the Holy Spirit give us grace to apply the things recorded in this chapter to ourselves. We should always read the Scriptures personally, as God’s Word to us. Solomon said, “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man” (Proverbs 27:19), and so it is. If we are honest, we must acknowledge that we see something of ourselves in all others, and see something of our own hearts’ depravity in the actions of others. And, as we read this chapter, it is obvious that the children of Israel in Egypt were not unlike us.
We tend to look at them as though we are better than they were, stronger than they were, and less carnal than they were. But that is a great mistake. They were no more depraved and no weaker than we are. They were no more disinclined to believe God than we are. It is only our shameful pride and our horribly evil inclination to self-righteousness that makes us think we are better than they. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their unbelief and ours.
“And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel: but they hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage.” — Never was Israel in a lower condition than this. And you and I are in our lowest condition when we refuse to believe our God, when we are “for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage” incapable of believing him. Nothing more dishonors our God than our unbelief. Yet, that is often the condition in which we find ourselves, incapable of believing him. Is it not?
“And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel.” — The children of Israel had been groaning under the yoke of cruel bondage and oppression. The Lord God heard their cries and sent his servant, Moses, to deliver them. But, from the time that Moses’ arrived and announced God’s purpose of grace toward them, their misery only increased. They complained to Pharaoh and blamed Moses for their increased troubles and afflictions.
Moses took the matter to God. And the Lord sent him to his people with a message of grace. It was a consoling, heart-cheering, assuring message of redemption and complete deliverance by God’s own hand. The Lord God gave Moses his message; and Moses delivered it faithfully, exactly as he received it. What a message it was! It was the gospel of salvation from a cruel bondage, the gospel of hope, the gospel of glorious promise. It was the same message God’s servants preach continually, the message of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ, the message of redemption, salvation, and grace for our needy souls (vv. 2-8).
First, Moses spoke to the children of Israel about their God (vv. 2-3). He said, “Your God is God indeed; and his name is Jehovah, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” But they looked up from their bricks, and seemed to say, “God? What do we have to do with him? What does he have to do with us? We need straw to make our bricks! We are up to our necks in this filthy Nile mud making the bricks, and you talk to us about God, his name, Jehovah, and his promises!” Their cruel bondage was so painful and their anguish of heart was so heavy that they could think of nothing else; and “they hearkened not unto Moses.”
El-Shaddai, God Almighty, the Lord Jehovah, was Israel’s God; but they believed him not. He was their only hope; but they found no hope in him. The light was shining upon them, but their darkness was not dispelled. Why? — “For anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”
How often that is the case with us! When we are overwhelmed with grief, crushed with affliction, cast down with care, God our Savior bids us cast all our care upon him, assuring us that he cares for us, but we cannot believe “for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.” That is not an excuse for our unbelief. It is by no means a justification for it. It is simply a statement of fact. How often we have been forced to cry, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Like that poor soul whose son was grievously vexed with a devil, we hear our Savior say, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” But we are still filled with unbelief!
Is your life made bitter by trouble, made bitter with toil and heartache, so bitter that you are in “anguish of spirit”? Thank God, there is an inheritance above the grinding toil of this life. Child of God, there is a portion infinitely better than the killing care that seems to make your life a life of woe. Do not, because of the heaviness of your lot, refuse to hear God, your Maker, your Benefactor, and your Redeemer. Let the history of Israel encourage you to hope against hope (Psalm 106; Psalm 103:1-14).
After reminding Israel of their God and Savior, Moses went on to tell them about his covenant (v. 4). I am sure many of them had no idea what he was talking about. They knew no more about God’s covenant with them than they did about the riches of Canaan. And everything they experienced made the thought of such a covenant laughable, except for one thing. — It was true! It should never be so, but it often is, that covenant grace sounds like mockery to broken hearts. There are times when we are in such straits that we dare not say what we feel. God says that his mercy endures forever; but we feel that his mercy is clean gone forever. God says that he will never leave us, nor forsake us; but we feel utterly forsaken.
Yet, God’s word is true, and it is sure. If you are in such a sad state as God’s people of old, if your “anguish of spirit” is such that you cannot find comfort in God’s covenant grace, let me tell you again that it is all true. The triune God has entered into covenant with you. He has bound himself to you for good by an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure, a covenant of pure grace and everlasting mercy. Your deliverance is sure. Even your present “anguish of spirit and cruel bondage” is a token of that covenant (Romans 8:28-39). Goodness and mercy have followed you all the days of your life, and shall follow you until those twin hounds of heaven have chased you into heavenly glory with Christ.
