Qualities of God’s Mercy (Numbers 14:18-19)

Nearly all of us have heard the song Great is Thy Faithfulness. The hymn states, “Great is thy faithfulness. Great is thy faithfulness. Morning to morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great Is thy Faithfulness Lord unto me.” Unlike some other hymns, this hymn is not the result of some tragic event in Thomas Chisholm’s life but a powerful witness to his daily walk with Jesus as he experienced “morning by morning” new mercies from His Everlasting Father. Pastor Chisholm always trusted his Everlasting Father to take care of him, sustain him, and provide for his daily needs. Just before his death in 1960 he wrote this power, personal witness: “My income has never been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. But I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care which have filled me with astonishing gratefulness.”[1] Chisholm’s hymn demonstrates not only the great faithfulness of God, but also the great mercy of God. Chisholm’s health would have failed him much earlier if it were not for the mercy of God. Chisholm realized that he was being sustained by the mercy of God.

We have spoken about the grace of God. Grace was defined as “giving someone something that they do not deserve.” Mercy is quite the opposite. Wayne Grudem defines mercy as “God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress.”[2] In other words, mercy is not giving someone something that they deserve. Some have asked whether mercy is an attribute or an activity. Norman Geisler has stated that “Regardless of whether mercy is itself an attribute or an activity of God, it is deeply rooted in His unchangeable nature. As such, it reveals something extremely important about God’s character.”[3]

1. The mercy of God has the quality of PATIENCE (14:18a).

 Moses acknowledges in his prayer the patience of God as he says “the LORD is slow to anger.”[4] Moses had witnessed God’s great mercy in demonstrating patience in times past. Moses was asking for the same as the people had rebelled against the Lord. People were exclaiming, “We would have been better off in Egypt!”

It’s interesting to note the difference between the lack of patience from the people and the overwhelming patience of God. Remember, mercy means NOT giving someone something that they deserve. Did the people deserve a divine pop in the nose? Yes! However, God demonstrated mercy by his patience. What if God acted to us the way the people acted to God? Would they have been afforded the opportunity to enter the Promised Land? No!

2. The mercy of God has the quality of KINDNESS (14:18b).

Moses continues with his prayer noting that God has “abundant lovingkindness.” This phrase comes from two Hebrew words “rab” and “chesed.” The word rab means “mighty, “strong, or even “numerous.” Chesed means “lovingkindess” that has its root in one’s mercy. Thus, one could say that kindness is rooted in mercy. Moses was pleading for the kindness of God.

Let’s think this over. God had great mercy on the Hebrews keeping them from the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. God had mercy on the Hebrews allowing them to cross through the Red Sea on dry ground. God had mercy on them by giving them manna from heaven. God had mercy on them leading them into the Promised Land. God had shown nothing but mercy to the Hebrews. Yet, still the Hebrews rebelled against God. Perhaps the problem was not so much with God’s mercy, but with the gratitude of God’s people.

3. The mercy of God has the quality of JUSTNESS (14:18d).

Moses was praying for God’s mercy. But, Moses also realized that there would be some who would not repent no matter how much grace was extended to them.  As we learn earlier in the chapter, many were saying, “Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt” (14:3)? What was the real sin? The writers of the New Bible Commentary note that “The Lord’s word begins with an accurate analysis of Israel’s sin—it is unbelief.”[5]

Three things can be said about the justness of mercy. 1) Isn’t it amazing that the people, who could not save themselves, thought that they knew better than the One who delivered them? Some people claim that God is unjust for sending people to hell, while at the same time accusing God for allowing evil to go unpunished. The same people will accuse God for not revealing himself to the world, while at the same time accuse God of foolishness for revealing himself on earth as Jesus of Nazareth. God’s mercy is extended, but his mercy does not force the obstinate and those who refuse to repent.

2) It was G. K. Chesterton who said, “Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.”[6]

3) God is not unjust for sending unrepentant people to hell. God is merciful to allow anyone to go to heaven. It would be unjust of God to allow unrepentant people to enter into heaven.

