Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 3)

Q. Peter clearly states in his second letter that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  Several statements in the Bible that seem to be contrary to this don’t make sense to me.  Two examples are Joshua 11:20, “The Lord hardened their hearts . . . that they might receive no mercy,” and John 12:40, “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn, and I would heal them.”   Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for all of us to get to Him?  So why would God discourage some people from believing or make it harder for them than for others?  Related to this is the way people or nations had their hearts hardened so that God could demonstrate his power. Pharaoh seemed ready to let the Israelites go, but instead God hardened his heart and the plagues came, including death to all the first born.

In my first post in response to this question I looked at the statement from the book of Joshua.  In my next post I considered the one from the book of John, which was actually a quotation from Isaiah.  In this final post I will share some reflections about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Benjamin West, "Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh"
Benjamin West, “Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh”

It’s often observed, quite accurately, that Pharaoh actually hardens his own heart after each of the first five plagues (as well as the seventh), and it’s only after that, as if to confirm Pharaoh in a course of action he’s already chosen, that the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart after the sixth, eighth, and ninth plagues.

However, this interpretation does not take into account sufficiently God’s statement to Moses about Pharaoh before any of the plagues started, before Moses even returned to Egypt: “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”  This makes it sound as if God’s action of hardening was prior to Pharaoh’s choice to harden his own heart.

But I think we need to go back even earlier than that.  The basic question over the course of the plagues is whether Pharaoh will “recognize” Yahweh (in the diplomatic sense).  Pharaoh tells Moses, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go”–“know” in the sense of “recognize,” “acknowledge.”  To Pharaoh Yahweh is just a desert deity who has no business trying to make demands of the ruler of the civilized world!

This is why God tells Moses even earlier, at the burning bush, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” Pharaoh lived in a might-makes-right world, and since he had the might, he was used to being right.  That was why he allowed himself to oppress people like the Israelites so severely.  In other words, it’s the character of Pharaoh, as a merciless, despotic ruler, that starts the whole chain of events in which Yahweh is required to demonstrate his might in order to free his captive people.  Through the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (which didn’t require much divine intervention to start with), Yahweh is effectively saying, “If you insist on a demonstration of power, I’m going to make sure you get a real one.”

We may still be uncomfortable, justifiably, at the way so many Egyptians suffer from the plagues, particularly at the way the firstborn of Egypt are all killed in the last plague.  But we can’t overlook the way countless Israelites also suffered and died in Egyptian slavery over the preceding centuries.  Pharaoh’s actions, one way or another, were bound to affect a lot of people because he had so much power.  The world is a tightly interconnected web of relationships and God can’t deal with one person without this necessarily affecting other people.  So while we can and should be distressed at the way the Egyptians suffered, we should also ask ourselves whether other people are being positively influenced by our own cooperation with God or rather negatively affected by our resistance to God.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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