Connections 08.14.2016: The Hardened Heart

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Romans 9:6-18

If I asked you what verse in today’s passage is most confusing, which one would you choose?

Paul’s writing, like the writing of many great theologians, can be just as bewildering as it is inspiring. If you’re like me, you would certainly question the second part of verse 18: “…[God] hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.” This verse puzzles me and makes me rather suspicious toward God. Paul is referencing the story in Exodus about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he refuses to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt. That’s the same God who is credited with sending dreadful plagues upon both the guilty and the innocent, culminating in the deaths of Egypt’s firstborn males (see Exod 12:29). Who is this God?

I think most of us can accept that there is evil in the world. It’s a consequence of human free will. We’re naturally selfish and self-preserving, and it takes a sometimes-monumental effort to look beyond me and truly see you and your needs. My inability to do this frequently leads to sin. Even if it’s quiet, barely noticed sin, it can accumulate and eventually cause great harm. So yes, we can all accept that there is evil in the world.

The idea that God, however, has a hand in keeping a person selfish, in closing a person’s mind, in hardening a person’s heart is next to impossible to accept—at least for me. Why would God do that? Why would God prolong suffering? If a person with evil in his heart shows even a small sign of wanting to change, why would God prevent that?

Paul offers an explanation by quoting what God said to Moses in the Exodus story: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom 9:15; see Exod 33:19). Basically, it’s God’s prerogative to show mercy and compassion when and how God wants to.

I get that. God is God after all, and I am not. God certainly has more knowledge about people’s inner motives and what they deserve than I do. Even so, this kind of statement and action seems out of character with the one we know as God through Jesus Christ. Could it be that the original biblical writers—including Paul—were just trying their best to make sense of the world and God’s movement in it? Could it be that these writers ascribed behaviors, words, and actions to God simply because they couldn’t fathom another explanation for what was happening in the world? Maybe.

This world is hard to understand sometimes. We don’t have to look far today to find intense human suffering, cold-hearted cruelty, and bitter arguments. There are times when it seems like the only possible explanation must be that God is at it again—hardening hearts. I honestly don’t know the best way to interpret these words from Paul or the evidence of God hardening hearts in Old Testament stories.

Here’s what I do know: God is sovereign. God is in control. God is loving. God is patient. God is compassionate. God is merciful. God is ever present. Old Testament writers couldn’t always explain God. Paul couldn’t always explain God. And neither can we. In times when we’re confused and uncertain, may we cling to the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ. May we hold on to what we know of God until we can sense God’s presence with us again.

Discussion

1. What do you think of Romans 9:18? How do you feel when you read about God’s activity in the story of the exodus from Egypt—especially the plagues?
2. What other verses in the Bible make you question who God is?
3. When you feel puzzled about God’s character, what do you do? How do you pray? What makes you feel confident in God again?
4. Why do you think there are verses like these in the Bible? What do they say about humanity? What do they say about God?
5. What ultimate truths about God are you able to cling to in times of uncertainty? How do they help you? How could they help others?

Reference Shelf

Promise and calling, rather than ethnic belonging, mark the pattern of divine action.

In so arguing Paul captured the spirit of Genesis. This narrative emphasizes the reversal of the law of primogeniture (= the first born son carries on the family line). Over and over Genesis tells how through some twist of destiny a younger son was chosen to carry on the line. God preferred the sacrifice of Abel, the younger, over that of Cain, the elder (4:5). God preferred Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. Again, God preserved the seed of Abraham through Joseph (45:4-7; 49:4) rather than through Reuben, the legitimate heir. At the end of his life, Jacob blessed Ephraim, the second born, rather than the first born Manasseh, despite the protests of their father, Joseph (48:17-22). The motif in Genesis makes clear that all depends on God’s merciful choice, not on human behavior, structures, or preferences. Implied in Paul’s argument is that all that would be necessary for God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants to be fulfilled would be that some Jews believed in Christ. “Provided some Jews find seats in the pews of the church, God’s promise is not called in question by the conspicuous absence of their compatriots.” This was Paul’s first reason.

The second reason that Paul offered in support of his claim that Jewish unbelief and Gentile belief do not undermine God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham is that Gentiles as well as Jews are called by a merciful God (9:22-24). God has called “not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (v. 24). Of course, the promise to Abraham included the Gentiles. Genesis 12:3 says that all the families of the earth will be blessed by Abraham; 18:18 asserts that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by Abraham; 22:18 repeats that by Abraham’s descendants all the nations of the earth will bless themselves. Paul did not quote these passages but he assumed them. It may at first sight be surprising that Paul did not quote these Genesis passages that are so directly relevant. Instead he quoted from Hosea. Verse 25 cites Hosea 2:25 and v. 26 quotes Hosea 2:1. The reason is Paul’s use of the key word “call.” In v. 24 he affirmed that God has “called” Jews and Gentiles. Now he cited Scripture that uses the key term to bolster his claim that Gentiles are called. Hosea 2:25 says: “Those who were not my people, I will call my people, and her who was not beloved I will call beloved” (9:25). Hosea 2:1 says: “they shall be called children of the living God” (9:26). Gentile inclusion in God’s people, then, does not make void God’s promise; it fulfills it.

Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 249-51.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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