“Harden their hearts so they don’t repent”

I have to admit I’m more than a little befuddled by the way Isaiah 6 is handled in general.

In poking around the web and in my commentaries on this passage, I see several disturbing consistencies:

  • People keep avoiding the main issue
  • They reinterpret Isaiah’s commission to say things it doesn’t say
  • They conclude things that contradict what Jesus said and did

I don’t get this. I wouldn’t make so much hay out of it, except for the fact that in the NT, this is the 3rd most frequently quoted OT passage. If the NT authors think it’s pretty doggone important, it’s probably appropriate that I think it’s important too. And if it’s possible for believers to be blinded like Isaiah’s audience was, then….. yikes!

The Passage

Let’s start with the passage. After a dramatic introduction to Isaiah’s vision (Isa 6:1-8), he’s given a two-fold commission:

  1. (Isa 6:9) Go and tell the people “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”
  2. (Isa 6:10) Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

My thoughts try to go in several different directions simultaneously:

A. Doing Part 1 should be simple – just go and tell them. But I don’t quite know how he’s supposed to do part 2. How exactly is Isaiah supposed to go and make people’s hearts hard, ears dull and eyes closed?

B. Why does God want to prevent their seeing, hearing, understanding, turning and be healing?

A couple of my commentaries come right out and say “God would never deliberately prevent their salvation – that’s heretical! So He’s allowing it, not appointing it”. Ummmmm, ok. I re-read the verses 30 times, in multiple translations, and they still say “Go and make them hard/dull/blind lest they repent”. That’s not “allowing”, that’s “making”. And not only is it ‘making’, but it’s making with a purpose: so they don’t repent. (Ok, in all fairness, unlike the ASV, BBE, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, WEB, etc, the Septuagint doesn’t say “Make…” it says “They have become..” But the Septuagint’s corrupt, right?)

New Testament Usage

It doesn’t stop there. When we flip to the NT, this passage is quoted (in part or in whole) in Mt 13:14-15, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, John 12:40, Acts 28:26-27 and Rom 11:8 (and more, if you include allusions as opposed to direct quotes). These passages don’t focus on v1-8 like many of our songs, sermons, commentaries and books do – they focus on Isaiah’s commission (which the vast majority of those songs, sermons and books do not).

In the synoptic gospels, these verses are used by Jesus to answer the question of why He’s speaking in parables. The disciples pull Jesus aside privately and ask Him why He’s always speaking in parables and He answers them like this: “The secrets of the kingdom have not been given to those guys over there (the multitude) who are outside the kingdom. All they get is parables so that – like Isaiah said – they can hear, but never understand, see, but never perceive – lest they turn back and be forgiven. But to you guys, the secrets have been given. Now here’s the meaning of the parables…” (the actual language varies in the synoptics, but it basically follows that outline. In Mark, you see the stark contrast between what Jesus tells the multitude (always speaking in parables, never speaking publicly w/o parables) and what Jesus tells His disciples (He waits till they’re alone privately, and then explains the parables). Matthew mentions their hard hearts (not specifying whether they hardened their hearts or whether God hardened their hearts), but in Mark and Luke, there is no mention of hard hearts one way or the other – just that Jesus was deliberately not telling the multitudes about the kingdom of heaven, and deliberately explaining the details to His disciples.

The gospel of John takes a different tack and goes one step further. Isaiah’s commission is referenced, but not with regards to the parables. John uses the passage to explain why the people didn’t believe. He says although they saw all the signs and wonders, they “could not believe” because He (God/Jesus) had hardened their hearts/eyes/ears lest they should turn and be healed. (I don’t like it, but that’s what it says.)

What’s Going On?

A number of websites say that the reason why Jesus withheld clarity was an act of mercy so that they would avoid further condemnation: “to whom much is given, much is required. If you know they’re not going to believe, then don’t give them much info and, voila, they don’t get much condemnation”. (One website said that John McArthur holds that view.) But as I think about what’s going on, I don’t buy that. At all.

In Matt 11, Jesus rebukes and condemns Bethsaida, Chorzain and Capernaum in the harshest of terms. He tells them that

  • They had been lifted up to heaven (seen Him and all His works) and
  • They refused to repent – now they’re going to be thrown down to hell.
  • Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented and still be standing if they’d seen what Bethsaida, Chorzain and Capernaum had seen. (After condemning them to hell, He then turns and thanks the Father for hiding these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes because it is God’s gracious will – Mt 11:20-26)

Let’s stop for a sec: if we recall that Jesus Himself was the One that destroyed S&G (Gen 19:24), then we have to rule out “John McArthur’s” line of reasoning because Jesus knows all things and would have known that these cities would not have accepted Him. Therefore, if hiding the truth is an act of mercy then a) why on earth did Jesus give them so much truth that they get a worse hell than S&G; and b) why on earth did Jesus not go into S&G 2,000 yrs earlier and just perform miracles, preach sermons and, cha-ching, see S&G repent so they’d still be standing today? Whatever the answer is, ‘mercy’ cannot be the driving reason for the way He handled Bethsaida, Chorzain and Capernaum …unless we think “worse than S&G” is somehow mercy. I certainly don’t!


