There is much in the world today that causes me to wonder why the people of God suffer while those who hate God continue to prosper. I remember the Israelites, as they were captive in Egypt. While Egypt, a people who despised the God of the Israelites, prospered, God’s people were subject to slavery. Joseph could not have perceived the outcome when he invited his family to live in the land of Pharaoh. Even so, God must have known. He allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery by his own brothers so that he might gain a prominent position in Egypt. God’s goal was that many people would survive the coming famine:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said to one another, “If Joseph is holding a grudge against us, he will certainly repay us for all the suffering we caused him.”
So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before he died your father gave a command: ‘Say this to Joseph: Please forgive your brothers’ transgression and their sin — the suffering they caused you. ’ Therefore, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when their message came to him. Then his brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your slaves!”
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.
God desired not only to save the descendants of Israel, but also all of those in Egypt. When a Pharaoh came to power that did not know Joseph, the Israelites were placed in captivity and Egypt hated the one true God. God’s goal was still the survival of many people. He prepared Israel to be delivered from captivity and set them free in such a way that the Egyptians would know Him, that they might honor Him as God and have eternal life.
That day the Lord saved Israel from the power of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. When Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and believed in Him and in His servant Moses.
Before we begin to explore Exodus, we can draw some conclusions based on what we know about the story, and use those as presupposition as we explore the narrative.
- God views life in light of eternity. This finite life is as death if eternal life is lost. Thus, this temporary life is worthless and we should each invest in the eternal life.
- God acts in the scope of eternity, not in reaction to temporal events. He does not depend on anything or anyone.
- God’s desire is for all people to have eternal life. Thus, He acts in a way that people might look to Him.
As we read Exodus, let us keep these things in mind. When we ask why God might deal harshly with some a bless others, let us remember these things about Him. In this life, we fight an eternal battle; it is the battle between eternal life and eternal death. We fight for the truth to be heard and we suffer so that God may be honored. How should we, as God’s people, deal with oppression?
A new king, who had not known Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and powerful than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them; otherwise they will multiply further, and if war breaks out, they may join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country.” So the Egyptians assigned taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor. They built Pithom and Rameses as supply cities for Pharaoh. But the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. They worked the Israelites ruthlessly and made their lives bitter with difficult labor in brick and mortar and in all kinds of fieldwork. They ruthlessly imposed all this work on them.
To the oppressed
In this life, people are required to give up so much for so little gain. The world desires to take all we have without truly giving anything back. Many have to work so much for so little. Both racial and gender inequality still seems to be an issue. Religious intolerance is overbearing, and the intellectual elite suppresses the uneducated rather than empowering them. People pay tax upon tax upon tax and are forced to give up 30% of their dollars earned. The great fact is: in the world today, people are oppressed and it is a worldwide epidemic. Oppression has existed and will continue to exist until Christ comes. In the above passage, we witness that God first brought His people into Egypt and then allowed them to be oppressed.
Since God views life and he acts in light of eternity, we can be certain that He has a plan even through oppression. For the Israelites, His plan was that many would survive, both through the great famine and in the scope of eternity. This is why He led them to live in Egypt in the first place rather than simply giving them the land of Canaan. For God is the God of the whole earth! In our context, we can be confident that God views our existence eternally, not simply as we live in these finite bodies. When God allows us to be oppressed, His reason is eternal. I would imagine that it is so that many might survive in light of eternity.
For just a moment, I want to ask you to think about your situations and your circumstances. Is any other person in exactly the place you are? Unless there is another individual in your body with you having the same thoughts and experiencing the same relationships that you experience, I imagine the answer is no. The fact of the matter is that God has placed each one in a unique position in this life. You have an influence on the world that is not shared with anyone else entirely. This is true for each person. God allows us to be in whatever circumstance so that He may be honored by all people through us. Oppression is worth it if God is honored by it. In the end, we will all benefit greatly.
I might take this moment and speak to a couple of issues. First of all, anyone who riots in response to any sort of oppression fails to honor God. It seems that instead of trying to determine our own status in society, we should work in our current circumstances to impact people’s lives with the love of Christ. Let us not forget, “Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much.”
To the oppressor
By no means does this suggest that any form of oppression is okay. Pharaoh became an enemy of God because he chose to deal shrewdly with the Israelites. Even though we are each to be faithful even through oppression, oppression is not something that glorifies God or benefits humankind. Racism is wrong, as is sexism.
Pharaoh ordered the oppression of the Israelites out of his own selfish ambition. He saw that they had become too numerous and was afraid that they would, in their selfishness, work to eradicate Egypt. He feared them and desired only the prosperity of his own kingdom. The more he forced the Israelites into labor, the more they multiplied. The more they multiplied, the more the Egyptians came to dread them. Oppression only increased. For Pharaoh, oppression came as a result of fear. He feared that the Israelites would be his end.
Still today, it seems the only cause for any person’s oppressive action is fear. For those in power, the fear is that one day they will no longer have power. For the wealthy, the fear is that one day they will be obsolete. The athlete fears someone younger and more talented. The famous, or those who wish to be famous, fear unacceptance: many times taking their performances to certain extremes to keep the attention of the world (this is self oppression which leads to depression). The educated fear that they will not be recognized, so they oppress those less intelligent. The preacher fears that his message, the most important message on Earth, will go unheard, so he oppresses the sinful and the ignorant. Racial oppression is caused by the fear one group of people has of another (it actually has little to do with skin color). The boss fears losing control. Where fear is not the cause, such as many cases of terrorism, oppression is fueled by hate.
I am not here to condemn those who do oppress others. We live in a frightening world and it makes sense as to why those who may not be secure in Christ do put others down. I will say, though, that in Christ there is no reason to fear and no reason to put others down. The Pharaoh before this, who knew Joseph, was blessed by the nation of Israel. Israel made him rich and increased his power. God used Joseph to save his very life. Even while this new Pharaoh was in power, God sought the survival of many people.
To the believer
First of all, we must know that any form of oppression is wrong. If God allows people to choose, even to the point of denying Him, then I certainly have no right to oppress anyone. Oppression on my part is morally unacceptable.
For those dealing with some sort of oppression, either as a people group or as individuals, there are certain ways that we should live during that oppression.
- It is not wrong to fight against oppression. There is a time, though, and we must fight to advance God’s kingdom, not our own. Just violence must be determined wisely and as a last resort.
- We each live in a circumstance where God has placed us for the purpose of His glory. When we focus on self, we do not accomplish God’s purposes where we are. Every individual has a unique influence and should be a good steward of that influence.
- We have no reason to fear. No matter how rejected anyone is by others, he or she can always have God’s love and His acceptance if in Christ. Even if the people of the world fight against you, God is working for your benefit and He acts in eternity. There is a place for every outcast at God’s table. For those in power, fear not. The only true power is found in Christ and power over people is not true. To the preacher, our mission is not to be heard, but to preach. We preach to honor God, not to please people or to have a grand audience. Stay true, for God has the final reward. To the educated, empower learners according to the truth; don’t oppress them. We do not have to be better than others. The same goes for the famous and the rich.
Fear not. Live for God. Empower others in the faith.
 Genesis 50:18-20 (HCSB)
 Exodus 14:30-31 (HCSB)
 Exodus 1:8-14 (HCSB)
 Luke 16:10 (HCSB)
 This however does not mean that those who are faithful with little will be given more; only that God desires faithfulness and measures both the small and the great according to their faithfulness.