This week, we return to the 11th chapter of Romans.  Two weeks ago, as we examined the first six verses of this chapter, we saw Paul continuing his discussion about the Jews.  Paul felt it necessary to reassure his audience that, even though the Jews had in their stubbornness repeatedly turned away from God, God had not rejected them.  He used himself as an example of this truth.  With his impressive resume as a Hebrew, Paul’s life provided a powerful illustration of the fact that God had not rejected the Jews.  The other example he gave to show God had not rejected the Jews was the example of the faithful Jews God had kept for himself in the day of Elijah.  Though almost all of the Jews has deserted God in favor of Baal, Paul reminds us that God had, by His own sovereign intervention, caused 7000 Jews to remain faithful to Him. 

Likewise, though most of the Jews had rejected the Messiah and turned from God, there was a small remnant who, like Paul had been elected out of the larger group to know and serve God.  This electing work of God is purely the grace of God and not the result of anything these Jews did.  So we see that there are two groups of Jews, the larger one of ethnic and national Hebrews, but who are not part of this chosen remnant.  This group was seeking to be righteous according to their own works.  Chapter nine told us they wanted to establish their own righteousness before God. The other is a far smaller group of Jews who are not only ethnic children of Abraham, but are also through faith in Christ spiritual children of Abraham.  These God has chosen to be his own and has given them the gift of faith to trust in Christ for HIS righteousness.  They are trusting in Christ and not their own works.

With that as a reminder of the context, let’s continue chapter eleven beginning with verse seven. “What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, 8as it is written:  "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day."  9And David says:  "May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them.  1 0May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever."  In the first half of verse seven, Paul summarizes the point he has made.  Namely, that ethnic, national Israel did not obtain the righteousness they sought by works, but those who DID obtain it were those who were chosen or “the elect.”

Notice again the strong connection between election and grace.  Paul could very easily have worded this verse without any reference to election.  He could very aptly said, “What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but instead God gave His righteousness to those who believed.” That’s an accurate statement.  Righteousness is by grace through faith.  But Paul chooses to emphasize that this grace is given by God in the form of election.  As we said two weeks ago, for Paul, election and grace are almost interchangeable when it comes to the issue of salvation.

The heart of what Paul is saying in this text is seen in the second half of verse seven where he makes this ominous, sobering statement about those who were not elected.  He says simply, “the others were hardened.”  The verb “hardened” is in the passive voice in the original.  In other words, the rest, the unbelieving Jews were acted upon by Someone outside themselves to make them hard or spiritually insensitive to the truth.  We know from the context that it was God who acted on them in some way to make them spiritually hard or blind or insensitive.  Now, if this verse were standing all alone, we might be able to argue that Paul is using this word “hardened” figuratively in some way.  But Paul will not let us do that because after stating that these people were acted on by God to harden them, he then proceeds to prove that statement by citing two Old Testament texts which speak of God’s work in hardening people.

The first support he gives for this hardening work of God is taken from  Deuteronomy 29.  These words were originally given by Moses to the Jews as he foretells the history of Israel.  He tells them they will in the future suffer the judgment of God for violating the covenant and will be exiled from their land.  In these opening words of that address by Moses he acknowledges that the Jews will not be able to keep the law because God has withheld understanding from them.  Paul actually changes the quote to bring out more powerfully God’s work of hardening his people.  He says, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear.”  And then Paul contemporizes the reference by adding, “to this very day.”  In other words, the majority of the Jews continue to have been blinded/hardened up to Paul’s day so they would not understand God’s redeeming plan.  He quotes Moses to support his point that God has hardened the majority of the Jews, has put them in a spiritual coma, so they could not respond in faith.  As we’ll see in the coming verses, this is a temporary hardening.

The second reference he uses to support his statement that God has hardened the Jews comes from Psalm 69.  David is crying out to God and calling for Him to judge His enemies who had rejected Him.  He places a curse on those who had rejected him and part of that curse is that “their eyes may be darkened so they cannot see.”  That Paul would use this Psalm in this context is astonishing.  What he is saying by using this Psalm here is this; just as David was rejected and his enemies were blinded, so too are those who oppose and reject Jesus (in this context the unbelieving Jews).  They have been blinded by God. 

