Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, 23and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.'”[Exodus 4:22-23]
Israel began as one man, Jacob, growing into a family and then an entire ethnic people group in Egypt. Once in captivity under Pharaoh, the LORD God of Israel redeemed His people and chose them as a holy nation — a people of His own possession.
God often uses human relationships to illustrate and convey His love and commitment to us, and one of the most profound examples is the relationship between father and child. The LORD speaks of Israel as both son and daughter to demonstrate the depth of His heartfelt devotion to His people, and as we will see, this thread continues to run throughout the Scriptures to the very end.
In essence, God is communicating one big idea to Israel. We are family.
The Apple of God’s Eye
The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes,31and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.[Deuteronomy 1:30-31]
The LORD called Israel his firstborn son, which is a term associated both with preeminence and inheritance. God’s law made provisions for the firstborn to receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance [Deuteronomy 21:15-17]. By using the title of firstborn, God was declaring Israel to be the rightful heir of His kingdom and His possessions. The LORD was willing to give Israel everything.
The language of the Exodus provokes a powerful image of a loving father carrying his son through the perils of the wilderness and leading him to safety. Like any doting father, God kept Israel as the apple of His eye from the day he was born. Nothing compares to a father’s love for his children.
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
10 He found him in a desert land,[Deuteronomy 32:9-12]
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
12the LORD alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.
A Wayward Son
Tragically Israel grew privileged, ungrateful, and rebellious — dishonoring his Father with all forms of idolatry and immorality. Not only did Israel’s habitual sin break God’s heart but also provoked Him to anger.
But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. 16They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. 17They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded. 18You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. 19 The LORD saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. 20And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.[Deuteronomy 32:15-20]
The prophet Hosea echoes the words of Moses. You can hear the disappointment in the Father’s heart, as He reflects on the memories of Israel’s life.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols.
3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;[Hosea 11:1-4]
I took them up by their arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
4I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them.
God’s One and Only Son
He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”[Matthew 17:5]
Where Israel failed as God’s firstborn son, Jesus the Messiah would succeed. Where Israel would dishonor the Father in sinful rebellion, Jesus would perfectly please the LORD. Where Israel would fail to be a light unto the Gentiles and lead the nations to worship the One True God, Jesus would come as the light of the world, leading all men out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Of course, we must not conclude that the Father sent His one and only Son into the world as a supplemental fix for Israel’s rebellion. NO! The incarnation of God the Son was always God’s original plan from before the very foundation of the world [John 17:23-24]. As the Creator Himself, Jesus is the firstborn over all creation, having preeminence in all things [Colossians 1:15-18].
And as only God could do, He opened the door through the cross for the whole world to believe in His Son and be given the right of being adopted as sons and daughters of the King!
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!“[Galatians 4:4-6]
A Prodigal Returns
With weeping they shall come,
and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
I will make them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
for I am a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.[Jeremiah 31:9]
One of the most amazing realties of God’s ultimate plan of redemption is His unwavering commitment to the covenant people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Although Israel has proven to be by and large a rebellious son, God has not forsaken Israel and has promised to bring him back home in the end. The natural branches that were broken off in unbelief will be grafted back in to God’s family tree in the end.
So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean![Romans 11:11-12]
Although a partial hardening has come upon ethnic Israel for many generations, God has always persevered for Himself a remnant. And like the prodigal son who has been estranged from his father in sin, Israel will return to the LORD through many trials and trust in God’s own Son — the Messiah.
This is the amazing story of redemption. God has by no means totally rejected Israel, but like a faithful Father, He will make good all His promises to the physical descendants of Jacob and keep His covenant to the end. Just as He does with all of His wayward children, the Father is waiting for the people of Israel to repent and return to Him, where He will receive them back with open arms! And in this way, all Israel — both Jew and Gentile — will be saved when Messiah returns to lead us home to inherit the kingdom of Israel as God’s firstborn sons!
Yet the number of the Israelites will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted. And it will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’[Hosea 1:10]