Snapshots: Day 6

Snapshots of the Bible Story: Day 6

The Snapshot: “In the beginning… God chose…” Having chosen to redeem what would be, He (they) saw the only path open to them to satisfy justice, for the Son to step into mankind, be part of mankind, live and die as mankind and as God take the punishment of mankind. They saw the necessity for parting, for him to leave heaven, for him to be limited on earth, for them to sense utter separation as he carried the sins of the world on the Cross, for his walk into hell to complete the punishment, before a return was possible; they saw the horror of it all for themselves, the anguish in the sense of separation and, instead of rejecting all that,  they chose it. Why? Love.

Further Consideration: Most people don’t think about justice; we just take it for granted. It isn’t something that exists as a living entity but it is a concept that we human beings have, even if we so often ignore it, pretend it is not there or simply hope it will go away. But where did it come from? Surely beings that evolved, beings who survived by being the fittest, as we’re told, surely these beings have no such concept, for surely nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ and the biggest and toughest survive or go to the wall. And yet, we have this concept of justice. The word ‘just’ is about fairness, unbiased correct goodness, morally and ethically, putting right wrongs, balancing out unfairness with fairness. Justice is the administration of that. We see it in small children when one cries, “Daddy, you’ve given her more sweets than you’ve given me. It’s not fair” There is an appeal to an imaginary rule that we should all be treated equally well, and when that is not so, we speak of injustice.

Now why is this such a big issue in the Bible? It is because since the Fall we have a world full of sinners, people who fall short of what is good, and that means any person who opens themselves up to criticism because of their behaviour. If we were able to see and record every wrong thought, wrong word and wrong act of any individual we would probably run out of paper doing it. We try and ignore this but in any other context we would say that “getting away with that,” is unjust. Big wrongs like murder or rape are easy to categorize but where to you draw the line when you come down the scale of wrongs and, as we’ve just said, if you go by numbers we are all failures, people who fell far short of what could have been. And there in the background, justice is lurking, calling for God to deal with these things. How can He save us? Is there one ‘big enough’ to save us all? There is; he is the Son of God.

3. Dealing with Hardness

Meditating on the Will of God: 3:  Dealing with Hardness

Rom 9:17,18   For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden

When it comes to thinking about the will of God, the Pharaoh who opposed Moses must come into the equation. The apostle Paul in our verses above quotes the Lord’s words to Pharaoh. Now the last thing that Pharaoh could ever have claimed was that he didn’t know why everything was happening as it was. In his pride he may have chosen to adopt a stance of denial but the record is clear that he was told very clearly. Let’s examine those verses in Exodus 9.

They start with the Lord’s instruction to Moses: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, `This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (Ex 9:13). Now that sounds very similar to his earlier demands but now note the warning that comes with it: “or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.” (v.14) There have already been 6 plagues and the truth is that God has been holding back: “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.” (v.15)  This is the truth, that so far each of these plagues have almost been gentle warnings because the Lord could have wiped out Egypt at the outset.

Then comes this reason that God has allowed things to go like they have: “But I have 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.” (v.16)  The alternative rendering which is noted in your Bible instead of “I have raised you up,” is “I have spared you.” Whichever it is, the Lord is doing what He is doing to show the world it is Him, and He is all powerful.

So He makes clear what the next stage will be: “You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now.” (v.17,18) Yet again, though, the Lord makes a way for Pharaoh and his people to avoid the effect of this plague of hail: “Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’ “ (v.19) In other words He makes it very clear that Pharaoh, although bringing this on himself, can still avoid the effects of it. In the response the effects are made very clear in the following account: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (v.20,21)

Thus we have the basic details of this particular phase, very clear and understandable. The tricky bit comes in the verse before the verses we have considered: “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said to Moses.” (v.12) At first sight this appears that Pharaoh is being MADE to respond as he is, but let’s look at this matter of hardening a little further.

Three times the expression “hardened his heart” appears in Exodus, and it refers to what Pharaoh was doing: “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,” (Ex 8:15) and “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” (Ex 8:32) Also, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had said through Moses.” (Ex 9:34,35) 

 What we find, therefore, is that we are dealing, from the outset with a man with a hard heart, a heart hardened against God. How? Why?  He is a powerful despot and he reigns a highly superstitious occultic religious nation who worship so many things as ‘gods’. His position, his power and his false religions lock him into this belief system – that he is the greatest and is all-powerful. The other six times this expression is used, it is used of God. But what does it actually mean?  It simply means that when you challenge and confront a person who has a hard heart, you will simply harden it even further.