4. The mercy of God has the quality of FORGIVENESS (14: 18c, 19).

Moses pleads with God to forgive the repentant. Moses played the part of a lawyer. Moses argued: “If the Lord wiped out the nation, it would reflect more on His character than on the character of rebellious Israel. His inability to fulfill His promise to bring this people into the promised land would negatively impact His reputation if He carried out His plan to destroy the nation. Moses, however, knew that the Lord could not let this rebellion go unpunished.”[7] Of course, God knew this all along. Thus, Moses pleaded for God to show mercy through his forgiving nature.

 Mercy is at the heart of forgiveness. People really only hold two options when they are offended: they can hold grudges and seek revenge, or they can forgive giving the people over to God. But really, if we consider all for which God has forgiven us, it should be no big issue to forgive others. Jesus says quite bluntly, “If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:15). When we hold on to bitterness, we really in the end only hurt ourselves anyhow.  

A medieval story captures the manner in which bitterness holds us a prisoner. Long ago, two monks were traveling and approached an unusually rough river. Standing alone on the bank was a woman who approached the monks and asked if they could help her across so she could return home to her family. Knowing it was forbidden to touch a woman, one monk quickly looked the other way, ignoring her request for help. The other monk, feeling compassion for the desperate lady, decided to bend the rules. Breaking tradition, he lifted her into his arms and carried her safely across the rushing water. Exceedingly grateful, the lady thanked the helpful monk and left for home. The two monks continued on their journey. After miles of silence, the first monk finally said with disgust, “I can’t believe you picked up that woman! You know we’re never supposed to touch the opposite sex.” The compassionate monk replied, “I put her down miles ago, yet you still carry her in your heart.” God grants us mercy by his forgiveness. By God’s mercy, we are afforded the opportunity to forgive others as well.

Conclusion: A little boy named Johnny and his sister Sally stayed at their grandparents’ house for a week during the summer. Johnny had just received a brand new slingshot. However, Johnny wasn’t a good shot. His grandma called him in for supper. Frustrated, Johnny took a shot at his grandma’s pet duck. However, this time he hit the duck in the head and killed it dead. Johnny panicked. He took the duck’s corpse and hid it under a bush. His sister Sally had watched the whole thing. She said to him, “You’d better do what I say or I’ll tell Grandma.” So, the next day after lunch, Grandma said, “Sally, I need you to help with the dishes.” Sally said, “Johnny wants to do it.” Sally looked at Johnny and whispered, “Remember the duck.” Grandpa said to the children, “Let’s go fishing at the pond.” Grandma said, “I need Sally to help with supper.” Sally said, “Johnny wants to help.” She looked at Johnny and whispered, “Remember the duck.” After a few days of being Sally’s slave, doing chores, and obeying her every whim, he confessed to Grandma. Grandma said, “Honey, I was standing at the window when you accidently shot the duck. I forgave you then and there. I was just wondering how long you were going to be Sally’s slave.[8] The grace of God gives us heaven. But it is by the mercy of God that we are forgiven, transformed, and changed. If God has had mercy on you, remember you are a changed individual. Don’t be enslaved by the Devil’s reminders of your past. In life fashion, if you have received the mercy of God, demonstrate that same mercy unto others.


© April 29, 2016. Brian Chilton. Published May 5, 2016.


[1] Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), 366

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 200.

[3] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2011), 595.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[5] D. A. Carson, et. al., The New Bible Commentary (Liecester, UK: Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, 1994), Logos Bible Softward.

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: SnowBall Classics Publishing, 2015), 57

[7] Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham, eds, The Moody Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Bible Publishers, 2014), 234.

[8] Adapted from the story given by Ellen Klinke, “The Duck and the Devil,” SermonIllustrationLibrary.org (May 3, 2006), retrieved April 29, 2016, http://www.sermonillustrationlibrary.org/illustration56.


