(Rom. 11:7-8 ESV) 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
Up to this point, Paul is not that hard to follow. But in a surprising twist, he declares the Jews without faith in Jesus to have been “hardened.” (The KJV mistranslates as “blinded.”)
Paul’s reference in v. 8 is a blending of two passages —
(Deut. 29:2-6 ESV) 2 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 3 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. 4 But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. 5 I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. 6 You have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.”
(Isa. 29:8-10 ESV) 8 As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. 9 Astonish yourselves and be astonished; blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! 10 For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers).
Let’s start with Deu 29:4. I would prefer to give far more context than I have here, because the conclusion isn’t “because God hardened your hearts you are excused” or “because God hardened your hearts you are damned,” but “because God hardened your hearts, you must repent.”
(Deut. 29:9-13 ESV) 9 Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do. 10 “You are standing today all of you before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, 13 that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
The point of the sermon is that even though, up to this point, you’ve not understood what should have been obvious, now as we prepare to enter the Promised Land, repent, respond to the great works God has done among you, and so enter into and honor his covenant with you.
The passage from Isaiah 29 is highly figurative.
In 1 Kings 22:22, when Ahab determined to embrace falsehood, divine judgment visited him with false prophets: by the will and act of God, he got what he chose (cf. 2 Thess. 2:9–12). Determined spiritual insensitivity becomes judicial spiritual deprivation: first, the mind loses its clarity: deep sleep, ‘a spirit/Spirit of coma/torpor’, the mental equivalent of 1 Samuel 26:12; secondly, the means of spiritual enlightenment are removed: prophets and seers are synonyms for those whom God has raised up to receive and communicate his word. The lesson is driven home illustratively in verses 11–12: the person who can read cannot be bothered to open the book; the person who cannot read is unconcerned to find someone who can.
J. Alex Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale OTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 215.
The meaning “harden” — and why Jeremiah is so important to this question
In both cases, the theme is that God is hardening hearts so that his purposes will be fulfilled. But in both cases, he is hardening hearts that are already very hard. It’s reminiscent of this passage —
(Jer. 7:16-18 ESV) 16 “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you. 17 Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.
(Jer. 7:27-28 ESV) 27 “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. 28 And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.”
Jeremiah is told by God not to preach or even pray for the Judeans. This is shortly before their destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. Their hearts are so hard that God has run out of patience. After centuries of sin, God has given up.
And it’s similar to the thrice-repeated phrase in Rom 1, that, with respect to the Gentiles, God “gave them up” to a list of degrading sins. But shortly after telling Jeremiah not to pray for the people, God says that he should preach to them — even though they won’t listen. Their hearts are already hard beyond repentance.
Now, in truth, there’s a difference between letting people be who they want to be and hardening someone who might otherwise have repented. But in every case where God is said to “harden” someone’s heart, that person already had a hard heart. God only let them continue down the road of hard-heartedness.
Therefore, when Paul says that God hardened the hearts of the Jews, he is not saying that God prevented people who would otherwise been saved from being saved. This would be contrary to God’s covenant promises and, worse yet, make God into a monster. Rather, Paul is drawing a parallel with the times of Jeremiah just before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar — no coincidence: less than 20 years before the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem.
Just as God ran out of patience with the Jews’ idolatry and rebellion centuries earlier, God is quickly running out of patience with his covenant people — so much so that he’s about to, once again, bring about the destruction of the Temple and visit great calamities on his beloved, chosen people.
The Jews’ hearts were hard before Jesus arrived on the scene. They grew even harder as Jesus preached and performed marvelous miracles. The Jews have two choices. They can enter into a fresh covenant relationship — as they did in Deuteronomy after having hardened hearts — or they can descend into deeper rebellion, as they did after Isaiah warned the Northern Kingdom and, later, after Jeremiah warned the Southern Kingdom.
God has given up on his people, but true to his covenant promises, he will nonetheless have his prophets keep or preaching, and he’ll preserve a remnant — some relatively small number of ethnic Jews who will be faithful to God and not rebel. The rest, those who choose not believe, will find their hard hearts even further hardened so that the curses promised in Lev 26 and Deu 27-29 will once again come true and be obviously just to all who have eyes to see. And Jerusalem will be destroyed yet again.