The only conclusion I can come to is that Jesus deliberately destroyed S&G and deliberately hid information about the kingdom from the multitudes, and deliberately hardened/deafened/blinded the people (as John puts it) for the specific purpose that “lest they turn and be forgiven” (as Mark phrases it). I don’t like it – but that’s the only conclusion I see that actually fits the verses, the history and the logic. All other explanations I’ve seen fall short on the verses, history or logic. (Don’t look now, but 2 Peter 2:6-9 says that God destroyed S&G as an example to those who live ungodly lives.)

This seems painfully obvious to me, yet people who share this opinion are hard to come by. Am I blind/deaf/hardened? What am I missing? Am I reading all the wrong books? Is this really the correct conclusion?

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

9 comments to “Harden their hearts so they don’t repent”

  • Rafael

    The only conclusion I can come to is that God has wishes but he also creates compelling necessities for himself where His will and decrees need to run contrary to His wishes, and that is, so the drama of existence can unravel, it all comes from Him as an absolute including the tensions that exist, otherwise it becomes a movie without a plot that can never be made.

  • Alen

    I am content to not understand all things. Some things that are GOD’s will must be guided and governed by FAITH. Without faith it is IMPOSSIBLE to please GOD.
    The issue I see here is that some chose not to put their FAITH in God, but in other things.

    That is to say, simply because I understand something as far as the understanding of men goes, doesn’t mean I have the faith to believe that GOD even exists. Therefore, why would I choose to live for Him instead of myself? GOD KNOWS the hearts and minds of all men, therefore He knew the rich man or any others could be taken up to heaven and see for themselves all His Word is true, and then still not be able to live by faith. “Even if one was sent from the dead the would not believe”. The JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH, not everyone will choose to live justly. Not everyone will live by FAITH.

    I respectfully disagree with your conclusion because I humbly submit that GOD has the last and final word on all matters.

    • admin

      Hi Alen. Thanks for your thoughts.

      I appreciate that you want to submit that God has the last and final word on all matters. However, your disagreement with my conclusion seems like an explicit denial of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 11:20ff. My conclusion is essentially a retelling of what happens in that passage, so I have to confess I’m not following you.

      Here’s the passage in particular:
      Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

      At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt 11:20-27)

      It seems to me that Jesus is saying quite explicitly that
      a) He does not reveal Himself to everyone, but rather, only to those whom He chooses
      b) The Father willfully hides truth from the “wise and understanding”, but reveals to little children. He sees this as good, and He is, in fact, having the last and final word on the subject.
      c) This hiding of truth results in condemnation and judgment on certain people

      If you can see a better way to understand this, I welcome your input. (If you could provide verses, that’d be helpful).


  • fantastic points altogether, you just won a new reader.
    What would you suggest about your post that you just made some days ago?
    Any certain?

  • Asking questions like this finally broke my conditioning and I went apostate. Now I’m free! I’m actually putting together a playbook to deprogram the brainwashed.

    • admin

      If I may.. what you broke was the collection of simple and shallow “answers” that many people try to superimpose on the Bible. It’s unfortunate that so many people push these “answers”, even from the pulpit. The Bible has a consistent way of handling all these issues, but if we don’t address these things on the Bible’s terms, eventually it all falls apart.

      Do understand that the theological questions presented throughout this site are not intended to question the authority and accuracy of the Bible, but rather, to ask why we humans are so content to believe something other than what the Bible says.

      I would encourage you to keep an eye on what the Bible actually says, and accept the Bible’s answers for these things. You’ll go much farther. Also, bear in mind that the Covenants of God always come with both a blessing and a curse: blessings on those who adhere to them; a curse on those who break them. I was reminded of that again in my study of Jeremiah 11 this morning, and felt it only fair that I pass it along.


  • BmB

    In my experience these types of conundrums usually arise from poor translation or errors in the copy. The best way is to go back to the hebrew original (even the new testament was written in hebrew, but only copies of the originals of matthew exist) and start over with a clean slate. Since I don’t have such originals on hand, and can’t read hebrew I can’t say what that would be in this case. But it’s something for your consideration.

  • Brandon

    To be honest, it’s not the fact that they’re hardened and blinded that is troublesome to me (after all, look at how God was glorified through the Exodus–a direct consequence of His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), but rather the seeming implication that those in question would believe and turn and be saved if left to their own devices. This seems to stand in stark contradiction to the rest of the counsel of Scripture concerning the sin nature and natural inclination of creatures in open rebellion to their Creator.

  • Jewish rabbi’s are consistent in their interpretation of this passage (I.e. God hardening with a purpose), The same as the author of this blog concluded. And as Brandon mentions above, Exodus provides another clear example of God deliberately hardening to achieve His purpose.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




Let\'s see if you\'re really a human: *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.