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What Scripture Teaches

Various questions arise in the consideration of the subject, the hardening of the heart. Perhaps the most discussion centers about the question that is raised with a view to the cause of this hardening. The most popular view contends that this hardening has its primary cause in man himself. Even in those passages of Scripture where this hardening is directly ascribed to God, the majority of Bible expositors attempt to pass by this difficulty (or should we say so-called difficulty?) by explaining that God hardens the heart of man only after He has made many futile attempts to turn him from his evil way and man has consistently refused to heed the voice of God. Hence, according to them, only after man has hardened his heart against the Word of God and because man has done that consistently, does God harden his heart and make it impossible for him to repent and be converted. We need not say that this is the prevalent view today and is in full accord with the almost overwhelming trend in religious circles to get away from the whole idea of predestination as an eternal decree of God and to make salvation dependent upon the choice of man’s free will. Any doctrine that holds that some individuals cannot believe and be saved because God has from eternity ordained that they should not be saved and therefore in time hardens their hearts, is of course incompatible with their free-will conception of salvation and therefore cannot be entertained. The result is, naturally, that men have been compelled to distort the teaching of Scripture in such passages in which this fact is clearly taught in order to make it fit into their scheme.

However, before we say any more about the subject itself, let us see what Scripture teaches us in this respect.

The Scriptural references that speak of this hardening of the heart are too numerous to mention. We do not intend to burden the reader with a mass of Scripture texts but shall call attention to those only that are outstanding in what they reveal about our subject. In case anyone is interested in reviewing all the passages that speak of this hardening of the heart, a good concordance will serve the purpose. All the texts that speak of this reality may be grouped into three classes; those that ascribe this hardening to man himself, those that ascribe this hardening to God and some that leave the cause of this hardening undetermined, ascribing it neither directly to God nor to man himself. It may be noticed also that Scripture uses various terms in the original to denote this hardening, all of which are translated in the English by some form of the verb “harden.” In the original, Scripture uses such terms as, “to strengthen, to make hard, to make strong, to make heavy, to make sharp, to make dry or stiff.” Finally it is also interesting to note the various connections in which the word “harden” appears. In this respect we find that Scripture speaks of this hardening as a hardening:

  1. Against God’s Command. In this respect the classic example of Pharaoh is outstanding. God had commanded through His servant Moses that the Egyptian king should permit Israel to go out and serve their God. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he does not let the people go until the Lord has brought upon him His terrible judgments in the ten plagues. See in this connection the history recorded in the book of Exodus, chapters 4 to 14.
  2. Against God’s fear. This appears in the first place from Isaiah 63:17, “O Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear?. . . .” Also Proverbs 28:14 teaches this, “Happy is the man that feareth alway; but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief.”
  3. Against loving the neighbor. Deut. 15:7. “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother.”
  4. Against God’s way, and His voice. Ps. 95:7, 8. “For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. Today if ye will hear his voice harden not your heart, as in the provocation and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness.” See also Heb. 3:8 and Heb. 4:7.
  5. Against God’s judgments. Not only does the example of Pharaoh and the Egyptians serve here but also that of the Philistines who had taken the ark of God. I Sam. 6:6, “Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?. . . .”
  6. Against true understanding. After the Lord has warned His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, they reason among themselves thinking that it is because they have not taken bread that Jesus speaks thus. Then we read in Mark 8:17, “And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not, neither understand? have ye your hearts yet hardened?”
  7. Against believing in Jesus. John 12:39, 40. “Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”

Wherein it consists.