10 Questions about Evil Answered by the Bible

We have been discussing over the past few weeks the documentary hosted by Morgan Freeman titled The Story of God: The Story of Us as aired on the National Geographic Channel. On Sunday, May 1st, 2016, Freeman presented the fifth episode of the series. This episode dealt with the problem of evil. I originally thought that the episode would deal with the issue that is popularly known as theodicy: that is, how can a loving and all-powerful God co-exist with a world full of evil? Rather, the episode dealt more with evil in the human sphere. How do we understand evil? Where does evil originate? This article will present 10 questions that were raised over the course of the episode. The answers to these questions are found in the pages of the Bible.

  1. Is a person wired to do evil?

We will discuss the concept of original sin and its influence on our lives (see question 2). However, we must ask, “Are some people wired to do evil?” Morgan Freeman interviewed a psychopath at a federal imprisonment facility. The psychopath had raped several women killing many of them. Let me pause and say that I have to give serious props to Freeman and the show for not publicizing the prisoner’s name and for refusing to show his face. They did not want to glorify the man or his actions.

Dr. Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist, claimed that the prisoner lacked emotions and the ability to control his impulses, something that the prisoner confessed as true. However, it is interesting that the prisoner admitted that what he did was wrong. He said that if he were released that he would probably do the same, admitting the evil of his deeds. While I admit that there are psychopathic tendencies in individuals which may stem from physical abnormalities, one still has the choice to act on one’s impulses. Later, a theologian named Kutter Calloway admitted that each of us have a little of that psychopath in us. Each of us holds the ability to do great good or great evil. The Bible gives a great point on this issue. Joshua tells the people of Israel, “choose for yourselves today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).[1] Each day, we also have that decision.

  1. What is original sin?

Charles Hodge defines original sin as “The effects of Adam’s sin upon his posterity are declared in our standards to be, (1.) The guilt of his first sin. (2.) The loss of original righteousness. (3.) The corruption of our whole nature, which (i.e., which corruption), is commonly called original sin.”[2] Paul notes that “if by the transgression of the one (meaning Adam, mine), death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). Paul notes in verse 18 that all are condemned as guilty because of the sin of Adam. A sin nature is passed from one generation unto the next.

  1. Are humans inherently good or inherently evil?

Freeman interviewed Kutter Calloway, a Baptist minister and theologian. Calloway said quite accurately that there is “something in us that bends itself towards death and evil.”[3] This is true. The Bible illustrates the dichotomy that exists in each human being. Humans are made in the image of God, or imagio dei (Genesis 1:27). Thus, humans have the potential to do good because of bearing the imprint of God’s image. However, humans have been incapacitated to do complete good due to the entrance of sin into the human equation. Goodness comes from God. So it stands to reason that ultimate good can be brought from those who have been regenerated by the grace of God. To answer the question, humans were made to do good, however bearing a sin nature, humans are swayed to do great evil.

  1. Is the devil real?

Calloway noted that the devil is a real being, but yet the devil is a metaphor for the inner demonic influences of a person’s life. So, to answer the question, the devil is a real entity. The devil tempted Adam and Eve to eat the apple in the garden (Genesis 3:4-5). The devil tested God in the instance of Job’s life (Job 1:13-22). The devil also tempted Jesus on three occasions at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). The devil is also shown to be defeated at the end of days (Revelation 20:1-15). So yes, the devil is real.

  1. Can our ancestors influence evil behavior?

Some cultures believe that a person’s ancestors can influence a person’s behavior. In a manner of speaking, this could be true to a degree. For instance, Moses understood that a person’s sin could influence several generations in the future (i.e., Numbers 15:18). In many ways, the sins of today can lead to the problems of tomorrow. Therefore, in some degree, we are influenced by the evil of previous generations, but maybe not in the way that it was presented on the show.

  1. Can evil be purified?

Yes! Evil is purified by the Messiah. See question 8.

  1. Should we blame spiritual entities for our behavior?

While we have all heard people use the excuse, “The devil made me do it.” In reality, each person must answer for their own actions. Spiritual entities can tempt and try to persuade a person to do a particular thing. However, no one can blame the entities for their decisions. For instance, the devil tempted Adam and Eve. Yet, Adam and Eve had to face the consequences of their actions.

