Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hardened Hearts and Human Choices - Part 1

This post is a response to the issues raised here (see comments). My friend Jawara has made some great points in his comment, and I hope I can build on the sound Biblical thinking he has articulated.

Many have struggled with the account of Pharaoh's hardened heart, and especially with Paul's explanation of the phenomenon in Romans 9. Jawara has mentioned that some interpretations of this seem to imply double predestination (i.e., God specifically elected or predestined Pharaoh for destruction just as He elects and predestines believers for salvation), and some imply that God is the author of evil. In this first part, I'm going to examine these questions dealing only with the historical account found in Exodus. In part 2, the scope will be expanded to include Romans 9 and other relevant passages.

Making a golden statue of yourself - could this possibly be a sign of a wee bit of pride, maybe?

First, let's look at what Pharaoh was like BEFORE his heart was hardened. He was a rebel, a God-hater, a proud and selfish king ruling over an ancient empire. He was a cruel tormentor of the Jewish people and a worshiper of false gods. So, whatever God did in hardening Pharaoh's heart did not MAKE him a lost sinner. He was a lost sinner already, of his own choice and nature. God simply "strengthened" his heart in this condition because it suited God's purposes to do so. In no way did God violate Pharaoh's freedom of choice.

Second, let's talk about WHO hardened Pharaoh's heart. There are 20 references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in the Exodus narrative. In 10 cases, God is the one who hardens Pharaoh's heart (although 2 of these are God stating prior to the showdown with Pharaoh that He intends to harden his heart). On 6 occasions, the condition of Pharaoh's heart is described without any indication of WHO did the hardening (e.g., “Pharaoh's heart was hardened.”). 4 times Pharaoh hardens his own heart.

When the confrontation between Moses and the Egyptian king begins, there is no indication that God directly hardened Pharaoh's heart until late in the game, the first instance being in Ex. 9:12. By this time Pharaoh has already hardened his own heart two times (Ex. 8:15, 8:32). So, both God and Pharaoh are given credit for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. It was evidently a cooperative effort, not something God imposed upon Pharaoh against his will.

Three different Hebrew words are used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh's heart:

  1. Kabed - to be heavy*

  2. Hazaq - to be strong, hard (“perhaps our closest English equivalent is 'bullheaded'”)

  3. Qasha – to be hard, difficult, severe*

When Pharaoh hardens his own heart, Kabed is used three times, Qasha once, and Hazaq never. When God hardens Pharaoh's heart, Hazaq is used 7 times, Kabed twice, and Qasha once. The implications of this are worth pondering, but I won't offer any theories here. Suffice it to say that Pharaoh's heart was hardened by both his own choice and by God's intervention.

I have not mentioned the verb tenses, but there are instructive details in them for those who have the time and resources to do a deeper study.

There is also an interesting play on words in Ex. 14:4 and 14:17 -- Pharaoh's heart is hardened (Kabed), but God is going to be honored (Kabed) from this! Kabed is the usual Old Testament word for “glory, honor” as well as “heaviness.” Someone like John Piper or Jonathan Edwards could write an entire series of books on this.

Third, let's look at HOW Pharaoh's heart was hardened. Pharaoh's heart was hardened as he saw the display of God's mercy toward Israel and rejected that mercy for himself and his people. Consider this insight from Rex Andrews**

"Two things were to happen. Exodus 6:7, "Ye shall KNOW that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians." Israel should know the Lord, as Redeemer, by His mercy. And, Exodus 7:5, "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them." The same circumstances were to issue in knowing the Lord. Israel to know Him as redeemer and deliverer. Egypt to know Him in His power to judge them and to break their power over Israel. Israel to RECEIVE the delivering mercy and to prosper; Egypt to RESIST the delivering mercy and be overthrown. The same Lord, and the same mercy. Two different reactions to Him and to it. Two opposite effects produced and results established: I will have compassion on Israel and do him mercy. I will harden Pharaoh's heart and destroy his power over Israel. Yet only ONE mercy. And, as we shall see, it was offered to both." (What the Bible Teaches About Mercy, Zion, IL: Zion Faith Homes, 1985, Page 40)

Pharaoh's choice to harden his heart was God's opportunity to display His glory. This was God's sovereign work, but Pharaoh was still responsible and culpable for his decisions. God offers His
own (authoritative) interpretation of these events in Exodus 9:15-17,

For if by now I had put forth my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go.”