From the above quotations we may gather various elements that are present in this hardening of the heart, which are also to be identified with it. There is in the first place the element of pride and rebellion. This is especially plain from the example of Pharaoh. The Lord had commanded that Pharaoh should let Israel go but Pharaoh says, “Who is the Lord? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go.” In his pride Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge any master over him and therefore also rebels against performing any command which God may give him. Even when God sends His judgments upon him, he refuses to bend and though he seems to relent momentarily, he consistently refuses to heed the voice of God. This same pride and rebellion becomes manifest in Israel when time and again the people refused to hear God’s Word, refused to repent and confess their sins but proudly continued in their own wicked way. Almost the same idea is expressed in Scripture when we read of “hardening the neck.” Essentially this pride and rebellion is the expression of man’s sinful desire to be as God and to determine for himself what is good and evil. A second element found in the hardening of the heart is that of spiritual blindness and therefore the inability to understand the truth of God. This is evident from both John 12 and Mark 8 which we have quoted above. A third element is that which Scripture characterizes as folly: to say that there is no God. It reveals itself in a refusal to fear Him and acknowledge His sovereignty and majesty, in a manner of life in which He has no place. Finally there is the element of unbelief which causes one to deny the truth and love the lie. Perhaps we may summarize it all in the following definition: hardening of the heart is an act of proud rebellion against the Sovereign God, whereby the whole man is set to resist the truth and confess the lie, to desire and do the evil, so that he is willfully blind and deaf to the things of the Spirit and as a result is unable to perform or even to desire that which is good but instead strengthens himself in his unbelief and, persisting in his wickedness, subjects his whole life in the service of sin and darkness.

This hardening of the heart is not always a permanent reality but is somewhat also temporary. In the case of the reprobate sinner, the vessels of wrath, this hardening is permanent; in respect to them i is a hardening in the absolute sense of the word. However Scripture also speaks of this hardening with respect to God’s people. When God’s child continues for a time in a way of sin and refuses to confess and leave it, he becomes guilty of hardening his heart. Moreover, Isaiah speaks of the fact that God Himself has hardened the hearts of His people from His fear, Isa. 63:17. We also find such a temporary hardening in the life of David after his sin with Bathsheba, as well as the time he insisted on numbering the people despite Joab’s warning and attempt to dissuade him. It is possible that also we can recall a similar experience in our own life.

Its Source.

We mentioned before that Scripture ascribes the cause of this hardening either to man himself or to God. In some cases it is clearly stated that God hardened the heart of man. It is of course to this statement that the greatest objection is raised. It is argued that God is good and kind and therefore we may not ascribe such a thing to Him. The usual explanation of such passages that state this is therefore, that God hardens the heart of man only after man has first hardened his own heart, only after God has first given man many opportunities to repent and be converted. It would be, so many contend, unrighteous of God if He never gave a man a chance to repent but hardened him from the very beginning of his life we know that there is no unrighteousness with God, hence, this is the only possible explanation. However, the question arises, is that really true? Is it true that God hardens the heart only after He has first given man an opportunity to repent and after man has first hardened his own heart? Now, even though we stand in jeopardy of holding a very unpopular view, we shall nevertheless have to answer that question in the negative. In the first place it is simply nonsense to say that God hardens only after man has first hardened his heart. To what, then, does that hardening on the part of God amount to? Why should God harden the heart of him who has already hardened it? Does not the very fact that man has hardened his heart mean that he consistently refuses to repent? What sense does it make to say that God makes it impossible for someone to do something which he himself has never desired and never shall desire to do? In the second place Scripture teaches the very opposite from what is generally contended. It is not true, for example, that God hardens the heart of Pharaoh only after Pharaoh has first hardened his own heart. Exodus 4:21 contradicts this contention. There God tells Moses before he goes to Pharaoh that the Egyptian king will not let Israel go because He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Surely this cannot be denied. In this same respect, John 12:37-41 is equally clear. Here Christ explains the failure of many to believe in Him in the light and as the fulfillment of the saying of Esaias. They could not believe! And why not? Because God had blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, that they should not be converted. Moreover we cannot so easily dispose of the saying of Jesus in Luke 10:21 where He thanks God that He has hidden these things from the wise and prudent. Notice also how Jesus explains why He speaks in parables, in Matt. 13:11, “because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” And the apostle Peter explains the stumbling of many as that whereunto they had been appointed, I Peter 2:8. Finally the apostle Paul is very clear on this matter when he states in Romans 9:18, “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”

We should not be afraid to confess this. We surely may not deny this in an attempt to justify God; God will justify Himself. We need not fear to confess what God has declared to be the truth in His Word. And only when we do confess this do we give to God the glory that is due Him. For then He is not an impotent being dependent upon the acts of His creatures but the almighty, sovereign God whose counsel shall stand and who doeth all His good pleasure. Then, too, we stand on solid ground and have comfort and certainty. Let us confess then with the inspired apostle in Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”