Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!
15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up,
that I might show my power in you,
and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills,
and he hardens whomever he wills.
With two additional quotations, both from the book of Exodus, Paul emphasizes God’s sovereign right to elect some people to mercy and leave others to condemnation. Paul’s use of these particular quotations demonstrates once again his brilliance in formulating and communicating truth. The quotations do two things. They help him counter the charge of God’s injustice and they also advance his argument about Israel.
The human response to God’s sovereign choice of some people (Isaac and Jacob) and rejection of others (Ishmael and Esau) is to say that God is unjust. Because Ishmael and Esau had done nothing wrong, God was unfair to reject them. Was God unjust?God’s sovereign mercy
God spoke the words in verse 15 a short while after he rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. It was a miraculous rescue with a dramatic getaway followed by God’s destruction of a pursuing army. When the people lacked water to drink and food to eat, they cried to God, who sweetened bitter water and rained down bread from heaven.
After being delivered by divine power and compassion, the people turned their backs on God by worshiping a golden calf while Moses communed with God on the mountain. Now what was God to do? Had he dealt according to his justice, he would have summarily destroyed the people he had just rescued. Instead he punished but spared them.
Shortly after this debacle with the idol Moses asked God, “Please show me your glory.” God obliged, revealing his character: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). Note how cleverly Paul deals with the issue of God’s justice. It was as if Paul put a microphone in front of God to answer the question for himself. God said it’s his prerogative and his alone to exercise his mercy.
Flawed human beings can’t recognize God’s mercy and judgment when they see them—Jesus on the cross! So no one can say God is unjust. The divine nature is to be merciful; human nature is to rebel and disobey. This is why Paul says in verse 16 that human desire and effort matter nothing. No human being can make a claim on God’s mercy.God and Pharaoh
The quotation in verse 17 takes us back to an earlier narrative from Exodus in the middle of God’s interactions with Pharaoh during the series of plagues. The Egyptian ruler has progressively hardened himself against complying with God’s demand, relayed through Moses, to send away the Hebrew people he holds captive.
God gave the king numerous opportunities to resolve the impasse, but the five previous plagues have only made Pharaoh more obstinate. Now God warns Pharaoh of worse to come, and from that warning Paul takes a statement about God’s purpose. We look first at what God says about Pharaoh as a person, then God’s purpose.God spares Pharaoh’s life
By telling Pharaoh he “raised up” the king, God makes known his sovereignty over the proud man. Both the Hebrew word in Exodus and the Greek word in Romans for raised can mean either to raise up in position (God placed this man in power at this time in history) or to extend life (God spared him from destruction). Either way—place in position or maintain in position—God governs Pharaoh’s life.
The context in Exodus favors God’s preservation of Pharaoh. In the previous verse God says he could have struck the man and his people with pestilence, “and you would have been cut off from the earth” (Exodus 9:15). William Ford, author of God, Pharaoh and Moses, summarizes verse 15 and the opening of 16 as follows: “I could have destroyed you, but I haven’t and here is why I haven’t.” NASB has in verse 16 “I have allowed you to remain.”
Everett Harrison finds similar meaning in Romans, namely, that God preserved Pharaoh’s life to reveal both the full extent of his hardness of heart and to enhance God’s glory in the deliverance of his people. In this sense, Harrison says, “The fame of this Pharaoh actually depended on the mercy of God in sparing him.” And of course God’s fame takes top billing.The fame of Yahweh’s mighty name
News of the Hebrew people’s flight through the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army had terrifying effect on pagan nations throughout the Middle East. Nearly half a century later when Joshua’s spies entered Jericho, a woman named Rahab confided to them,
Half a millennium later, plagues of tumors and mice came upon the Philistines following their capture of the Ark of the LORD. Their wise men realized the likely solution: Give glory to the God of Israel and send the Ark back to the people of Israel. “Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?” (1 Samuel 6:6).
Perhaps the wise men and women of our sophisticated modern era will someday match the wisdom of the Philistines and give God the glory due his mighty name!God’s redemptive purpose
Through our exploration of Paul’s use of these Exodus passages, we have encountered multilayered themes and ironies.
One reason Paul selected Exodus 9:16 has to be God’s intent to proclaim his name “in all the earth.” From the time of Abraham God set apart his people to be a channel for God to bless “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Israel was to welcome foreigners to their worship (1 Kings 8:41–43, Isaiah 56:3–7), love foreigners as themselves (Leviticus 19:33–34), and be a light to the nations (Isaiah 60:1–3).
Instead of leading Gentiles to God, Israel excluded Gentiles and, at her worse, imitated the sins of the surrounding nations—even the idolatry of Egypt, from which she had just been rescued.
Pharaoh hardened himself and God hardened Pharaoh as part of the process for Israel’s deliverance. Now Israel is hardened as part of the process for Gentiles’ salvation (chapter 11).
Tying everything together is the thread of God’s sovereign mercy. He softens judgment of his people and postpones judgment of Pharaoh. The role Israel failed to perform as a channel of mercy to Gentiles her Messiah would come to fulfill. Though Israel did not receive him, Gentiles did, and millions of them have responded to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of the nations (Matthew 28:18–20).
God is sovereign in his mercy and in his hardening of people’s hearts. Because of the complexity of the latter subject, I will explore God’s hardening of Pharaoh in a separate message.