  1. Does the purging of evil require a Messiah?

Yes! Sin stains a person thoroughly and completely. The writer of Hebrews notes that “all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Thus, a perfect sacrifice was required to rid the world of evil. That perfect sacrifice was found in Christ. As Jesus himself noted, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

  1. Can faith lead us to redemption?

Absolutely! A person is made into a new creation because of the work of Christ. The old ways, attitudes, and behaviors are transformed. A person can be forgiven, learning how to forgive, and can be molded into a much better person due to the work of Christ. The resounding truth that rings through the ages is that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

  1. Can people change?

Some people hold the assumption that people cannot change. Such beliefs stem from an ultra-determinist ideology that would lend the ideas of law and morality as invalid. It makes little sense to have laws and ethics if people cannot choose to do good rather than evil. In the end, one must note that there are certain things that a person cannot change. Personality traits and tendencies may follow a person for a lifetime. However, behaviors and attitudes can change! Christianity is built upon the idea that people can change. That was the purpose for which Jesus came. Jesus came to set people free. Jesus came to bring forth change! As Paul notes, a person can choose not to be “conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good an acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). People cannot change themselves necessarily, but God can change people.

Error Alert:   Did the idea of the devil originate with Zoroastrianism?

The fifth episode presented what I believe to be an error. The show seemed to picture Zoroastrianism as the father of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic belief in the devil and the fight between good and evil. Zoroastrianism is pinpointed to be around 3,500 years old stemming from the teacher Zoroaster. However, it does not appear that the monotheistic religions may have adopted the concept from Zoroastrianism. Rather, Zoroastrianism may have adopted said concepts from Judaism. The book of Job may be the oldest book of the Bible. Elwell and Beitzel note that “The language of the book may also point to an early date. Certain linguistic elements indicate more archaic forms of Hebrew, as preserved in the epic material from Ugarit. It may be that Job himself lived in the 2nd millennium b.c.”[4] If it is true that Moses wrote the majority of the Torah, or Pentateuch, (and remember Genesis mentions the devil), then the latest that the earliest form of these writings would have appeared would been the 13th century BC. Many scholars, and rightly so, argue for an older date for the Exodus. If so, Genesis would have appeared in the 15th century BC. This would have been much earlier than Zoroaster.

In addition, studies indicate that the writings of the Bible may be much older than previously thought. The Associated Press reports,

“Israeli mathematicians and archaeologists say they have found evidence to suggest that key biblical texts may have been composed earlier than what some scholars think. Using handwriting analysis technology similar to that employed by intelligence agencies and banks to analyze signatures, a Tel Aviv University team determined that a famous hoard of ancient Hebrew inscriptions, dated to around 600 BC, were written by at least six different authors. Although the inscriptions are not from the Hebrew Bible, their discovery suggests there was widespread literacy in ancient Judah at the time that would support the composition of biblical works…The inscriptions themselves are not biblical texts. Instead, they detail troop movements and expenses for provisions, indicating that people throughout the military chain of command down to the fort’s deputy quartermaster were able to write. The tone of the inscriptions, which suggest they were not written by professional scribes, combined with the fortress’ remote location, indicate a wide spread of literacy at the time, according to the study. A high level of literacy would support the idea that some biblical texts had already been authored by this time. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known collection of certain biblical texts, are believed to date several centuries later.”[5]

With this in mind, it is safe to assume that Zoroastrianism was probably influenced by ancient Judaism rather than the other. This is not to say that Zoroastrianism could not have influenced Judaism during the Babylonian captivity especially with the influence of apocalyptic literature. However, I do not think that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam adopted as much from Zoroastrianism as was presented in the documentary.

© May 2, 2016. Brian Chilton.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 227.

[3] Kent Calloway, interviewed by Morgan Freeman, “Why Does Evil Exist?, The Story of God: The Story of Us, aired on the National Geographic Channel, Revelations Entertainment (May 1, 2016), retrieved May 1, 2016.

[4] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1169.

[5] Associated Press, “Handwriting Study Finds Clues On When Biblical Texts Written,” DailyMail (April 12, 2016), retrieved May 2, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3535745/Handwriting-study-finds-clues-biblical-texts-written.html.

Will Your Faith or Fear Define You?

