NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XIX)
This idea of God, not man, making the call to repentance is no doubt hard for many who believe that God’s grace is an unending, indiscriminate source to cover all sin and rebellion. One may ask this question to counter that idea: If that be so, then why hasn’t the devil been saved? This recognizes that this same godless spirit and attitude of Satan can infect people’s hearts and minds. Therefore, it becomes God’s choice in choosing whom He sends His Spirit to and calls them to repentance. If one cannot accept this truth, then it would be easy to call God an unrighteous deity. God forbid that anyone would fall to that level of irreverence and disrespect for Almighty God.
Robert Haldane’s main interest here is to make sure these verses are kept in context. So he states that verse 17 about Pharaoh stands connected to verses 13 and 14. For in verse 13, God’s love for Jacob and His hatred for Esau are declared. That’s why in verse 14 a demand is made to determine if this proves God is not fair or just. Then in verses 15 and 16 the answer is given regarding the preference and love of God for Jacob. Now in verse 17 the Apostle replies to the question involving God’s hatred for Esau. And the answer here is very similar to that given respecting God’s love for Jacob. That is, God’s love for Jacob already existed before he had done anything good. This was God’s normal plan of procedure. And on that same basis, His hatred for Esau existed before he had done anything wrong. So we find here Paul’s doctrine, drawn from the example of one person to whom, in Divine sovereignty, God acted according to justice without mercy, being that God decides, not mankind. After all, doesn’t the Scripture say that God raised up Pharaoh for the very purpose of manifesting His own glory in light of Pharaoh’s hardness and his punishment?1
Robert Haldane then goes on to contextualize verse 18 in this narrative. He says that here we see a general conclusion drawn from all that the Apostle has said in the three preceding verses. There he denies that God acted unrighteously by loving Jacob and hating Esau. In doing so, it exhibited the way God deals with both the elect and the reject. It makes it clear that His own sovereign pleasure is at play with respect to those whom He receives inside the Kingdom, and those He leaves outside the Kingdom. His love and grace softens one and hardens another. He does so without reference to anything but His own sovereign will. And it is all in accordance with His infinite wisdom, holiness, and justice. “Yes, Father, you did this because it’s what you really wanted to do.”2 God cannot be charged with injustice just because His method of salvation selects some and rejects others.3 In reference to the statement that God’s offer of pardon softens one and hardens another, we must understand this by comparing it to the sun. The exact same rays of the sun that shine down on an object with the same intensity and heat, will melt the one and harden the other. That is because the makeup of the object is what causes it to either melt or harden. So it is with men’s souls, minds, and will.
When it comes to the purpose for which God put Pharaoh in power so that He could deliver His people in a way that only He could do, Albert Barnes explains that there are several ways we can understand what God intended by using Pharaoh this way. First, God intended to use him to accomplish great miracles by keeping him alive. Secondly, the only reason God kept Pharaoh alive was just for that reason. Thirdly, God thereby exhibited His total control over this haughty and wicked monarch. He could take his life at any moment, or He could let him live as long as he was useful to carry out God’s will for His people. Furthermore, by having control over all things that could affect the pride, the feelings, and the happiness of Pharaoh, God had control over the man himself. Fourthly, God placed Pharaoh in circumstances suited to his character. He left him in those circumstances until he was ready to be used by God for His purpose. Fifthly, God did not try to change Pharaoh’s mind by exerting undue pressure on his mind. Sixth, that’s why in all this Pharaoh acted freely.
As a result, as Barnes sees it, Pharaoh chose to do what he did by his own volition. He pursued his own course. He voluntarily pursued his own schemes in oppressing the Israelites. It was his decision and his alone to be in opposition to God. He personally decided to pursue the Israelites to the Red Sea. In each case, Pharaoh chose to do what he did, and did so, even though He knew it was wrong. As a result, there was no warning or action that could turn him away from his goal. This explains then, what it means when it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.4 One other thing, neither could Pharaoh nor can any other sinner blame God for the circumstances they find themselves in. They got to where they are on their own and it is there they develop their own character, and show what they are. So don’t blame it on God, it’s their own fault. No one compels any sinner to sin. At the same time, God is under no obligation to save them just because the sinner thinks it’s a great idea.5
On Paul’s assertion that God has full control over whom His mercy will lead to acceptance and whom it will lead to rejection. Henry Alford sees no difficulty in the assertion that God allows His mercy to harden the heart of whom He wills. We must remember this is an ongoing process in the daily course of God’s dealing with mankind. We have all seen how this hardening process develops, especially among ungodly people who are prosperous. The facts are clear, whether discovered by research or revealed openly in history. At the same time, looking for any solution to such hardening is also part of every human’s responsibility. Once they are aware of their hardness, they must take steps to change. No one will ever be perfect, no matter how much they try. However, every attempt must be made to refine a person’s attitude and outlook on life. Without such an attempt, everything will continue downhill.6
H. A. Ironside also shares some thoughts on this subject. He writes that it is evident that we cannot accept what the text says about those who are hardened by God’s interaction with this world without logically concluding that it does appear God gives some up to their own destruction and leaves them to perish in their own sins. In Pharaoh’s case, he was a Gentile, a hardhearted oppressor of Israel. In his view, when God sent His servants demanding that he submit to His commands, it riled up his pride and haughtiness. Thus he became brazen and audacious. He exclaimed, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him?’ As we see, Pharaoh in his arrogance dared to challenge the Almighty. But God was not intimidated, He is ready to accept Pharaoh’s challenge.