To paraphrase: “I've allowed you to remain when I could have ended your life already. I'm going to use your stubbornness to accomplish something great, but you're the one responsible for your sin.”

So, God extended and strengthened Pharaoh's chosen disposition in order to accomplish His own purpose. Pharaoh could justly have been destroyed at any time during the process, but God patiently bore with him until the appointed time. Although Pharaoh could choose to resist God, he could not do so on his own terms. In His own way and in His own time, God would use Pharaoh's sinful decision to reveal His glory.

The Lord causes Pharaoh's heart to become hard (lit. “difficult”), not by implanting evil in it, but by giving it over to its evil direction without restraint. . . . God's judgment on Pharaoh issued in mercy to Israel, Egypt, and the nations as they saw His power to save.” (The Reformation Study Bible, Note on Ex. 7:3)

Fourth, let's glory in God's great mercy toward us! Why did God redeem Israel? Mercy. Why did He choose, and call, and purchase, and rescue, and forgive, and save us? MERCY.

Surely we have all been guilty of hardening our hearts against the Holy One. We have disobeyed, exalted ourselves, chosen our own way, accused God of injustice, persecuted His people, made light of His judgments and rejected His kindness times without number. Every one of us is as liable to judgment as Pharaoh was, and it is only by God's mercy that we do not share his final end.

The nation of Israel was no more deserving of God's mercy than Pharaoh. They questioned God's motives, challenged His representatives, and scarcely escaped from Egypt before complaining about it. Most of those who crossed the Red Sea with Moses died in the wilderness over the course of 40 years' wandering – cursed because of their unbelief. And yet God graciously met their needs, fed and clothed them, and remained with them until the day of their death. Then He took their children into the Promised Land with victory, in spite of the fact that this generation also sinned in various ways during the campaign in Canaan. Faithful mercies.

The plagues that brought judgment on Egypt were a mercy to Israel. God revealed His power to SAVE His people by defeating their oppressors. His mercy was shown to the Hebrews as they were preserved and protected during the course of the 10 plagues. This display of mercy reached its culmination in the Passover, an event which painted a vivid picture of the Gospel – and it continues to speak even to this day. Fathomless mercies.

Had Pharaoh relented, the Passover would not have been necessary. Israel would have departed from Egypt without passing through the blood-stained door posts and partaking of the sacrificed lamb, which are illustrations of Christ's work on the cross. And there is no greater revelation of mercy than that found in the cross. Supreme mercy.

So, Pharaoh's seemingly insane resistance to God, resulting from his hardened heart, led to a wondrous display of amazing grace that reaches even to us!

Finally, let's marvel at the awe-inspiring sovereignty of God over all things. In Moses' day, there was no man more sovereign than Pharaoh. A word from this king could move armies, end lives, build cities, oppress peoples, and free slaves. His authority was absolute and his decrees were binding. Yet Pharaoh was no match for God.

God had Pharaoh under complete control, even while He allowed him the freedom to make his own choices. Pharaoh's worst choice could not possibly thwart a single purpose of God. All creatures exercise their wills within the bounds of God's overarching plan. Sovereignty means "God limits, orders and controls all things for His glory and our good." That limiting, ordering and controlling includes you, me . . . and Pharaoh.
This is probably what Pharaoh looks like to God
I know your mind is probably protesting this because mine is protesting as well. But we are touching the fringe of a deep mystery. Walther Eichrodt insightfully points out the Old Testament's dual affirmation of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility:

