Pharaoh had promised to let the children of Israel go. But with the plague of frogs over, he changed his mind. So pharaoh told Moses and Aaron: “I didn’t give the matter enough thought at the time, but now that I have done so, it is clear to me that it would be most unwise to free your people. Therefore it is my will that the Israelites remain in Egypt and continue their tasks” (Ex. 8:15).
Moses could hardly believe what he heard. But he had to face the fact that no man, not even a king, should always be trusted.
“It is you who are most unwise,” Aaron spoke out. “Our God is aware of how you have broken your promise. Because of your dishonesty He will bring another terrible thing upon your nation!”
These words worried Pharaoh. The more he heard of the God of Israel, the more he feared the very mention of the name. “Get these two out of my court,” the king commanded. Probably he would have preferred to put them in prison, but he was afraid that their God would somehow punish him for such an act.
Later, when Moses was alone, God told him to tell Aaron to strike the ground with his rod so that the particles of dust and dirt would be changed into another misery for the Egyptians (v. 16). When Aaron obeyed, a huge mass of insects crawled over the ground as far as the two men could see. It was only minutes later that the Egyptians still busy burying the dead frogs, found themselves in a sea of billions of biting, blood-sucking insects. They were so thick that it was almost impossible to breathe without inhaling them. Within only a matter of hours, people and animals moaned in agony as their bodies became matted with the stinging bugs. Wherever any Egyptian went, it was impossible to entirely escape this latest horrifying plague from God.
As for Pharaoh, his servants tried in vain to protect him from the swarms of insects that invaded the palace. In spite of his misery, the king made up his mind to wait and see how matters would turn out.
This latest distress caused many unhappy officials – more than ever before – to send messages to the king, begging him to save the nation by yielding to the requests of Moses and Aaron. By now even the common people of Egypt were becoming aware of what was going on, and more and more of them went increasingly fearful of the strange power causing the plagues.
“This is only another trick of those Israelites,” Pharaoh kept telling them about him. “MY magicians can also produce swarms of insects. Call them here and they will prove it to you.”
Later when the magicians came before the king, a very uncomfortable audience squirmed before some very uncomfortable performers. Pharaoh, covered with a fine netting which kept out some of the insects, stared impatiently at the magicians.
“Do something!” he commanded. “Prove again that our gods can produce miracles!”
Perhaps the magicians had performed their former amazing tricks through clever, natural means. Perhaps they had been helped by evil spirits. Or possibly there was a combination of both. Whatever the means, it didn’t seem to be with them as they stood in fearful embarrassment before the king. The head magician suddenly bowed low, and it was plain that he was trembling.
“We cannot do what this God of the Israelites can do,” he muttered. “At first we believed that those two Israelites were performing feats of magic through their own cleverness and skill. But we have come to see that the terrible things that have happened through them could come only through the hand of a God who is most powerful” (v. 19).
There was silence in the court. Pharaoh got to his feet. Perhaps no one could see, through the netting, the mixture of embarrassment and anger on his face. “My people are turning into cowards!” he shouted. “Nevertheless, I will not allow the Israelites to go free!”
Meanwhile, God spoke to Moses again and told him what to do next. The following morning, when the king was striding with some of his servants to the river, where he hoped to get some relief from the louse-like insects crawling on him, he saw Moses and Aaron standing in his path.
“Why do you bother me like this?” Pharaoh frowned. “I should have you thrown in the palace dungeon for the things you have done!” However, he made no move to call his soldiers, because he secretly feared what God might do to him if he harmed the two Israelites.
“We have come again to ask you to let our people go into the desert to worship our God,” Aaron spoke out. “He has told us that if you refuse again, He will bring a fourth plague upon Egypt. This time it will be swarms of flying insects, and to prove His power, He will not let the insects come into the land of Goshen to trouble the Israelites.”
“Then perhaps I should move my palace to Goshen!” Pharaoh snapped, and pushing past Moses and Aaron he stomped off to the river.
Next day the suffering Egyptians noted that the louse-like insects were dying. They hopefully brushed the tiny creatures out of their hair and clothes and off their bodies. The horrible plague seemed to have come to a quick end.
When Pharaoh noticed that the insects were dying, he became very jubilant. “What did I tell you?” he boastfully addressed his advisors. “I knew it had to end. Now you can see how foolish I would have been to take your advice and let the Israelites slip away from us.”
“But your royal highness should realize that these things are ruining our nation,” the chief advisor spoke up. “Our livestock is dying. Our food supply has been cut down. The Israelites aren’t doing very much for us because our people have been too miserable to keep them busy. We can’t go on like ---”
“We’ll make up for all that,” Pharaoh broke in, “after these miserable times are at an end. And they must end sometime.”
“We heard that the men Moses and Aaron met you this morning and threatened another plague,” one of the advisors spoke up. “That is true”, Pharaoh said, glaring at the advisor. “Perhaps if there is another one it will be the last one. Or perhaps our patient gods will at last be angered, and will step in to protect us.”
There were moments of silence as the king nervously rubbed his beard, hoping to shake out any dead lice from the royal chin growth. The silence was abruptly broken by shouts of servants approaching on the run. The first one to reach the room bowed low to Pharaoh.
“A thousand pardons for breaking in this way, oh king!” the servant panted. “Clouds of flying insects are settling down over the city! We must close all doors and windows” (v. 24)!
