What About Pharaoh? Part 2

In part 1 of our study of Rom 9:14-18 we saw that Rom 11:7-8 shed light on our understanding of this paragraph. Paul used Deut 29:4 and Isa 29:10 to show that contemporary Israel was hardened against the gospel, just as she was in the days of Moses and Isaiah. In verses 9-10 Paul further supports the texts of Deuteronomy and Isaiah with a quotation from Psa 69:22-23. In that quotation Paul uses skotizomai for “darkened,” to refer to the eyes of unbelieving Israel.

Interestingly, Paul uses the same word in Rom 1:21 with regard to wicked men, upon whom the wrath of God is being poured out. When Paul clarifies how God pours out his wrath, three times he says God “gave them over” (vv. 24, 26, 28). This is reminiscent of the passive sounding phrase, “pharaoh’s heart was hardened” found in the exodus narrative. Since the hardening of Pharaoh is part of a narrative of God’s wrath being poured out, it is not a stretch to think that when Paul described the wickedness of mankind in Rom 1, he was not thinking merely of hardened sinners of the Gentiles, but also of hardened Israel. If so, then it is possible that God’s hardening of Pharaoh was of a similar nature to the hardening, or darkening of the wicked men in Rom 1:18-32. God did not need to actually do anything to harden anyone’s heart. His wrath is seen in his divine inactivity, by not extending grace. Without grace, there is no direction for the heart to go except to a place of further hardness.

But there is more to it than that. God was not inactive with Pharaoh just as he is not inactive with regard to hardened Gentile sinners. He sends preachers out to the latter group, and he sent Moses to Pharaoh. Moses proclaimed the name of the Lord to Pharaoh and prophesied each of the 10 plagues. Still Pharaoh did not relent or repent. Instead, his heart grew hard in the midst of the proclamation of the word of God attended by miracles. Likewise, contemporary Israel heard the words of Jesus and saw his miracles and still were hardened against him. Pharaoh indeed makes a good type of unbelieving Israel, and the word of Moses also served as a type of the gospel message. Let us see how Paul’s quotation of Exod 9:16 reveals this.

God’s hardening of Pharaoh prefigures the gospel
As we saw in part 1, the proclamation of God’s name came as a result of both God’s mercy to Moses and God’s judgment on Pharaoh. Remarkably, it is with regard to the latter that a prefigure of the preaching of the gospel is found. The revelation of God’s intention to have his name proclaimed among the nations, quoted in Rom 9:17, comes in Exod 9:16, just before the plague of hail. This passage contains three interesting features. First, in verse 12 we are told for the first time that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Previously, God said he would do it, but this is the first explicit statement that he did. All other hardenings of Pharaoh’s heart were either when he hardened his own heart or when a simple passive is used: “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” Though there may be little or no lexical difference between these phrases, the semantic difference is important. Moses seems to have a reason for waiting until this point before explicitly referring to God being the cause of Pharaoh’s hardening.

Perhaps the reason is the second interesting feature. At this point in the narrative, before the plague of hail, we find the first instance of God telling Moses to warn the Egyptians and tell them to prepare for the plague. We are told: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field” (Exod 9:20-21). Here is a prefigure of the gospel message being proclaimed to the Gentiles, in this case, Egyptians. Those who believe the word of God’s prophet were spared judgment, while those who did not believe suffered God’s wrath. This is at the heart of Paul’s teaching of why God hardened Israel. It is so the gospel can go out to the Gentiles, and in fact, Israel’s hardening will not stop until all the Gentiles have heard and had a chance to respond to the word of the Lord (Rom 11:25; cf. Mat 24:14). So Paul is hinting at what he will explicitly teach later; that God hardens whom he wants, but the reason he hardens is so that his name will be proclaimed throughout the earth, so the Gentiles will respond and be saved.

What does this have to do with Predestination?
This does not solve the problem Arminians have concerning this verse. Regardless of whether it is Pharaoh or Israel that is hardened, and regardless of what the purpose of the hardening is, it still sounds like God has predestined them to wrath apart from their own will. How is this reference to Pharaoh not proof of divine unconditional predestination? Perhaps the third interesting feature of the context of Exod 9:16 can shed light on the matter.

Immediately before telling Pharaoh why God raised him up, he says something very interesting. Let us read it in full: “By now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth, but I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God reveals that the reason he did not simply wipe the Egyptians off the face of the earth was because it would be better to endure them and, through them ,to display his power and proclaim his name all over the earth. Because of the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, God’s name was proclaimed by men all over the world, the Gentile people being told what Yahweh had done for the Israelites. This is surely the reason Rahab believed and was spared when the Israelites conquered Jericho.

Here we learn what it means when Paul says God “although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath” (Rom 9:22). This is a direct parallel to Exod 9:16. Choosing to show his wrath refers to the plagues. Making his power known parallels “that I might show my power,” and “bore with great patience” explains God’s decision to not destroy the Egyptians all at once, sending 10 plagues instead. The hardening of Pharaoh is expressed in v. 22 as “bore with great patience.” It does not necessarily imply that if not for the hardening, the subject would have been saved. Far from it.

Certainly no one who believes in total depravity could argue that Pharaoh would have been saved if God had not hardened him. This suggests that the mercy shown to Moses and the hardening of Pharaoh are not really about salvation and damnation. They are about the role of Israel in the plan of God. In the time of the exodus, God hardened Pharaoh in order to show the riches of his glory to the objects of his mercy: Moses and the nation of Israel. In Paul’s day he is hardening Israel to show the riches of his glory to the objects of his mercy: the remnant of Israel and the Gentiles who believe. That is what Paul is teaching in Rom 9, not unconditional predestination and condemnation. Moses was already in right relationship with God before he asked God to show him his glory, resulting in God having mercy on him, and Pharaoh was already an idolatrous, heathen oppressor of God’s people before God hardened him. God’s purposes in bringing redemption to all the earth so that all will proclaim his wondrous majesty and glory is the subject of Rom 9:14-18.

When we examine verses 19-23 we will ask about the potter’s right to make one lump of clay for special purposes and another for common use. Again we will see the importance of OT texts and their contexts for understanding Paul’s argument, and again Isaiah 29 will come into view.


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