This past Friday, the world was rocked with the news that the people of Paris, France had been attacked by an organized group of terrorists. Most of us hugged our families a little tighter. Prayers were lifted. Songs were sung. People were eulogized. But, the underlying question that lingered in everyone’s mind was, “Could it happen here?” Fear has a way of motivating people to do certain things. Fear could motivate one negatively by attacking individuals who had nothing to do with the events that caused the fear. However, faith can motivate one to do positive things. Fear should not be the motivating factor behind one’s life. There is a greater motivator for believers–faith.

A great example of how faith could drive a person is found in the three Hebrew men known as Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but more popularly known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. To give a background on the situation, the Hebrew people had been taken as exiles into Babylon. Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had ordered that all people bow down before an idol that was set up to propagate fear into the heart of the exilic people. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to cave in to their fears.

Were they scared? Of course they were!

Did they cave in due to their fears? Absolutely not! Because, they had faith.

Their fear would not define them. Rather, their faith would define them! When the king ordered them to cave in and bow down to his idol or else be thrown into a fiery furnace, the Hebrew three said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this manner. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).[1] These three men refused to give in to fear. Rather, they gave in to the power that comes by faith in a Sovereign, loving God.

In the end, the three Hebrew men were thrown into the fire. However, something powerful happened. Instead of seeing three men, the king noticed that there were four! The king said, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? …But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:24, 25). The king then ordered the men out and ordered that everyone pay homage to the God of all creation.

We face uncertain days. We may face the fires of trials and tribulations. But the principle of this story is that we have one walking in the fire with us. For those who have a personal relationship with God, we know that we have a friend walking with us in good times and in the bad. God is with us in the depths of death every bit as much as he is with us in the peaks of life. With Jesus, we have the power to find courage even in the pits of fear and despair.

Don’t let fear define you. Let the love and grace that comes through faith define you. A good modern example is found in Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. During a time of silence for the victims of Paris, a fan shouted a disparaging remark. Rodgers said during a press conference that “It is that kind of prejudicial ideology that I think puts us in the position that we’re in today as a world” (Wilde 2015). Rodgers refused to be defined by fear, he would be defined by his faith.

Every generation has had to face some form of evil whether it was Moses facing the Egyptian slavery of his people, the Hebrew three mentioned earlier, the Allies facing the Nazis and the Axis coalition of World War II, desegregation of the 1960s, and terrorism of the current age. Ultimately, the greatest example of faith under fire is found in Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Savior. He faced his fears head on and won…and will ultimately win. Miles Custis reminds us that the phrase “‘do not fear’ (אַל־תִּֽירְאוּ; ʾal-tîrāʾ) occurs often as an encouragement or a call for courage” (Custis 2014). Jesus gives us great comfort in saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

So each of us faces a crossroads.–a fork in the road if you will. Are we going to be defined by fear or by faith? Fear moves us in a certain direction. Faith moves us in an opposite direction. Which will be the defining motivator in your life?

May we all find the courage that comes by a compassionate faith in our Lord.

Praying for the people of Paris and all of those who face the horrors of terror.

Sources Cited

Custis, Miles. “Fear.” Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series. Douglas Mangum et al., eds. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Wilde, Jason. “Aaron Rodgers Upset by ‘Prejudicial’ Shout During Lambeau Moment of Silence.” ESPN.com (11/16/2015). http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/14140862/aaron-rodgers-green-bay-packers-upset-prejudicial-shout-moment-silence-lambeau-field.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

The Problem with Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

The book of Exodus provides one of the greatest stories of redemption found in the Old Testament. God redeems the children of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh by calling a human agent, Moses, to lead the people out of slavery and to freedom. Most bizarre in this scenario is God’s promise to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3).[1] How does one solve the so-called problem of God’s sovereignty as it relates to human responsibility? This paper will propose that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not impede upon Pharaoh’s free will, but rather that Pharaoh’s response fit within the sovereign plan of God. In order to accomplish this task, the paper will first examine the involvement of God in Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Then, the paper will examine the involvement of Pharaoh in the hardening process. Finally, the paper will offer a proposed theological solution to the problem.

