“And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt . . .
And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.
And he called for Moses and Aaron by night, and said, Rise up, and get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as ye have said.
Also take your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also.
The sun set that night on a land divided within itself. There were the slaves of the land, Hebrews all, busily engaged in most unusual activities, the sacrificing of choice young lambs, the painting of their door posts with blood, and the preparation of the bodies of the sacrificed lambs into a unique meal with bitter herbs, and bread that had not been leavened. The atmosphere over Goshen was tinged with feelings of deep reverence and wonderment, eager anticipation and inner confidence and joy. There were the freemen of the land, the Egyptians who looked on the activity of the Hebrews with haughty contempt although none dared to interfere. Stoically they went about their regular activities while inwardly their hearts were gripped with qualms of apprehension. The fear of Jehovah hung over Egypt, and it divided the land in two.
Gradually all activity began to cease among the Egyptians, and the lights were put out. They were determined not to show any sign of concern. As usual they retired, but how few were able to find sleep. Had they not heard of the warning of Moses, “Thus saith Jehovah, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: and all the first born of Egypt shall die”? They had suffered so grievously already, could they doubt the ability of Jehovah to smite them again even unto all of the firstborn of the land?
It is hard for us to understand the importance of the firstborn child in those ancient days. Today, of course, parents love their firstborn but not a great deal more than those that follow. It is because our society is individualistic, while then it was almost completely centered in the family. The population of the world was much more sparse and the well-being of the individual was dependent upon the family to which he belonged. In these family units the firstborn child, especially if a son, took on the greatest importance. The parents looked upon the firstborn as the assurance that they would be cared for in their old age, their security and enduring strength, the one through whom their name would endure. He was named immediately as the heir. Each succeeding child soon learned that the oldest brother would be head of the family after the death of the father. In his strength they would prosper, or in his weakness they would be weak. In that day the firstborn child was the sign of strength and promise. There could be no greater threat to Egypt than that all of its firstborn would die. It was exactly under that threat that night that every household in Egypt became silent.
Meanwhile in Goshen the activity continued. No one showed any intention of sleeping. As the night progressed the activities actually seemed to increase, or at least the feelings of the Israelites became more strongly charged with anticipation. All remained fully dressed as though preparing for a journey. All portable possessions were carefully being arranged and packed so that they might be carried away. With reverence but with evident haste each family gathered about the meal that centered in the flesh of the sacrificial lamb. Israel anticipated too, even more strongly than the Egyptians, the final visitation of Jehovah upon the land. In them the fear of dreads had given way to the spiritual fear of reverent awe, filling their hearts with joy and hope. They had looked upon the shed blood of the lamb and believed the promise that was symbolized therein. At the sign of the blood, the angel of Jehovah would pass over them. Even more by the judgment of Egypt, they would be saved.
The hour was approaching midnight and Egypt was tossing in the sleepless silence of apprehension when suddenly as though at one moment there burst forth a great cry. There were the moans of men and the painful sobs of women, the wails of little children and even the bleat of animals in distress. Quickly every household was -aroused to gather around the bedside of its firstborn and to gaze helplessly on as the strength and hope of every family wreathed on a bed of pain. Even the household of Pharaoh was not spared. With fear gripping his heart, the king hastened to the chamber of the young prince. There lay the child he had so carefully groomed with a father’s love to sit upon his throne, groaning with pain. There lay the pride and hope of the nation. There lay the joy of a father’s love. And what could Pharaoh do? He could send for the physicians of Egypt; he could send for the magicians and priests; but what were they against the terrible power of Israel’s God? Pharaoh knew in his heart it was vain. What a fool Pharaoh had been. What good was the great nation he ruled? what good were his armies and riches? what good was his endless battle of pride with Jehovah if his own son must perish in the end? The angel of Jehovah had passed through the land. The pestilence had followed in his wake. All of Egypt stood helplessly by as all of its firstborn children breathed forth their last breath in pain and died.
