Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart? - The Gospel Coalition | Canada (2023)

Reading through the Bible is a dangerous exercise. I remember doing it for the first time as a teenager and being quite struck and disoriented when I came to Exodus 4:21:

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. (Exodus 4:21 ESV)

What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? How is that fair? Why would he do that? What does that mean in terms of our freedom as human beings? Is this all a farce? If God is manipulating my emotions then how is it fair for him to either reward or punish me for the choices that I think I am making?

This was the beginning of a battle in my teenaged brain that was not fully resolved until my mid-twenties. To be clear the tension between God’s Sovereignty and our moral responsibility as human beings is not dealt with exhaustively in the Book of Exodus – but it is often the place where the issue is first encountered. It is in the Book of Exodus when we are first confronted with a God who is Sovereign even over the human heart. Thus the conversation tends to begin here and from there to spread over the entire course of the biblical canon.

If you are just beginning to wrestle with this question it may be helpful to see all 20 references to Pharaoh’s hard heart in the order that they appear in the text. They are as follows:

  1. And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. (Exodus 4:21 ESV)
  2. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Exodus 7:3–4 ESV)
  3. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 7:13 ESV)
  4. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. (Exodus 7:14 ESV)
  5. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 7:22 ESV)
  6. But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:15 ESV)
  7. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:19 ESV)
  8. But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. (Exodus 8:32 ESV)
  9. And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7 ESV)
  10. But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses. (Exodus 9:12 ESV)
  11. But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. (Exodus 9:34 ESV)
  12. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses. (Exodus 9:35 ESV)
  13. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Exodus 10:1–2 ESV)
  14. But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go. (Exodus 10:20 ESV)
  15. But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. (Exodus 10:27 ESV)
  16. Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:10 ESV)
  17. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ (Exodus 13:15 ESV)
  18. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so. (Exodus 14:4 ESV)
  19. And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly. (Exodus 14:8 ESV)
  20. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. (Exodus 14:17 ESV)

As mentioned above, there are exactly 20 different references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Book of Exodus. Here are a few cursory observations about those references as a whole:

Cursory Observations:

1. 10 of the 20 statements are attributed to action on God’s part

Precisely half of the references to Pharaoh’s hard heart directly attribute that reality to the Sovereign action of God upon him. The first two of these, however, are proleptic in nature, meaning that they refer to future actions on God’s part:

(Video) Overview: Exodus 1-18

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. (Exodus 4:21 ESV)

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Exodus 7:3–4 ESV)

Here God seems to be saying that he will harden Pharaoh in a state of freely chosen rebellion so as to demonstrate his full and complete power over Pharaoh and by extension, over all the false gods and lesser powers of Egypt.

The next several references to Pharaoh’s heart all ascribe moral responsibility to Pharaoh. The Jewish Torah scholar Nahum Sarna for example writes:

“It is to be noted that in the first five plagues Pharaoh’s obduracy is self-willed. It is only thereafter that it is attributed to divine causality.”

So God pushes Pharaoh further in a direction he was already headed in order to more fully reveal his power and Sovereignty over Egypt.

2. 10 of the 20 statements are attributed to Pharaoh’s essential character

In the list of 20 references given above references 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,11,12 and 17 all ascribe moral responsibility to Pharaoh for the state of his hardened and stubborn heart. While God speaks of his intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart in chapter 4 he is not said to act upon Pharaoh’s heart until chapter 9 after there have been 7 references to the pre-existing state of Pharaoh’s heart as hard or stubborn.

(Video) John Piper | A Matter of Life and Death | Deut 29-30

3. God’s action was temporary and limited in focus

The references to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart all appear to have a very specific goal: to prolong the power encounter between God and Pharaoh until it is clear to all that Pharaoh is a mere mortal and Yahweh alone, is God. Douglas K. Stuart comments usefully here saying:

“God’s causing Pharaoh to be stubborn is simply not presented in the narrative as a general permanent phenomenon (eternal election or rejection) but rather as an ad hoc action of God, temporary in nature (i.e. Pharaoh’s mind was not permanently made stubborn so that he had no ability to repent later in life) and limited to the special purpose of humiliating the Egyptians and their false religion.”

