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Only God Can Soften Human Hearts


When I was in college, the college ministry that I was a part of went on a spring break mission trip to the Dominican Republic and as part of our time there we played some competitive baseball games against some of the local high school Dominican teams there, and I remember this one game, it was the final inning, and there was a play at the plate that the home plate umpire just got absolutely wrong. He called our guy safe when he was really out, we all saw it, and we were sure of it, and we went on to win the game in part because of it. And after the game, I remember, along with a few of my teammates, having this unsettled feeling about it. I loved the final result (we won!), but I felt a little uneasy about how we got there. 

And chances are, when we reflect on our passage today, both the scripture that Cindy just read as well as the scriptures before and after it, you might be left with a similar feeling as I did after that baseball game long ago. Where we’re content with the final result, and yet chances are you might feel a little uneasy as to how we got there. 

Or in other words, to connect us into our story today, while we might be overjoyed that the Lord is in the process of freeing his people from slavery in Egypt, we might feel a little uneasy given all the plagues it took to get there. 

And so, as we continue our sermon series in the book of Exodus, I want to invite you to open your bibles to page 79, and to Exodus chapter 9. And this sermon might be an especially good one to have your bible open because we’re going to be jumping all over the place, looking at various scriptures across the early chapters of Exodus. 

And I’ll share this quick disclaimer up front, this sermon is going to have a lot of bible up front. And then towards the end, we’re going to look up and consider some of what this all means for you and me today. But first … 

Here’s how we got to where we are in the book of Exodus. The people of God are slaves in the land of Egypt, under the oppressive regime of Pharaoh, the people cried out to God, God heard their cries and as we saw last week in the scene at the Burning Bush, God called Moses to lead His people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

The question of course, is, how’s God going to do it? How’s he going to free them from the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh? Well, he’s going to do it largely by bringing plague after plague after plague after plague. Blood filled rivers, endless frogs, consuming gnats, swarms of flies, utter darkness, and as we saw in our passage moments ago, devastating hail. 

As I shared with a few weeks ago, our approach here with Exodus is to do more of an overview series, capturing key moments in the plotline, rather than each and every chapter. And this section of the book helps to illustrate why, for it would be cruel and unusual punishment on my end to give a sermon for each of the 10 plagues, when the truth is, one will be more than enough to get a feel for things. 

And yet, why choose the 7th plague on hail? Is it because it’s the most realistic plague that us Montanas can relate to? After all, who among us could forget the hailstorm from the summer of 2019? That one did feel a little apocalyptic and it too brought about considerable damage. 

Truth is, hail’s got nothing to do with it. Instead, the reason I landed on this particular plague is because of how it serves as a summary of this part of the plotline in Exodus, as it succinctly, or kind of not so succinctly captures the narrative tension within this part of the story. As I said at the top, we might feel uneasy about how God is going to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and yet, there’s another aspect to this story that might make us uneasy as well. 

The Lord brings a devastating hail upon the people of Egypt, Pharaoh says after 7 plagues he’s had enough, he’ll let the people go, but then when the hail stopped here’s what we read in chapter 9, in verses 34 and 35:

34 When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. 35 So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses.

Alright, so this seems simple enough. We’ve found a diagnosis here to the problem. The problem is Pharaoh's hardened and calloused heart. But wait! Here’s where things will leave you feeling a bit uneasy, look at the very next verse, chapter 10, verse 1: 

10 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them 

Friends, do you see the conundrum? Are you feeling uneasy yet? We’re told that Pharoah has a hardened heart … and yet we wonder, who exactly is doing the hardening? Is it Pharoah, is it God, or is it both? Are these plagues coming down upon Egypt because of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and his utter refusal to give in and let God’s people go? Or is Pharaoh a puppet of God’s, being used as a tool, beat into submission, to accomplish the will of God? 

Altogether we ask, who’s responsible for hardening Pharaoh's heart? Is it Pharoah or is it God? Friends, the answer, unsatisfying as it might be, is yes.   

Yet, thankfully, we can say more, in fact, we must say more, because of course, there’s more to the story. Let’s take an even deeper dive into the story. 

Here we’re going to flip some pages and move quickly through some bible verses. As we do watch the progression here.

First, go to chapter 5, verses 1 and 2, Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”

In fact, Pharoah gets so upset with the request that he doubles down on his enslavement of the Israelites, forcing them to work even harder. 

When the Lord sees this, he says to Moses, now skipping ahead to Chapter 6, verse 1, Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”

And it’s soon after this point that God brings plague after plague after plague. And as these plagues progress, notice who’s doing the hardening.  

After the first plague, turning the Nile River into blood, chapter 7, verse 22 says, 22 But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard

Then after the second plague, the plague of frogs, chapter 7, verse 15, 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said.

This trend continues on for the first five plagues, and it’s not until the 6th plague and beyond, where we get to chapter 9, verse 12, where it finally says, 12 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses.

All in all when you put it all together, here’s what you see, God knew Pharaoh would resist, that he would harden his heart, but yet still gave him lots and lots of chances. And then at some point, as we see in the 6th plague and beyond, Pharoah’s evil reaches a point of no return and God bends Pharoah’s evil to his purposes and lures him into his own destruction. Or in other words, God pushes Pharoah further in the direction he was already headed. 

And why does he do this? Well, back to our section on hail …

Chapter 9, verse 14, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.

