Don’t Be Like Moses the Pragmatist


There was no need for Moses to worry about his faltering lips. He was God to Pharaoh; so no matter how much he stammered and stuttered, he spoke with God’s own authority through his prophet Aaron. But Pharaoh wasn’t going to listen to him anyway! The Lord said to Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exod. 7:3, 4a).

No matter what Moses said, and no matter how many miracles he performed, Pharaoh would not listen. The king was the very picture of an unbeliever—a man who was determined not to give in to God. This is exactly what Moses feared, that Pharaoh wouldn’t listen—and with good reason! The last time he went to the palace on God’s behalf, Pharaoh said he didn’t even know who was (Exodus 5:2) and then he proceeded to double Israel’s workload. No wonder Moses didn’t want to speak with Pharaoh again.

What the prophet failed to understand was that Pharoah’s stubborn resistance was part of God’s sovereign plan. Moses said, “It will never work, Lord. Pharaoh will never listen.” God answered, “Right! That’s exactly what I have in mind. I will harden his heart so that he will not listen to you.” God used Pharaoh’s rebellion to prove that God alone had the power to rescue his people.


The reason Moses had the wrong expectation was because he misunderstood his calling as a prophet. In his worst moments, Moses was a pragmatist. He had a performance-based approach to the prophetic ministry. He assumed that it was up to the prophet to get the results. If people listened to him, then he was doing his job; if not, he should find some other line of work. This explains why Moses was always worrying about whether people would listen to him. “What if they do not believe me or listen to me . . . ?” he would say (Exod. 4:1). Or, “Why would Pharaoh listen to me?” (Exod. 6:12, 30).

The problem with this approach to ministry is that the spiritual results are always beyond human control. No matter how eloquent, and no matter how persuasive, there is nothing prophets like Moses or preachers like us can do to make people believe God’s Word. It takes faith for someone to believe, and faith is a gift of God’s grace.

The only thing that matters to God, therefore, is whether or not the prophet is faithful. The prophet is not responsible for the way the people respond to his message, but only for getting the message right. This is why he does not have the liberty to add anything to God’s message—or to leave anything out. As God said to Moses, “You are to say everything I command you” (Exod. 7:2). And as long as the prophet communicates God’s message accurately, he is faithful in his calling, whatever the outcome.


This has obvious implications for preaching. The only good preacher is a faithful preacher. When Martin Luther studied Exodus, he wondered why God commanded Moses to do something that was doomed to fail. He wrote:

The question is why God bids Moses preach although He Himself says: Pharaoh will not listen to you. Is it not foolish for someone to say to another: Friend, preach to Pharaoh, but be advised that he will not listen to you; for I intend to harden him? I would refuse such an assignment from anyone and would say: Preach yourself. But the answer is: We are bidden to preach, but we are not bidden to justify people and make them pious. This thought should comfort all preachers and Christians, and everybody should pursue his calling and faithfully perform his duties. Only the Word of God is entrusted to Moses, not the responsibility of making Pharaoh soft or hard by preaching. The Word is entrusted to him; this is God’s will, and this Word he is to proclaim even though no one may want to listen to him. This is done for his consolation that he may not be frightened if nobody wants to follow and obey him. If I could be moved by the fact that my word and sermon are despised, I suppose I would stop preaching. But (says God) go on, Moses, preach!

This principle liberates us from a worldly standard of success, in which ministry is always measured in terms that people can quantify: How much? How many? How big? The primary thing that God demands from a minister is faithfulness to his gospel. God does not rank preachers by the number of their converts or the size of their churches. Rather, he judges them according to the accuracy of their Bible exposition.

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Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from pages in Philip Graham Ryken’s, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, in Preaching the Word, edited R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 198-99.

Phil Ryken

Philip Graham Ryken is the eighth president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

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