Romans 9:17-18 – God’s Right to Harden – Pharaoh

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

In the previous post, we saw how this section (verses 14-18) teaches that God has the right to have mercy on whomever he chooses. After giving the first part of his example in verse 15 (relating to Moses, whom God decided to have mercy on), and making his main point in verse 16 (‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’), Paul now gives the second part of his example, which relates to Pharaoh.

“[17] 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.””

After comparing the current situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites to that of Ishmael (verses 6b to 9) and Esau (verses 10 to 13), Paul now shocks his audience further by comparing the current situation of these ethnic Israelites to that of Pharaoh. The Pharaoh that Paul is speaking of is the Pharaoh from the book of Exodus who would not let God’s people leave Egypt, as God was requesting (through Moses and Aaron). This Pharaoh was a particularly stubborn character, as God explained to Moses before Moses went back to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh: ‘I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand’ (Exodus 3:19).

Hundreds of years before the Exodus, God had explained to Abraham what would happen: ‘know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions’ (Genesis 15:13-14). God’s actions against Pharaoh as described in the book of Exodus are an act of judgement against him.

We can see that Pharaoh was deserving of judgement by his response to Moses and Aaron on their first visit to him (Exodus 5:1-2):

“Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.””

Pharaoh’s response shows that he considers himself to be higher than the Lord, so that he does not need to obey him. This is an outrageous sin worthy of full judgement. It would be no defence to claim ignorance – God has revealed himself to everyone (see discussion of Romans 10:14-21). God would have been entirely justified in striking down Pharaoh and killing him at that moment. He could have done this, and God’s people could have then calmly walked out of Egypt. However, rather than killing Pharaoh instantly, God wanted to use the situation as an evangelistic opportunity. God wanted the whole world to know that salvation can be found through him. We see this in Exodus 9:13-16:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, stand before Pharaoh, and tell him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: “Release my people so that they may serve me! For this time I will send all my plagues on your very self and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with plague, and you would have been destroyed from the earth. But for this purpose I have caused you to stand: to show you my strength, and so that my name may be declared in all the earth.”

God’s motivation in withholding immediate and full judgement from Pharaoh and instead keeping him standing in his position as King of Egypt was so that God’s name may be declared throughout the world. God wanted the world to know about him. We see an example of this in Joshua 2:8-13, as Rahab had heard reports of God’s actions in the Exodus, and she had trusted God as a result.

When Paul quotes Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:17, he quotes it as ‘for this very purpose I have raised you up. The meaning of ‘raised you up’ should be interpreted in accordance with the original wording of ‘caused you to stand’. The point is that God kept Pharaoh in his position as King rather than killing him immediately. His purpose in withholding Pharaoh’s deserved full judgement was for evangelism.

Although God withheld full and immediate judgement from Pharaoh, God did begin to judge Pharaoh after Pharaoh’s rejection of God in Exodus 5:2. In Exodus 7:1-5, we see that God begins to harden Pharaoh’s heart. The act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was an act of judgement against Pharaoh:

“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 judgement. 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.””

This is describing the first occasion on which Pharaoh’s heart is said to have been hardened. It happened after the first display of a miracle by Moses and Aaron (see Exodus 7:8-13). This is as God had said it would be in Exodus 4:21: ‘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.’

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God is linked to the display of miracles. Pharaoh’s earlier rejection of God in Exodus 5 (discussed above) was not associated with the display of a miracle, and no mention of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened was made at this point. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was therefore a legitimate response by God to Pharaoh’s earlier rejection of him. It is clear that Pharaoh already did not want to let God’s people leave, so God’s hardening of him was not making him do something he did not want to do; instead it was giving Pharaoh the strength to do what he already did want to do.

The great acts of judgement that were to happen were also intended by God such that ‘the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD’ (Exodus 7:5). God also wanted to evangelise the Egyptians, and some of them did come to fear him, as shown in Exodus 9:20 (in response to warning of the next plague): ‘whoever feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses’.

We can now compare Pharaoh with the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day. We will see that there are various similarities between Pharaoh’s situation and that of these ethnic Israelites.

Just as Pharaoh had rejected God’s word by refusing to let God’s people go, so the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day had rejected God’s word by refusing to trust in Christ. The unbelieving ethnic Israelites were also in a position of deserving full and immediate judgement for their rejection of God’s word. As with Pharaoh, God decided that, rather than giving full and immediate judgement to these ethnic Israelites, he would create an evangelistic opportunity out of the situation. God therefore hardened the unbelieving ethnic Israelites (Romans 11:7), as Pharaoh had previously been hardened. The motivation behind the hardening was to bring salvation to more Gentiles, which would itself bring salvation to more of the ethnic Israelites, due to their jealousy (Romans 11:11). In the same way, God’s motivation behind hardening Pharaoh was so that God’s ‘name might be proclaimed in all the Earth’ (Romans 9:17, Exodus 9:16).

