Yesterday, we saw God choosing some of Abraham’s descendants over others. Thus, Isaac – not Ishamel – and Jacob – not Esau – became the recipients of God’s mercy. Today we see the other side of that equation. Even as God has mercy on those he chooses, so also he hardens those he chooses. The prime example of God’s hardening is the Pharaoh of the Exodus, whom God used to show his power and spread his fame. When it comes to Israel, Paul seems to be saying, God can show mercy to some while also hardening others. Those who have received mercy are those who have accepted Jesus. Those who have been hardened are those who rejected him.
Let’s take a breath. In these verses we wade into one of the great debates of Christian history, and the going is by no means easy. Indeed, this passage of scripture is notoriously difficult to translate and interpret. The question comes down to this: Is God choosing some people for salvation and others for damnation? While I respect Christians who disagree with me on these matters, my answer to this question is no.
As I approach this text, I don’t see Paul talking in generalities about humanity. Instead, I see him talking specifically about the drama of salvation. When God showed mercy to Isaac and Jacob, he did choose them over others, but his choice was ultimately for the sake of all. Jesus would eventually emerge as their greatest descendant. God’s mercy for the select few led to mercy for all! And, while God did harden Pharaoh’s heart, this hardening didn’t amount to God singling out some random guy. Long before God entered Pharaoh’s story, Pharaoh was a villain who oppressed those he feared and ordered the murder of babies. God didn’t cause Pharaoh’s trajectory towards judgment so much as he reinforced it. In doing so, God escalated the conflict to make his power known to Israel and the surrounding nations. Pharaoh’s hardening served a purpose in God’s bigger plan.
Now, with Jesus a new act in redemption’s drama has begun, and God is working in unexpected ways. To some this may seem unfair, especially because most of Israel has failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, God’s mercy and hardening are once again at play. When it comes to mercy, God has thrown open the doors of salvation to all nations. As for hardening, God is once again not working in a vacuum. Instead, he is dealing with his people, with whom he has a long history. For this moment, he has chosen to reinforce a tendency for rebellion that has often been seen in Israel’s story. It is God’s prerogative to work like this, Paul says. Yet even as God reinforces the hardening, he bears patiently with those with those who stand against him (see verses 22-23). In some strange way, God’s hardening and his mercy coexist. And things ultimately end up with God’s people comprehending his glory.
I don’t claim to understand all this. Indeed, my head is still spinning from circling this passage for hours on end. Yet, I do believe it. God is at work in Christ to redeem his creation, and the doors of redemption have been thrown open to all who will believe. The road to this moment has been winding, and God’s wisdom is at times mysterious. Yet, his power is at work in the gospel for salvation – first for the Jew and then for the Gentile.