Verse 16, 16 But I have raised you up [Pharaoh] for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. 

Plagues not only serve the purpose of trying to get Pharoah to release the Israelites, but also to demonstrate to him that the Lord alone is God, to make abundantly, abundantly, abundantly clear that the Lord alone is God, and Pharoah powerful as he might be, is ultimately a mere mortal. 

So friends, before we move into some application, let’s first tie up some loose ends.

First, do you, with this story, like I did after that baseball game long ago, feel content with the outcome, but uneasy as to how we got there? Well, I certainly hope you feel a lot less of that. Pharaoh had chance after chance after chance after chance. To repent. To relent. To let God’s people go. And he didn’t. 

Even more, never forget, this man was an absolute monster. I mean that. He worked the Israelites into the ground using them as slave labor, he ordered the genocide of all the Israelite baby boys. To feel sympathetic towards Pharoah here in Exodus would be similar to reading Harry Potter and cheering for Lord Voldemort. 

And all kidding aside, there’s a beautiful message here. That God hears and answers the cries of his people. He rescues the oppressed. He uses strength to free the weak. He uses power to rescue the powerless. He is the one who is truly good, who defeats evil. That is good, good news. 

And even more, if you feel uneasy about a God who defeats rival nations in order to display his glory, well, we’ve got to keep in mind where this story is headed. This year we’ve got some 20 plus people reading through the New Testament and right now we’re reading Acts. And Exodus and Acts coincidentally make for a helpful pairing. Where in the Old Testament and in Exodus and elsewhere we see God fulfilling his promises to one nation, Israel, so that over time, as we enter the New Testament, in places like Acts and beyond he might fulfill his promise to be a blessing to all nations, so that people from every tongue and tribe and nation would worship King Jesus. 

Alright, let’s move into three points of application:

First, since only God truly knows the heart, share Christ with everyone.  

Paul in Romans 9, would go on to say this long ago reflecting on Pharaoh in Exodus, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” 

God will harden the hearts of those he wants to harden, making them unreceptive to his love. And God will soften the hearts of those he wants to soften, making them receptive to his love. 

In other words, here’s the bad news: God will not save everyone. And yet, here’s the good news, God can save anyone. Therefore, we must share Christ with everyone. It is as simple and as mysterious as that. We don’t know the heart, so we should not assume we do. 

The former pastor of my previous church, Scott Dudley, you all heard a video sermon of his last summer, had this saying that went something like this, “The position of God has been filled and you need not apply.”

Exactly right. Only God knows the heart. So share Christ with others and let God do whatever God wants to do. 

Second, beware of the hardened heart boomerang. 

This one will take a bit of explaining. Imagine throwing a boomerang. You’re throwing an object that by design is meant to come back to you. 

So, what’s the hardened heart boomerang? It’s when a person believes in a real or perceived hardness of heart in another when all the while it’s developing a hardness of heart within themselves. And I am convinced we do this all the time. 

We do this with our loved ones. We look at a spouse who we think will never change, will never listen, we wonder if we’re going to have to settle for a mediocre marriage for years on end. 

We do this with our kids, that’s just who they are we say, I’ll never be able to reach them. No one can.

And yes, we do this with our unbelieving friends and family, we think there’s no way they’d put their faith in Christ, there’s no way they’d be open to coming to church, there’s no way. 

And friends, I do this to some of you! I think there's no way they’d ever come to a bible study, or be in a small group, I just won’t ask, I’ll just carry on. 

We think they’re the one with a hard and calloused heart, when truth is the hardened heart has unintentionally, quietly, but yet in a oh so deadly way, boomeranged back on us. 

And yet, friends, if the gospel gives us or others the power to do anything, if Jesus gives us or others the strength and grace to do anything, it’s to change. To change, to be as our vision statement goes, “to be transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.” Nobody, nobody, is beyond the reach of Jesus. 

Now that’s not to say if you’re in a relationship with someone with a hardened or calloused heart that you’re the real problem. That only if you would soften your heart even more things would be better. Truth is, sometimes relationships reach a boiling point, a tipping point, a breaking point. They can and they do.

Nevertheless, beware of the hardened heart boomerang. Yes, sometimes it can serve as a natural defense mechanism, and yet beware, it is so very real. So often there’s a little King Pharaoh living in the hearts of all of us with our hearts hardening towards the ones we believe are hardened towards God, towards others, towards us. So what do we do, what’s our move? Let’s finish with this third and final point, 

Ask the Lord to soften your heart all the more. 

Pastor Michael Horton makes this extraordinary observation. Reflecting back on the story of Pharaoh as well as on other passages, he notes that while sometimes God is the one responsible for hardening the human heart, and while other times we as humans are the one responsible for hardening our hearts, God alone is always, always, always, the one responsible for softening the human heart. Nowhere in scripture is there any indication that you and I through our own will and volition are the ones responsible for softening our hearts. 

So friends, ask the Lord to soften your heart all the more.

Ask the Lord to break your heart for what breaks His. Ask the Lord to open your heart to his Word. Ask the Lord to soften your heart towards those who are difficult to love. Ask the Lord to help you love what he loves, to help you trust where you need to trust, to help you know what you need to know and to help you trust when you don’t know. 

Ask the Lord to soften your heart all the more. This is the promise of God, proclaimed by Ezekiel, fulfilled by Jesus, 

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

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