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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Who Hardened Whose Heart?

Sovereignty discussion time.

Scripture is rife with examples of the peculiar streak of human perversity that sets itself against the will of God to the bitter end. But even with all that competition, Pharaoh and his Egyptians must surely rank in the Top Ten.

Or do they? What about this verse:

“Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And the Lord made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.”

On the face of it, Christian determinists would seem to have good reason to jump on the words of the Psalmist and say, “Aha, you see, it says that God ‘turned the hearts’ of the Egyptians to hate his people. They didn’t have a choice!”

Except they did. Let’s look at why.

The Turning of Egyptian Hearts

When you read the actual history to which the Psalmist is referring, which is found in Exodus 1 and onward, you see in a little more detail how exactly the Egyptians’ hearts were “turned”:
“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”
Determinists may see the mere illusion of choice here, and that is certainly their prerogative. But to me, this looks awfully like a series of well-considered and logical political decisions rather than a blind, unprovoked hatred that descends on the Egyptians like some kind of bewitchment.

Well-Considered, Logical Politics

Why do I say this?
  1. Choosing to persecute Israel is rational: “Let us deal shrewdly”, they say. It’s the smart play. The decision bears the hallmark of human consideration and reason, not mystical singlemindedness.
  2. The decisions to persecute Israel are gradual and multiple, not singular: This is not an instant change of demeanor toward Israel, but one that takes place over a period of years by degrees. The Israelites continue to prosper and multiply, and the Egyptians ratchet up the pressure as they see their machinations are producing the precise opposite of what was intended, as many government policies do to this day.
  3. The choices involve a number of people, not a single tyrannical figure: “Let us”, Pharaoh says, not just “me”. “He said to his people”, we are told. He has advisors, he has administrators, and everyone is on board. This is not one guy singularly bringing the judgment of God on a bunch of innocent Egyptians but a matter of policy enthusiastically applied by an entire nation.
  4. The implementation of Egypt’s efforts to curb the Israeli population involves the brutal, anti-God device of child murder: Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives to kill baby boys (“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”)
Those who want to make God the sole author of the Egyptian persecution have to make him a baby killer. And I’m sorry, but that is not the nature of God. And the Hebrew midwives knew it. We read that they “feared God” and “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them”. Hebrew midwives thousands of years ago, without the text of scripture that Christians rely on today, and based (in all likelihood) primarily on oral history and tradition, understood the character of God better than modern Calvinists. So we read twice that “God dealt well with the midwives” and that God blessed them and “gave them families”.

So determinists must have God here as not only a baby killer, but a schizophrenic baby killer who on the one hand orders murder and on the other blesses those who thwart it.

Does this make any sense at all? Really?

Another Side to the Story

If we read only this account and not the commentary found in Psalm 105, we would have no reason to imagine God was even involved. The Egyptians came up with the plan to persecute Israel, the Egyptians executed the plan to persecute Israel, and most (if not all) the Egyptians bought right in to the plan.

How can such a militantly racist spirit suddenly afflict an entire nation? Think Nazi Germany.

Why is it that I maintain that both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are in play here? Because the word of God teaches it.

We know that God ultimately hardened or “turned” the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. It’s plainly stated in our Psalm, and reinforced by the historical record of Exodus, which attests to it more than once.

But scripture records first, also more than once, that “Pharaoh hardened his heart”. Samuel later confirms that both Pharaoh and the Egyptian people “hardened their hearts”. And more than either formulation, we read “Pharoah’s heart was hardened”, with no further editorial comment.

Why would the Spirit of God attribute the “hardening” to both Pharaoh and to God over a number of chapters ... if both formulations boil down to exactly the same thing?

The only good answer is that both things are true. God is sovereign. And Pharaoh and the Egyptians made a choice.

God and Glory

When I was young and frequently behaved like an idiot, it was brought home to me rather forcibly in experiencing the inevitable consequences of my own foolishness that one cannot diminish the glory of God.

It’s simply not possible.

He will be glorified in saving you, if you will have him. But if you will not — if you are intent on having your own way — then, just like he was glorified in judging Egypt, God will be glorified in judging you. In doing so, he will be proved right and you will be proved wrong. All the things he’s communicated to man out of love over the centuries will, once again, in your life and mine, be demonstrated to be precisely correct, while our cockeyed optimism that our situations are somehow ‘special’ or ‘different’ from those of other more prosaic sinners throughout the ages will be smashed to smithereens.

Glory for him, always. Not so much for those of us who insist on our own way.

God is sovereign. We have a choice as to how we respond to that. We can reject his ways entirely. We can profess to love the Lord Jesus but live inconsistently and selfishly. We can make ourselves look bad. We can, like Pharaoh, despite multiple opportunities to change our minds, even turn ourselves into object lessons if we are bound and determined to do so. But we cannot diminish the glory of God.

Which begs one more question: How many opportunities to repent can a man refuse before becoming hardened and permanently insensible to the voice of God?

I for one have no desire to find out.

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