God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That?

God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That? January 4, 2017

Photo by “markus53” [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


(12-18-08; expanded on 1-4-17)


This was a question on the Coming Home Network forum (where I was moderator from 2007-2010):

2 Thessalonians 2:11 says that those who refuse to accept the love of the truth will be sent strong delusion from God. To what extent do we understand this? It is hard to say that God would be responsible for leading someone to delusion, but is it only because a person has ultimately rejected God’s attempt to lead them to the truth? I guess my question is along the lines of if God can only do good, to what extent can He contribute to someone’s delusion or the effects of it.

This is a typically pungent Hebraism for God allowing something to happen in His Providence. It really all hinges on free will. Man can choose to follow God and His precepts and commands or not. When we do not, we become more and more hardened. This is a recurrent motif in the Bible: “hardening of hearts”. Sometimes it is said that the person hardened their heart; sometimes that God did it (the typically Hebraic and Catholic “both/and” outlook). The latter is in the sense that I have described above (from the information we receive by comparing Scripture with Scripture and harmonizing all of the Bible). Man is responsible for his own sin. Here is the biblical data (RSV):

God “Causing” it

Exodus 4:21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Exodus 7:3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, . . . (cf. 7:13-14, 22)

Exodus 9:12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them; as the LORD had spoken to Moses.

Exodus 10:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them,

Exodus 10:20 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go.

Exodus 10:27 But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.

Exodus 11:10 Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.

Exodus 14:4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, . . .

Exodus 14:8 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh . . .

Exodus 14:17 And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians . . .

Deuteronomy 2:30 But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, . . .

Joshua 11:20 For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be utterly destroyed, and should receive no mercy but be exterminated, as the LORD commanded Moses.

Isaiah 63:17 O LORD, why dost thou make us err from thy ways and harden our heart, so that we fear thee not?

Romans 9:18 So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.

Man Causing it

Exodus 8:15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, . . . (cf. 8:19)

Exodus 8:32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.

Exodus 9:34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again, and hardened his heart, he and his servants. (cf. 9:7, 35)

Deuteronomy 15:7 you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,

1 Samuel 6:6 Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? . . .

2 Chronicles 36:13 He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnez’zar, who had made him swear by God; he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD, the God of Israel.

Job 9:4 who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?

Psalm 95:8 Harden not your hearts, as at Mer’ibah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

Proverbs 28:14 . . . he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.

Hebrews 3:8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,

Hebrews 3:15  while it is said, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

Hebrews 4:7 again he sets a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

No Cause Directly Indicated

Daniel 5:20 But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him;

Mark 6:52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Mark 8:17 And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?

(cf. Ex 7:13-14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35; Is 6:10 + Jn 12:40)

God allows such people their freedom to rebel, which in turn entails the devil getting in there and making things worse (just as God allowed the devil to tempt Job: Job 1:12). So in a sense to say that “God did so-and-so” when He simply allowed it to take place, is an assertion of God’s overall Providence. God is asserting that He is in control. There is also a strong sarcastic element in this sort of biblical concept (that we see in Job and often in the prophets), as if God were saying, “okay; you don’t want to follow Me and do what is best for you? You know better than I do about that? Very well, then, I’ll let you become blind and deluded. See how well off you’ll be then.”

Strictly speaking, that isn’t how God thinks or acts, but it was an anthropomorphism to help practical, concrete, non-philosophical Hebrew man be able to relate to the mysterious, transcendent God.

The bottom line is that men harden themselves in rebellion and God allows it. Hence we have in Scripture, many “if . . . then” conditional prophecies. If people rebel, God will withdraw His grace and protection from them, and so in a sense He did it. But it was always essentially man’s rebellion:

Joshua 24:20  If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”

1 Chronicles 28:9 “And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father, and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will cast you off for ever.

2 Chronicles 7:17-20 And as for you, if you walk before me, as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my ordinances,[18] then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, `There shall not fail you a man to rule Israel.’ [19] “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, [20] then I will pluck you up from the land which I have given you; and this house, which I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples.

2 Chronicles 15:2 If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.

[see many more examples]


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