Loving Father or Unpredictable Tyrant: A Question About God’s Mercy
Does God intentionally create people to do evil for His glory? This question arose in a Bible study I attended recently. The man who asked the question confessed his difficulty in understanding why God would harden Pharaoh’s heart when Moses went to him with God’s demand that he release Israel from Egypt. This point first comes up at the Burning Bush, where God explains to Moses his mission:
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21 NKJV, emphasis added)
That word “harden” is the Hebrew word khazak, or chazak (חָזַק, Strongs H2388), which means to strengthen, prevail, harden, be strong, become strong, be courageous, be firm, grow firm, be resolute, be sore. A prominent Jewish tradition at the conclusion of reading each book of the Torah is to say, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” (חְַזַק חְַזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק), which means, “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” The word appears 290 times in Scripture, and in the King James is often translated as “strong”, “strengthened”, “strengthen”, or “encourage”. It is translated as “harden” only 13 times. The King James uses “harden” 12 times in Exodus in the context of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, and then once more in Joshua 11:20 in describing why the Canaanite kings came to fight Israel:
For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them, and that they might receive no mercy, but that He might destroy them, as the LORD had commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:20 NKJV)
In these passages it does seem that God is purposefully inciting people to evil if we translate chazak as “harden”. Yet if that is the correct translation, then we have a problem reconciling these passages with what the Apostle Peter tells us about our God:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (II Peter 3:9 NKJV)
But what if the correct translation is “strengthen”? That is how Young’s Literal Translation renders chazak in Exodus 4:21 and elsewhere:
And Jehovah saith unto Moses, `In thy going to turn back to Egypt, see–all the wonders which I have put in thy hand–that thou hast done them before Pharaoh, and I–I strengthen his heart, and he doth not send the people away; (Exodus 4:21 YLT98, emphasis added. See also Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17.)
When we see the passage this way, we understand that God did not force Pharaoh to do anything he did not want to do. All God did was confirm Pharaoh and his people in the choices they had already made. Pharaoh had determined to resist Moses and keep the people enslaved, so he refused the demand Moses brought from God. Since he had already made that choice, God let him and his nation experience the consequences. This puts another perspective on Paul’s explanation of the story:
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” (Romans 9:14-19 NKJV, emphasis added)
In this passage Paul uses the word sklērynō (σκληρύνω, Strongs G4645). The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) used sklērynō for chazak in Exodus 4:21. In the Apostolic Writings (New Testament), five of the six uses of the word refer to actions of individuals in hardening their own hearts (see Acts 19:9, Hebrews 3:8, 13, 15, and Hebrews 4:7). The implication, therefore, is that Paul’s use of sklērynō in Romans 9:18 is in the same sense as chazak in Exodus 4:21 – God confirms or strengthens people in the choices they have already made.
Remember that God is able to see all of time all the time. He knows our choices and the consequences, and He will not stand in our way to prevent our choices. He will have mercy on us if we meet him even part way. He even had a measure of mercy on wicked King Ahab when he repented of plotting with Jezebel to murder Naboth the Jezreelite and steal his vineyard (I Kings 21). However, if there is no repentance, God allows the consequences fall on us. If Pharaoh had repented, God would have blessed him and would have gained great glory through the salvation that would have happened in Egypt. Such was the case centuries later in Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar repented before God (see Daniel 4), and in Persia, when Cyrus let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1). Cyrus was prophesied to do this long before he was even born (Isaiah 44:24-28, 45:1-7). But what if Cyrus had chosen to resist God? In that case he and Persia would have suffered judgment just like Egypt, and the people would still have returned. God would have been glorified, but not in the way He preferred.
We serve a God of mercy, and whenever possible He will render mercy, but it depends on how we receive Him. Again, Paul explains this to us:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 1:18-25 NKJV)
Paul gave us instruction about how we are to be part of this process in his first letter to the believers in Corinth:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (I Corinthians 5:1-5 NKJV)
The point is that God is not capricious, impulsive, or unpredictable. He does not want us to do evil and does not create us with that purpose. However, we have the capacity to do evil because God has created us with free will. He created Lucifer with that same free will. Lucifer made his choice, and God confirmed him in it, and thus the Son of the Morning Star became Satan, the liar and murderer (Isaiah 14:12-21; Ezekiel 28:11-19; John 8:44).
Since God is outside of time, He can see what we will do. That is how He can declare the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:9-10). So perhaps, when we ask how predestination works, we should look not so much on God’s actions, but on our own.