NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XVIII)
By the time Joshua and the children of Israel reached the crossing point at the River Jordan and sent spies into the city of Jericho, the reputation of the Mighty God of Israel had already reached the inhabitants there, for when the spies encountered the prostitute Rahab she said to them: “I know perfectly well that your God is going to give my country to you. We are all afraid of you; everyone is terrified if the word Israel is even mentioned. For we have heard how the LORD made a path through the Red Sea for you when you left Egypt!”1 And when the Psalmist called on God to defeat the enemies of Israel, his prayer ended this way: “Let them know that you alone, whose name is Adonai, are the Most High over all the earth.”2
Again, Paul is reiterating that not only is God in charge, but God manages events to fit His purpose and will. When Moses faced a hardheaded and belligerent Pharaoh, it was no surprise. God already told him: “Adonai said to Moshe [Moses], “When you get back to Egypt, make sure that you do before Pharaoh every one of the wonders I have enabled you to do. Nevertheless, I am going to make him hardhearted, and he will refuse to let My people go.”3 So when Moses and Aaron became frustrated because things didn’t go the way they had hoped, it is said: “Pharaoh was made hardhearted; and he didn’t listen to them, as Adonai had said would happen.”4 It goes on to say that the LORD pointed out to Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would continue to remain unmoved and that he would not let His people go. Was this a setback? Was the intervention by Moses and Aaron a mistake? No! It was all part of God’s plan to set the people of Israel free in such a way that when they looked back on it they would have to say: Only God could make something like this happen.
When commenting on Paul’s use of Pharaoh of Egypt to prove how God uses both destruction and construction to conform to His will, early church scholar Ambrosiaster commented that this particular Pharaoh was guilty of a great many misdeeds and should have been gone a long time ago. He had no intention of repenting for what he had done and had no interest in pleasing the God of the Israelites. But if anyone thinks that God made a mistake by not taking revenge on Pharaoh right away, let them listen to what God said to Pharaoh: “It is for this very reason that I have kept you alive – to show you My power, and so that My Name may resound throughout the whole earth.”5
By all rights, Pharaoh should have been dead a long time ago, but God kept him alive for a short while so that all those who doubted who the God of Israel really was and what He could do would see it with their own eyes. Furthermore, by experiencing these plagues, they became aware of what punishment and torment could be inflicted on those who refused to confess the One True God. Early church writer Ambrosiaster sees a comparison between them and the way ancient physicians did autopsies on the bodies of people who had been condemned to death, even while some were still alive. They wanted to know what diseases they had so they could study their causes. Some saw this as one way to punish the dying in order to bring saving health to the living.6
Pelagius has an interesting response as well as a good illustration. He says that the Jews explain this passage quoted by Paul in the wrong way. Most Christian interpreters see it in one of two ways. First, since all of us will be punished in the end after all our sins are counted, it was a case of Pharaoh exceeding his limit. So God wanted to make him an example for others to see. That was also in order that God’s people might see God’s justice on display, and thereby discourage any of them from sinning. But most of all, never to fear their enemies who were also God’s enemies.
