In the last post, we observed that the Jewish worldview assumes that God is involved in everything, whether to our minds natural or supernatural, but without taking away free will.
This was part of their worldview, that is, how they saw the world, and therefore isn’t explained in scripture, at least not directly. This post will explore how God can be involved in everything that happens without taking away free will.
Bush (Exodus 1:65) argued that “the language implies simply [and he cites usage that agrees in Judg 9:24; 2 Chron 26:8; Isa 35:3; 41:7; and Jer 23:14] that the course of events should be so ordered that, without any positive divine influence exerted upon him, the haughty king should take occasion to confirm himself in the disregard of the counsels of the Most High.… This God is said to have done because he permitted it to be done”
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, 1990, 2, 334 (emphasis and bracketed material his).
In short, if we honor the way the Israelites thought, then the Exodus passages actually say that God allows the Pharaoh’s heart to become hard. God did not override his free will. Rather, he “gave him up” to his natural inclinations — very parallel to how God is said to have given up the Gentiles to their natural inclinations in Rom 1.
To me, the interesting question isn’t whether Calvin was right. That’s not the question the text actually deals with. Rather, the question is whether God normally encourages kings to do good, and by withdrawing his influence, he hardens the king’s heart by his inaction. And I think that’s the case. (Notice: working theory here; not doctrine that saves or damns.)
Indeed, when the subject is hell, as discussed a few months ago, we are willing to agree that a part of hell — maybe all of it — is separation from God. As I wrote earlier, based on 2 Thess 1:9-10 —
We were born and have lived our days in God’s presence, even if we haven’t always been believers. God is present within his Creation, and surely his presence is part of the joy of life.
And so we have no idea of what it would be like to live apart from God — truly separate. It’s not possible in this world, although we can certainly turn our backs on him. We can. But we can’t entirely escape God’s presence. God will still bring rain on the just and the unjust.
Hell may well be utter separation from God. We have no concept of how horrible that would be — but Paul warns us that it’s a dreadful punishment to suffer. Indeed, I’m certain that many of those who suffer such a horrible fate will beg for destruction.
We really have no idea how much of this world is governed by God’s providence. We don’t know how horrible life would be if God didn’t permeate every molecule. We don’t know to what extent he influences those who’ve never heard of him — but it’s possible that God chooses to reduce the suffering and misery in this world by keeping us from completely destroying ourselves.
For example, Rom 13:4 declares the pagan Caesar (Nero, no less) to be “God’s servant for your good.” Prov 21:1 declares,
(Prov. 21:1 ESV) The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
Compare Ezra 6:22 and 7:27, which credit God with creating goodwill from the kings of Assyria and Persia.
And so the Bible is actually pretty clear on the subject of God’s continual influence over kings — not necessarily enough to destroy their freewill, but enough to push the course of history in God’s chosen direction and, perhaps, to keep the human species from destroying itself.
As bad as things are, they could be far worse. I grew up in the 1960s, and the only thing between the leaders of Russia and the US and nuclear war was mutual self-restraint — and I believe that was in response to countless prayers offered up worldwide — meaning that God had a role in keeping humans from destroying themselves, and the planet with them. Had he withdrawn his favorable influence, hearts could have become very hard indeed.
Now, that being true, it’s easy enough to suppose that God had a similar influence on the Jewish people — providentially influencing them for good but not contrary to their free will. And if God chose to do so, he could withdraw that favorable influence, resulting in hard hearts. This would be analogous to the NT concept of grieving the Spirit (Eph 4:30, likely built on Isa 63:10).
We know from the OT that there were times when God told his prophets to stop trying to influence the people to repent and even not to bother praying for their repentance. And if God was unwilling for his prophets to influence the Jews to repent (but only after many, many years of trying), it would make sense that God might also withdraw any other providential influence toward godliness. He “gave them over” to their natural inclinations.
Calvin and Arminius think in these terms, but only in respect to conversion and salvation, which makes God far too small. The scriptures credit God both with much more and much less. Much more in the sense that God is always active in the lives of kings and Gods’ children — whom he is calling to be restored to his image to reign over the Creation. Much less in that God does not force people to love him — which would be both monstrous and pointless. A love imposed on an unwilling person is not real love — just as we learn in all the fairy tales. Magic cannot make someone fall in love — not real love — and God can’t force real love because it’s a contradiction in terms.
Back to Deu 29
So we go back to Deu 29, alluded to by Paul in Rom 11:29 (I bet you thought I’d gotten entirely off subject, didn’t you?), and Moses says God has given Israel hard hearts — not in terms of a moment of conversion but in terms of their willingness to be moved by God’s mighty works in the desert.
Deu is filled with references to Israel being a stubborn or hard-hearted people. For example, Moses declared near the end of the book,
(Deut. 31:27 ESV) 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death!
In short, for Israel to be hardened, God need only let them be their natural selves. He doesn’t have to override their free will and force them to reject him.
Now, this sound suspiciously like election, except that God never forces anyone to accept him. If we don’t really choose God, then our love isn’t real. For us to truly love God, we must be free not to love God. And so some of us will inevitably make the foolish choice to reject God.
Just so, even after Moses’ speech in Deu 29, when the Israelites re-affirmed their covenant with God, they soon defeated Jericho by the power of God, but then they failed to defeat Ai (a much smaller city, likely having no walls) because of sin in the camp. Some of the Israelites, immediately after seeing the power of God to defeat Jericho, decided to rebel and disobey. They fell away. So election and being chosen won’t prevent rebellion and punishment.