The fifth, sixth, and seventh plagues show an increasing severity in the plagues. But these plagues are not only a display of God’s power; they are a display of God’s presence (8:22-23). The entire Exodus story is the story of the revelation of Yahweh as God (4:12-15, 5:2, 6:2-8, 7:1-5, 17, 8:10, 9:14-16, 10:2).
Disease and Boils and Hail
The plague that falls on the livestock appears to be some sort of fast-acting disease (9:5-6). There is again a division made between Israel and Egypt (9:4, 7). God himself sets the time of this plague showing that God rules the world in whatever way He wishes (cf. 8:10). Pharaoh sends servants to find out for himself, and even when he knows the truth, hardens his heart (9:7).
The boils result from the handfuls of ashes or soot scattered toward heaven (9:8). The ashes are taken from the “furnace.” This imagery is used later in Israelite history to recall Israel’s time in Egypt (e.g. Dt. 4:20, 1 Kgs. 8:51, Jer. 11:4). The boils that break out are specifically mentioned in Lev. 13 as one of the things that make someone unclean (e.g. 13:12). Later, God promises that Israel will be afflicted with these boils if they are not faithful to the covenant (Dt.28:27). These sores are so bad that Pharaoh’s magicians could not stand before Moses (9:11). The fact that Moses “stands” before Pharaoh in 9:13 implies that the “difference” between Egypt and Goshen is still in effect. God is with His people. Finally, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh in accordance with His word to Moses: he does not allow Israel to leave (9:12).
As we’ve previously pointed out, the first plague in these cycles begins with the early morning confrontation (9:13, cf. 7:15, 8:20). However, the words to Pharaoh are more severe than previously. This time Yahweh will send all his plagues to Pharaoh’s “heart” (9:14). Yahweh says that if he wanted to, He could have already cut off Pharaoh and his people from the land (9:15). Yahweh takes this opportunity to review what He’s doing with Pharaoh: He’s raising up Pharaoh in order to make His own name famous (9:16) even though Pharaoh thinks he’s showing his power over Israel, refusing to release them (9:17). Again, a time for the plague is appointed (9:18), and a warning is issued concerning the hail (9:19). This plague displays God’s mercy in the midst of judgment. It’s not as severe as it might have been, and God allows for people to show faith in him (9:20). This plague is an enormous electrical storm. Fire runs/walks down to the ground, hail falls, and thunder booms. All that was left out in the fields was destroyed (9:25). Only in Goshen, where Yahweh is with His people, is there no hail (9:26). The thunder is literally called the “voices” and the “voices of God” (9:23, 28, 34). This reminds us of the fire in the burning bush at Horeb (3:1-2) and is like the storm that will descend when Israel gathers to receive the law (Ex. 19:16, 20:18). God’s presence has drawn near to the land of Egypt. Pharaoh’s response is the first time that he suggests that he is in the wrong (9:27, cf. 8:8, 8:25, 28). But even here Pharaoh is not finished; he knows it is Yahweh but he and his servants do not fear Him (9:30-35).
One of the doctrines recovered in the Reformation was the biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and this particular passage is cited by the apostle Paul in Romans to defend this very doctrine (cf. Ex. 9:16, Rom. 9:17). Those who deny the exhaustive sovereignty of God are quick to point out that Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles: Paul is talking about corporate election, God’s sovereignty over nations. This is most certainly true, but the fact clearly remains that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy and on whom He wills, He hardens. But Paul is not a heartless logician. He’s not just piling verses up and saying deal with it. He knows that this doctrine is a “rock of offense” and a “stumbling stone” (Rom. 9:33), but ultimately Paul insists that this is God’s determined means of showing his mercy and patience and glory in the world (9:22-23, 11:30-32). Ultimately, Paul breaks out in doxology and worships the depths of God’s wisdom and knowledge, bowing before the mystery (11:33).
Conclusion & Application
For Paul (and Israel before him), sovereignty and presence go together. God’s presence is His sovereignty over creation, over Egypt, over Pharaoh so that He might display His great mercy. Ultimately, God sent His Son to display what He does with His sovereignty. The God who wields creation in perfect wisdom came as a little baby for our salvation. The God who dumped frogs all over Egypt is the God who was baptized in the Jordan and declared God’s beloved Son. The God who struck down the livestock of Egypt is the God who healed the diseases and afflictions of the crowds that surrounded Him day after day. This God wields every particle of this universe in perfect sovereignty, in perfect power. Ash becomes boils, every evaporated drop of water obeyed when it plunged to the Egyptian earth and did not miss its mark. And this God ruled the heart of Pharaoh in perfect wisdom.
But the same God who did all these things is the God of Moses and Israel, the God of the Egyptians who fled to Goshen, the God who came in Jesus. This God sent his Son to die for us. That’s the sovereign God at work in the world. This is our God who is with us, our God who is for us. He’s out to save us, out to deliver us (Eph. 1:4ff; Rom. 11:33,35). And this is the kind of presence and authority the Church is called to live out.