The Problem of God’s Involvement in the Hardening Process

 One particular issue concerning Pharaoh’s hardened heart surrounds the involvement of God in the process. Some would prefer to claim that God had no influence upon the hardening process of Pharaoh’s heart. However, God is clearly seen to be a player in the process, if not even the moving force. God speaks to Moses and provides an interesting promise. God says to Moses, “You are to say everything I command you…But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:2-3).[2] To compound the problem, Exodus reiterates that it is Yahweh who is moving Pharaoh to this condition (e.g. 11:10). In fact, Douglas Stuart rightly denotes that the story served a purpose as “Moses was writing this story not merely to help his fellow Israelites trust Yahweh as things happened but to help them learn to trust that Yahweh is the one who makes things happen in the first place, as part of a great redemptive plan for the benefit of his people.”[3] God brings these things about for a particular reason. Such language addresses the theological notion of divine sovereignty. What is sovereignty and what do other passages of Scripture claim concerning God’s sovereignty?

Sovereignty is defined, according to John S. Feinberg, as “God’s power of absolute self-determination…God does his own actions, and that they are in accord with his choices.”[4] That is to say, God is in complete control over events. The apostle Paul denoted God’s sovereignty in such a fashion as he translated Pharaoh’s hardened heart as demonstrative that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:17). Divine sovereignty thus means, as Feinberg denotes, that “God is the ultimate, final, and complete authority over everything and everyone. Whatever happens stems from his decisions and control.”[5] When God called Jeremiah, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God had chosen Jeremiah before Jeremiah had a chance to respond. God’s choice is related to the Pharaoh as well. God had purposes for Pharaoh. For God said to Pharaoh that his purpose would be “that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). However, one must ask; does God not allow people to freely come to Him (e.g. Romans 10:13)? Does God condemn a person who would choose to repent? To understand this aspect of the equation, one must examine the role of human free will especially as it relates to the Egyptian Pharaoh of Exodus.

The Problem of Pharaoh’s Involvement in the Hardening Process

 Pharaoh played a major role in this heart hardening process. Pharaoh freely responded to God in a rebellious fashion, as planned by God. Exodus states that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (8:15). God did not force Pharaoh to sin. Rather, Pharaoh repeatedly rebelled against the grace of God. Again, Exodus states that “When the Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts” (9:34). It was evident that Pharaoh played a major role in his own rebellion; so much that Philistine priests said to their leaders, “Don’t be stubborn and rebellious as Pharaoh and the Egyptians were. By the time God was finished with them, they were eager to let Israel go” (1 Samuel 6:6, NLT).[6] God’s power was clearly demonstrated to other nations; however, the freely chosen rebellion of Pharaoh was also apparent. Moses clearly noted the choices of Pharaoh in the matter as Moses became frustrated at Pharaoh’s rebellion and “burning with anger” (11:8, NLT). Dorian Coover Cox would concede as much by claiming that “Whatever the reason, since Moses knew about the hardening, his anger, to be rational, must build on the belief that Pharaoh was still accountable for his attitudes and actions.”[7] But why was Pharaoh so rebellious? Perhaps it stemmed from pride. McGinnis makes the case that “Egyptians prized the ability to appear strong, firm, resolute, and unmoved by events.”[8] Pharaoh had rather rule his way to hell than submit his way to heaven. How does one solve this theological conundrum between divine sovereignty and human freedom?

 Proposed Solution to the Theological Issue

 If one seeks to hold a balanced theological perspective, one must accept both the sovereignty of God as well as human responsibility. Throughout Christian history, theologians have sought to solve this issue and have come to differing conclusions. McGinnis denotes that Origen felt that “God does not intend to harden…; although God’s purpose may be merciful, a person’s ‘inherent wickedness’ may result in hardening. In this way God is said to harden the one who is hardened.”[9] Juxtaposed to Origen’s thought, Augustine solved this problem by asserting that “God’s mercy or hardening spring ‘from deeply hidden merits.’”[10] But, how would Exodus present an answer?