Thus, we are right to see a principle here: God is Sovereign even over the hearts of human beings and can turn them and harden them in particular ways for the accomplishment of his Divine purposes. However, we would want to consult with a variety of other passages before landing on a particular understanding of the tension between God’s Sovereignty and human free will.

Apostolic Commentary:

The Apostle Paul refers to this storyline in the Book of Exodus in his Epistle to the Romans. He says:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14–18 ESV)

The first thing we should note is that Paul is eager to vindicate God in the face of potential accusations of injustice. He is aware that having spoken so forcefully about God’s Sovereign power he may have exposed God to accusations of injustice. If God is the cause of everything, then how is he just in receiving some and condemning others? Is there injustice on God’s part?

“By no means!” (Romans 9:14 ESV)

(Video) Session 5:Condemnation of the Wicked

Thus, however we interpret the interplay between Divine Sovereignty and human moral responsibility it must never be stated in such a way as to make God appear unjust. God does not make anyone sin. At no point in the story is Pharaoh presented as wanting to be reasonable and merciful but being thwarted by an interfering God. This concern is not unique to Christian interpreters; the Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna is equally emphatic:

“Pharaoh’s personal culpability is beyond question.”

Pharaoh was arrogant.

Pharaoh believed himself a superior power.

Pharaoh thought himself a god!

These sins were already a part of Pharaoh’s essential character before God is presented in the narrative as acting directly upon Pharaoh’s heart in chapter 9. Thus, there can be no charge of injustice against God.

What Paul suggests in this passage is that God acted on Pharaoh in order to better display his own power and majesty before the nations. Indeed, the Bible is careful to record the effect of this demonstration on people as far away as the land of Canaan. When Rahab gave shelter to the Israelite spies she indicated prior knowledge of the saving work of God in Egypt as part of her reason for doing so:

“I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” (Joshua 2:9–11 ESV)

(Video) Bible Answers Live with Pastor Doug Batchelor and Jean Ross

In Romans 9 the Apostle Paul is stating that God is Sovereign, free and just in his actions with respect to human beings. He was just in his dealings with Pharaoh. Pharaoh believed himself a god and therefore acted cruelly toward the Israelites. It was correct and just for God to make his humiliation a prolonged and pronounced experience. God was merciful in his actions toward the Hebrews. They were crushed and in cruel bondage and God set them free.

This is who God is – and this is who God declares himself to be in the Book of Exodus. The Lord said to Moses when he hid him in the cleft of the rock:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19 ESV)

All people deserve to be treated according to their essential character and nature – and some will be, as Pharaoh was. But God, in his Sovereign freedom, will show particular mercy to some.

To the lowly.

To the captive.

To the poor.

And to the slave.

(Video) Mark's Gospel in Muslim Eyes Pt. 6

Because that is who Yahweh is – thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.

FAQs

Did the Lord harden Pharaoh's heart? ›

Towards the beginning of the story, Pharaoh hardens his own heart (or it “is hardened” in the passive voice). Following the sixth plague, however, Pharaoh seems to lose his nerve and God steps in, hardening his heart for him. “And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” Exodus 9:12 reads.

How was Pharaoh's heart hardened? ›

The Romans 9 Response

Many point to this chapter to say that God was ultimately behind the evil of Pharoah from the beginning. He writes, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.”

What does hardened heart mean? ›

Definition of harden one's heart

: to stop having kind or friendly feelings for someone or caring about something She hardened her heart against him after their breakup. All the discord hardened my heart to politics.

