If you are going through your Bible in one year, it will not be long till you arrive at Exodus. (I hope you saw the play on words there!) As you study Exodus, you will be reminded of the heart’s alarming (and foolish) ability to resist God at the slightest obstacle or difficulty.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?
As emperor of Egypt at the time, Pharaoh provided us with an excellent example of what should be a ‘perfect-storm’ warning for us all.
Reading the opening narrative as Moses encounters Pharoah you will stumble across a number of occasions that draw your attention to the ‘hardening of the heart.’ As a result of Pharaoh’s long-lasting defiance and constant encounters with God, his heart becomes hardened and God later responds by hardening Pharaoh’s heart himself.
More about this shortly.
It’s easy to think that this passage doesn’t apply to us as Christians, believers, followers of the Way, disciples or whatever we call ourselves. However radical we perceive our walk of obedience to be, there is still time and opportunity for a snare to snap, grab and bewitch us.
Jeremiah, the prophet, awakens an anxious warning when he throws out the curve-ball challenge, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” He wants us to be aware of how fickle and deceptive the human heart can be. We see it expressed in the garden of Eden where the challenge is not to have God at the centre of everything by simple obedience, but to experience a wrongful autonomy – being able to choose and do things our way. Pluck the fruit from the forbidden tree; eat, see and know. As the day ended in the glorious Garden of Eden, God came down to visit his image-bearers, and it did not end well.
It is as if the human heart, when left to its own devices, is profoundly open to being gullible, deceitful, full of malignant intent and agenda. Sin’s deception can drive the unwary heart into acts of extraordinary wickedness. Addressing this is the work of the Spirit, leading us from dead works to a life of faith, purity and obedience.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? It is a very good question that demands an answer.
Thankfully, God steps into the believers’ life and replaces the heart of stone with a heart of flesh; that is, He replaces it with something that is tender, sensitive and responsive to his leading. Nevertheless, the background music is the warning of scripture coming again and again; don’t let your heart become hardened by sin’s deception.
The very nature of deception is that very act; it is deceptive in its deception. That is why we need discernment that leads to a way of life that embraces not only knowing the truth, but practising it no matter what the cost.
If there is anything, miracles do not guarantee, it is obedient faith.
Although we may nod in agreement, the hardening of the arteries in the heart occurs slowly and without our knowledge when we are not proactive in our walk with God, careful in following Him, tentative in our obedience, and purposefully seeking Him to avoid quenching or grieving the Spirit.
We need to feel the sheer weight of this verse.
Despite Jeremiah’s wise words, we often forget them a minute after reading them instead of giving them enough time to sink in and make our hearts race a little bit: “The heart is devious above all things; who can make sense of it?”
Back to Moses – When Moses first demands Israel’s release in the name of the Lord, Pharaoh’s “Who is the Lord?” (Exodus 5:2) is a flippant response. He says in essence, “There’s nothing about that God that I don’t know or can’t beat.” In the pantheon of gods that Egypt worshipped, what was one more?
Familiarity can breed contempt, and my spirit may not be the same as Pharaoh’s, but I need to guard against the presumption that because I know the Lord, I know all about Him that I need to know. Heart-hardness is the price of presumed knowledge. A humble heart is characterized by confessed ignorance and teachability.
Day after day Pharoah saw YHWH at work;He was unaffected though surrounded by the miraculous. If there is anything, miracles do not guarantee, it is obedient faith. The alarming capacity of the human heart to encounter the power of God and still remain unchanged is terrifying.
Pharaoh watched Moses’ rod became a serpent, consume the magicians’ rods and then become a rod again in Moses’ hand. He saw the Nile turned to blood. He saw plagues devastate his nation while Israel was protected through divine intervention, and still “he hardened his heart” (8:15, 32).
What evidence of God’s power do you see as you look around you? You and I are surrounded by phenomenal displays of God’s power, grace, and miraculous operations. Yet unbelief and thanklessness survive too easily.
Pharoah was finally given over to his own devices, “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (9:12) Exodus 9:16 makes it clear that God provided Pharaoh with the opportunity to become one of the greatest rulers of history, even to this day, if he had honored God with his time of opportunity responsibly and obediently. But… the sad fact of history is that Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his heart until God finally said, “Then have it your way!”
What is interesting here is the Egyptians believed that when you died, as you went through to the next life you faced a challenge. There was a weighing scale, and on one scale was a feather and on the other was placed your heart. If your heart was lighter than the feather, you would be able to pass through. Intriguing? Well, when the Egyptian died, they would be embalmed and all internal organs would be removed; except the heart. This was needed for the judgment that lay ahead.
Where are we going with this? When God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the word used is the word we use for glory, “Chabod” which also means weight or heaviness. The hard heart of Pharaoh given by God was a judgment. The heavy heart of Pharaoh meant Egypt would know that the God of Israel had pronounced a judgment that Pharoah could never pass. He was in the balance and found wanting.
Looking at Jeremiah’s warning and the narrative of encounters in Egypt we can encourage ourselves with sober mindedness.
God has truly blessed us. The Work of the Cross is so profound and deep in the heart of the believer, but we must guard our heart. We are vulnerable, but in good hands. The Holy Spirit has a gentle yet pointed way of dealing with each of us. Lessons like this, from the eternal Word of God, serve as a strong warning as well as a comforting assurance.
If we keep our hearts humble, soft and open before God, we can be certain of His highest purposes being realized in our lives.