I’ve been reading through Exodus and the ten plagues God sent on Egypt.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the Israelites were the chosen people of God – chosen to be in a covenant relationship with Him, chosen to be blessed by Him and chosen to show His glory to the surrounding nations. At this time, however, the entire people had no land of their own. In fact, they lived in Egypt as slaves under extreme oppression.
The Lord heard their groans and promised to set them free and bring them to a land of their own. He chose Moses, an eighty-year-old Israelite, to act as a mediator between the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and the people of Israel. He was to be their spokesperson and the one through whom God delivered His messages to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh, however, was unwilling to listen to Moses or to the God he represented; he was unwilling to let the people of Israel go free from the land of Egypt. Pharaoh thought he had the authority to dictate the fate of the Israelites. So God sent plague after plague upon Egypt to undercut the authority of Pharaoh and his gods, and to demonstrate who was the true Lord.
After the first plague
…Pharaoh’s heart became hard…
After the second plague
…when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart…
After the third plague
…Pharaoh’s heart was hard…
After the fourth plague
…this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart…
And on and on this went, Pharaoh’s heart continuing to be hard after nine of the ten plagues.
God’s sovereignty and our responsibility
Sometimes, particularly following the first few of the ten plagues, the wording suggests that Pharaoh was the one responsible for the hardening of his own heart. But sometimes the Scripture says that “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” (9:12, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10).
And if we jump back in time to before God brought any of the plagues, He spoke to Moses concerning the events that were about to occur:
You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgement I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”
-Exodus 7:2-5 (emphasis mine)
And later Scriptures reveal:
The LORD had said to Moses,”Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you – so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.”
But I [God] have raised you [Pharaoh] up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
It seems like God is doing a lot of controlling here. Where is Pharaoh’s free will, now, and is the Lord just to punish him if the Lord was the one who raised him up and hardened his heart?
These hard questions represent a great mystery.
And they’re not just outdated questions; they concern us dwellers of the New Testament. After you’ve finished reading the first eleven (or more!) chapters of Exodus, then go check out Romans 9. I know. That’s a lot of reading, and obviously, you don’t have to do it. But as my personal testimony, my marvel for the mysteries of God has grown as a result of it.
The influence of angels and demons
Finally, to bring another piece of literature and another puzzle piece into the equation, I recently read This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti (which I reviewed here). In the novel, the sovereignty of God and human responsibility paled in comparison to the focus on a third element: the influence of angels and demons.
What I mean is that if a car engine broke down, it was because an angel had thrust his sword into it to arrange for a divine appointment. If a person had a wrong thought, it was inevitably because a demon had first spoken the words to him/her. Without fail (I think) every key act of evil was done because the person was under the influence of a demon.
I believe that angels and demons are present and at work in the world. Perhaps the most convincing Bible verse is the one displayed on the back cover of This Present Darkness.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
-Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)
But to what extent demons are involved and to what extent people are responsible for their actions is another question. I believe a quote from the novel represents the dilemma well:
It would be so easy to blame the conspiracy for tampering with his family and turning his wife and daughter against him, and undoubtedly they had tried it. But where could he draw the line between their responsibility and his?
-Frank E. Peretti, This Present Darkness
By no means are these thoughts complete, but they are the summary of where my contemplations have lead me as I read This Present Darkness. Let me end with one final verse that has encouraged me in the past and continues to do so to this day:
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
Do you care to talk about it?
- How do you reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s free will?
- How do angels and demons fit it?
- Have you read Romans 9 (now or recently)? What challenging or encouraging thoughts did it inspire?