The main objection that is routinely raised against this truth that God actively hardens or blinds people from responding revolves around the question of fairness.  How can God hold people accountable for their unresponsiveness when He is in some way involved in hardening or blinding them?  Two things must be said initially.  First, it is clear that God DOES INDEED hold the Jews responsible for their unbelief.  In chapter nine Paul says the reason the Jews had not found the righteousness of God was (vs.32) “…Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works.”  God holds the Jews responsible for pursuing righteousness by works.  Clearly, he assesses blame and responsibility for their self righteousness. It may be incompatible to us for God, on the one hand to harden the Jews while on the other, holding them responsible for their sin.  But Paul sees nothing incompatible about these two truths existing right beside each other.  If that arrangement burns us in some way, we are called to sit on the blister.

The other truth that must be brought out about this is the one Paul himself makes in chapter nine.  Remember, Paul there uses the example of Pharaoh as a person God raised up specifically to harden so that, through his God-induced hardness, he could show His wonders through the plagues on Egypt.  He concludes that section in 9:18 with the statement, “therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”  In response to that intensely difficult truth, Paul says in verse 19, “One of you will say to me:  “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?”  There is the same objection of fairness raised in chapter nine.  Remember Paul’s response to that objection, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”  And then he proceeds to remind us that we are but creatures and God is the Creator and the creature is in no place to question the Creator about how he does His business.

The plain and simple truth is, we are left here with this truth that God hardens people.  We can do at least three things in response to this.  First, we can use all the intellectual energy we can muster to try to prove that these texts don’t mean what they clearly say.  This truth about God is just too hard for us to stomach--it seems radically inconsistent with our understanding or theology of God, so it must not be true.  Some of the most brilliant theologians in the world have tried this and in spite of 2000 years of work, they have not been able to adequately explain this.  How a teaching Paul gives so explicitly and supports so carefully from the Old Testament does not mean what it says--they haven’t been able to make that case.  It might also be pointed out here that some brilliant theologians have always tried to explain away hard biblical truths.  Countless words have been written on why a loving God would never be able to coexist in a universe with an eternal hell for sinners.  The fact that brilliant theologians try to explain away difficult truths does not mean the Bible does not clearly teach them.

A second option in response to this truth is to acknowledge that what has been outlined here probably is true but because it’s “yucky” to think about its best to simply ignore the issue.  This response has at its root the understanding that there is something “yucky” about God’s character that is not worthy of our consideration.  A third and final option is to try to understand this teaching as well as we can and seek for what God reveals about Himself here that is worthy of our worship.  Let’s face it, this truth about a God who hardens says something about the Person of God.  If you are truly a God-hungry person, you will not be content with simply leaving this truth alone.  You will want to know how this truth can cause you to worship the Lord more fervently.  When God reveals something about who He is, His intent in doing that is for His children to respond to Him in worship.

Let’s see what we can do with this third option as we briefly explore this very difficult truth about God hardening people.  One truth that has lately helped me see this truth about God as a spring board to worship is the fact that this work of God in hardening or blinding people is something He does quite frequently in Scripture at some level.  Let’s look at five examples of God’s hardening.  The first is from First Samuel 2:25.  Your recall that Samuel’s mentor, Eli the priest had two awful sons.  Eli finally tries to bring correction to these young men and solemnly warns them.  He says in verse 25, “If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?  His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’S will to put them to death.”  The clear implication of this verse is that God involved Himself in some way in this situation so as to keep them from repenting because God wanted to put the sons to death.  Notice, it is GOD’S will, not the will of the sons which is cited as the reason given for their lack of responsiveness to their father’s discipline.  Why did God want to put Eli’s sons to death?  It doesn’t say.  It may have been to cleanse the priesthood or to make way for Samuel or something else.  We just don’t know.  God has his reasons.

