Tuesday, January 26, 2010

God desired to save Pharaoh?

I was listening to a talk purporting to refute Calvinism the other day. It was all in all a poor presentation of Calvinism and I wanted to look at a commonly misunderstood passage. This is the spin put on the story of the Exodus in this talk on Calvinism, specifically regarding Pharaoh and why that story refutes total depravity and Calvinism in general: God was "sincere with Pharaoh" and desired to save him but Pharaoh hardened his heart in spite of the evidence and refused God even though God tried ten different ways to convince him.

Is that even remotely accurate? Let’s take a look. This is important because if it turns out that, as I will argue, this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how God relates to humans and human ability to respond to God, it brings into question the entire scope of this man’s teaching. There are few things more fundamental to the understanding of the Gospel than understanding the state of mankind, the nature of the Gospel, how men are saved and how God relates to His creatures.

Does Scripture teach that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart or that Pharaoh hardened his own heart? There are some verses that seem to support both sides, but it can’t be both so we need to figure out which is which. Exchanging proof-texts is not exegesis, it is lazy, so let’s look at the bigger picture here, from when God commands Moses to return to Egypt and let His people go all the way to the New Testament (emphasis added):

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4: 21-23)

Note that God here is telling Moses, before he even steps foot back in Egypt what His purpose is in sending him and that He will harden Pharaoh's heart.

And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” (Exodus 7: 1-5)

But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9: 16)

Is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart because Pharaoh first hardened it or is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart for His own purposes? The story of Exodus is not that God really wanted to be friends with Pharaoh but he just wouldn’t listen. It is the story of God hardening the heart of a wicked man such that even in the face of incredible miracles and judgment he refused to release the Israelites until God smote his son. The message here is that the human heart is sinful and hardened against God and it remains that way unless God softens it. Here is where we come to the crux of the issue:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10: 1-2)

If Pharaoh, in his own “free will” had elected to just let the people go when Moses asked, would the Exodus have had the same lasting impact? The miracles were not just for Pharaoh but also for the Israelites. When Moses and the other Israelites speak to their children and their children’s children, they will remember how God struck down Pharaoh. That message kind of loses something if Pharaoh had agreed before God smote him and the Egyptians.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9: 14-18, emph. added)

Paul is saying that God raised Pharaoh up so that He could show His power as a testimony by striking him down. God never intended Pharaoh to turn and come to Him, in fact He did just the opposite and hardened his heart so that he would not! Moses was not an evangelist trying to convert Pharaoh, he was commanding Pharaoh to let the Israelites go to worship their God. That is a world of difference from God hoping that Pharaoh would let the Israelites go, giving him a bunch of chances and finally striking down the first born when all else fails. God knew, God always knew that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go because He was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart. There is no injustice here on God’s part and there is no warrant here for us to reinterpret what God has said to fit our sinful notion of what is fair.

This is the problem of dueling proof-texts. One person says: Well this verse say God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but another person says: But that verse says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Dueling prooftexts is not literal interpretation, it is poor exegesis. Step back from the verse at hand, look at the context and the supporting Scriptures. Literal interpretation doesn’t mean blindly reading the Bible one verse in a vacuum at a time.

When someone says stuff like: It is possible to be elect and go to hell, that shows a dangerous line of reasoning in Scripture.

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