God, Pharaoh, and God’s Sovereignty in Romans 9

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In Udo Middelmann’s The Innocence of God, he grants us biblical evidence advocating the truth that God is innocent of the tragedies and evil experienced by and among fallen human beings. God has neither decreed evil nor rendered certain for evil to be present in the world through mortals. People sin, they sin freely, and God reserves the sovereign right to interfere, to lessen its effects, to judge the evil and to bring a good end from evil if at all possible.

What Dr. Middelmann demonstrates in his chapter, “Predestination and Determinism,” is that the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9, including its references in the Hebrew scriptures, are entirely unbiblical. Middelmann writes the following.

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PHARAOH MUST BLAME HIMSELF

The statement, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” in Paul’s discussion with the church in Rome is not the only one whose misinterpretation leads to a flawed understanding of God’s work on our behalf. Such distortions can happen in many places when an ideology, such as a narrow view of divine sovereignty, is taken as a measure of [interpreting all biblical texts] rather than letting the text speak for itself.

There are two other references to the Old Testament in this same ninth chapter of Romans that are squeezed to support a particular view of God’s sovereignty over people and history. Just as in the first, the next two references to God’s hand in our salvation do not point to a selection process or to the salvation of individuals. Both quotations reveal the mercy of God to the people of Israel for the sake of our salvation [that of the Gentiles] by faith in the coming Christ. By this mercy God delivered Israel out of Egyptian slavery. By the same mercy God sent prophets to bring Israel repeatedly to repentance.

Again, let us look to see from where Paul quotes these illustrations. After all, the Old Testament was his book of God’s word. In the first citation Paul refers to Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, which is described in great detail in Exodus. Paul would expect his audience in Rome to be familiar with this central event in Israel’s history to which the prophets and the Psalmist refer frequently and which is commemorated in the yearly Passover Feast anticipating the death of the Lamb of God.

Pharaoh had his heart hardened, just as God promised Moses in his fear and hesitation. But again, just as in God’s earlier distinction of Israel, God’s dealing with Pharaoh is not a freak event of divine mind control while Pharaoh had his mind on other things, perhaps sitting among his date palms or visiting yet another palace built by Israelite slave labor. The record in Exodus shows how several plagues fell over Egypt before Pharaoh insisted with finality that he would not “let my people go.” Early on he had already lost the support amongst his diviners, who gradually realized that they could no longer counter the powerful and terrible miracles of God. They urged Pharaoh to back off, but he would not. Just as a post planted into cement can be moved for a while before the cement hardens, so Pharaoh’s heart hardened more with each plague until the Lord said something like, “That’s it, enough. Now there is no more movement in the mud, no more backing out of the grave you have dug yourself.”

God promised that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3), just as he promised to give Moses courage [Ex. 3:12], a speaker in his brother Aaron [Ex. 4:10-17], and miracles such as the snake turning into a staff [Ex. 4:1-9].

Yet the text does not recount God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart until Exodus 9:12. Each of the plagues of blood, flies, gnats, boils, and hail left Pharaoh still with a choice. But his heart became hard [emphasis added]; he would not even listen to Moses and Aaron in [Ex. 7:13 and Ex. 7:22]. In [Ex. 8:15] it is clearly Pharaoh’s choice to harden his [own] heart, for he had bargained with Moses for prayer. The next day when relief came, Pharaoh broke his promise to let the people go [Ex. 8:8-14]. In [Ex. 8:32] we are told that “this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.”

Only in [Ex. 9:12] after all the preceding plagues does the text say that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” echoing this refrain after the two remaining plagues of locusts and of darkness. Pharaoh backed himself into a position where there was no way out. After that Pharaoh only pretends to repent, not even asking for deliverance prayer anymore [Ex. 9:27ff.). As soon as the plague of hail stopped Pharaoh “sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts” [Ex. 9:34].

Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was no unconditional act of God. This was no divine zapping with a curse, no undeserved judgment out of the blue sky for some superior divine purpose, or an example of lightening striking some innocent person along a country road. Instead you see a gradually stiffer determination in Pharaoh to resist, even hiding it behind religious acts as by asking for prayer and finally pretending to believe, yet contradicting everything previously expressed. This is deliberate on the part of Pharaoh and reminds me much more of what the sins against the Holy Spirit, spoken of in the New Testament by Jesus, must involve.

