Most casual readers of the Bible believe that the God of the Old Testament was a stern, unmerciful God subject to outbursts of great wrath which he ruthlessly poured upon the people. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. The Old Testament is replete with stories of God's mercy and how he forgave men their errant ways time and again, hoping that somewhere along the line they would have a change of heart and repent for their sins. There is perhaps no story more representative of this than the story about the Egyptian Pharaoh who was asked by Moses to set the Israelites free. The full story can be found in the book of Exodus; I recount it briefly here.
Moses had spent forty years in the desert land of Midian, where he had fled to escape the wrath of Pharaoh after killing one of his men. One day, as he led the flock he tended to the far side of the desert, he came upon Mount Horeb, where he saw what appeared to be a burning bush. He approached it and found himself confronted by the voice of God who commanded him to go to Pharaoh and instruct him to release the Israelites from bondage.
Moses quaked and tried to beg off, offering numerous excuses for his unsuitability for the task, but God would have none of it. Finally, Moses, accompanied by his brother Aaron, went to Pharaoh to plead for the Israelites. On God's instructions, they performed a number of miraculous signs hoping to soften the heart of Pharaoh, but arrogant—as only the very powerful can be—Pharaoh told them to get lost. Forced to turn the heat on, God initiated a series of steps designed to soften the heart of the proud ruler, beginning with the dramatic one where he turned the waters of the Nile into blood.
But the Egyptian magicians did the same thing by their secret arts and Pharaoh's heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said. (Exodus 7:22)
The Lord had, indeed, told the two brothers that Pharaoh would not listen to them. "I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go," God had said (Exodus 4:21), in a statement that makes many readers raise questions about free will, and whether we truly possess it. If, as the statement seems to suggest, it was God who hardened Pharaoh's heart, then could Pharaoh really be blamed for making the choices he made? Let's see what actually happened.
Following the turning of water into blood, God sent a plague of frogs, hoping that this would soften Pharaoh's heart. It did—until God ended the plague. Then Pharaoh hardened his heart again. Plague after plague followed. A plague of gnats. A plague of flies. A plague on livestock. A plague of boils. A plague of hail. And each time the story was the same. Pharaoh would soften his heart until such time that God ended the plague, then he would harden it again.
Many of us see cruelty in this story. After all, what kind of a God would unleash such misery on a people? I, however, see God's mercy right through the entire tale. An unmerciful God would have simply nuked Pharaoh and all the Egyptians, rather than give them opportunity after opportunity to repent. That he had to resort to such drastic methods was simply because softer methods didn't work. I know of a modern fable that illustrates this beautifully.
A man standing on the terrace of a high rise building was taking in the view when he espied a couple of men hiding behind some bushes in the distance below. By their surreptitious behavior, it was evident that they didn't have any noble purposes in mind. A few meters away, a lovely young lady walked towards them, unmindful of the danger that awaited her just a few steps ahead.
The man on the terrace yelled out to the lady but she appeared to be hard of hearing because she didn't seem to hear the warning shouts. Hoping to attract her attention by another means, he reached into his pocket and fished out a ten dollar bill, which he crumpled and threw down. The note fell a few feet in front of the woman, who picked it up, grinned with delight at her good fortune and walked on.
Frantic, the man scooped up a handfull of gravel in his hands and flung it down, hoping that this would grab the woman's attention, but the lady just brushed the tiny little stones off her head, and kept walking.
The woman was almost upon the bandits now. In desperation, the man chucked the only thing he could find—a rather large piece of a brick. His aim was true and the woman staggered with its impact. Clutching at a bleeding scalp, she finally looked up to see her savior, who warned her of the danger ahead.
The rewards don't work with most of us, just as they didn't with Pharaoh. We often need to be hit on the head before we look up and see God. My own life has been an example of this [see Return of the Prodigal]. Though I lived very close to the edge, God kept me safe for the better part of my life, saving me from serious injury—and even death—innumerable times. Then, as I drew increasingly closer to falling over, God began chucking the equivalent of little pebbles as warnings. I began losing clients in my business. I had several minor collisions with the law. I began meeting with assorted accidents. I simply brushed them away just like the lady in the story did. Then God really began socking it to me. I lost my business. I landed in jail for assault. My wife threatened to take the kids and leave me. And then, when it seemed like all I had was gone (or going), I finally looked up and was saved.
Pharaoh unfortunately never looked up. He kept resisting God, despite the several plagues sent his way. And up to the point narrated in our story above, God never forced Pharaoh to resist against his will. Now, however, having demonstrated Pharaoh's own obstinacy and desire to resist, God simply pulled out the stops enabling Pharaoh to be in free fall on his path to destruction. A plague of locusts followed. Then a plague of darkness. And finally the dreadful plague on the firstborn, which finally made Pharaoh throw open the city gates to the Israelites and toss them out.
Would God really let a man plunge to his destruction? Yes, he would. There is confirmation of this in the New Testament, when Paul talks about God giving godless men "over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another"; "over to shameful lusts"; and "over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done." (Romans 1)
God would do this for two reasons, and neither of them has anything to do with God "giving up" on men. One reason is in the hope that the pain and misery that being in sin leads to would eventually make the erring person see the light and bring him to repentance. The other is so that God's own purposes can be fulfilled, as happened in the case of Pharaoh.
May the Spirit be with you.