Hardening, Hardness of Heart
In the Scriptures various aspects of human anatomy are used to define the whole person, but the most frequently used is heart. The heart is the seat of emotion ( Psalm 25:1 ; Prov 14:10 ; Isa 66:14 ; John 14:1 ; Rom 9:2 ), intelligence ( Prov 16:1 ; Luke 9:47 ), morality ( Psalm 58:2 ; Rom 1:24 ), human choice ( Deut 8:2 ; Luke 21:34 ; Acts 11:23 ), and one's religious life ( Deut 6:5 ; Jer 31:33 ; Rom 10:9-10 ; Gal 4:6 ). The heart, in effect, is the whole person in all of his or her distinctive human activity as a thinking, planning, willing, feeling, worshiping, socially interacting being. And, of course, when the person is not living according to God's will, it is the heart that is described as darkened, rebellious, callous, unfeeling, or idolatrous. It is within the heart that God works; hence the human heart may be tender and soft or as hard as stone ( Eze 11:19 ). It is in this context that hardening or hardness of the heart must be understood. The heart represents the total response of a person to life around him or her and to the religious and moral demands of God. Hardness of heart thus describes a negative condition in which the person ignores, spurns, or rejects the gracious offer of God to be a part of his or her life.
Jesus speaks of a general condition of human hardness (sklerokardian [sklhrokardiva]) that God takes into consideration when dealing with us ( Matt 19:7-8 ; Mark 10:4-5 ). The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure ( Jer 17:9 ); it is hard, but not necessarily hardened. Hardening of the heart goes beyond the tragic obtuseness of our inherited condition. So, working upon the fertile ground of our innately hard hearts, sin may harden them further ( Dan 5:20 ; Eph 4:18 ; Heb 3:12 ). People may harden their own hearts, in sinful rebellion, in bitterness over circumstances, or in sheer self-will ( Exod 9:34-35 ; 2 Chron 36:13 ; Zech 7:12 ; Heb 3:15 ). In a few instances, such as Pharaoh and the Egyptians ( Exod 7:3 ; 9:12 ), Sihon, king of Heshbon ( Deut 2:30 ), and the Hivites living in Gibeon ( Jos 11:19-20 ), it is said that God hardened their hearts. There is something of a mystery here, but apparently these people were so irremediable in their rebellion against God that God entered into the hardening process so that he could accomplish his purposes in spite of, and yet in and through, that hardness. It is God's prerogative, as God, to do this ( Rom 9:18-21 ). That they were morally responsible for their condition is a theological given, and we are warned not to harden our hearts as they did, a command that would make no sense if hardening were simply God's act ( 1 Sam 6:6 ).
Israel's hardening as a nation represents a special set of circumstances. In the psalms, the wicked are described as having a calloused heart ( 17:10 ; 73:7 ; 119:70 ). God tells Isaiah that Israel, with its calloused heart, will reject him as God's messenger when he goes to them ( Isa 6:9-10 ). This event was taken as prophetic by Jesus ( Matt 13:14-15 ) and Paul ( Acts 28:25-27 ) as referring to Israel's rejection of Jesus as God's Messiah. For Paul, Israel's hardening paved the way to a ministry to the Gentiles ( Acts 28:28 ) and was not intended by God to be final, but only until the full number of the Gentiles had come in; then all Israel will be saved ( Rom 11:25-27 ).
For the believers of both the Old Testament ( Psalm 95:8 ) and the New Testament ( Hebrews 3:8 Hebrews 3:15 ; 4:7 ) the hardness of Israel's heart served as a warning and a challenge not to react in the same way. Jesus, at one point, alludes to this by rebuking his disciples for the hardness of their hearts ( Mark 8:17-21 ).
Ultimately the hardness of the human heart can only be repaired by the grace of God. It is he who can restore us, by taking away our heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh ( Eze 11:18-21 ).
Walter A. Elwell
See also Heart
Bibliography. B. S. Childs, Exodus, pp. 170-75; L. J. Kuyper, SJT (1974): 459-74; H. Rä sä en, The Idea of Divorce Hardening; K. L. Schmidt, TDNT 5:1028-31.
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