Ironside goes on to say that when God told Pharaoh that He allowed him to come to power in order to that His own power could be heralded around the earth, God was not speaking to a helpless babe. These words deal exclusively with the outstanding position that God gave Pharaoh in order that succeeding generations might see the folly of fighting against an Almighty God. Ironside tells us that the Greeks had a saying: “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”7 It was a principle that even heathens had no trouble understanding. We see the same principle alive in such personages as an Emperor, a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Kaiser, a President, a Prime Minister who are permitted to climb to the very summit on human ambition alone, only then to be hurled down into the depths of loathing and being laughed at. In each case, God stands by to have mercy on those who repent and let those who seek no rescue to harden by their resolve to remain unrepentant. Since God is the moral governor of the universe and He works all things according to the counsel of His own will. “No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”’8 This should be a warning to anyone who thinks they can assault God without consequences. In fact, to do so would justify God’s punishment to fall on them with righteous wrath.9
Preacher Octavius Winslow preached on how and who God uses to accomplish His will. In his way of thinking, we should never write off individuals who themselves are living without grace from being used by God for His purpose. In the same way, someone without holiness in their life is still not disqualified from speaking up about the value of holiness in a person’s life. Also, there is nothing that keeps a person who is still in an unregenerate state from being used by God for a spiritual purpose. Anyone who has studied the Bible and Church History has seen how again and again God has employed both sacred and secular agencies in carrying out His will and purpose. The reason He can do this is because all things are subject to His sovereignty.10
Douglas Moo focuses on the subject of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and informs us that the Greek word skleryno, meaning “harden,” refers to being in a state of insensitivity to God, His Word, and His work. Then he asks, to what do God’s “having mercy” and “hardening” refer? Could it be the same options are available here as they are in verses 7-13 on God’s election? And could it also be that Paul is referring here to the roles of Moses (and Israel) and Pharaoh (and Egypt) in salvation history? Or is it that what Paul says here has direct attachment to the issue of personal salvation? In other words, it is God who determines who is to be saved and who is to be kept in a state of spiritual blindness.11
Jewish theologian David Stern tells us that in Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12, and especially 14:4 we read concerning God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart. In Stern’s mind, Paul is witnessing history repeating itself. Pharaoh’s rejection of Moses is like Israel’s rejection of Yeshua. It provides the circumstances for God to demonstrate His power through an act of delivering Israel from the Egyptian bondage in the same way that He delivers the believer from sin’s bondage and death. The knowledge of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt became known through the Tanakh [Jewish First Covenant] and the annual reading of the Haggadah [Guide to Seder meal] at Pesach [Passover]. Likewise the Messiah’s atoning death and resurrection are being made known through the Gospel [Christian Last Covenant] and preaching of the Apostles in the Last Covenant.12
Having had the privilege of preaching to audiences as small as five and as large as 20,000, I never ceased to be amazed at how the same message, anointed by the Holy Spirit and empowered by His presence could cause some to stand for salvation, even running to the altar to seek forgiveness, while others left immediately or fidgeted nervously until the benediction was said and they could go out. How could the same call be received by some and rejected by others. Often, my immediate response was to question if I did a good enough job in delivering the message. But in the end I realized that it was their decision based on whether God’s Word melted their resistance to surrender their lives, or hardened their pride in maintaining their status as masters of their fate, and captains of their soul.13 So the only question left is this: Did God already know this? The answer, “Yes, He did.”
1 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 469-470
2 Matthew 11:26
3 Robert Haldane: Ibid. p. 472
4 Exodus 8:15
5 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 84
7 Quoted as a “heathen proverb” in Daniel, a Model for Young Men (1854) by William Anderson Scott (1813–1885).
8 Daniel 4:35
9 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Octavius Winslow. op. cit., in a sermon titled: “What is Not the New Birth,” on Revelation 3:1
11 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 David H. Stern, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 See Invictus, by William Ernest Henley