All major religions, and many of the minor ones, reference God in the highest terms of leniency and compassion and it is taken for granted that his grace and mercy abound for them in a never-ending stream. The Moslems refer to God as Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. Judaism, in the Amidah, Final Benedictions call Yahweh (YHWH), You are our God... Thy mercies are endless. In Christianity many prayers and rituals begin, O merciful God and loving Father, whose mercy is from everlasting...
Jews and Christians alike relish the most powerful Psalm (Psalm 136:1-26) dealing with the everlasting nature of God's mercy and in the Jewish Passover service, the Haggadah, one of the prayers in it is called the Great Hallel, Psalm 136. In it the phrase "God's mercy endureth forever" is repeated 26 times.
How then is it possible that this loving, compassionate, merciful God could stop Pharaoh from doing what Moses requested and then turn around and punish him for not granting the Moses' request.
Is God merciful to some people and not to others?
To those people to whom God is not merciful responsible for their actions or are their actions imposed on them by fate, or God?
How then are we to regard acts of defiance or rebellion, or any act of sin, if the perpetrator is under supernatural influence?
These are important questions and the easy way out would be to draw an analogy with the sun, that we all regard as neutral, and put it like this. No one regards the sun as unfair or discriminatory yet the same sun that moistens wax will harden the clay because the difference is in the substances themselves.
That would be too easy and cries out for amplification.
Let us examine a particular verse of Scripture and try to understand how God acts toward people.
" And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go." (Exodus 4:21)
Notice the words carefully, "but I will harden his heart" for these are the contentious words we need to understand.
In reading all the related Scriptures dealing with the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh it is clear that Pharaoh hardened his own heart ten specific times. Some would claim that the Jewish way of seeing events is that if they occurred, then God who has the ability to permit or prevent them, actually does perform them. They therefore see disasters of all kinds as acts of God.
Some would explain this by saying that God foresaw that Pharaoh would harden his heart, and not let Israel go at first, and used the occasion to demonstrate to the world the utter folly of defying God and choosing our own way. So when God said, "but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go" he was saying in substance that He let Pharaoh's heart be hardened, not allowing him grace and compassion for a change of heart because that is what an obstinate Pharaoh wanted in the circumstance.
However there is more to it than this.
God's hardening of man's heart, Judicial Hardening as it is sometimes called, can occur when confronted with the grace and mercy of God one chooses rejection and detestation. Not only did that happen to Pharaoh it is happening all around us still. The Gospel is still being preached and often rejected with impunity but there can be serious consequences.
The Bible gives us many warnings of these serious consequences and risks. (Emphasis mine)
"Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and THEIR FOOLISH HEART WAS DARKENED." (Romans 1:21)
" Wherefore GOD ALSO GAVE THEM UP to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves." (Romans 1:24)
"And for this cause God shall SEND THEM STRONG DELUSION, THAT THEY SHOULD BELIEVE A LIE: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)
"And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, GOD GAVE THEM OVER TO A REPROBATE MIND, to do those things which are not convenient." (Romans 1:28)
Burton Coffman's Bible Commentary on Romans 1:28 puts it very well like this, "All of the horrors of Gentile paganism began with neglect of the worship of God and the omission of thanksgiving due to the Father, and this surely suggests that such sins are not merely "faults," but are radical and determinative. Thus, there can be nothing more important for humanity than a willing acceptance of divine light and the constant love and pursuit of it, coupled with diligent worship, prayer, and thanksgiving, which things will polarize the soul with reference to its Maker, and perpetuate the knowledge of God upon the earth. Failure to observe such an important duty will cut all the roots which nourish the flowers of every truth and virtue."
So if God has given up on someone, hardened their heart or act towards them unjustly, can we still regard God as just and merciful?
Let us examine a typical, appropriate scripture. "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction." (Romans 9:22)
Romans 9:22 is a difficult verse to understand if you ignore proper exegesis and deal with what it implies. The implication of this verse is that God has created a people, or in the case of Pharaoh a man, for the sole purpose of destruction so that he may show how powerful he is. If this implication was correct then God would have the right to destroy them but to us that destruction would be clearly unjust. Since God is not and cannot be unjust there clearly has to be another explanation.
First vessels of wrath here mean the Jews. God made them to be vessels of honour, i.e. people who would be full of the things that bring honour and glory to God. Since God had done so much for them, choosing them as his people, endowing them with a fantastic land, showering them with majestic blessing and providential care, teaching them about good living and proper nutrition, etc., they ought in all reasonableness to show something for all of that. Instead they became idolatrous, wayward, turned their backs on God and acted worse than some heathen nations. And so when God looked at them they were no longer the apple of his eye and a joy to behold but a curse and a symbol of reproach to God and hence vessels of wrath. (Incidentally the same thing is true of Pharaoh but to a lesser degree)
God was mighty patient with Israel for centuries and in all conscience could have destroyed them within a hundred years of their entry to the Promised Land. God warned Israel of his judgment if they went astray and they transgressed mightily. Not a single prophet had anything good to say about Israel but were messengers to ask Israel to repent, to be reconciled to God, to return to covenant harmony and re-establish the bonds that held them together but Israel would not. When God asserted that he had "endured with much long-suffering" every fair-minded person would have said that God was TOO PATIENT. Remember how God dealt with Sodom and Gomorrah and the anti-diluvium world and these were not nations specially blessed and supported by God.
Now because Jesus had come, and the Jews had not only rejected him they actually murdered him, and by so doing ended their favoured status with God. Israel had made herself into a vessel of wrath and all vessels of wrath are slated for destruction whether they be Jew or Gentile, bond or free. God is therefore not unjust to show his power by reaching out and bringing Gentiles into his kingdom in place of Israel and letting Israel suffer the consequences of her choice and it in this context that Romans 9:22 is understood.
Likewise God is merciful and remains so forever but Pharaoh was a reprobate, defying God and all entreaties to do that which was reasonable, and so brought on himself and his people the full retribution of God's wrath. While it is true that God is long-suffering, He nevertheless has the right and sovereign power to bring waywardness and rebellion to an end. The Bible tells us, "And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man" (Genesis 6:3) and we should not provoke God to go to the next level, "If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me." (Deuteronomy 32:41)
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Dr. Henderson Ward received his Doctor of Divinity in theology, with distinction, from Masters International School of Divinity, USA, where he is currently a post-doctoral fellow. Dr. Ward's career involved pastoring, evangelism, and teaching. Copyright 2013
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