A moment of silence and then the cries of pain from the dying were replaced with the wails of the mourners. There went up a great cry throughout all of Egypt. Seldomly has the world known such extreme and great despair. Natural love had been deprived of the object in which it rejoiced. Here a father, there a brother, and there a son had been loved and now was gone. Even the beasts of the field gazed dumbly on the carcasses of their dead. It was cause enough for the great cry that went up. But there was even more. A great and strong nation had been brought to ruin. Egypt was renowned among the nations. Its armies were the strongest, its wealth was the richest, its learning the profoundest, its works the greatest of any civilization that had ever been. It had learned to hold itself proudly aloof among all people. And now it was ruined. In a matter of months the whole of the land of Egypt had been laid desolate by nine different plagues in succession. But that had not been the worst. After each one of them, they had been able to say like Ephraim in a later day, “The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stone, the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars” (Isaiah 9:10). But now the tenth plague had struck, and what were they to say? All of the firstborn of Egypt, the strength and hope of the nation was dead, smitten by the God of Israel. It was especially that which hurt. Had it been a mere chance happening of circumstances, they might have stoically endured it. Had it been another nation that had conquered them by reason of their greater might, they might have borne it. But now it was the God of the Hebrews whom they counted as mere servants. It was Jehovah against whom they were not able to raise so much as a sword. It was He whom they despised and hated above all others. It outraged the Egyptians’ pride, even as they groaned for the death that surrounded them on every side and trembled for fear of their own lives. The cries that went up that night in Egypt formed perhaps the clearest figure this world shall ever see of the cries that shall go up eternally from the pit of fire that is called Hell.
In the palace Pharaoh felt the piercing pain of defeat more than anyone else. With his momentous pride, he had led the hateful rebellion against God. By each pronouncement of Jehovah, his heart had been made the harder until now before the dead body of his son even he could not deny the sovereign power of Israel’s God. In utter terror and dismay, he had to bow. Only one wish remained in his heart, to be rid of his oppressor. In the desperation of terror, he sent the message to Moses, “Rise up, and get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve Jehovah, as ye have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also.”
The perfect faithfulness of Jehovah God was beyond doubt to every Israelite when they heard this message repeated. For years it had appeared as if deliverance from the tyranny of Egypt was utterly impossible. It had seemed even more so when under one plague after another Pharaoh still would not relent. But now even this most hardened of wicked men had been made to bow. There was no resisting of the power of their God. It was a warning to all men every .where of the futility of resisting Jehovah God, but a warning that wicked men will never take, until they like Pharaoh are brought unto the pangs of Hell.
Israel was ready for Pharaoh’s relenting command. Already they were wearing clothes suited for travel. They had eaten the flesh of the sacrificial lamb for nourishment to bear them forth in their journey. Their possessions were packed ready for travel. Bread without leaven had been baked. And, more important than anything else, they had seen and trusted in the promise of God typified in the shed blood of the lamb. In that faith they would go forth as conquerors. Quickly they gathered for the journey.
For the Egyptians looking on in terror, this all was not done quickly enough. Distraught with fear they could not wait for Israel to depart. All of their firstborn were already dead, and might not the pestilence soon destroy them all? They urged and pleaded with the Israelites to make haste, to be gone and not to wait. Hysterically they muttered to themselves, “We be all as dead men,” over and over again. The fearful dread of Jehovah was upon them and with utter impatience they urged that Jehovah’s will, which they had so long resisted, should now without delay be done. Israel suddenly found those who had ruled over them with cold-blooded tyranny, pleading with them through anxious tears. The Israelites, even as their God had commanded them, turned to their former taskmasters to demand payment for their labors in jewels of silver and gold. But even at this the Egyptians did not balk. With reckless abandonment they took all of their wealth and urged the Israelites on their way if only it would serve to hasten them. So after four hundred and thirty years Israel returned out of Egypt leaving a land smitten and spoiled behind them. In the name of their God they had conquered, and they traveled from Rameses to Succoth.
Yet in departing one more warning would God give to His people, “Sanctify unto me,” He said, “all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.” In the very hour of victory, He would have no one of Israel forget to whom their victory belonged. Had it not been for the gracious promise of God, their firstborn too would have perished with the Egyptians’, and they too would all have been as dead men. Their victory was not due to any excellence of their own but only to the sacrificial blood instituted by their God. They in their victory belonged unto Him. They must needs acknowledge this fact, and henceforth the strength and hope of their nation, all of the firstborn children, must be sanctified unto Him. Thus would they ever confess that they were not their own, they belonged to the faithful God who had saved them.