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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 7

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-25

The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

Exo 7:3

We have already remarked upon the hardening of Pharaoh's heart; let us now look at some of the broader aspects of that supposed mystery. We must never consent to have God charged with injustice. Stand at what distance he may from our reason, he must never separate himself from our conscience. If God could first harden a man's heart, and then punish the man because his heart was hard, he would act a part which the sense of justice would instantly and indignantly condemn; therefore, he could not act that part. Whenever there is on the one hand a verbal difficulty, and on the other hand a moral difficulty, the verbal difficulty must give way. It is a rule of interpretation we must fearlessly apply. Let me re-state it. If ever there should be a battle between language and the instinct or sense of justice, the language must go down; the Judge of all the earth must be held to do right. The key of the whole difficulty is in the very first chapter of the Book of Exodus; in the eighth verse of that chapter we read: "Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph." That is the beginning of the mischief. That is the explanation of all the hardening of heart What is the full translation or paraphrase of that verse? It is this: Now there arose a new king, who knew not the history of his own country; a Pharaoh who remembered not that Egypt had been saved by one of the very Israelites who had become to him objects of fear; a king guilty either of ignorance or of ingratitude; for if he knew the history of his own country and acted in this way he was ungrateful, and therefore hardened his own heart; and if he did not know the history of his own country, he was ignorant of the one thing which every king ought to know, and therefore he was unfit to be king. The explanation of all that follows is in this ignorant or ungrateful Pharaoh, not in the wisdom or grace of the providence of God. Whether this particular Pharaoh came immediately after Joseph, or five centuries after him is of no consequence, since we are dealing with a moral progeny a bad hereditary and not with a merely physical descent. The point to be kept steadily in view is that Pharaoh had hardened his own heart in the first instance, had forgotten or ignored the history of his country, and was ruling his whole course by obduracy and selfishness. That is the Pharaoh with whom God had to deal. Not some young and pliable Pharaoh, who was willing to be either right or wrong, as anybody might be pleased to lead him; an immature and inexperienced Pharaoh, who was simply looking round for a policy, and might as easily have been led upwards as led downwards a very gentle, genial, beautiful soul; but a man who had made up his mind to forget the saviour of his country, and to bend every consideration to the impulse of a narrow and cruel policy. In this criticism Pharaoh must be to us something more than an Egyptian term. We must know the man before we can even partially understand the providence. What is the material with which God has to deal? That is the vital inquiry. God may be reverently represented as speaking thus: This man, having hardened his heart, has shown clearly the specialty of his moral and mental constitution; he must be made, therefore, to see what hardness of heart really means; for his own sake, I will treat him as he has treated himself, and through him I will show the ages that to harden the heart is the most terrible of all crimes, is indeed the beginning and pledge of the unpardonable sin, and can only be punished by the destruction of the body and soul in hell. There is no other way of dealing with the world. Men supply the conditions with which Providence has to work.

The case now begins to lift itself out of the narrow limits of a historical puzzle and to assume the grandeur of an illustration of Divine methods and purposes; in other words, it is no longer an instance of the sovereignty of force, but an example of the sovereignty of love, and though the example is unavoidably costly in its individual suffering it is infinitely precious as an eternal doctrine. God is to us what we are to God. He begins where we begin. One might imagine that the Lord treated Pharaoh arbitrarily, that is to say, did just what he pleased with that particular man or class of man. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is nothing arbitrary in the eternal government. It is begun with justice, in the whole process justice, in the whole issue justice. What other elements may come in will appear as the case is evolved and consummated. The Lord hardened the hearts of the Israelites just as certainly as he hardened the heart of Pharaon, and in the very same way and for the very same reason. Do not imagine that God has some partiality for one man at the expense of another. God deals with each man according to each man's peculiarity of constitution and purpose. See how the Lord treated the Israelites: "So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels." The marginal reading is still more vivid: "I gave them up unto the hardness of their hearts." That is to say, the Divine Teacher must at certain points say, in effect: You have made your determination, you must work it out; no reasoning, even on my part, would dissuade you; you must for yourselves, in bitterness and agony of experience, see what this condition of mind really means "So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels" not as an act of sovereignty, arbitrariness, and determination that could not be set aside because of the Divinity of its origin; but I, the Living God, was for their sakes necessitated to let them see what a certain course of conduct must logically and morally end in. The Apostle puts the same truth in very striking language: "They received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie." "My Spirit shall not always strive with man," I will, at a certain point, stand back and let you see what you are really at; doctrine would be lost upon you; exposition, appeal, would be abortive; I am necessitated, therefore, though the Living God and Father, to let you have your own way, that you may really see that it was an angel that was stopping you, it was mercy that would have prevented your downward rush.

