Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
Romans 9:18 speaks of a very difficult concept to understand – God’s sovereignty. Or, more accurately, God’s sovereign will/choice. The verse makes this idea clearer – Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. Wow. It is often difficult to reconcile the concepts of God’s mercy versus his judgement; and we may never understand why God chose certain people to do certain things – Paul, for example, was picked out so specially and so amazingly to become an amazing apostle. The likes of Moses and Joseph and John the Baptist amongst others, for example, were clearly recorded to be chosen before they were born in other to do unique and great things for God. In this study, we won’t attempt to reconcile these ideas – but we’ll begin to explore these concepts by looking at the people on whom God has had been exceedingly merciful towards; and those whom God has hardened.
A few verses prior to Romans 9:18, Paul quotes For he says to Moses,“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [Romans 9:15]. This was a direct reference to what God told Moses in Exodus 33:19 – I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. It was a time during the exodus in which the Lord told Moses to go, and calmed the concerns of Moses by reasserting his power and authority. Basically, what God was trying to say is just this – I am God, I will do what I want, I will do what I like; nobody can stop me and nobody can hinder me. That is a very dangerous thing for a mortal to say; but because it is God, who has true power behind claims; because it is God, whose justice and mercy are fair in his ways; it is fine.
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy – The word ‘therefore‘ as usual connotes a conclusion by Paul from the preceding verses – God in his own perfect righteousness, bestows mercy as per his own wisdom and will.
and he hardens whom he wants to harden – This is a significant difference from the original declaration that the Lord made in Exodus – I will have compassion on who I have compassion. Instead of that, Paul changes compassion to hardening of hearts. Right off the top of my mind the biggest example I can think of whose heart was hardened by God was Pharaoh, during the 10 disasters when Moses again and again pleaded for the freedom of the Israelites. Time and time again his heart was hardened – even after he agreed to the release of the Israelites, he gave chase because his heart was hardened – But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses [Exodus 9:12].
Perhaps this seem very unfair. If sovereignty is in the hands of mankind, chances are, that very king will become a dictator, as history has proven again and again to us. That is why ‘democracy’ is so valued today. But is it true for the Lord as well? Because God has full sovereignty, is he being very unfair? How then can we blame the likes of Pharaoh for not releasing the Israelites, when it is the Lord of the Israelites Himself who had hardened his heart?
Scholars have tried to explain this more gently by saying that when Paul tells us that God hardens who he wants to harden; it simply means that, the likes of Pharaoh had hardened their own hearts through their own sins and stubbornness; and the Lord merely left them to their own hardened hearts. The Lord merely left them to their own devices, instead of stepping in and ‘softening’ their hearts. To ‘soften’ their hearts would be akin to compassion; which our Lord is fully capable of freely exercising; but he chose not to exercise it. But he did not make Pharaoh sin; he did not make Pharaoh stubborn – he merely did not stop Pharaoh from his own sinful stubbornness.
In this explanation; whether you buy it or not; the hardening of hearts is merely the absence of showing undeserved mercy – which, really, God is capable of doing as seen in the case of the Israelites over and over and over again throughout the course of history. Even to us – do we deserve his salvation and grace? No; we have never done anything and will never ever do anything that will make us worthy of it. We will never deserve the blood of Christ being shed for us. God knows this. Yet he still gave us this mercy.
God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. Sometimes you wonder; why did God not show mercy to someone like Pharaoh; for he as a man on such a high position would surely have been useful to God. Why Paul? Why harden the heart of Judas? Sometimes; it doesn’t matter why. None of us deserve mercy – but some of us have more than others. I would like to think that whether it is showing mercy, or the hardening of hearts; God does them all as part of something major and good for us in the long run – And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose [Romans 8:28|Article].