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Monday, March 6, 2023

God's Hardening of the Human Heart

Does God ever harden people's hearts?  No doubt about it.  Every Bible student is aware of God's hardening of the heart of Pharaoh back in the book of Exodus.  This was God's plan before Moses arrived in Egypt.  "And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go." (Exod. 4:21 NKJV)

Why did God do this?  He tells us, as he told Pharaoh, "But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." (Exod. 9:16 NKJV)  Paul quotes this passage in Rom. 9:17 and then in the very next verse says, "Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens." (Rom. 9:18 NKJV)  God willed to harden Pharaoh's heart.

Does God harden people's hearts arbitrarily; just pick out people at random to harden their hearts?  We know he does not for "God is love." (1 John 4:8 NKJV)  He "desires all men to be saved." (1 Tim. 2:4 NKJV)  He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9 NKJV)  "He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." (Lam. 3:33 NKJV)  God does not harden a heart willingly since a heart hardened against God represents a lost soul.  There must be a reason that God hardens a heart. 

There are difficult issues involved in understanding this subject.  Whose hearts does God harden?  Why?  How does he do it?     

Many that I have read after are pretty much under the conviction that the way God hardened Pharaoh's heart and thus the heart of others whom he has hardened is through his word.  That is to say, God gives a command that a man does not want to receive and obey.  He (the man) refuses to do so.  The man thus hardens his own heart but there is a sense in which it could be said God hardened the man's heart by giving the commandment.  The idea is that God's word is the tool that God uses to harden the heart.

We can see there is truth that words can harden hearts from our everyday conversations and simple observation.  Say the wrong thing to someone, innocent as your intentions may have been, and the first thing you know they are angry at you and develop a hardened attitude toward you.  Hopefully, in your adult life, this has seldom happened to you personally but I think we have all seen or observed the thing.   

There is no doubt God's word when directed at one's heart can harden a heart already inclined to disbelieve and disobey (belief being against their perceived self-interest as they see it).  His word rebukes the sinner who then gets his back up and rebels even further.

There is much merit in the argument that God's word does harden some.  However, is that the only means God uses to harden people's hearts whom he hardens?  That is a very difficult question to answer.  After all of the plagues were over and Pharaoh had released the children of Israel to leave Egypt, God instructs Moses to camp at Pi Hahiroth by the sea (Exod. 14:2) the reason being, "Then I will harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD." (Exodus 14:4 NKJV)  Here it seems a further hardening was coming.  God intended for Pharaoh and his army to enter the Red Sea for their destruction.

That this is certain we can ascertain from the following passage: 

"And the LORD said to Moses, 'Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward.  But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.  And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen.  Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.'" (Exod. 14:15-18 NKJV)

This hardening seems to have come when the Egyptians were on the very edge of the bed of the Red Sea.  It is hard to see how this hardening was just a function of the rejection of God's word for this hardening seems to be in addition to the hardening that had occurred earlier.  On its face, it seems to be a hardening separate and apart from the word.

In Joshua 11 we find a similar passage along much the same lines.  Joshua and the children of Israel are at war against the inhabitants of Canaan (the Promised Land).  The passage reads as follows:

"There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. All the others they took in battle.  For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them, and that they might receive no mercy, but that He might destroy them, as the LORD had commanded Moses." (Josh. 11:19-20 NKJV)

There were 7 nations in the land of Canaan that God wanted totally destroyed.  They were the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites (Deut. 7:1-2).  Why were they to be destroyed?  Was it just to make room for the children of Israel?  No, it was because of sin.  "It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out from before you." (Deut. 9:4 NKJV)  How sinful were these nations?  "Every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods." (Deut. 12:31 NKJV)  For other passages describing the sins of these nations in greater detail see Lev. 18 and Deut. 18:9-14.  God obviously did not harden hearts that were not already hard.  It takes a hard heart to burn your son or daughter to death. 

Both of these cases, that of Pharaoh and the Egyptians and that of the people who inhabited the land of Canaan, seem to be examples of what some would call a judicial hardening.  God had determined to pass judgment on them due to their sins and thus hardened their hearts to bring about their destruction.  It was judgment day for them.

Two points ought to be made here.  (1) People seem to be under the impression, and I have heard it said most of my life, that one can always repent and obey God as long as there is life in them--the idea being that we are judged after death.  There is just enough truth in this line of thought, the truth being that God is longsuffering, to make it exceedingly dangerous to a man.

In both the cases above just cited was God not executing judgment on men while they lived by ending their lives?  Many other such examples could be given from the Old Testament and then we have Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5).  I do not see where the Bible teaches that a man can go on and on and on in sin without any need of fearing God here and now.  A person living in sin ought to be fearful everyday of God’s judgment.  I am not saying what God will do but I do not see how we can say what he won't do.

