And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.--Exodus ix. 17.
What lesson, now, can we draw from this story? One, at least, and a very important one. What effect did all these signs and wonders of God's sending, have upon Pharaoh and his servants? Did they make them better men or worse men? We read that they made them worse men; that they helped to harden their hearts. We read that the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go. Now, how did the Lord do that? He did not wish and mean to make Pharaoh more hard-hearted, more wicked. That is impossible. God, who is all goodness and love, never can wish to make any human being one atom worse than he is. He who so loved the world that He came down on earth to die for sinners, and take away the sins of the world, would never make any human being a greater sinner than he was before. That is impossible, and horrible to think of. Therefore, when we read that the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, we must be certain that that was Pharaoh's own fault; and so, we read, it was Pharaoh's own fault. The Lord did not bring all these plagues on Egypt without giving Pharaoh fair warning. Before each plague, He sent Moses to tell Pharaoh that the plague was coming. The Lord told Pharaoh that He was his Master, and the Master and Lord of the whole earth; that the children of Israel belonged to Him, and the Egyptians too; that the river, light and darkness, the weather, the crops, and the insects, and the locusts belonged to Him; that all diseases which afflict man and beast were in His power. And the Lord proved that His words were true, in a way Pharaoh could not mistake, by changing the river into blood, and sending darkness, and hailstones, and plagues of lice and flies, and at last by killing the firstborn of all the Egyptians. The Lord gave Pharaoh every chance; He condescended to argue with him as one man would with another, and proved His word to be true, and proved that He had a right to command Pharaoh. And therefore, I say, if Pharaoh's heart was hardened, it was his own fault, for the Lord was plainly trying to soften it, and to bring him to reason. And the Bible says distinctly that it was Pharaoh's own fault. For it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, he and his servants, and therefore they would not let the children of Israel go. Now how could Pharaoh harden his own heart, and yet the Lord harden it at the same time?
Just in the same way, my friends, as too many of us are apt to make the Lord harden our hearts by hardening them ourselves, and to make, as Pharaoh did, the very things which the Lord sends to soften us, the causes of our becoming more stubborn; the very things which the Lord sends to bring us to reason, the means of our becoming more mad and foolish. Believe me, my friends, this is no old story with which we have nothing to do. What happened to Pharaoh's heart may happen to yours, or mine, or any man's. Alas! alas! it does happen to many a man's and woman's heart every day--and may the Lord have mercy on them before it be too late,--and yet how can the Lord have mercy on those who will not let Him have mercy on them?
What do I mean? This is what I mean, my friends; Oh, listen to it, and take it solemnly to heart, you who are living still in sin; take it to heart, lest you, like Pharaoh, die in your sins, and your latter end will be worse than your beginning.
Suppose a man to be going on in some sinful habit; cheating his neighbours, grinding his labourers, or getting tipsy, or living with a woman without being married to her. He comes to church, and there he hears the word of the Lord, by the Bible, or in sermons, telling him that God commands him to give up his sin, that God will certainly punish him if he does not repent and amend. God sends that message to him in love and mercy, to soften his heart by the terrors of the law, and turn him from his sin. But what does the man feel? He feels angry and provoked; angry with the preacher; ay, angry with the Bible itself, with God's words. For he hates to hear the words which tell him of his sin; he wishes they were not in the Bible; he longs to stop the preacher's mouth; and, as he cannot do that, he dislikes going to church. He says: "I cannot, and what is more, I will not, give up my sinful ways, and therefore I shall not go to church to be told of them." So he stops away from church, and goes on in his sins. So that man's heart is hardened, just as Pharaoh's was. Yet the Lord has come and spoken to that sinful man in loving warnings: though all the effect it has had is that the Lord's message has made him worse than he was before, more stubborn, more godless, more unwilling to hear what is good. But men may fall into a still worse state of mind. They may determine to set the Lord at naught; to hear Him speaking to their conscience, and know that He is right and they wrong, and yet quietly put the good thoughts and feelings out of their way, and go in the course which they know to be the worst. How many a man in business or the world says to himself, ay, and in his better moments will say to his friend: "Ah, yes, if one could but be what one would wish to be. . . . What one's mother used to say one might be. . . . But for such a world as this, the gospel ideal is somewhat too fine and unpractical. One has one's business to carry on, or one's family to provide for, or one's party in politics to serve; one must obey the laws of trade, the usages of society, the interests of one's class;" and so forth. And so an excuse is found for every sin, by those who know in their hearts that they are sinning; for every sin; and among others, too often, for that sin of Pharaoh's, of "NOT LETTING THE PEOPLE GO."
