The Hardening of Pharaoh and the Hope of the World

How shall we know God? How shall we know what God is like and how we are to think about him? When I ask myself this question, one response comes crashing into my mind with overwhelming certitude: human opinion counts for nothing. What you feel about the way God should be and what I feel about the way God should be counts for nothing. If someone rises up and makes a pronouncement about what they can believe and can’t believe about God, that is as significant in determining what is true about God as the creaking of a window in the wind. Human opinion counts for nothing in defining God.

How then shall we know him? For it is very crucial that we know him. If he is there, nothing in the universe matters more than he does. If he is there, he is like the thunder clap and we are like the scratch on a faint recording. If he is there, he is like the sun shining in full strength and we are like dust-mote floating in the morning beam of bedroom light. If he is there, he is absolute and we are utterly dependent.

But now I am risking putting my opinions forward, which don’t matter at all. How shall we know him? We will know him by his own initiative to reveal himself. This he did most clearly and powerfully in sending his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Then he said that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his apostles into all truth so that the truth of Christ and the Father would be preserved and displayed in the inspired word of Scripture (John 16:13). The effect of this promise was that the apostles could say, “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13).

Drawing Upon the Old Testament

But the apostles and their associates who preserved the truth of Christ for us in their gospels and letters were led by the Spirit in them to immerse themselves in the Old Testament as well as the teachings of Jesus. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1). As the Spirit led the apostles into all truth, he did so by leading them to a true and deep understanding of what God had done and said in the Old Testament.

This is what we see all through the book of Romans, especially in chapter 9 where we have been since November 3. In Romans 9:4–5 he deals with “the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises, the patriarch” — all of which he sees in the Old Testament. In verses 6–12 he deals with Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau from Genesis. In verse 13 he refers to Malachi 1:2–3, “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.” In verse 15 he quotes Exodus 33:19 (“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”), and builds his argument for the justice of God on it. And then in verse 17 he quotes Exodus 9:16 and concludes from it in verse 18, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

So if we ask: How can we know God? God’s answer is: I reveal myself to you mainly in my Son Jesus Christ, and through his inspired apostles in the New Testament, who take us back to the earlier revelation of God in history and show us that all of divine revelation is of one piece. The God of the Exodus is the God of Romans. The God who dealt with Pharaoh is the God who deals with us.

So Paul roots his teaching about the sovereignty of God and the freedom of God and unconditional election in the Old Testament at every point in Romans 9. He is eager for us to see that New Testament revelation of God is one with Old Testament revelation of God.

Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:17

So here we are now in Exodus 9:16 which Paul quotes in Romans 9:17. It would be good to see that quotation in Romans and what Paul infers from it. In Romans 9:17–18 Paul says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

What Paul is doing here in verse 18 is reaching back to verses 15–16 and summing up the freedom of God in mercy (“He has mercy on whomever he wills”), and he is drawing out of the Exodus story about Pharaoh the freedom of God in hardening (“He hardens whomever he wills”).

Unconditional Hardening

Before we go back there to see what Paul saw in Exodus let’s make sure we see what Paul says here. What does he mean in Romans 9:18 by the words, “He hardens who he wills”? There are at least seven reasons for thinking he meant: God is free in hardening whom he hardens and does not base his decision whom to harden on anything a person does.

“The hardening of God does not make fault impossible, it makes fault certain.”

Before I show you the seven reasons, let’s be sure you know what I am saying, and what he is saying. When I say that he hardens whom he wills, I mean he decides who will rebel in their hardness of unbelief and therefore deservingly be condemned. The hardening of God does not make fault impossible, it makes fault certain.

Now here is the mystery — which is why the opinions of man don’t count for much — people who are hardened against God are really guilty. They have real fault. They are really blameworthy. They really deserve to be judged. And God decided who would be in that condition. If you demand an explanation for how this can be — that God decides who is hardened and yet they have real guilt and real fault — there are pointers in the Bible. But they will not satisfy the natural, fallen, human mind.

