“Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”” (John 12:39–40, ESV)
John makes a curious statement here which, the minute we read it, we do not like and therefore try to get around the implications of it. He writes: They could not believe because God has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts. What are we to make of this statement? They couldn’t believe even though they really, really wanted to believe?
The word which the ESV translates: could means “to be able.” It is a good translation of what John writes. So we can’t get around the difficulty by explaining away the term, John won’t allow us to do that.
Here are some examples of how commentators/theologians have tried to explain this comment by John:
- John is not absolving these Jews from moral responsibility, but only showing that the words of Isaiah “had to be fulfilled, for they were the expression of Divine foreknowledge” (Bernard). [Quoted in A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament
- They were unable to continue in a faith relationship with Jesus. His miracles attracted them, but did not lead them into saving faith/trust in Jesus as the Messiah. – Bob Utley
- It had become morally impossible for them to believe. Grace may be refused so persistently as to destroy the power of accepting it. ‘I will not’ leads to ‘I cannot’ (Rom. 9:6–11:32). – Alfred Plummer
- They could not believe] i.e. it was otherwise ordained in the divine counsels. No attempt to escape this meaning (as “they would not believe,” Chrysostom and others) will agree with the prophecy cited ver. 40. But the inability, as thus stated, is coincident with the fullest freedom of the human will: compare “Ye have no mind to come to Me,” ch. 5:40. – Henry Alford
My own opinion is that Henry Alford is the most honest with the text here. We just cannot escape John’s meaning. In light of that, what are we to think. Mr. Alford points out that there is no ultimate conflict with the fact that they “could not believe” with “the fullest freedom of human will.” They could not come, they did not want to come. Both are true.