We have said previously that so much of the stuff to do with God’s will is about ‘knowing’. God knew from the outset the sort of person He was dealing with and had warned Moses back at the burning bush that all these plagues would be necessary (see Ex 3:19,20) and later reiterated that (see Ex 4:21-23).  This makes it very clear that God knew not only how Pharaoh would respond but also how He, the Lord, would have to deal with him right through to the end.

In addition, in the light of what we have considered in the two previous studies, we note that although God warned and warned and warned, Pharaoh chose his course of action – to resist. This appears to suggest that God cannot MAKE people respond how He wants them to (because He prefers  repentance and salvation than death as we saw before) but that raises a question when we go on to consider the case of that other despot, Nebuchadnezzar who eventually the Lord brought to repentance through madness. The conclusion would appear to be that the Lord knows how different people will respond – even to crisis circumstances and knows that some people will NOT respond while others WILL respond, but to say that He makes them take either course makes a mockery of the language and of the events. The reason each one of us who is a Christian is here, is that the Lord knew that we would respond and brought circumstances and the conviction of His Holy Spirit – and here we are, objects of His benign will.

4. God of Mercy

Meditations in Romans, Ch.9-11 : 4:  God of Mercy

Rom 9:14,15    What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Paul is not a modern philosopher. We, or at least I, would speak, even as we have already, about the God who knows and the God who chooses people on the basis of what He knows they will do, how they will respond to His good news, but Paul is working out his theology as he goes along and he simply presents to us what he knows of the Scriptures and will go no further.

But he has just spoken of God who chose the younger twin and rejected the older, accepted Jacob but rejected Esau. It seems, on the surface at least, as if God is simply choosing by whim or fancy and Paul is not going to go behind the scenes like we have done but is just going to face that head on. He faces the apparent problem: What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” (v.14) That is what it might seem. But Paul won’t have that: “Not at all!” And so he explains: “For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Now that is very blunt but when you are facing a holy God who is perfect in every way, whatever He chooses to say or do will always be right, even if we don’t understand it, so God says He chooses how He will respond to each person. He doesn’t explain why He chooses as He will. If He decides to show mercy and compassion for one and not another, that is up to Him – trust Him, He does what is right. We’ve sought to explain it in terms of His knowing all thing of this person and how they will act in the future, but the Bible and Paul simply ask us to accept God’s wisdom for what it is – perfect!

So Paul declares the basic truth here: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”  This whole thing of salvation is not down to us. It doesn’t depend on what we think or want or hope – because all of our thinking may be utterly self-centred, even if it looks like we are trying to be good, and that falls short of what God is aiming for.

Now mercy is not a word that is used often in today’s world. A dictionary definition is “compassion shown by one to another who is in his power and has no claim to kindness.” This is the thing about mercy, it is not given because you deserve it or have anything of merit that makes you worthy of it. If God shows mercy it is simply because He chooses to.  This is where we have to trust that God, being perfect in every way, does what is right. This is the Scriptural position and it needs some reading and thinking to go beyond that simple understanding (which is what we have sought to do previously).

Paul then uses the example of God dealing with Pharaoh in Exodus: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (v.17 quoting Ex 9:16)  That needs thinking about. God raised up Pharaoh? Well He certainly brought him onto the pages of biblical history so He certainly raised him up in that sense. But perhaps the Lord had blessed and encouraged Pharaoh’s reign in a variety of ways to make him the great and powerful leader that he was. The only trouble is that greatness and power so often breed pride and Pharaoh had a lot of that, and pride made him foolish so he thought he could outwit God. He had become The most powerful man around and his fame would have spread around that part of the world at least, so that when he was brought down, that too would go around that part of the world.

So Paul comments, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (v.18) Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was foundational to the story of Moses and Pharaoh. The truth is that Pharaoh already had a hard heart (hard against Moses and his people and hard against God, because that is what pride does) and so when God confronted Pharaoh again and again it just worked to harden his heart even more. Could God have dealt gently with Pharaoh? Gentleness never has any effect on a proud, stubborn and rebellious heart; it is just seen as a sign of weakness. No God chose to deal with Pharaoh in the way He did, so that it would be heard of around the world and people would hear about God.

Now there is an even bigger truth in the background which is not spoken of here because it was not Paul’s way or arguing, but the truth is that every man, woman and child on the earth is a sinner and (in Paul’s words), the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) or, to put it another way, every single person deserves death. Justice, left to itself, would have every single person destroyed, but God has mercy. God looks for a better way and it is the way of the Cross, the way of repentance and the way of redemption and salvation, but it is pure mercy. You might say that love (and God is love) always looks for a better way out to bless others, but then the question might be, but why should God love the unlovely, love those who hate Him, those who live their lives out turning their backs on Him? Why does He continually seek to draw them to Himself?  Divine love and divine mercy are mysteries when it comes to it. All we can do is give up our intellectual struggling and just be very thankful. Amen? Amen!