“has mercy on whom he wants, and he hardens whom he wants.” This phrase has been very misunderstood by many Christians. In order to properly interpret the verse, there are a couple of things we must understand. We must understand the context, particularly Rom. 9:17, and we must understand the Semitic “idiom of permission.”
An idiom is “a phrase or expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the ordinary meanings of the words in it.” (The World Book Dictionary, “idiom”). Idioms often do not make sense when translated literally into other languages or heard by people who have not been taught what they mean. For example, the American English idiom, “stop on a dime” has nothing to do with a dime, it means “stop quickly.”
It is vital that we understand biblical idioms if we are going to understand the Bible. What many scholars refer to as “the idiom of permission” is an idiom that occurs in the Hebrew language (in fact, in Semitic languages and occasionally in other languages as well). The “idiom of permission” generally occurs when someone is said to do something or make something happen that they contributed to happening in some way, but did not actually do.
For example, in Exodus 4:21, God says He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. In actuality, Pharaoh hardened his own heart; God did not take away Pharaoh’s free will and harden his heart (evidence of that is given below). But if God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart, why does the Bible say that He did? That is where the Semitic idiom of permission comes in. Pharaoh controlled the Hebrews as his slaves and did what he wanted with them. Then God showed up and demanded that Pharaoh release the slaves. As soon as God made that demand, Pharaoh had a choice to make. He could either obey and let the Israelites go, or he could harden his heart against God and refuse to let Israel go. Pharaoh chose to harden his heart. Although Pharaoh hardened his own heart, the Bible uses the idiom and says “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” because God was the one who made the demand to release the Hebrew slaves, which led to Pharaoh hardening his heart.
There is a similar type idiom in English. Let’s say you go to a movie with a friend but then a person with a huge hat sits right in front of you. You politely say, “Excuse me, I can’t see the movie, could you remove your hat please.” But hearing that, the person flies into a rage and starts yelling about being mistreated, hardens their heart, and refuses to remove the hat. Your friend says to you, “Wow. You really made that person mad.” But you did not harden the person’s heart or make them mad, all you did was politely ask to be able to see the movie. The person hardened their own heart and got mad because of what was inside them. Your polite request only brought out what was already inside the person. Your friend saying “You made them mad” is like the Bible saying “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” You did not “make anyone mad,” all you did was make a request that the person remove their hat, and all God did was make a request that Pharaoh let Israel go.
It is widely recognized by scholars that in Semitic languages the active verb can be used in a permissive sense. E. W. Bullinger wrote in his book, Figures Of Speech Used In The Bible, “idioma,” number 4: “active verbs were used...to express not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do.” In the Emphasized Bible by Joseph B. Rotherham, the phrase in Exodus 4:21 that is often translated as, “I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart” is translated as “I will let his heart wax bold.” In defense of his translation, he offers the following in a footnote: “...the translation in the text above would seem fairer to the average Occidental [Western] mind, and is thoroughly justifiable on two grounds: (1) of the known character of God, and (2) the well-attested latitude of the Semitic tongues, which are accustomed to speak of occasion as cause” (p. 87). Rotherham goes on in an appendix to say “...even positive commands are occasionally to be accepted as meaning no more than permission” and he cites Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar as more support for his translation.
Marcus Kalisch (May 16, 1828 - August 25, 1885) was a Jewish scholar who was educated at Berlin University where he studied classics, philology, and the Semitic languages, and he also studied at the Rabbinical College of Berlin. He was one of the pioneers of the critical study of the Old Testament in England. At one time he was secretary to the Chief Rabbi. In his commentary on Exodus he says:
“...the phrase ‘I will harden the heart of Pharaoh’ means ‘I know that I shall be the cause of Pharaoh’s obstinacy; my commands and wonders will be an occasion, an inducement to an increasing obduration of his heart.’ And the compassionate leniency of God, who instead of crushing the haughtiness of the refractory king with one powerful blow, first tried to reform him by various less awful punishments, and who generally announced the time of the occurrence of the plagues by the words, ‘Behold, I shall afflict tomorrow,’ in order to grant him time for reflection and repentance; this clemency on the part of God increased Pharaoh’s refractoriness; it was to him a cause of prolonged and renewed resistance.” (quoted in the Appendix of Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible).
To put Kalisch’s explanation into more modern English, we can see why the Hebrew text says “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and uses the idiom when God did not in fact harden Pharaoh’s heart. God asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, and God’s demand forced Pharaoh to make a choice: He could either let God’s people go, or harden his heart and say, “No,” which we know is what Pharaoh did. As God continued to demand that Pharaoh let the people go, and Pharaoh continued to say “No,” Pharaoh’s heart had to become harder and harder. We know that because the plagues were hurting his kingdom and his people, so he had to become more and more obstinate to not give in to them. Thus, the idiom, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” is a Semitic way of saying that God acted in such a way that Pharaoh had to harden his heart to resist it. God didn’t “harden” Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardened his own heart because he did not want to obey God’s request.
We see the idiom of permission in Isaiah 6:10-11, when God tells Isaiah to “Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy and shut their eyes….” Isaiah did not have the power to make people’s hearts “fat” (dull, unresponsive) and close their ears and eyes. Isaiah could not literally make people’s hearts fat, but what he could do was speak the Word of God to them, and at that point the people would have to refuse to believe it and close their eyes and ears to the truth of what Isaiah was saying. Thus, what Isaiah did by speaking the Word to the people was openly reveal that their hearts were fat and their eyes closed to truth, and perhaps even to make the people even more hard-hearted against God.
There are dozens of examples of the idiom of permission in the Old Testament. That is not unusual since the Old Testament is large and the idiom of permission was a standard Semitic way of speaking.
To be clear then, we see that the Semitic idiom of permission is when a person reacts to something God has said or done (such as Pharaoh hardening his heart in reaction to God asking him to let Israel go), but the idiomatic way of expressing that reaction is to say that God caused the hardening. Similarly, people do evil as their freewill choice, but because God gave them free will and also made the distinction between good and evil, God is said to create evil. Although God is said to cause the thought or action, in actual fact God does not override the free will of man, and He neither causes people to sin, nor gives His permission for them to do so.
When the idiom of permission is used, we readers must search for the connection between God and the action or reaction (often a sin someone is committing), and sometimes that connection is very subtle. It has been said that people cannot “break” God’s laws, but can only break themselves against them because they are “immovable objects.” God has set up the universe to function according to many laws and principles, which He said were “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God’s laws cannot be broken, and that is true in both the physical and spiritual world. A farmer who disregards God’s principles of sowing and reaping will not prosper, and via the biblical idiom of permission we might read that “God ruined him.” Similarly, a rock climber who disregards the worn-out state of his safety rope may, if his rope breaks, fall to his death because of God’s law of gravity, and in the Semitic idiom it might be said that, “God killed that careless person.” Is God to blame because He set laws in place? Of course not. Did God really kill the careless rock climber? No. But in the Semitic idiom, it might be expressed that way.
[For more on the idiom of permission, see commentary on Exod. 4:21; also see Graeser, Lynn, Schoenheit, Don’t Blame God, Chapter 5, “God Is Good (with Figures).” For more on why Christ taught in parables, see commentary on Matt. 13:13].