Notice another kind of hardening or blinding in 2 Kings 6:17.  Elisha has enraged the king of Aram by telling the King of Israel in advance all of the Aramean war strategies.  His prophetic warnings to Israel repeatedly thwarted Aram in their attempts to defeat Israel.  He is a divinely inspired “spy” for Israel.  So the Aramean king discovers that Elisha will be in Dothan and sends a large military force to silence him.  With all the chariots and horses surrounding the city, Elisha’s servant gets nervous and asks Elisha what they are going to do now.  Elisha reassures him in verse 16.  Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.”  Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

Elisha had to pray for the servant that God would act on him to remove his blindness to the spirit world—to, “open his eyes.”  Elisha could see the angelic warriors and the chariots of fire, but the servant was blind to it.  God has blinded us to that world of the spirit for the most part.  Most of us can’t see the angelic warriors around us that are often there.  We have not been given that spiritual sensitivity.  If we are to see that, God has to act upon us so that we can see it.  We are blind to it.  We were blinded to it before we are born.  We may not think about it in those terms because we don’t miss what we’ve never had, but the spirit world is just as real as the material world--in some ways MORE real.  There are probably angels in this room right now.  But we don’t have the spiritual sensitivity to see them.  Why is that?  Why has God not removed the scales from our eyes that keep us from seeing that world?  There are probably as many guesses as there are people in this room, but the plain and simple truth is, we don’t know.  God has his reasons.    

Another example of God’s hardening is found in Mark 6:52 in the earthly ministry of Jesus.  Jesus had earlier that day fed the five thousand and he had sent the disciples on ahead of him to Bethsaida.  The disciples are out on the lake that night straining at the oars against the wind when they see Jesus walking on the water and the disciples are mortified.  They are so terrified that Jesus has to reassure them as He walks across the water.  The reason the disciples were terrified is given in 6:52.  They were completely amazed, “for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”  The disciples had been used by God to feed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish but had not appreciated the miraculous nature of that. I think its safe to say there is a real hardness involved in that. Why didn’t the disciples “get” this horribly obvious happening?  Because God had acted on them (the verb is another passive voice) in such a way that would cause them to not appreciate the miraculous nature of what they where participating in.  Now, its clear enough to us, but it escaped them.  Because they failed to appreciate the divine activity in the first miracle that day, there were  unprepared to embrace Christ’s second miracle.  Walking on water would not have been seen as a big deal for One who can feed the five thousand with a sack lunch but they didn’t make the connection.  Why did God harden them?  We can only speculate.  But God has his reasons.  His reasons aren’t given, but His action in hardening them IS.

Another example of hardening or blinding is in Luke 24.  Jesus has been crucified and risen and He meets two of his followers on the road to Emmaus.  But verse 16 says, “But they were kept from recognizing him.” These men knew Jesus, but when he walked right up and began talking to them, they didn’t recognize him.  We could say the reason they didn’t recognize him was because in their mind he was dead and so they were psychologically paralyzed from recognizing him, but that’s not what the text says.  They were kept[actively prohibited]from recognizing him.”  Now, why did Christ do that?  Why did He blind them?  We could come up with many possible reasons.  But God doesn’t tell us here.  We don’t know with certainty why not and even if we did it would only prove the point.  God did it because he has His reasons.

A final example of hardening is found in the gospels. We know that Jesus’ preferred method of teaching was by the use of parables.  And the reason he used this kind of cryptic teaching technique is given in Matthew 13, Mark four, and Luke eight.  Christ says tells his disciples in Luke 8:10  “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that [quoting Isaiah six] “though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.”  This same reason from Isaiah six is also quoted in Matthew and Mark to explain why Jesus spoke in parables.  The reason Jesus spoke in parables is because he didn’t WANT all the people to understand what he was saying.  He was intentionally obscure.