I do not offer that explanation now. I simply assert what I see in the word: God hardens whom he wills, and man is accountable. God’s hardening does not take away guilt, it renders it certain.

Seven Contextual Evidences for Unconditional Hardening

Now, what are the evidences in this text that the words “He hardens whomever he wills,” in Romans 9:18 means that God freely and unconditionally decides who will be hard and who will not?

1. That’s what the words most naturally mean. “He hardens whomever he wills,” says that his will and not our will is decisive in hardening. To be sure, our will rebels and is hard against God. But the natural meaning of these words is that God’s will is decisive beneath and behind our willing without nullifying the importance of our will.

2. The exact parallel with mercy shows that the act of God in hardening is as unconditional as the act of God in having mercy. Verse 18 says, “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” So if we believe that God’s showing mercy is unconditional, the most natural way to take the parallel is that the hardening is unconditional.

3. This is in fact exactly what Paul infers from God’s words in verse 15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” Paul draws out of this in verse 16, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” If that is what “I have mercy on whom I have mercy” means, then it is probably what “I harden whom I harden” means, namely, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who hardens.”

4. The parallel with Jacob and Esau shows that mercy and hardening are unconditional. Paul said in verses 11 and 13, “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad . . . As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” In other words, the context demands that Paul address not just the love and mercy part of God’s sovereignty but also the hate and hardening part of God’s sovereignty. The parallel with Jacob and Esau in verse 13 shows that the hardening and the mercy are unconditional.

5. The objection and Paul’s answer to it in verse 19 show that Paul did not deal with God’s sovereignty the way most people deal with it today. Paul raises the objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” Now at this point most people today say, God finds fault because his hardening is a response to our prior self-hardening. For example, one popular, and usually good commentary says,

Neither here nor anywhere else is God said to harden anyone who had not first hardened himself. That Pharaoh hardened his heart against God and refused to humble himself is made plain in the story. So God’s hardening of him was a judicial act, abandoning him to his own stubbornness. (John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World [InterVarsity Press, 1994], 269, quoting Leon Morris)

“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

Let me say this calmly and firmly: that is exactly the opposite of what Romans 9:18 teaches. And the fifth reason that I say so is this: Paul could have so easily removed the objection of verse 19 that way, and he did not! The objector hears Paul say, “God hardens whomever he wills,” and he responds, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” How easily Paul could have answered the objection with all the answers of modern man! And he didn’t. Because they are the wrong answer. They turn his teaching right on its head. He said, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Indeed he said more — but in a direction exactly the opposite of what people today (or then) expect.

6. Verse 21 shows that Paul sees mercy and hardening as unconditional because he speaks of the objects of mercy and hardening as coming from the same lump of clay: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump [there’s the crucial phrase!] one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” The stress is that it was not the nature of the clay that determined what God would do with it. It was the free and wise and sovereign will of the potter. He has mercy on whom he wills and he hardens whom he wills — from the same lump of clay.

7. We read in Romans 11:7: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” In other words, the decisive issue in who is hardened and who is not is election, not some prior willing or running on our part, but God who elects. “The elect obtained it, the rest were hardened” (Romans 11:7). “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13). “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18).

A Mystery

Now let me say again, after these seven reasons for believing in God’s freedom in mercy and hardening, that I have not removed a mystery, I have stated a mystery. God hardens unconditionally and those who are hardened are truly guilty and truly at fault in their hard and rebellious hearts. Their own consciences will justly condemn them. If they perish, they will perish for real sin and real guilt. How God freely hardens and yet preserves human accountability we are not explicitly told.

It is the same mystery as how the first sin entered the universe. How does a sinful disposition arise in a good heart? The Bible does not tell us. To call the mystery “free will” — ultimate human self-determination — is only to put another name on it. Why would a perfectly good, ultimately self-determining creature (if there were such being) ever do evil? Ultimate human self-determination no more explains the mystery of the origin of evil than unconditional election explains the guilt of the hardened sinner. All it does is give the mystery a different name.

