Exodus 14 – Pharaoh’s Anti-Repentance

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Today’s PassageExodus 14

Today’s chapter details Pharaoh’s greatest mistake. The disgusting discomforts of the bloody Nile, the frogs, the gnats, and the swarms weren’t enough. Neither were the livestock diseases, the skin inflammations, the hailstorms, locusts, and darkness. And it looked for a moment like the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn might be enough, but then Pharaoh changed his mind and wanted his slaves back. So, today he and his chariots come after Israel in hot pursuit. Throughout the book of Exodus, but especially here, Pharaoh is the picture of anti-repentance.

Repentance, as you likely know, entails turning away from your sin. It isn’t just admitting that you sinned or even asking forgiveness for your sin. It’s walking the other way and leaving your sin in the past where it belongs. Pharaoh, on the other hand, does a number of things that are almost repentance, but he never actually repents. Instead, he turns back around and charges toward his sin, hence the term “anti-repentance.”

He admits that he’s done evil, but that’s not repentance. After the plague of hail, he confesses to Moses, “I have sinned this time; the Lord is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones” (9:27), and following the locusts, he begs, “Now therefore, please forgive my sin only this once, and make supplication to the Lord your God, that He would only remove this death from me” (10:17). He can admit to specific instances of sin, sure. He even knows to ask for forgiveness; he recognizes that if God gave him what he deserved rather than what he wanted, he would already be dead. But each time he says “this time,” “this once,” not recognizing the attitude of sinfulness that’s the heart of his problem, and the problem of his heart.

Moreover, Pharaoh understands God’s power, but that’s not repentance either. He sees that God controls the plagues, not the gods of Egypt, and he knows who can give him relief. He commands Moses, “Entreat the Lord that He remove the frogs from me and from my people,” and then, “Make supplication for me” (8:8, 28). Pharaoh doesn’t dare command God. But even though he comes to recognize that God holds the fate of Egypt in his hand, Pharaoh can’t bring himself to ask God for mercy, as an inferior coming to a superior. He commands Moses to act as an intercessor.

He even understands that God distributes good fortune as well as bad. Having lost his firstborn son, as he commands Moses to take the Israelites with all their possessions out of Egypt, he adds, “And bless me also” (12:32). But he’d still rather have a nation of slaves than the restoration of a shattered Egypt or whatever good thing he expected God might give him. So he pursues them with an army of horsemen and charioteers.

And he ends up in a watery grave. Why? I think it’s not only because he lacks repentance, but because he lacks faith. Pharaoh doesn’t trust God; he won’t hand himself over to God, and he won’t admit that he needs more than mere forgiveness, he needs restoration. Recall that when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, the Hebrew verb literally means “strengthen.” When God gives Pharaoh’s heart strength, he uses that strength not to bow in submission, but to resist the same God that’s been so patient with him. He commits himself only to his own stubborn pride; he entrusts himself to himself, not to God. And so, finally, God drowns him in his own sea of anti-repentance.

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