Monday, November 26, 2012

“Follow All the Instructions but I’ll Harden Pharaoh’s Heart” -- Exodus 4:21

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”
Either before Moses left for Egypt with his family, or on the way, God reminds him that he is to perform all the wonders that He had put in his power once he got to see the Pharaoh.  Following only some of the instructions would not suffice any more than when we are ill, taking only some of our prescribed medicines, or every other dose, ordered by the doctor, would allow the bacterial infection in our body to be cured. We cannot partially obey God if we are to receive His blessing in the particular endeavor we are involved in.

I find the phrase “wonders I have put in your power” of interest.  Few commentaries elaborate on it.  But think of it.  The Almighty God takes an ordinary person like Moses, you, or I; calls him to undertake a task on His behalf; and then actually gives him ‘wonders’ to be used in a prescribed way but under the man’s (or woman’s) own control to provide the power by which the task will be completed.  Entire books can be written about this, but here let us simply remind ourselves that it is possible.  Let us believe it.  Let us not seek it inappropriately or for the wrong reasons, but let us not miss it, either.

In this same passage we are confronted with one of the most difficult actions of God to explain to skeptics.  God tells Moses that He was going to “harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the Israelites go”.  Now why on earth (or in heaven for that matter) would God plan to do that, and furthermore, tell us about in advance?  Did He not know the troubles this would cause us as we went about fulfilling the Great Commission in the future?
Chuck Smith, writing on this in his C200 Series commentary, presents us with an interesting perspective as to what is going on here.  He suggests that the word Hebrew word we have translated as “harden” in this case is a word that literally means “strengthen”.  Smith continues,

“I will make strong his heart”. Now as we read of Moses’ dealings with Pharaoh [later on]. . . we read “Pharaoh hardened his heart”.  The word there in Hebrew is hardened.  “And Pharaoh hardened his heart”.  And then we read, “and the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh.”  Different Hebrew word.  “The Lord made firm the heart of Pharaoh”, or “the Lord strengthened the heart of Pharaoh.”  In other words, Pharaoh set his heart and God strengthened him in that position.  “You want to be stubborn?  All right, I’ll strengthen you in your stubbornness so I can really bop you good.”  That’s basically what it was. . . . Pharaoh set his heart against the Lord, and God strengthened him in his position . . . [so that] He’ll not let the people go.
The commentator David Guzik in his study of Exodus reminds us that whenever God hardened (or strengthened) Pharaoh’s heart, He never did it against Pharaoh’s will.  He writes,
Pharaoh never said, "Oh, I want to do what is good and right and I want to bless these people of Israel" and God answered, "No, for I will harden your heart against them!" When God hardened Pharaoh's heart, He allowed Pharaoh's heart to do what Pharaoh wanted to do - God was giving Pharaoh over to his sin (Romans 1:18-32) . . . “God does not harden men by putting evil into them, but by not giving them mercy." (Augustine)
And Matthew Henry in his commentary on this passage, writes,
That Pharaoh’s obstinacy might be no surprise nor discouragement to him [Moses], God tells him before that he would harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart. Pharaoh had hardened his own heart against the groans and cries of the oppressed Israelites, and shut up the bowels of his compassion from them; and now God, in a way of righteous judgment, hardens his heart against the conviction of the miracles, and the terror of the plagues.
So there you have it.  I believe the skeptics will still not be satisfied but then again maybe nothing will satisfy them.  On the other hand, our goal is to have Christians be able to better understand some of the more difficult points in Scripture.  We do not have to defend God’s thinking or rationale or intentions; we just need to try and understand them.  What we still do not understand, we accept by ‘faith’ that it is indeed His Way.

Finally, I cannot leave this section without making reference to one of my favorite words in the Bible, that three-letter word once again – “but”.  God seems to be saying, “Moses do exactly as I tell you; but even though you do, I’ll still harden Pharaoh’s heart.”  Now what is that all about?  It seems that sometimes we do what God says and then He goes and thwarts our efforts. Matthew Henry may have an answer for that.  He warns us, especially those of us who are pastors or ministry leaders, to expect that our labor may often be in vain.  He writes, “we must not think it strange if we meet with those who will not be wrought upon by the strongest arguments and fairest reasonings.” And in Moses’ case, God even tells him in advance that this will happen.  Allow me to suggest something that is really difficult for us (especially those of us who are ‘type-A’ personalities who always want the ‘goal’ to be met) to accept.  The primary point of you following all of God’s instructions is often not the end result or impact your action will have on a situation – God can take care of that totally on His own.  The whole point of you following God’s instructions, and yes, sometimes with no success, is that you learn to be totally obedient to Him and trusting Him to do what is best for you, for others, and for the world.  We must get to the point where, as Charles Price said in a sermon from Isaiah 31, it becomes natural for us to “look to God” in order to “lean on God”, so that we can be able to “listen to God”.

Where are you and I on the path He wants us to travel?

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