A group of congresspeople last week asked the president to relinquish his sole authority to launch nuclear missiles at our nation’s enemies.
That’s pretty interesting. One of the things that has made the president of the United States so powerful is his ability to drop nuclear bombs on people. We sometimes say the president “has his finger on the button.” That is, he’s got his finger on the button that authorizes nuclear strikes.
In this story about the president’s nuclear authority was a picture of a military man carrying the “nuclear football” that travels with the president everywhere he goes. It’s been this way since President John F. Kennedy.
Smithsonian Magazine called the nuclear football “the closest modern-day equivalent of the medieval crown and scepter – a symbol of supreme authority.” Inside is not a big red button, apparently. Rather, there’s a communication device that can confirm the president’s identity and enable him to communicate with the Pentagon in cases of national emergency.
It’s called the “football” because an early nuclear war plan was code-named “Dropkick.” And Dropkick needed a “football” in order to operate. And so a military officer carries the “football” around with the president everywhere he goes. Only the president has the authentication codes to activate it and begin the process of implementing a nuclear strike.
The congresspeople who have suggested the president be relieved of that sole authority believe “vesting one person with this authority entails real risks.” Their suggestion is somehow to bring other people to the table when the president is faced with a decision about whether to launch a nuclear strike. For instance, perhaps the president should act in agreement with the vice president and speaker of the house, or he should work with a special committee in congress set up for that purpose.
Why is this so important? It is because launching nuclear missiles is a big deal, a potentially earth-ending big deal.
It also is important because we Americans, at least, don’t like anyone to have too much power. When we see power being accumulated by any one person or group of people, our first instinct seems to be to figure out ways to put a check on that power.
It is a system that has worked beautifully since the beginning of our country. The three branches of government provide checks on each other. Not any one of them has supreme control – unless it’s the president with the “nuclear football.”
And in the rest of our society, we see this kind of mentality playing out. For instance, Silicon Valley and Big Tech have accumulated a lot of power in our country. They have the ability to control the flow of information in our country and, as we know, information is power. And so certain groups and people rightfully have called for a check on this power that the big technology and communications companies have.
When we find big power, we look for ways to bring it in check. This is part of the American way. Democracies operate like this because power, in a democracy, is supposed to be spread out among the people – the voters. This all makes perfect sense to us. We’ve known this, at least in our subconscious, our entire lives.
When we encounter texts like Exodus 7-10 – about the plagues in Egypt – we encounter a power struggle. But this power struggle is different because God is involved. And God always wins.
In Egypt, Pharaoh seemed to have all the power. He held the Hebrew people in captivity. He managed the work of the magicians and sorcerers whom we understand to have had some sort of demonic power. And, of course, Pharaoh controlled the judicial system and the economy. He was a powerful man.
And then Moses walked into the room.
“Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me. For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague …” (Exodus 9:2-3).
As we read this, we can know something right off the bat: Pharaoh was not going to let the people God go. God already had told Moses this. God had a plan and a purpose, and he had power over Pharaoh, too.
“You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment” (Exodus 7:2-4).
And so the plan already was set. Pharaoh was going to reject the command to let the Israelites go, and God was going to lay his “hand” on Egypt. God was going to show his power. Already by the time we reach Exodus 7, God had brought four plagues on Egypt – water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, and flies.
This was the hand of the Lord that had fallen on Egypt. The phrase the “hand of the Lord” is used multiple times in Scripture, and it frequently describes, as you might expect, God’s mighty power. I would like to draw your attention to one of those instances in 1 Peter 5. Peter urged the church,
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
When we are faced with the hand of God – his absolute power – we seem to have a couple of ways to respond. We can be proud. We can resist. We can reject what God is doing or trying to say to us or trying to convince us of. This, of course, is how Pharaoh responded.
The alternative is to humble ourselves. We can recognize our own tiny-ness in relation to the Almighty God. We are not in control. He is.
In recognizing God’s power and authority – an authority that has no checks and balances – we also recognize that God calls the shots. All the shots. He’s in charge of matters of life and death, of blessing and cursing. God is in complete control.
He demonstrated that to Pharaoh: “But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing of all that belongs to the people of Israel shall die” (Exodus 9:4).
Here, God was making sure everyone knew there were some people who were his – and they would receive his blessing. When the animals began to drop dead, it would be obvious it was not the Egyptians who had the blessing of God. Rather, it was the Israelites. Pharaoh knew this. He sent people out to see if it was true. And it was. “Not one of the livestock of Israel was dead” (Exodus 9:7).
