Tonight we hear about a hard heart and barking dogs.
The hard heart belonged to Pharaoh. Our text says, “Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh; and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land.”
At this point in the story, some people get a little nervous. Did the Lord really harden the heart of the king of Egypt? Or did He only allow Pharaoh’s stubborn heart to continue on its own obstinate path? Many people do not want to think of the Lord as a hardener of hearts. That sounds too much like fatalism or double predestination. If the Lord hardens some but brings others to faith, then only His will and decision save sinners. So you are lost or saved purely based on God’s whim.
The Bible, of course, does not support double predestination. God wants all to come to the knowledge of His Son. He does not desire the death of the sinner. So His Son died for all, not some. Salvation is freely available to all, and God is sincere in His offer of forgiveness in the Blood of Christ.
But that is not to say that the Lord does not harden some people. As Scripture clearly says, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Only doing violence to the text can you come to another conclusion.
In response to this passage Lutherans sometimes want to say, “Well, Pharaoh hardened his heart first, and then God also hardened him.” That sounds attractive. God did not maliciously decide that Pharaoh would be hardened, but He only reinforced Pharaoh’s natural inclination.
Attractive as that option is, it does not fit the text. Who hardened first, Pharaoh or the Lord? The first time we hear Pharaoh’s heart being hardened is chapter seven, where it says, “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them [Moses and Aaron], as the Lord had said.” The passage is ambiguous. The heart grew hard, but who caused the hardness? It does not say. So we cannot conclude much from those words.
But it also says, “As the Lord had said.” When did the Lord say? Earlier in chapter seven, He said, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Even way back in chapter four He said, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” There is no ambiguity here. So when it says, “As the Lord had said,” it means that in the way the Lord had spoken previously, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, that is, because the Lord hardened it. So He was the one who caused the hardness of Pharaoh.
You could say that the Lord used the hardness that was already naturally in Pharaoh’s heart, since Pharaoh, like all sinners, had a stubbornly rebellious heart. There is some truth there, but it is really just quibbling at words. God could have made a change in Pharaoh’s heart, as He has made a change in us. But He decided not to, for His purposes.
This is difficult for many Christians to hear. The reason why is because many have bought into the idea of free will. Man must decide to follow God, they say. Christ has done his part, but it is up to us to make the choice so that we receive salvation. To such thoughts of free will, the words, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh,” are jarring.
Saint Paul does not help us resolve this difficulty in Romans chapter nine. He says, “The Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘Even for this same purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be declared in all the earth.’ Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
Here Paul says that God’s choice and free are important. In spiritual matters, we have none. But He wills and acts and hardens for His purposes, which we are not fit to judge.
Here is what Martin Luther concludes in The Bondage of the Will: “Thus God hardens Pharaoh: He present to the ungodly, evil will of Pharaoh His own word and work, which Pharaoh’s will hates, by reason of its own inbred fault and natural corruption. God does not alter that will within by His Spirit, but goes on presenting and bringing pressure to bear; and Pharaoh, having in mind his own strength, wealth, and power, trusts to them by this same fault of his nature. So it comes to pass that, being inflated and uplifted by the idea of his own greatness, and growing vaingloriously scornful of lowly Moses and of the unostentatious word of God, he becomes hardened; and then grows more and more irked and annoyed, the more Moses presses and threatens him. His evil will would not have been moved or hardened of itself. … As soon as God presents to it from without something that naturally irritates and offends it, Pharaoh cannot escape being hardened.”
This does not solve the problem for us of why the Lord hardens some and not others. But that is not for us to know. We are not the potter. We are only clay, which He shapes for His purposes.
But we must trust that He is gracious. Our text is leading up to the Tenth Plague, the slaying of the firstborn in Egypt. Again, we have trouble with slaying what we see as helpless innocents. But we must hold on to the fact that the Lord Yahweh is merciful. He is not a mean-spirited God, but is patient and long-suffering, showing mercy to generations, and only punishing the children when they have followed in the sin of their fathers to the fourth generation. He would rather show mercy, as the Cross plainly demonstrates. He would rather suffer hell for people than see them lost. Yet even then, many reject Him.
When faced with actions of God that seem harsh and unmerciful, we must trust the Scriptures instead which tell us that God is love. When He does what we cannot understand, we must admit that He is wiser than we are, and leave things in His judgment, not ours.
So here we come to the barking dogs. The plague is coming, and a great wailing was about to begin in Egypt, because the firstborn would be slain. Yet the Lord says that among the Israelites, not a dog would move its tongue.
Few things are more annoying than a dog that barks at night. What makes it worse is that they often seem to bark at nothing in particular. Maybe they heard a strange noise or smelled a strange odor. Suddenly, they must let everyone in the neighborhood know about it, whether you were sleeping or not. Nor do they seem easily satisfied that they have barked long enough.
But among the children of Israel, the dogs will take a night off. This is not a miracle that the Lord Yahweh performs on an arbitrary whim. He is making an important point. In Egypt, among those who have rejected His Word, there will be loud lamentation such as has never been before or after. But among His people, there will be an unnatural calm. It is the peacefulness of those whom the Lord Yahweh favors. They are His, and see and trust in His mercy. Their firstborn children and animals will not be slain.
This is good news for the Israelites: Death would not touch them. More than that, this display of destruction would finally force Pharaoh’s hand so that he sent them away, free from slavery at last.
We see even more from our privileged position in history. Death will not touch us, because the Firstborn died instead of us. That is, Christ our dear Lord submitted to death so that death would have no power over us. Certainly, there is that little death that we must suffer. Our soul and body will be separated from one another. But the true terror of death will not touch us. It will not possess or devour us. We will safely pass through its attempt to eat us, because its sting is gone, because of Christ.
He took the full brunt of death’s assault. He let death swallow Him so that He could burst open death for us. Death, that poor wounded beast, is now mortally wounded. At the end, death will die, never to trouble us in any way, ever again.
For now, we must live under its shadow, as the Israelites did. That dark night, how scary was it for them as the terrifying Tenth Plague descended upon the land? They had the promise of the Lord Yahweh that they would be untouched. But still, the heart sometimes gives in to weakness and fear. Surely many hearts trembled that night.
So we also tremble before death, even though we know that in Christ we are safe. Death is bad, yet it cannot destroy us. We have promises of Paradise and Resurrection in Christ. We should, if we could always hold tightly to the Lord Yahweh’s promise, never tremble at death. Yet we are sometimes weak and forget His promises. We sometimes are fearful.
Like dogs, we may become restless at what we see or hear. We may panic or become hostile because of our fears.
At such times, we should turn our eyes to Christ. His Cross and His Empty Tomb comfort and calm us. When our hearts want to tremble in fear, He reassures us. We know that He has conquered, and promised victory for us. Indeed, we are already more than conquerors in Him.
Therefore we rejoice in Christ, even in the shadow of death. We cling to Him, who is the Lord Yahweh in human flesh, who is our life and salvation, who calms our fears, and will bring the final calm when all fears will finally be put to rest. In His Name and to His glory and honor forever. Amen.
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