Going from Bad to Worse: Lessons in Survival
Exodus 5-6


Have you had a stressful week? If not, Mary Carmichael, writing in this week’s Newsweek will give you a few reasons: “If you aren't already paralyzed with stress from reading the financial news, here's a sure way to achieve that grim state: read a medical-journal article that examines what stress can do to your brain. Stress, you'll learn, is crippling your neurons so that, a few years or decades from now, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease will have an easy time destroying what's left. That's assuming you haven't already died by then of some other stress-related ailment such as heart disease. As we enter what is sure to be a long period of uncertainty—a gantlet of lost jobs, dwindling assets, home foreclosures and two continuing wars—the downside of stress is certainly worth exploring. But what about the upside? …  We've blamed stress for a wide variety of problems, from slight memory lapses to full-on dementia—and that's just in the brain… Sure, stress can be bad for you, especially if you react to it with anger or depression or by downing five glasses of Scotch.

But … in some circumstances, it can be good for you, too.… As Spencer Rathus puts it in Psychology: Concepts and Connections, "some stress is healthy and necessary to keep us alert and occupied." … [infact] Janet DiPietro, at Johns Hopkins University. [says] "… most people do their best under mild to moderate stress." Carmichael goes on to explain, “The stress response—the body's hormonal reaction to danger, uncertainty or change— …help us survive, and if we learn how to keep it from overrunning our lives, it still can. In the short term, it can energize us, "revving up our systems to handle what we have to handle," says Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA.”  

Well, my stress levels went up this week, first on Monday, I was chopping wood and missed and cut the top of my thumb off and spent 3 hours in casualty. Then on Wednesday someone sent me an email asking me to check my Body Mass Index (BMI) on the
National Health website. I did, and for the first time ever, I now have a clinical assessment of my body mass index. All I will reveal is that I’ll be spending longer in the gym in future.

In each case the stress was good for me. On Monday it got me to hospital singlehandedly… and on Wednesday it got me on the ski machine for an hour and a half.  I know my goal if I want to survive, mentally and physically. But what about spiritually? How do we survive spiritually? How do we test our fitness here as well? In just the same way – under stress. The Apostle Paul wrote about it to the Romans,

“we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4).

Do you see the process here? Do you see suffering as an opportunity? Do you ask God to enable you to persevere in doing his will, even though it may not popular or profitable? Do you see the link between suffering and perseverance? Between perseverance and character? And between character and hope? 
Because lets face it, we all experience days that start well and turn bad and then just seem to go from bad to worse. That was the experience of Moses when he initiated God’s plan to rescue the Israelites from Egypt.
Remember the context?

“I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into …—a land flowing with milk and honey…  you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.  So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.” (Exodus 3:17-20)


Twice more the Lord explains in 4:8-9 and then in 4:21-23 so Moses and the people could deduce that:

1.    God is going to rescue them from slavery

2.    Pharaoh will resist their departure

3.    God will perform miraculous signs and wonders

4.    God will lead them to a land of their own

5.    They had every reason to thank and worship him

Please turn with me to Exodus 5-6. I want us to see how through three conversations God helped Moses cope with stress and to know “that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”[1] Let’s see what we can learn too.

·         Pharaoh’s response to Moses (Exodus 5:1-21)

·         Moses response to God (Exodus 5:22-6:1, 28-30)

·         God’s response to Moses (Exodus 6:2-8, 13-29)


1.    Pharaoh’s response to Moses (Exodus 5:1-21)

In this section of the narrative, a cycle of events is repeated three times. Each cycle is composed of an announcement, some reactions, expressed anger and unjust blame.

The First Cycle (Exodus 5:1-9)

Following an uplifting spiritual conference with the Hebrew elders in Egypt Exodus 4:29-31) Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh with this demand:

"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 wilderness.'" (Exodus 5:1).

But the King of Egypt refuses. Pharaoh replies,

"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 5:2)

So Moses and Aaron softened the demand by putting it in the form of a request.

"The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword." (Exodus 5:3)

But with great anger, Pharaoh refuses to grant their petition. And this time, he exposes his real motive for not permitting the Hebrews to leave – he is anxious not to lose his cheap labour.

"Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labour? Get back to your work!" Then Pharaoh said, "Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working." (Exodus 5:4-5)

In retaliation for their request, Pharaoh turns the heat up. He issues a directive that greatly increases the workload of the Hebrews. 

“That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people: "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)


The Second Cycle (Exodus 5:10-14)

The taskmasters and foremen carry out the new command with vigour. They announce it to the Hebrew workers, who obediently respond and try their best to meet it.

“Then the slave drivers and the foremen went out and said to the people, "This is what Pharaoh says: `I will not give you any more straw. Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.' " So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw.” (Exodus 5:10-12)

The taskmasters, begin to push them harder, ordering them to complete their daily quota of bricks even though they now had to gather their own straw.