How did God punish Pharaoh? ›

To punish Pharaoh, God sent a series of plagues to bend Pharaoh's will. The River Nile turned to blood. Thousands of frogs covered the land, soon followed by gnats and flies. Hailstorms ravaged the fields and destroyed the harvest; locusts consumed whatever remained.

Did Pharaoh have free will? ›

God did deprive pha- raoh of free will as punishment for his cruel acts (Maimonides). pharaoh may have lacked free will, but not because of God, who did nothing to him (Cassuto, Sarna and Shatz).

When did Pharaoh repent? ›

There are a few moments in the book of Exodus itself in which Pharaoh expresses a certain amount of regret and perhaps even repentance. The most prominent of these is his words to Moses after the plague of hail: “I have sinned this time. God is righteous and I and my people are wicked” (9:27).

What two signs did God give Moses? ›

In response to this, the Lord gave Moses three signs. The first sign was of the rod turning into a serpent. The second sign was of his hand becoming leprous. The third sign was of the water turning to blood.

Does God soften a hardened heart? ›

God is so rich in forgiveness and love that He will start softening your heart as soon as you ask Him in faith. Whether you are a new believer who is struggling to stay strong, or someone who has been turned away from faith for a long time, God is ready to draw near to you and soften your heart with his mercy and love.

What is hardness of heart in the Bible? ›

A hardened heart is basically a heart that is unmoved by things others would be compassionate about. It is a heart that is rebelling against God.

What causes a person to harden their heart? ›

Normal aging, conditions such as kidney disease or diabetes, or even physical trauma to the chest can trigger heart calcification—but the exact hardening mechanism is still largely unknown.

What does the Pharaoh symbolize? ›

The Egyptians believed their pharaoh to be the mediator between the gods and the world of men. After death the pharaoh became divine, identified with Osiris, the father of Horus and god of the dead, and passed on his sacred powers and position to the new pharaoh, his son.

Why did God punish Egypt with the 10 plagues? ›

Because Pharaoh refused to set the Israelites free, God decided to punish him, sending ten plagues on to Egypt. These included: The Plague of Blood.

Was Abraham a Pharaoh? ›

According to the story, all Egyptians descended from him Abraham 1:22. He was the eldest son of Egyptus, who was the daughter of Ham and Egyptus. Pharaoh was a descendant of the Canaanites Abraham 1:22, a race of people who had been cursed with black skin (Moses 7:8).

Why did the Pharaoh not like the Israelites? ›

Thousands of years ago, according to the Old Testament, the Jews were slaves in Egypt. The Israelites had been in Egypt for generations, but now that they had become so numerous, the Pharaoh feared their presence. He feared that one day the Isrealites would turn against the Egyptians.

When did Pharaoh refuse to let the Israelites go? ›

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert. '" Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go."

Who told Pharaoh to let my people go? ›

"Let My People Go" is a phrase that originates in the Book of Exodus 5:1: And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.

Videos

1. The Collapse of the Iranian Regime?
(ASKDrBrown)
2. A Biblical perspective of the Ancient Egyptian Religions
(Wafeek Wahby)
3. Scripture Has Spoken (Romans 9:17-20)
(The Mill Mississauga)
4. Hardening your heart
(ClarksvilleChurch)
5. How Would the Lord Harden Pharaoh's Heart? [Exodus 4:18-23][Lesson 13][W.T.T.B.]
(East End church of Christ)
6. Encore 3: Reworking the Clay
(Living Truth)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Corie Satterfield

Last Updated: 12/10/2022

Views: 6304

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Corie Satterfield

Birthday: 1992-08-19

Address: 850 Benjamin Bridge, Dickinsonchester, CO 68572-0542

Phone: +26813599986666

Job: Sales Manager

Hobby: Table tennis, Soapmaking, Flower arranging, amateur radio, Rock climbing, scrapbook, Horseback riding

Introduction: My name is Corie Satterfield, I am a fancy, perfect, spotless, quaint, fantastic, funny, lucky person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.