Even before the excited servants could draw the vast expanses of curtains together, a swarm of winged insects buzzed into the large council room. Pharaoh was still wearing a gauze cape and headpiece, especially made for him as protection against lice. He quickly drew the top part over his head and sat in miserable silence as he watched others batting and swatting at these newest foes. There were shouts of pain from some as the vicious insects sank their barbed jaws into human flesh. Servants opened inner doors through which the advisors could hastily retreat, leaving the king to sourly witness the battle between his excited servants and the maddened insects.
As the hours passed, the city became a place of miserable uproar. Caught in the streets or in other open places, many people frantically scrambled for places of safety from the deep-biting flies. But many of the buildings of the Egyptians were made with open windows and doors, and they were poor protection against insects.
Livestock in the fields suffered as much as did the people. Most animals had no way of escaping from the stinging flies. All they could do was race wildly about.
Normal activity came to a stop in all of Egypt. It was a full-time task for all to try to protect themselves from the infectious bites and stings of the latest plague. Even some of the crops and much of the food were set upon by the insects. Illnesses and fever soon overtook people and animals.
Insects swarmed everywhere and over everything and everybody in increasing numbers. Reports of misery, sickness, hardship and even death began pouring into Pharaoh’s palace. Advisors pleaded with him to send for Moses and Aaron.
“Perhaps our gods will yet act to take these menacing flies from us,” Pharaoh muttered. “Are the priests still offering sacrifices and praying?” “The flies were too much for them,” one of the advisors answered. “They’re taking refuge in the wine cellar.”
Even through the gauze hood, the frown on the king’s face was very plain. Possibly he was thinking that the least the priests could do was stick to their work and go through the required motions of praying to idols – even though it was a waste of time and energy.
Pharaoh’s gaze dropped to his gauze-covered hands, and he saw that the deep bites on them were beginning to swell and redden. They were smeared with a heavy ointment brought by the court physician, but nevertheless they were throbbing with increasing pain.
“Send for those two Israelites, Moses and Aaron!” the king suddenly blurted.
When the two appeared somewhat later, Pharaoh was fearful and impatient. He noted that the Israelites were not wearing gauze hoods or gloves, and that there were no fly bites on their faces or hands. Their Egyptian escorts, on the other hand, had been painfully bitten in performing their duty.
“Why should your God continue this cruel plague?” Pharaoh asked. “If He is an intelligent God, He should know before now that I am willing to let your people make their sacrifices to Him. Go and tell that to the Israelites!”
“But you said nothing about letting the Israelites leave Egypt,” Aaron reminded the king. “If you mean that we are to stay within your land, then we cannot sacrifice to our God. Some of the animals we intend to offer on our altars are sacred to you Egyptians. Therefore your people would be offended. We would risk being killed by mobs of stone-hurling Egyptians. Therefore we must make a three-day trip beyond the borders of Egypt, just as our God has commanded us.”
“Then go!” Pharaoh snapped, after a few moments of thoughtful silence. “But don’t go too far or stay too long, or you may all die in the hot, dry desert. First, however, ask your God to take away these horrible flies.”
“We shall go at once to ask our God to stop the plague,” Aaron said. “But remember the promise you have just made to let us to leave Egypt. Do not deceive us as you did before” (v. 29).
Later, Moses asked God to remove the clouds of stinging insects from Egypt. That night a strong wind swept over the land. By morning the suffering Egyptians were relieved to see that the insects had been blown away. But the flies – a different and much more harmful kind than the common housefly-- had left the land in a terrible condition. Trees had been stripped of leaves. Food plants were gnawed and withered. Wounded and infected people and animals lay sick by the thousands, and a quick end had come to many who were set upon by dense hordes of flies, inasmuch as the victims were stung or chewed into lifelessness.
But even though Pharaoh realized the condition of his nation following this plague, the sudden disappearance of the stinging flies caused him to regret that he had promised to let the Israelites go into the desert.
“Send a message to Moses,” he commanded one of his aides. “Tell him that my decision to let the Israelites leave Egypt was made during a time of stress, and that after thinking the matter over with greater wisdom, I now forbid the Israelites to leave this land” (v. 32).
It was a deep disappointment to Moses when he received the message. But at once he and Aaron were sent by God to warn the king of Egypt that if he did not immediately let the Israelites go, a terrible disease would come upon the livestock of the nation. (Ex.9:1-3)
Pharaoh refused to be frightened by such a warning. “I will not be bluffed,” he told Moses and Aaron, “Why should I, Pharaoh, be moved by mere words?”
This 5th plague struck with such abrupt results that the Egyptians could hardly believe it was happening. Within a few hours the land was strewn with dead horses, cattle, sheep, goats, camels and burros. A horrible and fatal sickness of animals almost wiped out the valuable livestock of Egypt. But not so much as one animal belonging to the Israelites was affected by the death-dealing plague (v. 6).
This was a great blow to the religious thinking of the Egyptians, too. Most animals were sacred to them because of being connected with their gods. It was difficult for them to understand why their many gods would allow the one God of the Israelites to slay the very animals after which some of their idols had been fashioned.
Regardless of what his people thought or how great the livestock loss was, Pharaoh stubbornly stuck to his desire to keep the Israelites as slaves. He reasoned that inasmuch as Egypt had struggled through five plagues, Egypt could struggle through more. Some of them had lasted for only a matter of hours, and others had lasted for several days. But nothing could happen, Pharaoh thought, that would prevent him from building Egypt into a super-glorious nation.
If the king could have foreseen what was to happen to him and to his nation, he surely would have fallen on his knees to beg for mercy.
Be watching for our next installment of The Story of the Bible as God continues His plagues upon the nation of Egypt.