This is the secret of all Biblical providence, and rule, and education. From the very beginning, the first man started up with a disobedient heart. For some reason or other, he said he would pursue a policy of disobedience. The Lord allowed him to do so, and the result was death. He was told that death would be the result, but the telling had no effect upon him: he said, "I will try." If our narrow suggestion of reasoning, and persuading, and pleading, were correct and profound in its moral conception, and absolute in its philosophical wisdom, Adam would not have incurred God's prediction, but instantly have fallen back from the tree forbidden, and on no account would have touched it; but philosophy is lost, appeal is a voice in the air that brings back no great heart-cry of allegiance and consent. Every man must touch hell for himself. Another man started life upon a different policy. He said he would rule by violence; nothing should stand in his way; resistance on the part of others, or aggravation on the side of others, would simply elicit from him an answer of violence and destruction. Said he, in effect, "I will not reason, I will smite; I will not pray, I will destroy." The Lord said in effect: "It must be so; you must see the result of this violence; that disposition never can be got out of you but by exhaustion; argument would be lost on a fiery spirit like yours; it would be in vain to interpose gentle persuasion or entreating prayer between a nature like yours and the end which it contemplates. Take your own course, and the end of violence is to be Cain for ever, to be branded externally, to be a lesson to the ages that violence only slays itself, and is a wickedness, a crime, in a universe of order." Another man arose, who said he abhorred violence. Issues which the soul wished were accomplished must be secured by other and wiser and deeper means. Said he, "I will try deception, I will tell falsehoods, I will answer inquiries lyingly; there shall be no noise, no tumult, no sign of violence or passion; but I will answer with mental reservations, I will play a false part, and thus pass smoothly through life." The man was of a false heart. He did not tell lies: he was a lie. The Lord had but one alternative. Though he be omnipotent in strength, he is limited when he deals with the creatures which he has made in his own image. So said he, in effect, "If it must be so, it must be so; your policy you have adopted attempt it." The man attempted it, and was laid in the dust a dead, blighted victim of his own sin. The universe will not have the liar in it. It may find room for his body to rot in, but it will not suffer him to live. All through and through history, therefore, the same thing is again and again demonstrated. We cannot account for personal constitution, for singularities of mind; in this profound problem there are metaphysics not to be penetrated by human reason, and the expositor, how careful and anxious soever he may be, can only begin where the facts themselves begin. What lies beyond his ken also lies beyond his criticism. The solemn and awful fact is, that every man has a constitution of his own, a peculiarity and specialty which makes him an individual and separates him from all other men, giving him an accent and a signature incommunicably his own, and that God deals with every man according to the conditions which the man himself supplies.

But a narrow criticism would tempt us to say that mercy will prevail where hardening will utterly want success; gentleness, tears, compassion they will succeed. If God had, to speak figuratively, fallen upon the neck of Pharaoh, and wept over him, and persuaded him with gentle words, Pharaoh would have been a different man. That criticism is profanity; that criticism is historically false: hear the Apostolic argument: "For he [God] saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth," perfectly easy words, if taken from the right point of view, and constructed in harmony with the broad method of Divine providence, even as that method is known amongst ourselves. The Lord has in this way, which is the only way, shown that the exercise of mercy is as useless as the process of hardening. We have foolishly imagined that mercy has succeeded, and hardening has failed: whereas all history shows us, and all experience confirms the verdict of history, that mercy is utterly useless. We ourselves are living examples that all God's tears cannot soften the obduracy of our heart. This interpretation clears away all difficulty from this Pauline passage, enabling us to read it in this way: God has, in the exercise of his sovereign wisdom, tried different methods with different minds. In some instances he has demonstrated the inevitable issue of hardness of heart; in other instances he has shown the utter uselessness of mere mercy; he has had mercy on whom he would have mercy, and whom he would he has hardened, or on them tried a hardening process; in other words, he has let both of them work out the bent of their own mind, fulfil their own line of constitution, and see what it ends in, and the consequence is this: letting men have their own way has failed, pitying their weaknesses has failed, terror has accomplished nothing, and mere mercy has only wrung its own tender heart; the rod and the tears have both failed. Let us wait before we come to the final conclusion. We are now in the midst of a process and must not force the issue by impatience.