The fundamental postulate of moral freedom is thus found in equal force alongside the religious conviction of God's effective action in all things; and no attempt is made to create a harmonizing adjustment between them. It is testimony to the compelling power of the Old testament experience of God that it was able to affirm both realities at once, and to endure the tension between them, without discounting anything of their unconditional validity.” (Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols., translated by J. Baker, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967, pp. 178-179)

Does your experience with God have this “compelling power” that is “able to affirm both realities at once?” If you've got God wrapped up tight in a theological hat box, you may have missed the point. Knowledge about God is not a hat to be worn. It is more like a fog-shrouded mountain city to be explored and wondered at with new discoveries and new applications and new mercies every day. The Word is our flashlight and also our map. It leads us to find God in His city. But like Moses, we can only see His back as He passes by and declares His Name: “The LORD, the LORD GOD, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy and truth . . .” (Ex. 34:6). Our response should be the same as that of Moses, who “made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.” (Ex. 34:8) If you're wearing your theology like a little crown, bear in mind that you're bound to bump into the REAL King and get humbled before long. Seek humility now!

The account of Pharaoh's hardened heart boldly reflects the paradox. It warns us to be wary of making choices that God might use for His own purposes in a way that would lead to our justly deserved destruction. It also calls us to lay hold of His offered mercies, seeing that He is fully able to deliver those who are His. Thus, belief in a sovereign God does not make our choices insignificant and meaningless. On the contrary, such belief makes our choices more weighty than they would or could otherwise be. Yet they are kept firmly within the bounds of His choice.

Have we solved the mystery? No, we have only examined it and stated it in Biblical terms. We are not called to solve these mysteries, but rather to adore the One who CAN solve them, and to affirm the truth He reveals: that His choices are sovereign, and ours are merely significant.


By asserting that the hardening was initiated by Pharaoh's own choice, we can remove any possible implication that God was the author of Pharaoh's sin. And by the same assertion, we can do away with the unbalanced idea of double predestination. At the same time, we are able to place strong emphasis on God's sovereignty without removing human responsibility. And since the mercy shown to Israel is according to God's choice, not their deserving or merit, the doctrine of election is preserved to the glory of His grace. In this way we have done no damage to the Scriptures or our faith. Rather we have upheld both.

There's more to say about this, but it will have to wait for part 2.

Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be glory!

*I am indebted to Victor P Hamilton's
Handbook On The Pentateuch for an excellent discussion of the Hebrew words and a scholarly treatment of the entire subject. Refer to pages 167-174 of this book for deeper study.
What The Bible Teaches About Mercy, by Rex B. Andrews, is a devotional study which traces the theme of God's mercy through the entire Bible. Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Although the chapter does not directly address the tension between God's sovereignty and human choice, it is nonetheless an illuminating and provoking study. Andrews was a Pentecostal minister at the Zion Faith Homes in Zion, Illinois. Among those he influenced was Leonard Ravenhill, who is said to have consulted him for advice on many occasions. Andrews' teaching on divine mercy ripped my legalistic mindset to shreds and helped to build the bridge that eventually led me from Pentecostalism to Reformed theology. I recommend What The Bible Teaches About Mercy to everyone, based not on the theological background of its author, but on the foundational concept it presents. It is packed with useful exegesis that will directly challenge the heart and draw the soul to Christ, regardless of one's doctrinal persuasion.


  1. Derek,

    Great post. Tough topic.

    As to double predestination, I am obliged to say that the doctrine is not unbalanced, as your friend Jawara seemed to think, but only men's use of it. I would recommend a look at Sproul's article here.



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  3. Tony,

    Thanks for mentioning this interesting article by Dr. Sproul. In the way he articulates double predestination, I could possibly accept it. Actually, the first half of his article fits my own belief almost perfectly. However, I think it interesting that he criticizes dialectical theology (a.k.a. neo-orthodoxy). Neo-orthodoxy had its issues to be sure, yet its great strength was to bring paradox back into focus. About halfway through his article, R.C. Sproul begins to explore areas that I believe should be left less defined. The argument makes good logical sense, but it begins to reach the limit where explaining the Bible turns into making logical connections that MAY not be completely accurate. It's that "relentless logic" that I speak of in an early post on this blog. Put simply, R.C. Sproul is willing to go a little further in defining the deep mysteries than I am (I suppose it's part of his job!).