God was in complete control, and he was demonstrating that with these plagues. God was going to bring out his people – a people who had been mistreated.
We see this in the sixth plague, the plague of boils. God told Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of soot from the kiln and to throw it in the air. Those kilns were important for the economy of Egypt. Part of me wonders whether they were the same kilns used in the brick-making activities of the Hebrews. They had been ordered to make bricks, and they had been told to do so in ever more harsh and demanding ways (Exodus 5).
If these are the same kilns the Israelites used, it would make quite a picture. Moses and Aaron threw soot from those kilns into the air – the byproduct of the injustice against God’s people. And the Egyptians, who had benefited from that slave labor, were infected with boils. God was setting things right. He had the power to do so.
Another interesting note emerges from this plague, and, again, it is about power and the struggle for power. The magicians of Pharaoh who had been trying to match Moses and Aaron plague for plague were suddenly unable to stand because they were so infected by boils. Demonic powers and human trickery cannot stand under the mighty hand of the Lord. God wins every power struggle.
God was demonstrating his eternal power – a power that cannot be matched and that cannot be resisted.
Before the seventh plague, God told Pharaoh that he could have wiped Pharaoh out. “For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth” (Exodus 9:15).
In other words, God could have ended the nation of Egypt. He could have killed them all, Pharaoh included. That would have been an easy way to set Israel free. But God didn’t do that. Why?
“But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16).
We see here the reason God was doing what he was doing and the way in which he was doing it. God specifically selected Pharaoh to bear the brunt of his wrath. God even hardened Pharaoh’s already-hard heart so God could continue to demonstrate his power.
“But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power.” God wanted Pharaoh to see it. What a scary proposition. “I have raised you up, to show you my power.” It should have sent chills into Pharaoh’s bones.
But this wasn’t a demonstration of power merely for Pharaoh. God wanted the world to know it, “so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”
The aim of this display of power is this: Worship. God wants to be worshipped by all the earth – not just by the Hebrews or by Pharaoh or by the Egyptians, but by everyone. All the earth.
God has a plan, and it is for all to worship him. This is why God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. And this is why God sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross.
The apostle Paul said in Philippians 2: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
We are to worship Jesus like there is no other one to worship. Every knee will bow. Some of those who bow may do so unwillingly and regretfully. Pharaoh, I suppose, would fall in that category. But he will bow. And so will we.
God’s purpose is to demonstrate his power so that he might be worshipped by everyone.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate display of God’s power. God raised Jesus from the dead. For much of human history, death seemed to have the final say. No one escapes the power of death. And so the ultimate moment of power was when Jesus walked out of that tomb.
Again, God demonstrates his power so that he might be worshipped by everyone. We worship because to worship God is go grab hold of life, because only God is capable of granting life – and new life.
In the Book of Revelation, the disciple John saw Jesus. “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, for I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades’” (Revelation 1:17-18).
Jesus holds the keys to death. He makes a way through death. When we see his mighty power and we proclaim his name in faith, we are granted eternal life. Jesus makes a way for us to where our hearts desire to go.
God’s displays of power, then, are not designed primarily to bring death, although that might be how it seems in the case of the ten plagues of Egypt. But instead, God’s displays of power are geared to bring life. Remember, we ought to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter 5:6). As we humble ourselves, we are granted life.
Of course, sometimes we don’t humble ourselves. We exalt ourselves. The danger is in our efforts to curb the power of God – or to create checks on Him. Sometimes, we might act as if we were members of Congress wanting to take the “nuclear football” from the president. “Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks,” we might say.
So we seek ways to put checks on God’s power in our lives. For instance, we read God’s Word, and then we read the latest self-help guru. Or we listen to our nonbelieving friends down the road. Or we trust our sentiments and preferences.
We harden our hearts. We know God’s power, but we don’t live as if we do.
In our church this year, we are going to have some discussions about gender and sexuality and the relationship between men and women. We’ll talk about God’s creation and how he ordered the universe and families and his church.
And one of the temptations people have when addressing these issues is to forget God’s unilateral and unshaking authority. We want to insert ourselves and our desires, our sentiments and modern sensibilities, into the equation. But God is in charge. He created the universe, and we did not.
It calls for humility on our part. And faith. And we can expect God’s blessing as we obey him.