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About Doctrines

Hardening of the Heart

Paul uses Pharaoh as his example of God's ability to choose. Pharaoh becomes the Calvinist example of predestination unto destruction. Interestingly, this is the only passage in Paul’s writings that mentions Pharaoh. But, is this really what is meant in the Exodus passage?

One of the great mysteries of life, not addressed by Scripture, is the number of examples and situations found in the Bible that have incomprehension seemingly connected to them. A tension is created that is not explained. How can God’s sovereignty and choice and man’s freewill operate at the same time? How can Pharaoh be a creature with freedom of choice if God has raised him up to destruction by hardening him?

These are not easy questions. The answers may not be precisely as I am about to present, but I, with all non-Calvinist, believe the answers are similar to this position of unexplainable tension. The comments that follow must be read in light of this tension.

Paul places a great deal of responsibility upon mankind in the opening chapter of Romans because man did not seek God. Therefore, man has the choice to seek God and – more importantly – there is some mechanism within our depraved, sinful character that must allow us to seek God. Otherwise, there is really no choice in the matter. Paul writes in the opening chapters that we see God in nature and creation, our conscience testify to God’s existence, and we have the Bible. There is some mechanism within this section of markers that allows mankind to seek God. This is all part of God’s drawing men to Him (John 6:44).

At the same time, man is sinful. He is depraved and incapable of not committing acts that God views as evil. God is justified, therefore, in punishing men for their evil acts. For our perspective, this punishment may, at times, seem unfair or unreasonable, but we cannot contest God’s sovereign ability to decide both the type and place of punishment. While we often view God’s judgment as a thing of the end times, Romans 1 makes it clear that a current judgment is present. Paul verifies this in 1 Corinthians 11. The Old Testament is full of examples of God’s present judgment upon individuals. Pharaoh and the Egyptians is one such example.

One must read the entire Exodus story to appreciate the impact of understanding involved in this episode. First, we need to understand the verb translated as “raised up” carries with it a meaning of placing in a high position. God place Pharaoh in a position where God could use Pharaoh’s sinful arrogance to bring him down and demonstrate the power of God. In the Septuagint, this verb carries the meaning of “you were preserved” or survived or were spared. In other words, Pharaoh was spared in his sin to witness the power of God.

Pharaoh's heart is said to be hardened at least ten times during the events leading to the Exodus (Exod 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19,32; 9:7, 12; 34-35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17; cf. 4:21; 7:3). In roughly half of these instances, Pharaoh hardening his own heart. This sounds much like Paul’s description of men forsaking God in Romans 1. Men gave up God and moved onto devices of their own making. So, says the Apostle, God turns men over to their own devices. In other words, God allows men to follow their own sin. In this sense, God is hardening men’s hearts. In the case of Pharaoh, God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart five times. In other words, God allows Pharaoh to make his own choice and then live by the consequences of that choice. In each case, Pharaoh’s heart becomes darker and darker with sin.

More than one commentator points out that God is never said to harden anyone’s heart unless that person had already hardened his own heart.

What we cannot understand is the tension between such a case and the desire of God to act. Somewhere, buried within the concepts of 1:18-20, God still will honor even the blackest heart the right to still seek Him. If, in the depths of despair and sin, we start to seek the Creator, He honors our desire and draws us to Him. If, on the other hand, we show no signs of truly wanting to find God, He allows us to continue in our sin, and may execute judgment and punishment upon us separate and apart from the immediate consequences of those sins. Such was the case of Pharaoh.

That this must be true is supported by a good definition of to harden. To harden is to take away wisdom and truth, thus, to make spiritually insensitive. This is handing one over to sin as discussed in chapter 1. The effort is designed by God to humble the sinner and bring him back to God. Thus, hardening is designed to serve a positive purpose. In Scriptures, Nebuchadnezzar is the example of a leader hardened who learned from his lessons and came to salvation (Dan 4). In the Old Testament, the example of hardening always occurs for a particular historical purpose (cf. Num 24:19; 2 Sam 12:11; Job 5:11; Hab 1:6; Zech 11:16).

Pharaoh not only did not seek God, he mocked God by suggesting he would accept God’s existence and ability and then, time and again, backing away from such acceptance. God eventually not only allowed the Egyptian ruler to suffer, God executed other judgments. This is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

God showed mercy upon the Israelites and hardened Pharaoh.




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