Moses went on to remind God’s chosen of his great pity toward them (v. 5; Isaiah 63:9). Yet, when the hand of God lays heavily upon us, we find it hard, if not impossible, to believe that he pities us. Oh, we have the idea firmly fixed in our minds, but our “anguish of spirit” shuts it out of our hearts. Was it his pity, was it his mercy, was it the remembrance of his covenant that moved Joseph’s brothers to sell him into bondage? Yes, it was. Was it his pity that made David’s bones wax old through his crying day and night? Yes, it was. Was it his pity that put Peter in the sieve to be sifted by Satan? Yes, it was. Was it his pity that refused to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Yes, it was. Is it his pity that leaves us in this body of flesh, to mourn and struggle with our corruptions of heart and our sins? Yes, it is!
Why am I thus?
When Rebekah found two nations struggling in her womb, she asked the Lord what every believer is compelled by experience to ask – “Why am I thus?” (Genesis 25:22). That is exactly what Paul experienced (Romans 7:18-21). And that is exactly what I experience day by day. — “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing...The evil which I would not, that I do...When I would do good, evil is present with me.”
Why? “Why am I in this condition?” “Why is sin so prominent in my nature?” “Why is evil always present with me?” “Why is there a constant warfare in my soul?” These are questions that I am frequently asked by concerned souls who honestly acknowledge their sin. And these are questions I frequently ask myself.
The Word of God alone supplies us with the answer to them. — “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). It is as simple and as profound as that.
All true believers are people with two natures: — “Flesh” and “Spirit.” Those two natures are constantly at war with one another. The spirit will never surrender to the flesh and the flesh will never bow to the spirit. We do not walk in the flesh. We walk in the Spirit. And those who walk in the Spirit do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. Yet, we never escape those lusts. We will never be free from “the body of this death,” until we have dropped this body in death. Painful as this condition is, it is best for us, while we live in this world, that we live in this condition for three reasons:
1. We must never forget that the only thing that distinguishes us from other people is the distinguishing grace of God (1 Corinthians 4:7).
2. We must never forget that our only acceptance with God is the blood and righteousness of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
3. We must never become content with our existence in this world (2 Corinthians 5:1-9).
Then, in verses 6-8 Moses said to Israel the very same thing that the Lord Jesus told Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, — “My grace is sufficient for thee!” In all the promises of his grace that the Lord God commanded Moses to proclaim to Israel he reminded his chosen of his determination and resolve to do them good, to redeem them, deliver them, and save them. When God says, “I will,” he means it. We can and should depend upon it. He does not ask our permission, or wait for our help. God’s “I will” is omnipotence putting itself into words. And his promises are never “yea and nay.” They are always, “yea and amen” in Christ Jesus! Oh, may he give us grace to believe him! As Spurgeon put it…
“These are great words, but they come from the mouth of the great God, who cannot lie. Wherefore believe them and take hope. God will take you, poor guilty ones, to be his children. He will promote you to be his willing servants. He will use you for his glory though now you dishonor his name. He will sanctify you and cleanse you, and he will bring you to heaven, even you who have lien among the pots and have been deified in the brick kilns of sin. He will never rest till he makes you sit upon his throne with him, where he is glorified, world without end…He will bring you out of bondage and guide you through the wilderness till you come into the eternal rest, even to a goodlier land than Canaan, though it flowed with milk and honey.”
Still, after hearing this great and glorious gospel, we are told, “The children of Israel harkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.” The message was from the Lord, and it was full of hope, but they were too low to receive it, too heavy hearted to believe it.
They could not receive Moses’ gospel message because they had been terribly disappointed. They had expected to be set free at once, as soon as Moses went in unto Pharaoh. When that did not happen, they fell back into sullen despair. In so far as they could see, like the Savior’s disciples after his death, their great expectation of deliverance had proved a great disappointment (Luke 24:13-21).
When Moses came to them and said that God had appeared to him at the bush, and had sent him to deliver them, they bowed their heads and worshipped. But after that, when Moses went in unto Pharaoh, and the tyrant doubled their labor by denying them straw, they could not believe God or his messenger. In my own experience I have found it so (Isaiah 28:12). I know exactly what they felt. I am ashamed to confess, but confess I must, that I have often found myself like Job of old, “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). — “Trouble and anguish have taken hold on me: yet thy commandments are my delights” (Psalm 119:143). I find life in this body of flesh to be “the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent” (Isaiah 30:6). — “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).
Opening my heart’s door, as best I can, entering into its most secret chambers, I see the most foul, abominable and frightful things imaginable. In my sinful heart of flesh I see every evil thing that man has ever done, or imagined against God and his fellowman. I make no exceptions (Matthew 15:19). I see evil thoughts, murderous imaginations, vile adulteries, fornications and perversions, deceit, thefts, lying, and blasphemies. Let other men talk of progressively getting more sanctified, holy and righteous, and less sinful, if they dare speak so proudly. As for me, “I know”, by the testimony of Holy Scripture and by painful experience, “that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing!” — “I am carnal, sold under sin!”