    I find a logical inconsistency in Sproul's assertion that the decree of reprobation is made in light of the fall. I think this is a weak spot in his argument, but perhaps I am missing something.

    After reading Sproul's article, I feel much more at ease with some who say they believe in double predestination. However, there are many who believe in the "hyper" version of the doctrine and call it by the same name. Hence the need to define terms, I suppose. Ultimately, I don't want to even appear to embrace what truly is heresy: that God is the author of evil. That would be a disservice to Him Who loved us, Who shed His blood, Who IS LOVE, Who is full of mercy and compassion for sinners even though they have chosen to rebel against Him.

  4. “He does not monergistically work sin or unbelief in their lives. Even in the case of the "hardening" of the sinners' already recalcitrant hearts, God does not, as Luther stated, ‘work evil in us (for hardening is working evil) by creating fresh evil in us.’2 Luther continued…”He who would understand these matters, however, should think thus: God works evil in us (that is, by means of us) not through God's own fault, but by reason of our own defect.” [R.C. Sproul, Double Predestination and Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), p. 206.]

    “The Lord causes Pharaoh's heart to become hard (lit. “difficult”), not by implanting evil in it, but by giving it over to its evil direction without restraint. . . . God's judgment on Pharaoh issued in mercy to Israel, Egypt, and the nations as they saw His power to save.” (The Reformation Study Bible, Note on Ex. 7:3)

    Brother Ashton,

    These above quotes are the types of explanations that baffle me. Follow the logic with my comments following:

    1. “God does not work evil in us.”
    2. “for hardening is working evil”
    3. “God works evil in us”
    4. “(that is, by means of us)”
    5. “Not through God’s own fault”
    6. “but, by reason of our own defect”

    If proposition one is true then how can three be true (by any means—see proposition 4). If it is “by means of us” why do we say its “Him”? More importantly why does the text say it is “Him” (ie. God)? This is what happens when we loose site of the text and get absorbed in the reasoning of our minds. If proposition 3 is true then proposition 5 can’t be true. How can you work something and it not be your own fault? Lord knows I don’t have the background Sproul and Luther have. But I don’t believe I have created a straw man. I do know the scriptures make a distinction between God hardening and us hardening. They must do this for a reason.

    Notice the second quote. The Lord is causing in clause “A” and by clause “C” He is not restraining.

    I have come to the conclusion that there are but two approaches theologians use to tackle this tension. I’m not sure if there are anymore. Either you must develop some theory of “Passive Causality” or properly redefine from scripture what “evil” really is as it concerns God’s hardening of a heart. The above quotes demonstrate attempts at the former approach. This approach seems to give certain words a “wax nose” and seems to contradict the texts. The passive causality approach seems to be self contradictory. I believe the latter approach is the one that seems to coincide with the text. We would have to make some distinctions and define some parameters. As long as theses distinctions and parameters come from the text then we are ok. Questions like “is it ok for God to harden the heart of a subject after he has hardened his own heart”, and “Does God have certain prerogatives in this area that humans don’t have?” All important questions to be explored at a later date. God Bless. Jawara

  5. Jawara,

    I believe you have misread Luther & Sproul. The quotation is a bit confusing, but I think it is saying this:

    Luther states that God DOES work evil in us, but the way he does it is not by implanting fresh evil. He "works" the evil that is already there. How? By giving us over to that evil.

    This would be consistent with Romans 1, where God's ACTIVE (and most severe) judgment against sinners is simply to let them go ahead unrestrained in their sin. Election, on the other hand, is where God DOESN'T let us go, but intervenes decisively (monergistically, if you will) to save us. Read over Sproul's explanation of Luther again, and see if this makes more sense.