“The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, "Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw." (Exodus 5:13)

And when the Hebrews were unable to fulfill their quota under the new conditions,

“The Israelite foremen appointed by Pharaoh's slave drivers were beaten and were asked, "Why didn't you meet your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?" (Exodus 5:14)

The Third Cycle (Exodus 5:15-21)

The tension is mounting and, the anger intensifies.

“Then the Israelite foremen went and appealed to Pharaoh: "Why have you treated your servants this way? Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, `Make bricks!' Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people." (Exodus 5:15-16)

But Pharaoh refuses to listen or lessen their burden.

“Pharaoh said, "Lazy, that's what you are--lazy! That is why you keep saying, `Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.' Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks." (Exodus 5:17-18)

What are they to do? The foremen, realizing the impossibility of meeting his demand, blame Moses and Aaron. The text preserves the harsh words:

“When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, "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 in their hand to kill us." (Exodus 5:20-21)

This is Pharaoh’s response to Moses.

2.    Moses Response to God

Here you are trying to do God’s will in God’s way.
You obey him and what happens? Everything goes wrong! Pharaoh not only rejects Moses but the people do too! They turn against Moses and accuse him of being responsible for their suffering. What does Moses do? He asks the Lord two questions:

2.1 First Question: “Why?”

“Moses returned to the LORD and said, "O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all." (Exodus 5:22-23)

God had already warned Moses that Pharaoh would not let them go “unless a mighty hand compels him.” (Exodus 3:19) He might have been able to take it from his enemy but not from his own people as well. They turn on him too and blame Moses for their woes. Confession time. Pastors can identify with Moses. When things are going well – the Lord gets the glory. When they are not, the pastor gets the blame.

Moses does not understand why the Lord is working out His plan in this way. Emotions kick in and he forgets the promises already made. Can you relate to that? You have the promises of God but the reality doesn’t always seem to fit – in the short term. And things go from bad to worse. Not only has Pharaoh rejected Moses but the people have too! The first question invariably is “why?” – Why me? Why now?

2.2 Second Question: How?

Rejection sent Moses back to the Lord in prayer. But this time, his question is different:

“But Moses said to the LORD, "If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?" (Exodus 6:12)

How on earth can I do it Lord? How can you use me? Moses blames his lack of eloquence for his failure to motivate the Hebrews. And he concludes that if he cannot persuade his own people to listen to God, Pharaoh will not either. We have seen Pharaoh’s response to Moses and Moses’ response to God.

3.    God’s Response to Moses (Exodus 6:2-8, 13-29)

God did not leave Moses with unanswered questions. He consoles and counsels Moses. God reminds him of his nature and power.

3.1         “I Am”

Five times God said to Moses, “’I am the LORD [YHWH]’” (Exodus 6:2, 6, 7, 8, 29). By repeating this statement, the Lord emphasizes to Moses to focus not on his circumstances but on Him. What was true then is true now. We will only be able to endure the pressure of opposition if we too fix our eyes on the Lord. In the Letter to the Hebrews we are exhorted,

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

We need to contemplate such characteristics as His sovereignty, his goodness, his power, justice, compassion, love and wisdom – especially when we find ourselves, like Moses, tempted to doubt his will or misunderstand his ways.

Because of who God is, we can be confident that He is in control of our circumstances. I am says the Lord.

3.2         “I will”

Seven times the Lord addresses Moses’ need by zeroing in how He will intervene.

“I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God…And I will bring you to the land which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and will give it to you for a possession.” (Exodus 6:6b-7a, 8a)

We can summarize God’s message to Moses in these words: “I am therefore I will” - “Because I am who I am, I will always accomplish my will.”

God clearly expected Moses to accept this truth and to get back to his appointed mission.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country." (Exodus 10:10-11)

We have examined three conversations:

Pharaoh’s response to Moses (Exodus 5:1-21)

Moses response to God (Exodus 5:22-6:1, 28-30)

God’s response to Moses (Exodus 6:2-8, 13-29)

But there’s a fourth. One that you have been having with God this evening as he has applied this passage to your circumstances.


4.    Our Response to Difficult Circumstances

What lessons do we learn from this period in Moses’ life? God does not want us to retreat when we are doing His will. His desire is that we stand fast on His nature and His promises, looking to Him for strength and victory. I think there are three abiding principles we can draw from these three conversations that teach us how tough times are designed by God for our good, not for our detriment.

Circumstances that turn against us force dependence.
Circumstances that force dependence teach us patience.
Circumstances that teach us patience make us wise.

The Apostle James develops this in his letter:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:2-5)


As Alec Motyer puts it in his lovely commentary on Exodus[2], “when the word of God arrives in our hearts and lives, testings and trials come too as God’s appointed way for his children to grow spiritually and to come to Christlikeness.” As we shall see next week, Moses took heart, obeyed God, went back to Pharaoh, spoke God’s word, saw God act, prove his faithfulness and fulfil his promises with power and might. May you experience the same this week. Lets pray.


[1] This sermon draws heavily on a study by Charles Swindoll entitled, “Going from Bad to Worse” in Moses, God’s man for a crisis (Word, Waco)

[2] Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus (IVP, Leicester)