In Matthew 11:25 Christ prays to his Father, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things[these spiritual truths]from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.  Yes Father, for this was your good pleasure.”  It was the good pleasure of the Father to hide [the Greek word is “krupto” from which we get our word cryptic.]  God hid, obscured his truth to those whom He didn’t want to understand it.  It’s the reason Christ so often used parables when he was on earth. Now, why would Christ do that?  He was sent from heaven to REVEAL the Father.  Why would this revelation be hidden from many people?  I don’t know. God has his reasons.  Do you see the point that Paul, in writing about a God who hardens or blinds is not standing alone in the Bible.  These texts show that we worship and serve a God who hardens, who hides, who blinds?

Now, how can that truth enable us to be more in awe of God?  Here are two ways.  There are doubtless more.  First, we should stand in awe of God’s Lordship over his creatures.  In other words, God can do this hardening work because as the Lord and Creator He has a right to.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence the way Jesus prefaced that prayer in Matthew eleven.  Only two places in the gospels does He address the Father as the “Lord of heaven and earth.”  Here and in Luke ten and the content of both prayers is the same—praising God for his hiding the truth from the wise and learned.  Jesus, in addressing His prayer to the “Lord of heaven and earth” gives us the ground for the rest of the prayer.  It is only consistent for the Lord of heaven and earth who is under obligation to NO ONE, to choose who will dwell with Him forever and enjoy His grace and to choose who will not receive that ultimate privilege.  Someone a while ago sent me a quote from C.H. Spurgeon where he asks the question, “Does not Christ have a right to choose His bride?”  God owes salvation to NO ONE.  As Lord of heaven and earth, it is utterly consistent for him to have ultimate control over where His creatures, His rebel race will spend eternity.  That thought should drive us to our knees in humility.

Second, because it is God’s sovereign right to harden and because he does in fact exercise that right, we, as those whom He has chosen NOT to harden should spend much time and energy in wonder and praise over that.  The question, as we’ve stated before is not “Why would the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth choose to harden some of His creatures?”  The question that should prostrate us before Him in worship is, “Why didn’t He harden ME?” Because I was every bit as deserving as the others to be hardened.  This is what Paul says in chapter nine where he implies that the redeemed cannot adequately appreciate God’s mercy to them unless they see that there are others who do not receive that mercy.  Mercy apart from judgment and wrath is meaningless. Being spared God’s judgment is only profoundly gratitude-inducing when we are well aware that there are many others who are indeed under the judgment of God and there by the grace of God go I.

As for God’s reasons for His hardening work, I don’t know.  I do know that when an Old Testament woman named Naomi lost her husband and both of her sons she didn’t understand that either.  But we understand at least some of God’s reasons now.  Before time, he had decreed that one of her widowed daughter-in-laws would be in the lineage of the Messiah.  But in order for that to occur, Ruth had to marry Boaz so they could have a son named Obed who was the grandfather of a man named David.  God had his reasons.  I don’t know God’s reasons for hardening people, but I know a man named Joseph who didn’t know the reason his brothers sold him into slavery.  But we know at least some of God’s reasons.  God had decreed before time to preserve the line of the Messiah through a horrendous, seven- year famine that He knew was to come and Joseph was his man to do that.  And Joseph had to be in Egypt for that to occur.

I don’t know the reason God hardens for eternity any more than I know the reason he hardened or blinded the people in the five examples we looked at. But we know He is a merciful, compassionate God.  We know that the same Paul who wrote that God has hardened most of the Jews also said in 9:2, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers...the people of Israel.”  He was profoundly saddened by the fact that most of the Jews did not believe.  We also know that He is an infinite God, which should explain to us why we are not able to understand why He does all that He does.  Our job is not to explain Him, it’s to know Him and worship Him. And we are to get our understanding of Him from this book, not what our preconceived notions of what we think He should be like.  If Romans nine through eleven teach us anything, it teaches us that God is does not feel the least bit compelled to stay within the confines of our sentimental notions of Him.  He is Yahweh and His word to us has always been, “I AM WHO I AM” not, “I am whoever you want me to be.”  A God like that is worthy to be worshipped, not interrogated and not distorted at those points where He doesn’t meet our fallen expectations of Him.  May God give us to grace to know, accept and worship Him for whom He has revealed Himself to be.



Page last modified on 1/1/2002

(c) 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your minstry.