(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for Today: Exodus 8
Petrified hearts are very difficult to cure.
If I have hardening of the arteries, I can exercise more or take Lipitor. But a hardened heart is much more difficult to treat and, ultimately, much more deadly. Just ask Pharaoh.
Throughout this entire encounter concerning Pharaoh and the children of Israel (basically Exodus ch. 5-14), there is a great battle of wills going on: good versus evil, the underdog versus the favorite, slaves versus their oppressors. And in this great melee of threats and consequences, of offensives and counter attacks, one phrase is used over and over: “hardened heart.”
Nineteen times with in this account,Pharaoh’s heart–in some way, by some means–becomes petrified. Three times Pharaoh actively hardens his own heart. Ten times its God who does the hardening. Twice we read about Pharaoh’s heart being passively hardened (without mention of any direct agent). And four times we just have a description of the fact that Pharaoh’s heart is stone-like. Confused yet?
The problem lies in the classic conundrum between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. (Basically, if God is in absolute control over everything, how can I be held responsible for choices I never really made? Or its opposite: “If God is not totally and completely sovereign over everything, how can He really be God?”) Thus, if we lean too much on the sovereignty side, we end up with no such thing as choice or freedom. But, if we lean too much on the free will side, then we are very much in danger of watering down God into a lesser being. Good luck trying to reconcile these positions on your own–we could easily spend the rest of the next decade arguing.
And so we need to turn, not to philosophy, but to the Word for our answers. In just one chapter–chapter 9–we have all four categories:
v. 7 “Yet [Pharaoh’s] heart was unyielding…” (Passive)
v. 12 “The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart…” (Active- God)
v. 34 “[Pharaoh] and his officials hardened their hearts…” (Active- Pharaoh)
v. 35 “So Pharaoh’s heart was hard…” (Descriptive)
So which way is it? All of the above.
Was God responsible? Yes.
Was Pharaoh responsible? Yes.
Is God in total control of everything in this universe? Yes.
Does mankind have any kind of real choice in the matter? Yes.
The Word of God affirms both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
To deny either is to go against what has been given to us. We affirm what Job said concerning God: “I know that You can do all things; no plan of Yours can be thwarted (1).”
God is fully in control. Nothing occurs that He didn’t already know about. Yet at the same time, we recognize that each of us faces the same choice that Joshua gave to the Israelites: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve (2).” We human beings, unique among the rest of earth’s creatures, have been given the dignity of freedom and choice. We are not robots, our decisions are not predetermined by our genes, the devil did not make us do it, and we cannot blame God or anyone else for our choices.
In our current situation, God clearly knew the outcome, and how Pharaoh would respond when Moses demanded, “Let my people go!” At the same time, Pharaoh cannot blame God at all, because he freely chose to oppose Moses; he is responsible for the condition of his own heart.
God used even the disobedience of Pharaoh to bring glory to his Name. All of Pharaoh’s best attempts could not keep God’s people in bondage. This whole account just gives us a glimpse of the pure genius of God, who incorporates our free decisions into His totally sovereign plan.
(1) Job 42:2
(2) Joshua 24:15