based on His own prerogative
What shall we say then?
Is there unrighteousness with God?
For He says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.”
So then it is not of him who wills,
nor of him who runs,
but of God who shows mercy.
The earlier verses showed that God chose to give Jacob’s descendants greater blessings than He gave Esau’s descendants. Was it wickedness for God to show greater favor to Jacob’s descendants? Absolutely not. As God said in the passage where Moses asked to see God’s glory, He reserves the right to show grace and compassion to whoever He desires (Exodus 33:14-19). Although Israel sinned greatly with the golden calf, God chose to show them mercy. It certainly was not wrong for Him to withhold judgment and show compassion.
God’s choice was of His own prerogative. He didn’t show mercy because Israel had the right flavor of repentance, or because Moses used the proper prayer formula. His demonstration of mercy was not out of compulsion, but according to His purposes; He does not have the same purpose for all people. Consider the contrast between God’s purpose for Israel and His purpose for Pharaoh.
For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh,
“For this very purpose I have raised you up,
that I may show My power in you,
and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”
Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills,
and whom He wills He hardens.
Carefully notice what God told the stubborn Pharaoh. He did not say, ‘…I have made you stubborn, that I may show My power…’ but told the man that He had ‘…raised you up…’ to the throne. The man who was Pharaoh was a strong-willed and stubborn man. But he did not become Pharaoh by his own strength of will; God declared responsibility for his ascent to the throne.
God was quite clear on His purpose for raising this man to the throne – that everyone would come to know of God and His power. God could have raised up a compliant man, but He wanted the world to know that the God of the Hebrews was God over all. So God took an obstinately stubborn man and made him Pharoah.
In the process of demonstrating His power, God hardened Pharaoh. Many have proposed that God’s hardening of Pharaoh was like the hardening of concrete: Pharaoh first chose to oppose God and God hardened him into that position. However, this interpretation doesn’t quite match the meaning of the Hebrew words for harden. The definition of the key Hebrew word, Strong’s #H2388, indicates that the hardening was a form of strengthening.
The level at which God intended to show His power was beyond the ability of any mortal man to withstand, even a stubborn man like Pharaoh. It is true that for the first few plagues, Pharaoh held to his stubborn resolve to keep his slaves. But eventually, it became necessary for God to temporarily bolster Pharaoh’s determination so he wouldn’t prematurely collapse under the weight of the plagues. Put simply, God strengthened Pharaoh in his stubbornness until He completed His intended demonstration of power. After the final plague, God ceased hardening Pharaoh and Pharaoh then gave in and let the people go.
Notice the contrast in God’s purposes for Israel versus Pharaoh. Israel was a stiff-necked and stubborn nation (Exodus 32:9, 33:3-5, 34:9), even as Pharaoh was a stubborn man. But God purposed to demonstrate His mercy through the stubborn nation, while He purposed to show His power through the stubborn man.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with God using Pharaoh’s stubbornness to showcase His power and, at the same time, using Israel’s stubbornness to showcase His mercy. God may use stubborn people as He pleases.
Food for thought: on the Day of Judgment, God will hold Pharaoh accountable for his obstinance. This raises some rather serious questions about the justice of God, don’t you think?