And how many, my friends, when they come to church, harden their hearts in the same quiet, almost good-humoured way, not caring enough for God's message to be even angry with it, and take the preacher's warnings as they would a shower of rain, as something unpleasant which cannot be helped; and which, therefore, they must sit out patiently, and think about it as little as possible? And when the sermon is over, they take their hats and go out into the churchyard, and begin talking about something else as quickly as possible, to drive the unpleasant thoughts, if there are a few left, out of their heads. And thus they let the Lord's message to them harden their hearts. For it does harden them, my friends, if it be taken in this temper. Every time anyone sits through the service or the sermon in this stupid and careless mood, he dulls and deadens his soul, till at last he is able coolly to sit through the most awful warnings of God's judgment, the most tender entreaties of God's love, as if he were a brute animal without understanding. Ay, he is able to make the responses to the commandments, and join in the psalms, and so with his own mouth, before the whole congregation, confess that God's curse is on his doings, with no more sense or care of what the words mean, and of what a sentence he is pronouncing against himself, than if he were a parrot taught to speak by rote words which he does not understand. And so that man, by hardening his own heart, makes the Lord harden it for him.
But there is a third way, and a worse way still, in which people's hearts are hardened by the Lord's speaking to them. A man is warned of his sins by the preacher; and he says to himself: "If the minister thinks that he is going to frighten me away from church, he is very much mistaken. He may go his way, and I shall go mine. Let him preach at me as much as he will; I shall go to church all the more for that, to show him that I am not afraid." And so the Lord's warnings harden his heart, and provoke him to set his face like a flint, and become all the more proud and stubborn.
Now, young people, I speak openly to you as man to man. Will you tell me that this was not the very way in which some of you took my sermon last Sunday afternoon, in which I warned you of the misery which your sinful lives would bring upon you? Was there not more than one of you, who, as soon as he got outside the church, began laughing and swaggering, and said to the lad next him: "Well, he gave it us well in his sermon this afternoon, did he not? But I don't care; do you?"
To which the other foolish fellow answered: "Not I. It is his business to talk like that; he is paid for it, and I suppose he likes it. So if he does what he likes, we shall do what we like. Come along." And at that all the other foolish fellows round burst out laughing, as if the poor lad had said a very clever thing; and they all went off together, having their hearts hardened by the Lord's warning to them, as Pharaoh's was.
And they showed, I am afraid, that very evening that their hearts were hardened. For out of a sort of spite and stubbornness they took a delight in doing what was wrong, just because they had been told that it was wrong, and because they were determined to show that they would not be frightened or turned from what they chose.
