I. The Warning Against Hardened Hearts (verses 7-8a)
This passage is an extended warning. The words quoted in these verses come directly from Psalm 95. In that Psalm, David calls their attention to the greatness of God their Shepherd, and then he warns them not to harden their hearts to that great God. The same thing is happening here in the book of Hebrews. The writer has just spoken of the greatness of Christ Jesus as superior to Moses in verses 1-6. Though the writer of Hebrews knows David to be the author, he attributes these words to the Holy Spirit, which is a clear assertion that the words of the Bible are not merely the words of men, but the words the Spirit Himself has breathed out and inspired. Not only are they words that the Holy Spirit “said” in the past, but they are words that the Holy Spirit continues to “say” today. The warning not to harden our hearts must be read in the full weight of authority intended: God Himself is speaking today and is telling us not to harden our hearts to what He has spoken in His Son.
II. The Example of Hardened Hearts (verses 8b-11, 16-19)
After stating the warning, the Holy Spirit goes on to give an example of the consequences of a hardened heart in Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites provoked God to anger by trying Him and testing Him. To test Him means they attempted to set themselves up as judges over God as they tried to determine for themselves whether or not He was really worthy of their trust and obedience. Of course, God very mercifully and graciously did prove Himself worthy of the Israelites trust, and yet they refused to trust Him still. Instead, they walked in stubborn disobedience for 40 years, and “always [went] astray int their heart.” The idea is not at all that they were genuine believers who simply struggled to trust God on a couple of occasions. The idea is that their entire lives were marked by this failure to hear God’s voice and by a failure to obey Him and by a failure to trust Him. What makes this even more terrible is that they did this despite seeing His powerful “works for forty years.” No matter how many times they saw the powerful works of God, they refused to turn to Him with the hearts and to trust Him. Instead, they hardened their hearts in unbelief.
They tried the Lord again and again, provoking Him to anger until finally, the verdict was dropped: He swore in His wrath they shall not enter His rest. For God to swear emphasizes the unchangeableness of what He has said. It drives home with force the reality that what He says is irrevocable, it can never be altered. The day of opportunity for them to turn to Him was over. God’s final word of judgment and wrath on their lives had been spoken, and it would never be altered. It’s important to see that the root problem, the root cause of their hardened hearts, is unbelief. the problem is not that the Israelites had no belief in God; the problem is that though they believed in God and had seen His works, they failed to embrace the truth of God as the determining truth over their lives and to trust Him. The consequence of their unbelief was failure to enter into the promise of God, and an entire generation died in the wilderness.
III. How to Avoid Hardened Hearts (verses 12-15)
Not only are the warning and an example of hardened hearts given, but the writer of Hebrews also tells us how to avoid hardened hearts.
First, it is done by being vigilant (i.e., “take care”). An evil, unbelieving heart is the heart characterized by a hardened, rejection of Christ. We must take care and be vigilant that there not be any evidence of such an unbelieving heart in ourselves or in one another.
Second, we are to encourage one another. Sin is deceitful, and, as Thomas Boston says, “presents the golden cup and hides the poison.” Not only is sin deceitful, but it also hardens. When we give into sin, it becomes easier the next time to listen to sin and ignore God. We never make room for a supposedly little sin, without at the same time opening ourselves up to sins that we never thought we’d even consider. One of the primary ways that we are kept from sin’s deceitfulness, that we are protected from sin’s lies, is to encourage one another. We help one another see the emptiness of sin by pointing one another to the fullness of Jesus.
Third, we are to hold fast our assurance. Those who hold fast to Christ have the assurance that they have been united to Christ, joined to Him so that we now share in all of the benefits of His salvation. This verse is not meant to discredit the assurance that all true Christians have that Christ will hold them fast until the end. But this verse is meant to completely strip all such comfort or security from the person who is living a life of sin and unbelief, and yet presuming on God’s grace and kindness.
Fourth, we must listen to His voice “today.” The only way you can make sure that your heart is not hardened in unbelief “tomorrow” is by listening to the voice of God “today.” He is telling you to believe in His Son, to turn from your sin and follow Christ. But, if you do not turn to Him today, there is no guarantee that you will ever have another opportunity.
- The chief object of unbelief is Jesus, the Son of God. Unbelief is seeing the salvation God offers us in His Son and instead of turning to Him in reliance and conforming your life to Him, unbelief instead rejects Him by refusing to trust Him and obey Him. Do you have an evil heart of unbelief, or are you trusting and conforming your life to the hope God has given us in Christ Jesus? In what ways are you taking advantage of the measures God has given to avoid a hardened heart: being vigilant, encouraging one another, holding firm, and listening to Him today?