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Sovereignty / Free will

This post was published on Monday 20 April 2020.

One of the classic sections of the Bible when it comes to the question of God’s sovereignty vs human free will is Exodus 8-10: God vs Pharaoh.

Throughout the plagues, the king’s heart swings between despair and stubbornness - constantly changing his mind. But is that him, or God?

When the king saw what had happened, he sinned again. He and his officials remained as stubborn as ever and, just as the Lord had foretold through Moses, the king would not let the Israelites go.

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go and see the king. I have made him and his officials stubborn, in order that I may perform these miracles among them.’

Exodus 9.34-10.2 (GNB)

Also 8.19 (GNB), ‘But the king was stubborn and, just as the Lord had said, the king would not listen,’ vs 9.12 (GNB), ‘But the Lord made the king stubborn and, just as the Lord had said, the king would not listen to Moses and Aaron.’

Reading the passage as a whole, the sense of God’s power and overall sovereignty is clear. The repetition of ‘king’ / ‘Pharaoh’ comes with a heavy dose of irony: the one who (thinks he) has power, has no more power over God than a puppet over a ventriloquist.

And yet the ambiguity remains (as it does elsewhere in the Bible, e.g. Saul: fate or flaw?).

Where I think this becomes an issue for moden (Western) Christians is in our sense of fairness: is it fair that Pharaoh is punished, if it is God who is making him stubborn? How can he resist the will of God?

How can he indeed! One of the major points of this passage is to demonstrate beyond any doubt God’s power and mastery - even over the might of Egypt (remember: the country that built the pyramids). God’s people were downtrodden slaves, an entire generation of sons was murdered, they could do nothing to save themselves - but they didn’t need to do anything because God was (and is) mighty enough to do it all by himself.

The second point is that Pharaoh becomes an illustration of sin. I see in this passage an echo of what Paul says in Romans 1.28 (NIV): ‘God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.’ We might say God amplifies or uncovers what is already there, to show it for what it is. Pharaoh becomes a supreme example of the root of sin - stubbornness, pride, rebellion against God.

Third, in his stubbornness Pharaoh becomes an object of semi-ridicule. The reader is left feeling, ‘Why? Pharaoh’s reaction doesn’t make sense!’ Even his own advisors say as much: ‘Do you not yet realise that Egypt is ruined?’ (Exodus 10.7, NIV).

We see the same in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3): what Adam and Eve do doesn’t make sense. Why would they risk it all, and give up their (literal) paradise? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s easy to see - and say - that from the outside. Other people’s sin rarely makes sense. Why does that person have an affair and throw away her life? Why does this person steal from the office and lose his job? Why does he allow his anger to take hold, can’t he see it’s alienating his family? Why does she gossip so much, doesn’t she realise no-one trusts her any more?

We are most of us blessed that - unlike Pharaoh - our sin cannot ruin an entire country. But our sin is no less real, our pride no less stubborn, or rebellion no less deep-rooted. Praise God we are not confronted with it like he was - but let us instead heed the warning and search out those parts of lives that don’t make sense, that we may do something about it - before it is too late.

‘Is it fair?’ is the wrong question.

The right question is, ‘What must I do?’ And the answer is in 1 John 1.9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1.9 (NIV)