And all the while they knew that it was wrong, did those poor foolish lads. If you had asked one of them openly, "Do you not know that God has forbidden you to do this?" they would have either been forced to say, "Yes," or else they would have tried to laugh the matter off, or perhaps held their tongues and looked silly, or perhaps again answered insolently; showing by each and all of these ways of taking it, that the Lord's message had come home to their consciences, and convinced them of their sin, though they were determined not to own it or obey it. And the way they would have put the matter by and excused themselves to themselves would have been just the way in which Pharaoh did it. They would have tried to forget that the Lord had warned them, and tried to make out to themselves that it was all the preacher's doing, and to make it a personal quarrel between him and them. Just so Pharaoh did when he hardened his heart. He made the Lord's message a ground for hating and threatening Moses and Aaron, as if it was any fault of theirs. He knew in his heart that the Lord had sent them; but he tried to forget that, and drove them out from his presence, and told them that if they dared to appear before him again they should surely die. And just so, my friends, people will be angry with the preacher for telling them unpleasant truths, as if it was any more pleasure to him to speak than for them to hear. Oh, why will you forget that the words which I speak from this pulpit are not my words, but God's? It is not I who warn you of what you are bringing on yourselves by your sins, it is God Himself. There it is written in His Bible--judge for yourselves. Read your Bibles for yourselves, and you will see that I am not speaking my own thoughts and words. And as for being angry with me for telling you truth, read the ordination service which is read whenever a clergyman is ordained, and judge for yourselves. What is a clergyman sent into the world for at all, but to say to you what I am saying now? What should I be but a hypocrite and a traitor to the blessed Lord who died for me, and saved me from my sins, and ordained me to preach to sinners, that they too may be saved from their sins,--what should I be but a traitor to Him, if I did not say to you, whenever I see you going wrong:
"O come, let us worship, and fall down and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
"For He is the Lord our God; and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.
"To-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts,
"Lest He sware in His wrath that you shall not enter into His rest!"
And now, my friends, I will tell you what will happen to you. You see that I know something, without having been told of what has been going on in your hearts. I beseech you, believe me when I tell you what will go on in them. God will chastise you for your sins. He will; just because He loves you, and does not hate you; just because you are His children, and not dumb animals born to perish. Troubles will come upon you as you grow older. Of what sort they will be I cannot tell; but that they will come, I can tell full well. And when the Lord sends trouble to you, shall it harden your hearts or soften them? It depends on you, altogether on you, whether the Lord hardens your hearts by sending those sorrows, or whether He softens and turns them and brings them back to the only right place for them--home to Him. But your trouble may only harden your heart all the more. The sorrows and sore judgments which the Lord sent Pharaoh only hardened his heart. It all depends upon the way in which you take these troubles, my friends. And that not so much when they come as after they come. Almost all, let their hearts be right with God or not, seem to take sorrow as they ought, while the sorrow is on them. Pharaoh did so too. He said to Moses and Aaron: "I have sinned this time. The Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord that there be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go." What could be more right or better spoken? Was not Pharaoh in a proper state of mind then? Was not his heart humbled, and his will resigned to God? Moses thought not. For while he promised Pharaoh to pray that the storm might pass over, yet he warned him: "But as for thee and thy servants, I know that ye will not yet fear the Lord your God." And so it happened; for, "when Pharaoh saw that the rain, and hail, and thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants. Neither would he let the children of Israel go." . . . And so, alas! it happens to many a man and woman nowadays. They find themselves on a sick-bed. They are in fear of death, in fear of poverty, in fear of shame and punishment for their misdeeds. And then they say: "It is God's judgment. I have been very wicked. I know God is punishing me. Oh, if God will but raise me up off this sick-bed; if He will but help me out of this trouble, I will give up all my wicked ways. I will repent and amend." So said Pharaoh; and yet, as soon as he was safe out of his distress, he hardened his heart. And so does many a man and woman, who, when they get safe through their troubles, never give up one of their sins, any more than Pharaoh did. They really believe that God has punished them. They really intend to amend, while they are in the trouble: but as soon as they are out of it, they try to persuade themselves that it was not God who sent the sorrow, that it came "by accident," or that "people must have trouble in this life," or that "if they had taken better care, they might have prevented it."--All of them excuses to themselves for forgetting God in the matter, and, therefore, for forgetting what they promised to God in trouble; and so, after all, they go on just as they went on before. And yet not as they went on before. For every such sin hardens their hearts; every such sin makes them less able to see God's hand in what happens to them; every such sin makes them more bold and confident in disobeying God, and saying to themselves: "After all, why should I be so frightened when I am in trouble, and make such promises to amend my life? For the trouble goes away, whether I mend my life or not; and nothing happens to me; God does not punish me for not keeping my promises to Him. I may as well go on in my own way, for I seem not the worse off in body or in purse for so doing." Thus do people harden their hearts after each trouble, as Pharaoh did; so that you will see people, by one affliction after another, one loss after another, all their lives through, warned by God that sin will not prosper them; and confessing that their sins have brought God's punishment on them: and yet going on steadily in the very sins which have brought on their troubles, and gaining besides, as time runs on, a heart more and more hardened. And why?
