But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.
I. CONSIDER THE PLAGUE ITSELF. As with the plagues of the gnats and of the boils and blains, so with this plague - there is no record of any formal intimation of its coming. If such an intimation was absent, we feel that there was good reason for the absence. Though Pharaoh had abased himself in great fear and consternation, so that he might get rid of the locusts, yet the moment they were gone all his stubbornness returned in full force. What use was it, then, any longer to hold threatenings over a man of this sort? Indeed, the proper way of considering this ninth plague seems to be to regard it chiefly as a stepping-stone to the last and decisive visitation. An announcement beforehand would not have been wanting, if at all likely to make any serious difference in Pharaoh's conduct. With respect to the plague itself, four points are noticeable - the kind of it, the degree, the duration, and the customary exemption of the Israelites.
1. The kind of it. It was a plague of darkness. God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. He is light, and light continually streams forth from him; and without him the minds of men are in dense darkness as to all that is best in knowledge and most substantial in hope for the time to come. When we consider how much is said about spiritual light and spiritual darkness in the Scriptures, it will be seen how appropriate it was that before Jehovah closed his earthly dealings with Pharaoh he should bring his land under this impenetrable cloud. It was a fitting scourge to come upon a king and people whose minds were so darkened to the perception of God. The light and truth which break forth from God vainly struggled to shine through into Pharaoh's heart. This plague was a sort of approach to the primal chaos, a movement towards dissolving the cosmos into the formless, unillumined mass from which it sprang. God's first great Word in making order was to say, "Let there be light"; now we almost imagine a corresponding word, "Let there be darkness." The sun, though it may pass over Egypt as usual, no longer rules the day; not a ray penetrates to accommodate and cheer the bewildered land.
2. The degree of this darkness. Jehovah tells Moses it will be a darkness which may be felt. Not that it was literally palpable, but rather that the darkness was so dense, so utterly beyond all experience, that it could not possibly be described by language taken from the use of the sense of vision. It was not enough to say, as with respect to the hail and the locusts, that there had been no such experience in Egypt since it became a nation. A new sort of darkness required a new mode of expression to indicate it; and thus by a bold figure the darkness is introduced as affecting not only the usual sense of sight, but the sense of touch as well. The privation of light was in the highest conceivable degree. And here it is surely well to dismiss from our minds all attempts, however well intended, to find a natural basis for this plague. That Jehovah might have made a darkness, and a very terrible one, by increasing and intensifying natural elements and causes is quite true; but somehow, such a view of this plague does not satisfy the demands of the strong terms which are used. Far better is it to suppose that in some mysterious way light lost its radiating power when it came into the Egyptian atmosphere. Doubtless even artificial lights proved useless. If the sun could not pierce into Egypt, little lamps and earth-lights were not likely to succeed.
3. The duration of it. It lasted for three days. In this duration lay its peculiar severity. Even a darkness that might be felt would not be much if it was a momentary visitation. But when it extended for three days, disarranging and paralyzing all work, then the magnitude of the visitation would fully appear. It was indeed a plague more terrible in reality than in threatening, and in continuance than in its first embrace. In itself it was not a painful thing; it did not irritate like the frogs, the gnats, and the flies; it did not destroy like the murrain, the hail, and the locusts. It simply settled down on the land, and while it lasted made one of the most informing and gladdening of the senses utterly useless. Even these who loved the darkness because their deeds were evil, would feel, after three days of it, that they were having too much of a good thing. It was just the kind of plague that by the very continuance of it would grow in horror, and at last precipitate a panic. Darkness is the time favourable to all terrifying imaginations.
4. The exemption of the Israelites. The district where they dwelt had light in their dwellings. Here was, indeed, a more impressive and significant separation than any Jehovah had yet made; and that he should thus separate between Israel and Egypt, as between light and the deepest darkness, was a thing to be expected, considering how soon the Israelites were to go out of the land altogether.
II. CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENT PROPOSITION BY PHARAOH AND THE RECEPTION OF IT BY MOSES. After three days of the darkness that might be felt, Pharaoh is again brought to his knees, suing for mercy, and, as usual, he offers something which formerly he had refused. Only a little while ago he had set his face against liberating the little ones of Israel. Now he has got so far as to say all the people may depart - all the human beings - but the flocks and herds must stay behind; and these, of course, were the very substance of Israel's wealth (Genesis 46:31; Genesis 47:6). And not only so, but at present they would look all the more considerable in comparison with the murrain-swept flocks and herds of Egypt. If Pharaoh can only get this request, he thinks he will both serve his dignity and do something to retrieve his fortunes. What a difference between this last interview with Moses and the first! Pharaoh, who began with refusing to yield anything, nay, who by way of answer made the existing bondage even more oppressive, is now, after a course of nine plagues, willing to yield everything - everything but the property of Israel. This, indeed, has been a great way to bring him, but it has all been done by a kind of main force. Pharaoh's ignorance of Jehovah's character and demands remains unabated, amid all his experience of Jehovah's power. He cannot yet understand that Jehovah is not to be bargained with. He wants the flocks and herds, as if it were a small matter to keep them back, whereas just one reason why the flocks and herds are so abundant is that there may be enough for sacrifice. Jehovah had a use and place for every Israelite, the oldest and the youngest, and all their belongings. It was an answer of Moses, profoundly suitable to the occasion, when he said, "We know not with what we must serve the Lord, until we come thither." He had been sent to Pharaoh to demand all, and he could take nothing less. Interesting questions arise here, but there is no information by which we can answer them. Pharaoh called to Moses (ver. 24) - but how came they together in this dense darkness? or was it that Moses waited there in the darkness these three days? Then when Pharaoh spoke, did the darkness at once begin to pass away? We must almost assume that it did, the purpose of its coming having been served the moment Pharaoh is got another step onward in his yielding. But on all these points we have no direct information. Jehovah now hastens the readers of the narrative to the final catastrophe. Where we, in our curiosity, desire particulars, he omits, in order that he may be particular and exact in matters of abiding importance. He is presently to speak of the Passover with great minuteness. Details of future and continuous duty are of more moment than mere picturesque embellishments of a passing judgment on Egypt. Thus we are left to infer that the darkness had vanished when for the last time Pharaoh refused to let Israel go. And it must be admitted that there was everything in the inflexible answer of Moses to make Pharaoh, being such a man as he was, equally inflexible. "There shall not a hoof be left behind." Israel moves altogether, if it moves at all. This was a very exasperating way for a despot to be spoken to, especially one who felt that he had yielded so much. Indeed, it must have been very astonishing to him to reflect how far he had gone in a path where once it would have seemed ridiculous to suppose that he could take a single step. But now once again he says - in the same reasonless, passionate way that has marked him all along - "Not a step further." After nine plagues he is still the same man at heart. The slightest provocation, and his pride is all aflame, more sensitive than gunpowder to the spark. Nay, most marvellous of all, from the depth of nine successive humiliations he beans to threaten Moses with death. Surely this was the very quintessence of passion and blind rage. The only parallel we can find for it is in the furious, final rush of some great, savage brute, maddened by the shots of the hunter, and making recklessly towards him. What gains he by this advance? He simply comes within easy reach, and another shot from the same weapon, held with perfect coolness and control, lays him dead in the dust. The saddest part of the reflection on Pharaoh's career is, that it gives the essence of so many human lives beside. The hand with which God would clear our corruption away - were we only willing for it to be cleared - stirs it up into a more self-destroying energy and efficacy, if we in our perversity and ignorance determine that the corruption should remain. - Y.
Parallel VersesKJV: But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.