    I am not in full agreement with Dr. Sproul on some points, not because I have a better argument, but because I don't think we can have ABSOLUTE certainty beyond a certain level (specifically, the level of plain Biblical revelation). Sproul may be completely correct, I'm just not sure I trust human logic to assert some things about God's deep workings. I believe we do best to leave some of this in the "mystery" category. Our first theological commitment must be to the Bible, not Calvinism (or any other theological system). Calvinism goes a step further than Scripture on some points, and it is on these points that I rely on Calvinism for guidance but do not take it as absolute truth (i.e., the Reformed TULIP is not equal to the Bible, though the two largely coincide). I have no arguments against the 5 points of Calvinism, but I take them with a grain of salt, if you will. I accept them as part of the larger paradox of God's sovereignty working in conjunction with human choice. Historically, Reformed doctrine has been explained as paradox since at least the time of Augustine and probably much earlier.

    Ultimately, I believe this is the only way to properly understand the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. It was God working sovereignly, man choosing responsibly, and the two parts connecting mysteriously. The Holy Spirit had a redemptive purpose for telling us the story, and I think I touched on part of this in my post. I don't need to tell you that the rexdemptive purpose was not for us to "figure out" HOW God did what He did. Nevetheless, we have to wrestle with the questions that naturally arise. Let us be challenged by the story, and as Paul commends, find encouragement and hope in it.

  6. He "works" the evil that is already there. How? By giving us over to that evil.

    That's the phrase that I am struggling with. I am trying my best to undersstand it and those like it. I am going to keep praying and researching the scriptures for patterns like this in the positive and negative sense. I need to see in scripture where "giving over" or "not restraining" is the same as working or hardening. I do agree with you that some seem to go beyond the text to "Possible" solutions. The ones posted above just read like contradictions to me. When the authors try to qualify them they just seem to reword them in a different way. I don't care how many ways you say "I did something to him by letting him do it to himself", it just sounds contradictory to me. They may be both occuring at the same time, but they are not interchangeable. To me it would be far better to say I don't know. Who knows? It may not be a mystery. Anyway, I guess we've beaten this dead horse to death. God bless and thanks for the iron, Jawara

  7. Just a thought in response to your comment... could it be that it is so natural for God to reach out to us and meet our need that, when he removes His hand and lets us go, it is a very deliberate act that qualifies more as an ACTIVE event than a passive one? After all, He restrains us by grace each and every day. If He did not, every one of us would be swept away in the torrent of iniquity that we and our fellow human beings have made. Instead of this being our constant experience, we get patience from God and opportunities to repent, followed by occasional judgments at the appointed times. Indeed His mercies are over the WHOLE EARTH (Ps. 119), and they prevail over us (Ps. 117). Mercy triumphs over judgment. But if that mercy is removed, we perish as naturally as a rock sinks into the ocean when we drop it from the pier. The rock's "nature" provides the mass, its environment provides the gravity, but we made a deliberate choice to stop holding onto it. So we and the rock are both involved (obviously this breaks down because the rock has no will, but imagine if the rock was BITING our hand and SCREAMING for us to let go of it, while challenging our authority to hold it in the first place - then who would blame us for letting it have the destruction it craves by choosing to open our hand?)

    Just a thought.

  8. Yes, that is precisely the point of Theoparadox. God's ways are too deep for us. As the heavens are higher than the earth . . .

    God bless you brother - I've been blessed by this study. Part 2 is coming soon.

  9. Derek this is really good and exciting! I think we are making headway. The explanation you gave makes a true and biblical point. I still need help with a distinction. If the example you provided describes God hardening our hearts, what example would be provided for us hardening our own hearts?

    By the way, I’m Glad you gave an illustration. I’m usually hesitant to give them because people become so obsessed with finding every minor discrepancy that you loose track of what the conversation was about. If I see your point; then I see your point!