Because they, like Pharaoh, love to have their own way. They will not submit to God, and do what He bids them, and believe that what He bids them must be right--good for them, and for all around them.
They promised to mend. But they promised as Pharaoh did. "If God will take away this trouble, then I will mend"--meaning, though they do not dare to say it: "And if God will not take away this trouble, of course He cannot expect me to mend." In plain English--If God will not act toward them as they like, then they will not act toward Him as He likes. My friends, God does not need us to bargain with Him. We must obey Him whether we like it or not; whether it seems to pay us or not; whether He takes our trouble off us or not; we must obey, for He is the Lord; and if we will not obey, He will prove His power on us, as He did on Pharaoh, by showing plainly what is the end of those who resist His will.
What, then, are we to do when our sins bring us, as they certainly will some day bring us, into trouble?
What we ought to have done at first, my friends. What we ought to have done in the wild days of youth, and so have saved ourselves many a dark day, many a sleepless night, many a bitter shame and heartache. To open our eyes, and see that the only thing for men and women, whom God has made, is to obey the God who has made them. He is the Lord. He has made us. He will have us do one thing. How can we hope to prosper by doing anything else? It is ill fighting against God. Which is the stronger, my friends, you or God? Make up your minds on that. It surely will not take you long.
But someone may say: "I do wish and long to obey God; but I am so weak, and my sins have so entangled me with bad company, or debts, or--, or--." We all know, alas! into what a net everyone who gives way to sin gets his feet: "And therefore I cannot obey God. I long to do so. I feel, I know, when I look back, that all my sin, and shame, and unhappiness, come from being proud and self-willed, and determined to have my own way, and do what I choose. But I cannot mend." Do not despair, poor soul! I had a thousand times sooner hear you say you cannot mend, than that you can. For those who say they can mend, are apt to say: "I can mend; and therefore I shall mend when I choose, and no sooner." But those who really feel they cannot mend--those who are really weary and worn out with the burden of their sins--those who are really tired out with their own wilfulness, and feel ready to lie down and die, like a spent horse, and say: "God, take me away, no matter to what place; I am not fit to live here on earth, a shame and a torment to myself day and night"--those who are in that state of mind, are very near--very near finding out glorious news.
Those who cannot mend themselves and know it, God will mend. God will mend your lives for you. He knows as well as you what you have to struggle against; ay, a thousand times better. He knows--what does He not know? Pray to Him, and try what He does not know. Cry to Him to rid you of your bad companions; He will find a way of doing it. Cry to Him to bring you out of the temptations you feel too strong for you; He will find a way for doing it. Cry to Him to teach you what you ought to do, and He will send someone, and that the right person, doubt it not, to teach you in His own good time. Above all, cry and pray to Him to conquer the pride, and self-conceit, and wilfulness in your heart; to take the hard proud heart of stone out of you, and give you instead a heart of flesh, loving, and tender, and kindly to every human creature; and He will do it. Cry to Him to make your will like His own will, that you may love what He loves, and hate what He hates, and do what He wishes you to do. And then you will surely find my words come true: "Those who long to mend, and yet know that they cannot mend themselves, let them but pray, and God will mend them."