A concept that requires consideration is that in the ninth chapter of Romans regarding the hardening of the human heart. Here Paul says:
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
One of you will say to me, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists His will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory…? (Rom. 9:18-23).
An examination of such a hardening of heart reveals an interesting concept. The book of Exodus gives the description of an actual hardening of heart in process. It is interesting to get the perspective of the Old Testament writer regarding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This is a process God knew He would cause to happen even from eternity past, yet it did occur gradually over a period of time, and as Pharaoh responded to what God was doing in his life and circumstances.
In the first chapters of the book of Exodus, there is a confrontation between the Egyptian pharaoh and Moses, God’s chosen leader of His chosen people Israel. God has called Moses to lead His people out of bondage in Egypt, into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17). But to do so, the pharaoh has to be dealt with. God instructs Moses to approach Pharaoh, seeking permission from him to let the Israelites go on a three-day journey into the desert, so that they may worship God and offer sacrifices to Him there. During God’s instruction to Moses, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go’” (Ex. 4:21).
God tells Moses to approach Pharaoh, all the while planning to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that as Moses performs the signs that God gives him, Pharaoh will rebel against God’s authority. Again in chapter 7, God says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Ex. 7:3).
However, at some times in the writer’s description of the events, he quite easily blames Pharaoh for his own hardening of heart. “Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said” (Ex. 7:13). Or, perhaps more clearly, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (Ex. 8:15).
Notice how the terms “The LORD hardened his heart” and “he hardened his own heart” are used interchangeably in the following passages: “But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard. He would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. Instead, he turned and went into his palace, and did not take even this to heart” (Ex. 7:22-23). “The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said” (Ex. 8:19). “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go”(Ex. 8:32). “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said to Moses” (Ex. 9:12). “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses” (Ex. 9:34-35). “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them’”(Ex. 10:1). “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart…” (Ex. 10:20, 10:27, 11:10).
So in this Old Testament writer’s mind, God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart is seen to be the same thing as Pharaoh hardening his own heart. God raises a fence under Pharaoh, but Pharaoh falls in the direction of the predisposition of his heart. Pharaoh is responsible for his rebellion against God. And yet God ultimately claims credit for hardening Pharaoh’s heart, because He raised the fence and forced Pharaoh to take a defining stand regarding the attitude he already had toward God. God knew the direction Pharaoh would go, but still raised the fence, forcing Pharaoh’s predisposition to display itself both to himself and to those observing him (including the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms).
We need to go back for a moment and recall the way that God sovereignly intervenes in peoples’ lives to bring them to the place where they believe on Christ and are saved. God knows the choice the lost man will make if given the opportunity. God knows the man’s heart. He has been working in the situations and circumstances of the man’s life to lift the veil of darkness and demonic deception (2 Cor. 4:4; 2nd Tim. 2:25-26) and to soften the man’s heart so that the right choice is made. So saving faith is exercised by the lost man, who is accountable, because God, who is sovereign, gives him opportunity to do so. It is a choice the man makes, but only because God first shapes and softens the lost man’s heart, then ordains the man’s opportunity to choose, knowing the choice he will then make when he is presented with this opportunity. And in this way, “as many as [are] ordained to eternal life believe” (Acts 13:48). True, it is a self-serving choice the man makes. But it is the right choice. God, at a point in time, sets His love on the man (Rom. 8:28-29) and begins intervening in the man’s circumstances and life so that when the opportunity is presented, the man makes the choice to believe and be saved.
In Pharaoh’s case, however, God was saying, “I will sovereignly act in Pharaoh’s life by revealing Myself and My sovereignty; and, in doing so, I will cause him to harden his heart.” Bear in mind, God could have softened Pharaoh’s heart. As it says in the book of Proverbs, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; He directs it like a watercourse wherever He pleases” (Pr. 21:1). Or as He says to Israel, “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit…I will remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26-27). But the fact is that in Pharaoh’s case, He chose not to do this.