Before God saved me, I thought things would be different if ever God was pleased to save me. I knew my sins would not be eradicated. But I did think they would at least be fewer, weaker, and less troublesome. But things are not as I dreamed! I was shocked to wake up one day and realize that I am still just as sinful as ever by nature. My flesh is still flesh; and it always will be. Until this body of flesh dies, my sin will never die, or even diminish! The outward deeds are not so bad as they once were; but the inward corruptions are worse, far worse.
I am trying to be honest with you who read these lines, because I want you to be honest with yourself and with God. Before God saved you, did you ever imagine that a saved person could be so vile as you are? I never thought a saved man could love Christ so little as I do and love the world so much, trust God so little and fret so much, have such a cold heart of indifference to the things of God and such a lively spirit to the things of the world, have such a hard time praying and reading God’s Word, and be so impatient, murmuring, and resentful of God’s providence.
In myself I honestly see nothing good, righteous, or holy. I pray; but my prayers are full of selfish desires. I read God’s Word; but my mind runs to every evil thing. I love Christ; but my love for him is shameful. I trust my God; but my faith is mixed with unbelief.
This is my confession: I am a sinner, nothing else. My only hope is God’s free grace in Christ. My only acceptance with God is the righteousness and shed blood of Christ, the sinner’s Substitute.
More Good News
Exodus 6 begins with the declaration of the gospel, the good news of God’s sure salvation. Then, in verse 9 we have that sad, sad picture of our unbelief because of our “anguish of spirit” and continued bondage.
Israel’s inability to believe Moses’ message arose from the fact that they were earthbound by heavy oppression. The mere struggle to exist exhausted their energy, and destroyed their hope. The hardness of their lot made them despondent. They had to work from morning to night. It was a daily question with them whether life was worth living under such cruel conditions. Therefore, they “hearkened not unto Moses.”
But, blessed be God, his promised grace and the performance of it do not in any way depend upon us, or even upon our faith in him. It seems that the Lord ignored their inability, remembering that they were but dust, in great mercy he met their great need by proclaiming more good news. As we read this chapter, if we were to leave out verse 9, it would not be missed at all. In the rest of the chapter the Lord God goes right on declaring his purpose of grace, his determination and resolve to save those very people of his choice, who were in such a low condition that they could not and would not believe him “for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”
At first, Israel did not receive God’s message of grace by reason of their anguish of soul; but the message was true and the promise was sure nonetheless. I cannot begin to tell you how very thankful I am that God’s grace is immutable! It does not wait or depend upon me for anything!
What did the Lord do when he found that these people did not hearken to Moses “for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage”? Did he give them up because of their wretched condition? Not on your life! He said, “I will bring them out;” and he meant to do it.
The first thing the Lord did to prove his persevering grace was to renew his commission to Moses (Exodus 6:1; 7:2). Moses and Aaron had been greatly discouraged by the unbelief of Israel, and by seeing their anguish and cruelty increase. What did the Lord do? Did he tell his servants to wash their hands of them and go to another people? Oh, no! He simply renewed his charge to them, and gave them their marching orders again. No matter how impossible the task might appear, there was to be no backing out of it. Israel must be delivered, and must be delivered by the men God sent to deliver them (vv. 10-13). The God of heaven issued his royal decree, and refused to go back on his Word. Moses and Aaron were in water over their heads. They could not deliver Israel out of Egypt; but they did.
So it is with us today. We are called to perform the impossible. Ours is a labor and a task that requires unrelenting miracles of omnipotent mercy. I see before me a valley full of dry bones. God Almighty commands me go and say to them, “Thus saith the Lord, Ye dry bones, Live.” What a preposterous thing! Someone once said, “To preach the gospel to dead sinners is as preposterous as to wave a pocket-handkerchief over a grave.” I fully agree. — But, if God has sent me to wave his handkerchief over the dead, as I wave it, I fully expect the dead to live.
One more thing. As we read the rest of the chapter, we see that the Lord began to count the heads of those he would redeem out of bondage. The rest of the chapter speaks of the children of Reuben, and the children of Simeon, and the children of Levi. God said, “Pharaoh, let my people go!” Pharaoh replied, “I will not.” And the Lord God made a roster, put it in Moses’ hands, and said, “Take this and shove it under Pharaoh’s nose. — These whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, slain from the foundation of the world, shall go out. They shall be my people; and I will be their God.”
“The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his.” He has written their names in his book from eternity. And he declares, “They shall be mine, saith the Lord, in that day when I make up my jewels.” Out of the mass of fallen humanity, a company shall come to him, and shall glorify his name, as it is written, “This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise.”
How we ought to give thanks and rejoice to know that “If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). The fact is, we cannot and will not believe our God except as he gives us faith to believe him. And when he fulfills his Word, delivering us from the “anguish of spirit and cruel bondage” that holds us in such darkness, we will believe him (Psalm 106:4-12). If we believe, we shall see the glory of God; and we shall believe when God reveals his glory in the wonders of his grace before our eyes (John 11:40-45; Psalm 80:3, 7, 19).