I received a question recently about passages that seem to show God preventing people from turning towards him. In Exodus 10:1 the scriptures say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and in Isaiah 6:9 it seems to say that God causes people not to understand or perceive. Doesn’t God want these people to repent?
My response is below:
You bring up a fair challenge that on the face of it seems very difficult to overcome. It can be helpful to separate out the fact of God’s bringing something about and the method by which God brings it about.
As you have pointed out, God brings it about that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened (see Exodus 10:1). We should ask, “How has God brought this about?” We can get some insight into this through the earlier parts of the story. Notice for the first few plagues the scripture says that Pharaoh hardens his own heart in response to God’s calls to let his people go (see Exodus 8:15). So how did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? He did it by showing his power over Pharaoh and ordering Pharaoh to let his people go. It isn’t that God “zapped” Pharaoh with a hardened heart, but God knew how Pharaoh would react to the plagues (with a hardened heart) and he brought the plagues and thus caused the circumstance in which Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.
In Isaiah notice that it says, “Make the heart of these people dull.” The word for “dull” here is “smn”, which literally translates as grow fat. It refers to a sort of self-indulgent laziness. Jeremiah uses the word in Jeremiah 5:28 when he says, “they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.”
The concept in Isaiah seems to be a recurring theme in scripture, that people take God’s patience with their sin for granted and grow dull towards it. So how has God caused them to grow dull? Through his patience with them as they ignore and neglect him.
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