    Anyway, it’s what's happening at the instance of hardening (in both cases) that I’m concerned about most. Not so much the process. I believe the answer is somewhere in you example. We just need to find a LEGITIMATE distinction between what PHARAOH did to his heart and what GOD did to his heart. A distinction that represents the magnitude of distinction reflected in the wording of the Biblical text. A distinction that the author felt was significant enough to identify. Then we can publish our book, do some lectures, retire and live happily ever after! :)

    God Bless, Jawara

  10. Jawara,

    Ha ha ha, it would be fun to go around and teach God's Word with you!

    Good question, and good point. Doesn't "hardening" by God and "hardening" by self have to be essentially the same?

    A piece of the answer may lie in the three different Hebrew words used to describe hardening. God does all three: Kabed, Hazaq, & Qasha (but mostly Hazaq). Pharaoh only does Kabed & Qasha (mostly Kabed). So, apparently God has prerogatives that go beyond what we are able to do by our own choice (which is inherent in God being sovereign, omnipotent, our creator etc.).

    On this next point, I may be going astray from your intention - let me know if I am. The Old Testament sometimes attributes some of the most unimaginable things to God. For example, it says God incited David to conduct a census - an act on David's part which God judged as sinful. What??? God inciting a man to do something sinful? How can this be? Here again we probably have to view the situation as God sovereignly allowing (i.e., "not restraining") a sinful choice on man's part in order to reveal His own glory to mankind. But the point I am trying to make is this: The Hebrews' view of God's was so encompassing that they believed God was behind EVERYTHING. We might say the same thing, either by His revealed will or by His hidden decree. Perhaps God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart was simply a way to show that God was in control of the situation, not Pharaoh, ultimately. That within His hidden decree Pharaoh would go headlong into sin according to his own nature (and choice) and be destroyed. This is all set firmly in the paradox referred to by Eichrodt.

    Is this heading in the direction you were thinking?

    Grace & peace,

  11. Oops, I lost a word in there. It should read "The Hebrews' view of God's SOVEREIGNTY was so encompassing that they believed God was behind EVERYTHING." I should also clarify that EVERYTHING does not include sin. I'm getting deep into mystery here, but I will add this: I am inclined to believe that sin is a NEGATION of what God has willed, not a part of the EVERYTHING that God has made. Sin is the will of the creature refusing, resisting, twisting or corrupting the good which God has ordained. Hence, it "exists" not because it was created (as God created the angels, the world, heaven, the animals, man, etc.). It exists ONLY because creatures used their God-given autonomy to turn against what God created. But at this point I'm so deep in mystery I can't even defend what I've proposed. Let's get back on topic, quick!

  12. Euereka! Don't quit on me I need you to carry me through. That's exactly the direction I am going. I think we may be unraveling the mystery. Especially with your Hebrew view of sovereignty proposal. If we can find Biblical warrant (implicit or explicit) for this "hardening" being a LEGITIMATE figure of speech in Hebrew culture to express God's sovereignty I could then except it as being two ways to say the same thing. A consistent pattern in its usage would suffice for me. Otherwise it would have to just remain a theory. Warning! I don't want to make it up as I go along in order satisfy myself, as my sinful heart is prone to do. So don't let me wing it. It does seem that everywhere these types of phrases are used it involves some sovereign ruler or nation as a whole. See example below:

    "But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today (Deuteronomy 2:30).

    Let's see if we can find any more of theses examples. Also let's do a word study on the Hebrew words you brought up and see where it leads. This solution (Figure of Speech) would be much better than the "Passive Causality" or "Active Second Hardening" approaches we have been looking at. We wouldn’t have to ignore the true meanings and voices of the word nor would we risk charging God foolishly. The Judge of the earth shall do right.

    Praise God Derek, Jawara

  13. I was enjoying reading this post...

  14. Natasa,

    Thanks, I'm glad this post is a blessing to you. I've read some of your comments on the Truth Matters blog, and you are very welcome here at THEOparadox.

    Derek Ashton


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