Barker and Kohlenberger note concerning Exodus 11:9-10 that the writer of Exodus “as a recapitulation of all Moses’ negotiations beginning in 7:8, we are reminded that all had taken place as God had predicted it. No amount of evidence had persuaded Pharaoh’s heart, and Israel was still enslaved.”[11] God had a purpose in His workings, as “The Lord announced repeatedly that He was acting so that various parties would acknowledge Him.”[12] God would say to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (9:16). The terms used within the text seem to indicate the role that both God and Pharaoh played in the process. Geisler notes that four words are used pertaining to Pharaoh’s hardened heart, “Qashah, meaning “stubbornness”…Kabed, meaning “heavy” or “insensitive”…Chazaq, meaning “strength” or “encouragement”…When Pharaoh is the agent of hardening kabed is used. When God is the agent, chazaq is used.”[13] Termed another way, Geisler denotes that “the Hebrew word hardened (chazaq) can and often does mean ‘to strengthen’…or even ‘to encourage.’”[14] That is to say, God placed Pharaoh in the circumstances to freely react to the predetermined plan of God. A congruist theological approach can best systematize this kind of working.

Congruism is a theological system that is described by Millard J. Erickson as a “theology [that] can be characterized as a mild Calvinism (congruism) that gives primary place to God’s sovereignty, while seeking to relate it in a positive way to human freedom and individuality.”[15] Aquinas, believing in both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humanity, denoted that “God gives grace to a person, and pre-ordains that He will give it, because He knows beforehand that He will make good use of that grace, as if a king were to give a horse to a soldier because he knows he will make good use of it…there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination.”[16] Thus, a congruist, or compatibilist, interpretation evaluates human freedom as finding a home within the sovereign plan of God, a solution to the Pharaoh predicament.


 This paper has evaluated the theological problem of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The first section noted the clear Scriptural evidence that addresses God’s involvement in the hardening process, noting particularly the importance of divine sovereignty. The second section noted the clear Scriptural evidence that supports Pharaoh’s own responsibility in the hardening process. The final section offered a proposal found in the congruist theological model, evaluating human freedom as taking place within the sovereign plan of God. One can find great comfort in acknowledging God’s sovereignty amidst human responsibility. At times, the world seems chaotic. Evil grows at a rapid pace. The marvelous news is that God is still in control. Human freedom is playing to the beat of God’s sovereign drum, ultimately culminating to God’s grand redemption of His people.

Copyright 2015. Brian Chilton.

The preceding article represents the academic work of the author. Note that the contents have been scanned and submitted. Therefore, any attempt of plagiarism will be discovered by one’s respective school of learning. As always, be sure to use cite any references used for one’s work.

The article’s theme picture is that of Yul Brynner playing the part of Pharaoh in the motion picture “The Ten Commandments.” Paramount Pictures (October 5, 1956).


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologicae. In Summa of the Summa. Translated by the Fathers of the Dominican Province. Edited and Annotated by Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, Abrided Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Cox, Dorian Coover. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context.” Bibliotheca Sacra 163, 651 (July 1, 2006): 292-311. February 27, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Feinberg, John S. No One Like Him: Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

_______________. Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

McGinnis, Claire Mathews. “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6, 1 (March 1, 2012): 43-64. Accessed February 27, 2015.  ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus, The New American Commentary, Volume 2. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[2] Henceforth, passages in Exodus will be referenced by only the chapter and verse.

[3] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary, Volume 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 262.

[4] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 294.

[5] Ibid., 294.

[6] Scripture marked NLT comes from the New Living Translation (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013).

[7] Dorian Coover Cox, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context,” Bibliotheca Sacra 163, 651 (July 1, 2006): 300, accessed February 27, 2015.

[8] Cox, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 306.

[9] Claire Mathews McGinnis, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6, 1 (March 1, 2012): 47, accessed February 27, 2015.

[10] Ibid., 52.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, abridged ed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 84.

[12] Cox, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in its Literary and Cultural Context,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 296.

 [13] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 592.

[14] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 97.

[15] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 448.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae I.23.5, in Summa of the Summa, the Fathers of the Dominican Province, trans., Peter Kreeft, ed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 177.