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“What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!” (Romans 9:14) At no time was Pharaoh in a locked position until his previous and very significant choices made it impossible to get back to the start. There never is a sign that even then he wished it to be different but could no longer repent because of something God had done. He just chose repeatedly not to let the people go [a fact that God confessed to have foreknown] and therefore had to go himself. What court would have listened to his complaint?

PEOPLE ARE NOT MADE OF CLAY

In the second Old Testament illustration Paul refers to the repeated sending of the prophets to Israel to encourage, reproach, and admonish the people to apply God’s law faithfully. Yet they fell back into unfaithfulness, hypocrisy, and human cruelty without regard to the commandments. Here in Romans 9:21 and the passages that follow, Paul uses an illustration, found in both Jeremiah and Isaiah, from the relation between the potter and the pot to describe the struggle of God with Israel. If the pot is not rightly formed it will be condemned. For the potter has the right to see that it will turn out well.

Isaiah 29:16 clearly establishes that the potter set the form for the clay, even though Israel in rebellion thought they could forget God and form their own laws for society. God’s people “worked in the dark”; they said, “Who sees us? Who will know?” when Israel said that God has not made them [Isa. 29:1516]. But in a little while the humble would obtain fresh joy in the Lord, the deaf would hear the words of a scroll or book, and out of their gloom and darkness the blind would see. The poor would exult in the Holy one of Israel [Isa. 29:17-19].

In Jeremiah 18 the same picture of potter and pot is used to explain why God has a right to judge Israel in its rebellion. The work of God did not turn out right. It is not perfect and can perfectly well be destroyed by the will of the potter [or even refashioned by Him].

Yet is is remarkable that in both instances, as well as in Isaiah 64, the picture serves to illustrate the moral reasons for destruction but does not justify the destruction itself. It clarified the legal right, not its execution. For both in Isaiah and in Jeremiah the threat of destruction, punishment, and death is made to reach people for repentance. God treats people as people and not as a thing like a pot. God is just to condemn what is marred through sin and therefore has not turned out as intended. But the flaw in the pot did not come from the potter’s hands or his failures, but from an impurity in the clay. Israel did not turn out right through a design flaw or some eternal will of God. Both pot and people deserve judgment.

But here the parallel ends. The illustration from pot and potter establishes the right to destroy what has no life. The parallel in God’s relation to people stops, however, with the dissatisfaction to continue into a plea for the peoples’ repentance. The illustration, as always later in the parables of Jesus, must be seen for the point it tries to make. It has to be taken with a grain of salt and is not a plan for execution [much like some of the poetic language in the Psalms and Prophets]. In the illustration the point is the potter’s right to demand perfection of his work. A pot is an impersonal object made from clay under the molding hand of the potter. He selects the clay, kneads it and gives it shape. It may not turn out [in the fashion He had desired, which entirely contradicts the Calvinist’s notion of God’s sovereignty], and the potter has the right to start again.

But in God’s relation to Israel, the people — who had been made without flaw — rebel and make themselves imperfect. The good marriage between God as groom and Israel as bride was violated by the adultery of the bride. Israel’s choice produces the problem; their repentance needs to restore the relationship. Again and again that is what happened as God intended until the people sinned again.

To extend the purpose of this picture and include in it some kind of divine determinism is not in the text. The Isaiah and Jeremiah passages both employ this image to drive home the urgent need for people to act now, not to be acted upon without their participation. God sent prophets to the people when they did not live up to God’s standards, so that they would repent. God treats people as capable people, choice-makers, significant and responsible. He never treats people as sticks or stones, or, to stay within the analogy, as clay pots.

Paul answers the questions about the Jews throughout Romans 9. They were selected, preserved, and corrected throughout their history since Abraham in order to be the people from whom the Messiah would be born. Romans 9 does not deal with individual salvation, a process of selecting some and rejecting others. It does not deal with God’s right to destroy if he wants, or to act into history regardless of people to get things done. Romans 9 shows how through Israel’s God a cornerstone is laid in Zion “that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” [Rom. 9:33]. Israel must believe (though not all did and were therefore not a part of spiritual Israel; see Romans 9:6) as must we, with zeal, but also according to the truth [Rom. 10:2] which comes by hearing [Rom. 10:14-17]. “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” [Rom. 11:29].

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Udo Middelmann, The Innocence of God (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2007), 75-80.