So then it is unrighteous to blame God for showing men what hardness of heart really means, as if by adopting a contrary course he could have saved them; for he has again and again, in his providence, shown that his goodness has been no more effectual than his sovereignty. This is the other side of the great problem. We pitied Pharaoh, saying, "If the Lord would but try the effect of mercy upon him, Pharaoh would be pliant." The Lord says: "No; I know Pharaoh better than you do; but to show you what mercy will do or will not do, I will try it upon other men." And we have stood by, and seen God cry rivers of tears, we have seen him thrill with compassion; we have seen him make himself pliable in the hands of his own children, as if they might do with him what they pleased; and they have in reply to his mercy smitten him in the face.

The seventy-eighth Psalm is an elaborate historical argument establishing this very point, and is the more striking that it deals with the very people whom Pharaoh refused to liberate. The whole case is thus focalised for us; we see the double action at one view. If you want to see what hardening can do, look at Pharaoh; if you want to see what mercy can do, look at Israel; in both instances you see utter failure. God had compassion on whom he would have compassion, and on whom he would he tried the giving up of men to the hardness of their own hearts, and in both cases the issue was disappointment and grief on the part of God. So our little narrow theory that mercy would have succeeded has been contradicted by the unanimous verdict of the ages. Can language be tenderer than that of the Psalmist? "Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan. He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as an heap. In the daytime also he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire. He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths. He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers." What is the upshot? They all prayed, they all loved God, they all responded to the magic of mercy? "And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the Most High in the wilderness." "But he, being full of compassion" this is the very theory you wanted to have tried "forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again." How did they answer him? By love? by allegiance? by covenants of loyalty? Read the history: "How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert! Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They remembered not his hand: nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy." There mercy stands back, and says, "I have failed." Seeing that both severity and mercy have failed, what was to be done with the race? Says God: "I have had compassion on these; I have hardened the hearts of these or, in other words, have allowed them to see what the hardening of their own hearts really means; I have thus created a great human history, and the result is failure, failure. The law has failed, sentiment has failed, the sword I put back as a failure, my tears I dry as a failure what is to be done?" Now comes the sublimity of the evangelical philosophy, the glory of the gospel as it is known in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Righteousness and mercy must meet together, justice and pity must hold their interview; God must be just, and yet must himself find means by which he can be the Justifier of the ungodly. This reconciliation has been effected. We, as evangelical thinkers, believe in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if that fail there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.

Verse 9

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you." Exodus 7:9 .

The world has certain rights in reference to the Church. The world is at liberty to call upon the Church to prove its inspiration. -It is not enough for any Church to say that it can work miracles; it must prove the saying by the action. Christianity is the great miracle-working power. Christianity never does anything but miracles. The mischief is that we have affixed to the term miracle a narrow signification, and have declared that miracles have ceased. This is a profound misconception. The presence of Christianity in the world is itself a miracle. Every man who is turned from darkness to light is a living miracle. Every life that is turned round from going in one direction to going in another direction illustrates the miraculous energy of Christian inspiration. It is better to show living miracles than to be clever in logical arguments. The world is not to be convinced by controversy, but by the higher kind of miracles, change of spirit, temper, disposition, purpose; that change is known by the Scriptural name regeneration or the new birth a name which ought never to be surrendered; there is none like it for range and expressiveness. Even if the world can show miracles of its own, there must be a point of superiority in Christian miracles which will instantly and finally decide the competition. Never disallow the power of education or of social custom to work certain wonders in human character and purpose. Nothing is to be gained by such denial. Such denial would, indeed, be unjust. The power of Christianity is to transcend such wonders by sublimer miracles.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 7". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/exodus-7.html. 1885-95.
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