Pelagius then makes reference to what Ambrosiaster said about doctors in Egypt who sought cures for illnesses, discovering a remedy in the course of experimenting on someone already condemned to die. But Pelagius tells of those who believe that although Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God’s patience, once the plagues were over and his firstborn had died, Pharaoh’s heart became even harder. God knew that Pharaoh had no intention of repenting, nevertheless, wanted to show His patience even toward him, which He did up until Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea.7
Early church scholar Origen comments that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened when God decided not to punish him immediately and completely because he thought he was getting away with refusing to obey this God of Israel. Although Pharaoh’s wickedness was enormous, God in His patience did not eliminate the possibility of his conversion. That’s why through the plagues He touched Pharaoh lightly at first and then gradually increased the blows. But it appears that God’s patience only hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It is odd that Pharaoh was hardened by that very thing that should have made him pliable in God’s hands to become a better person. Instead, he became even angrier with God and more contemptuous of Him. To put it another way, when the sun shines upon an object, it can either be softened or hardened. That’s why it all depends on what the object is made out of. So it is not God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it was what was in his heart that hardened it.8
Augustine also speaks to this factor in several of his writings. For instance, in his commentary, Augustine says that when God has mercy on someone it makes them capable of doing something good. But the one who is hardened by His mercy He leaves them to do evil. He goes on to contribute that when mercy brings the good out of people it is due to their belief in God. But when God’s mercy results in the hardening of their heart it is due to their unbelief in God. Yet, in neither case is a person’s freewill taken away whether they believe in God so His mercy may follow them, or disbelieve in Him so that punishment may fall upon them.9
In another document Augustine questions why God the Father does not teach all people the proper way to Christ? Could it be that those who do receive the Gospel which shows the way to Christ comes to them out of God’s mercy? Perhaps those who do not receive the message of salvation are predetermined for judgment.10 But that is not all. It must be accepted that those whom God permits to go astray to become hardened in their hearts, deserve this curse. Meanwhile, in the case of the person upon whom He has mercy, they must acknowledge without question that it is only because of God’s grace. This does not mean God is rendering evil for evil, but good for evil.11
Pelagius, a contemporary scholar of Augustine’s, argues against anyone who simply says that God has mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills because there is so much wickedness. When we look at the very nature of God’s justice, such thinking makes no sense. As he sees it, such a statement fails immediately because it’s not what the sinner does but what God wills to do that counts.12 In other words, whether or not a person’s heart becomes soft or hard may depend on “cause and effect,” or “effect and cause.”
To put this in perspective, if a young deer is caught out in the open during a deep winter cold snap and is unable to find shelter because of a fence they will freeze. So the cause is not being able to find cover in the icy cold weather, and the effect is death. However, if that young deer freezes to death because it foolishly decides to wait out the cold and not seek shelter even if there is no fence, then the effect is death and the cause is going against their instincts. The same is true in how we perceive what Paul says here. Those who believe like Augustine put the responsibility on God, but those who follow Pelagius’ reasoning see it as man’s responsibility for choosing to stay in their lost condition rather than seeking shelter in God’s arms. When they turn away from God and His message of grace, their hearts will harden. But if they turn toward Him, then His love will melt their hearts to receive His grace. So that leaves a person to decide whether the outcome is their responsibility or God’s?
Martin Luther understands God’s reason for using Pharaoh to display His power, and believes that what God was really saying was this: I desired to show you that the power of deliverance lies alone in me and not in the ability, merit, and righteousness of any other. For his reason, I hardened your heart and freed Israel. Luther then goes on to say God’s ultimate power of choice is illustrated by Paul in the case of Esau and Jacob, is an example of the divine election of grace that saves. This guarantees that those who are elected will surely be saved. God does not select at random, neither does He elect in error. No one would ever have known about this knowledge of divine grace if God had not acted on it as Paul shows. Not to do so, would have left everyone in delusion to draw the arrogant opinion that they possess the right to saving righteousness based on their merit. It would be like giving God an ultimatum: You must save me because I want it and you must redeem me because of all the good I’ve done. Such thinking fulfills the Scripture that reads: “Those who called themselves wise, became fools;13 those who called themselves righteous, became sinners; those who called themselves truthful became liars.”14
John Calvin feels that Paul is now talking about God’s rejection of the ungodly Pharaoh because He knew in advance that he was without contrition or conviction and therefore unreachable by love or grace. That’s why God chose to raise him up so that by his being overcome and subdued by God’s power to deliver, it would prove how invincible the arm of God is to save, something no human power is able to do. Calvin says there are two things to be considered here. First, that Pharaoh was predestined to ruin. This can be referred to as having already been done, although it was still hidden from mankind in the mind of God. Second, it was predestined to make known the name of God. Not only to Israel but to Egypt as well. This is what has Paul primarily dwelled on up till now. And part of this predestination plan was for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened. Not because God hardened it, but that God knew what type of heart Pharaoh had. Furthermore, that it would be hardened as God foreknew so that God could then act as He did so that He and His power could be demonstrated.15
1 Joshua 2:9-10a
2 Psalm 83:18(19) – Complete Jewish Bible
3 Exodus 4:21 – Complete Jewish Bible
4 Ibid. 7:13; Cf. Deuteronomy 2:30
5 Exodus 9:16 – Complete Jewish Bible
6 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Origen: on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Augustine: On Romans 62, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Augustine: Predestination of the Saints 8.14
11 Augustine: Grace and Free Will 23.45
12 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See Romans 1:22
14 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 140
15 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.