The real question is: Which is the more biblical name of the mystery, “Ultimate human self-determination” or “Unconditional election”? Romans 9:18 is plain in its context to all who will see: “God has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” The mystery remains, but the revelation is clear.

Seeing What Paul Saw in the Old Testament

Now, where did Paul see this in the Old Testament? The answer in Romans 9:17 is that he saw it in the story of the Exodus where God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. He quotes Exodus 9:16. So let’s go back there and see what Paul saw.

You recall what is happening. God has sent Moses and Aaron to command Pharaoh to let his people go. Pharaoh refuses over and over, and God multiplies his wonders in Egypt with more and more miracles — ten plagues and then a great sea-splitting deliverance — to show that he is God and Pharaoh is nothing in his rebellion. Eighteen times Exodus refers to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart so that he does not let the people go.

Just before the verse that Paul quotes (Exodus 9:16), it says, for example, in Exodus 9:12, “But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them as the Lord had spoken to Moses.” The key here is the phrase “as the Lord had spoken to Moses.” When had God said to Moses that Pharaoh would harden his heart and not listen to them? Two times: one of them before Moses had ever arrived in Egypt (the other in Exodus 7:3 before any mention is made of Pharaoh’s self-hardening).

In Exodus 4:21 Moses is preparing to go to Egypt, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.’” The reason this is so important is that time after time you hear people say that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart doesn’t start until the seventh plague and is the result of his own self-hardening.

But that is not true. God said to Moses before he ever arrived in Egypt: This is what I am going to do. I am going to harden Pharaoh’s heart. And this is what happens in the very first meetings with Pharaoh, not just the later ones:

  • Before the first plague. Exodus 7:13: “Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.”

  • After the first plague. Exodus 7:22: “But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.”

  • After the second plague. Exodus 8:15: “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.”

  • After the third plague. Exodus 8:19: “Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.”

And in every case what the Lord had said was, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21; see Exodus 7:3). The point is this: whether it says Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:15) or that his heart “was hardened” (Exodus 8:19) in each case it is happening “as the Lord had said,” and what he had said was, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Which means that behind “self-hardening” and behind the “being hardened” is the plan and purpose of God. It is not described as a response to what Pharaoh does, but as a sovereign rule over what Pharaoh does. Paul sees this and draws it out and states it in Romans 9:18, “[God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

Relating This to the Righteousness of God

Now how does this relate to God’s righteousness? Remember, that is the issue in this part of Romans 9: “Is there then unrighteousness on God’s part?” It relates very directly. Recall the definition of God’s righteousness that we found last week: God’s righteousness is his unwavering commitment to uphold and display the greatness of his glory and the honor of his name.

Now we see why Paul chose to quote Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:17 rather than one of the verses that relate directly to hardening. Instead he quotes a verse that shows the purpose why God exercised his freedom in hardening as well as mercy: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”

“God’s freedom in mercy and hardening is at the heart of God’s glory and God’s name.”

He chose a verse that expressed the very purpose that relates implicitly to the righteousness of God and the hope of the world: namely, God’s commitment to uphold and display the honor of his name — “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” In other words, God’s freedom in mercy and hardening is at the heart of God’s glory and God’s name. This is what it means to be God — to be ultimately free and unconstrained from powers outside himself. Treasuring and displaying this glory and this name is right — it is the meaning of “right.” And it is God’s purpose for the whole earth. He will reveal it to the whole earth.

Here is the sum of the matter, and may it cure us of much trifling with God. He is just in all his dealings. And the essence of his justice is the regard he has to the infinite worth of his own glory and his own name, that is, his own freedom and sovereignty.

And let us remember the point from last week: the central act in the universe where God displayed this righteousness and vindicated the worth of his glory was in the sending of his Son to die so that he might pass over sins and justify the ungodly. Let no sin and no sense of unworthiness keep you from coming to him for salvation.

In connection with John Piper’s sermon on the hardening of Pharoah’s heart, he wrote the following hymn in order that we might publicly proclaim the glory and freedom and justice of God in this great mystery.

“Is There Injustice with Our God?”