(2) The second point is that God inhabits eternity.  He knows what will be tomorrow as well as what was yesterday.  "I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done." (Isa. 46:9-10 NKJV)  He knows us from beginning to end.  While we have free will he knows what we will choose before we make the decision.  You say how can this be?  It is one of the great mysteries of God how God can have foreknowledge and yet man have free will.  Some things are beyond man's ability to understand.  Some things we must accept by faith.

The point to be made is that God does not harden a man for destruction who was going to repent if given more time to do so for God knew already what the man would choose.  There is no evidence in the Bible to support the idea that God ever has or will harden a heart that is not already hard.

Whatever means God used to harden Pharaoh's heart, or anyone else's for that matter, is then in a sense immaterial for the very reason that God does not harden hearts that are not already hard.  It was only after the sixth plague that the Bible says the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart (Exod. 9:12).  Prior to that plague it was Pharaoh who hardened his own heart. 

John 12:37-40 is a New Testament passage on this subject that has caused some people some problems:

"But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him,   that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: 'Lord, who has believed our report?  And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?'   Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again:  'He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and understand with their heart, lest they should turn, so that I should heal them.'" (John 12:37-40 NKJV)

In this passage it sounds like the Lord made it impossible for people to believe by blinding their eyes and hardening their hearts apart from their free will, that is he did it before and without giving them an opportunity for salvation.  If that would be the case then it would not be true that God "desires all men to be saved." (1 Tim. 2:4 NKJV)  It would not be true that God is "not willing that any should perish" (2 Peter 3:9 NKJV).  We thus know that if God did in fact blind their eyes and harden their hearts, and in some sense or way he did for the text says he did, it was not before they had an opportunity for salvation.

Isa. 6:10 is where Isaiah makes the statement about the hardening of the heart that John quotes in John 12:40 above.  This same passage from Isaiah is also quoted by Jesus himself in Matt. 13:14-15 and by Paul in Acts 28:26-27.  There is a slight twist, however, in Jesus' and Paul's quoting of the passage which helps clarify the text when considering how the hardening effect came about.  Jesus in quoting the Isaiah passage says, "their eyes they have closed" (Matt. 13:15 NKJV), and Paul says exactly the same thing in Acts 28:27.  Compare Matt. 13:15 with Acts 28:27 (Jesus and Paul) and you will see, at least in the New King James version, the exact same wording in both verses which I quote:

"For the heart of this people has grown dull.  Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their heart and turn, so that I should heal them." (Matt. 13:15, Acts 28:27 NKJV)

Jesus makes it clear that it was the Jews themselves who closed their eyes and if you will read the Acts passage in its context (Acts 28:23-28) you will see Paul was blaming the Jews for a refusal to accept the message of the gospel.  As stated earlier, God's word can harden people who are already in their own hard hearts immune to it.  When that is the case it can certainly be said with justification that God has hardened a person's heart.  That is what we seem to have in the Isaiah quotation found in the New Testament passages listed above, people who already have hard hearts that are hardened even further by the hearing of God's word.  God hardened their hearts by his word.

We today seem to think that the door of opportunity for salvation remains open endlessly for a man.  It makes, so we think, little difference whether I obey the gospel today or twenty years from now (assuming one should live that long).  If we as Christians are living in unfaithfulness we have much the same attitude about time.  We think I can always repent.  However, the Bible says, "Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor. 6:2 NKJV)

Not only do we not know the day or hour of our death neither do we know whether we shall be hardened making salvation impossible.  I do not say God will directly harden your heart (nor would I say he would not) but I know you can harden your own and I also know when people are rebellious long enough and beyond hope that God will give them up (Israel and Judah of Old Testament times being examples).  Judgment day is not necessarily some day off in the distant future.  For all practical purposes judgment day for you or me is the day we die or otherwise become incapable of responding to the Lord.  Here is a quote from the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2:  New Testament, page 34; I think is applicable, "The cumulative effect of unbelief is a hardened attitude that becomes more impenetrable as time progresses."  

God is a God of love who offers to all the hope of salvation, at least up to a point in time largely determined by our own hearts.  God will use us to accomplish or fulfill his will.  If we are willing we can be a vessel of his for honor (2 Tim. 2:21).  But, if we are unwilling he can if he so desires still use us for his glory as he did the Egyptians who drowned in the Red Sea.  We get to choose which way it will be.  We are all given free will for a time but who can say how long or short a time that may be?

"Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor. 6:2 NKJV)  "Today, if you will hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." (Heb. 3:15 NKJV)  Amen!

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