The hardening process is described in more detail in chapter 11. One reason why we have considered chapter 11 before this part of chapter 9 is that chapter 11 (in particular verses 1-32, which is the parallel part to 9:6-29) provides an important clarification on the consequences of hardening. Reading these few verses of chapter 9 without the surrounding context, it is not immediately apparent whether or not somebody who has been hardened can ever subsequently repent and come to faith in Christ. One might propose the situation that, if God decides to harden a person, that person has been permanently rejected by God and will definitely end up in hell. However, chapter 11 refutes this position. As explained previously, chapter 11 makes it clear that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, who have been hardened, can still come to faith in Christ (Romans 11:23). In fact, God’s motivation for hardening them in the first place is to bring about a series of events that will cause more of them to be saved (Romans 11:11, 11:30-32).

After discussing Pharaoh, Romans 9 continues with:

“[18] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

Paul’s statement that God ‘has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’ is another statement that shows that God has the right to have mercy on whomever he wants to have mercy. As with previous verses like this, this verse does not in itself say anything about how God has decided whom to have mercy on and whom to harden. From the surrounding context, we can see that God has decided to have mercy on all those who trust in his word (like Moses), and to harden those who reject his word (like Pharaoh). However, we have seen that for somebody to be hardened by God does not rule out the possibility that they will eventually come to trust in his word and receive his mercy.

As explained previously, Paul is making this point (that God has the right to have mercy on whomever he wants to have mercy, and to harden whomever he wants to harden) to hypothetical ethnic Israelite objectors who will not like Paul’s teaching that God has decided to have mercy on all who trust in Christ and to harden people who have rejected Christ. The objectors think that God ought to have mercy on ethnic Israelites based on their ethnicity and/or works, but Paul is rejecting that view and reiterating that God has the right to do as he pleases regarding choosing who will receive his mercy and who will be hardened.

Thinking about this section (verses 14 to 18), we can see that the central “not… but…” statement (‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’) is surrounded by the example of Moses and Pharaoh. As with the decision made by God in the part of the example relating to Moses (verse 15), the decision made by God in the part relating to Pharaoh (verse 17) is also not a decision that relates directly to salvation/damnation. Instead, the decision God makes is to harden Pharaoh in judgement against Pharaoh’s rejection of him. The decision by God to harden a person is not identical to a decision to damn that person. If every person who is hardened will ultimately be damned, then there would be no hope for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites who are currently being hardened. This is not the view Paul takes in chapter 11, as explained above.

As with the previous examples of Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau, the purpose of the example of Moses and Pharaoh is to illustrate the central “not… but…” statement of verse 16: ‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’. As explained in the previous post, God chose to show mercy to Moses, and his decision to do this was not because of Moses’ efforts or his desire to be righteous. In one sense, God also showed mercy to Pharaoh by not giving him the full and immediate judgement that his actions deserved (see above), which links the Pharaoh example with verse 16 (which refers to mercy only). Based on Pharaoh’s actions, he deserved no mercy, but God did decide to give him some mercy.

In another sense, the hardening of Pharaoh is in contrast to the mercy God gave to Moses, which links the Pharaoh and Moses examples to verse 18 (which refers to both mercy and hardening): ‘he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’. God had mercy on Moses and hardened Pharaoh, and he has the right to do this. Although the choices God made regarding Moses and Pharaoh were not choices relating directly to salvation, the way in which God made those choices has a similarity with the way God makes his choices regarding salvation. God chose to have mercy on Moses in response to Moses’ humble reliance on God, and God chose to harden Pharaoh in response to Pharaoh’s rejection of God’s word.

Having seen how the Moses and Pharaoh examples in verses 15 and 17 illustrate the main point being made in verses 16 and 18, we can see the high-level argument that Paul is making in this section. The context is that, according to Paul’s teaching that God has decided to save all who trust in Christ, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day are currently outside of God’s blessing due to their unbelief (see verses 1-5). Paul is responding to an anticipated objection from ethnic Israelites who think this situation means that God’s word has failed, because they think that God ought to save all ethnic Israelites based on their ethnicity and/or their works (even if they are not trusting in Christ). In verses 6-13, Paul responds to this objection by defending his teaching that salvation is not based on ethnicity (verse 8) or works (verse 12). In verse 14, Paul then anticipates an objection that it is unjust for God to save people on the basis of who is trusting in Christ, rather than based on ethnicity and/or works (because saving people based on faith means that many of the ethnic Israelites are currently not in a position to receive this blessing). Paul responds to this objection by stating that it is entirely up to God to decide whom he will have mercy on and whom he will harden. If God wants to have mercy on those who trust in Christ, and to harden people who reject Christ (in particular, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites), he is entirely within his rights to do that. The objectors want God to save the unbelieving ethnic Israelites based on their own efforts and desire to achieve righteousness, but God has decided to give salvation as a gift to people of his own choosing who do not deserve it, rather than giving salvation as a wage to people who do deserve it (see Romans 4:4-5).

The great news for us is that the people of God’s own choosing who receive his gift of salvation are everyone who trusts in Christ, which is what Paul gets so excited about again in Romans 10:9-13.

In the next post, we will consider Paul’s next anticipated objection from the ethnic Israelite objectors.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.