Would God have instead changed Pharaoh’s heart if Moses had asked Him to? Maybe. God could have softened Pharaoh’s heart. Again, as it says in Proverbs, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes” (Pr. 21:1, NIV). He could have chosen, in response to a request from Moses, to “raise the fence” in a different manner, perhaps. We cannot know for sure what could have happened—we only know what did happen. But it is fair to suggest that God could have demonstrated His power to the world, in a different way, but, conceivably, just as well, if He had transformed Pharaoh, king of the greatest nation in the world, to want to bow his knee to the true God before all of Egypt (as He eventually did with Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel 4:34-37).
Then again, perhaps God had already given Pharaoh multiple opportunities to respond to His clear revelation of Himself. Perhaps Pharaoh had already hit a point of no return. At times God said to His prophets, “do not pray, I will not hear” (Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). And the first chapter of Romans speaks about those God gives over to a reprobate mind because they do not respond to Him as He is. I do believe that sometimes God leaves some on the face of this Earth long after they are given over to reprobation, so as to provide an object lesson for others to observe. In this way, those whose final states are still weighing in the balance can see living examples of the consequences of lives of obedience and lives of disobedience. God uses many things to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
And this is admittedly speculation on my part. But the most important thing for the believer is the reminder that it is not our place to judge that someone is in reprobation. It is, instead, our place to desire God’s mercy. I don’t think we need to worry much that we may pray for some that God has long ago written off as reprobate. Far more than that, we need to remember that God sometimes moves in a lost human heart because we ask Him to do so. It is far more likely that we are sometimes much too quick to judge and condemn the very ones that God is still calling us to pray for and to love with the love of Christ.
King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that he would be driven from among men and eat grass as the oxen (Dan. 4). Daniel did not see himself superior to the king and speak an attitude of judgment toward him. Daniel recognized that we all live under the remarkable grace of God. Daniel merely walked humbly in God’s grace, free of judgment, hoping instead for God’s mercy. Daniel told the king that the dream was showing him that he was a man of tremendous pride, that he should repent and let God be God…if God might perhaps relent of this punishment to come. And as it turns out, Nebuchadnezzar was given a full year before God’s prophesied judgment finally had to fall.
I cannot say that the prayers of the saints are the only variable, or are always a guaranteed way to change God’s heart. We cannot understand all that is involved in God using us as an object lesson to the principalities and powers. We are, at least for now, a little lower than the angels. We need to recognize God’s wisdom is higher and vaster than ours. There are many pieces to the puzzle we do not see.
And yet there are times when God did change His will, apparently in specific response to prayer—for example, Abraham pleading for Sodom, (Gen. 18:20-33), or Moses, praying for his people (Ex. 33:15-17). In fact, sometimes He specifically looked for someone to pray and moved in His wrath because He could find no one to share the burden of His heart in prayer and intercession. Consider once again the passage in Exekiel:
I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD (Ezek. 22:30-31).
I believe a passion for the lost is to be one of the main outcomes of our salvation experience. God wants to so transform us in the process of our Christian life that our hearts become like His—so the burdens of His heart become the burdens of our hearts. As Francis Frangipane says, “Victory begins with the name of Jesus on our lips. It is consummated by the nature of Jesus in our heart.”18
As we are transformed into the character of Jesus and as we are willing and available in the process to wrestle against principalities and powers in prayer (as in Eph. 6:12) we can then become His voice to the world and share His heart in it. Then we can become an object lesson to those principalities and powers, displaying for them what God’s plans were from eternity past (Eph. 3:10-11). The implication is that we should seek the LORD to know His desire in a situation—which, by the way, is sometimes different from His will in that situation until we act in obedience, intercede in prayer, or speak His words on His behalf. By doing this we perform our part in the process. He can then fulfill His will in a way that allows His answers to our prayers to complete those object lessons to the principalities and powers. And through the instrumentality of our prayers and our lives of obedience, He can do what His desire is to do.
I don’t believe that God’s desire is that anyone’s heart should be hardened; I believe that in His sovereign decree, some will be. However, if we declare in our effectual, fervent prayer what God’s desire for the lost is, we can “birth it” into spiritual reality (Gal 4:19). He can then do it as a response to our prayer. So God’s answering our prayers will complete the story for some. And in doing so He will work through us to lessen the gap between His will to save some and His desire save all.
>>> Next: Chapter 9