Today’s read was Exodus 6-9, a critical point in the story of Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt. Moses has made his appeal to Pharoah, but he has refused to let the people go. In response, God begins to show Pharoah he’s not in charge as he releases one plague after another, revealing His power, authority, and right over all creation.
This passage presents us with a dilemma. We can accept that Pharoah hardens his own heart, and we understand that God is righteous and just in punishing him for his refusal to obey and release the Israelites. But how do we reconcile the clear teaching that God hardens Pharoah’s heart? This goes against our human logic; to our thinking, it doesn’t seem fair. Isn’t God “stacking the deck” in His favor, ensuring that Pharoah will never consent and release the people so that God is justified in sending the plagues?
The easy (and theologically correct) answer is that God can do what He wants to do, and who are we to question Him! Job suffered greatly with God’s full approval, and as a righteous man, he came to accept that God’s ways were beyond his understanding.
Job 9:1-13 – Then Job answered, “In truth I know that this is so; but how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to dispute with Him, he could not answer Him once in a thousand times. Wise in heart and mighty in strength, who has defied Him [hardened himself against Him (KJV)] without harm? It is God who removes the mountains, they know not how, when He overturns them in His anger; who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun not to shine, and sets a seal upon the stars; who alone stretches out the heavens and tramples down the waves of the sea; who makes the Bear, Orion and the Pleiades, and the chambers of the south; who does great things, unfathomable, and wondrous works without number. Were He to pass by me, I would not see Him; were He to move past me, I would not perceive Him. Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him? Who could say to Him, ‘What are You doing?’”
While this is true, and we can accept it by faith, does scripture give us some additional insight that helps us understand why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I think it does.
First, we have to understand God’s purpose. He told Moses why He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. It was to multiply His signs and wonders in the land of Egypt (reveal Himself as God to the pagan Egyptians), so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth (Exodus 7:3-5; 9:12-16). The Egyptians were an ungodly people who worshipped many gods; in His mercy, God desired to reveal Himself as the only God worth serving. The plagues were not random; each one was designed to destroy their belief in a different Egyptian god. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God dismantled the Egyptian system of false worship and revealed it for the empty shell it was. It exposed the reality that Pharaoh was no god at all, offering the Egyptians the opportunity to embrace the God of Israel.
Secondly, Pharaoh was not innocent in the progressive hardening of his heart. It’s not until the sixth plague that we read the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:12). Up to this point, scripture says either that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, or simply that his heart was hardened.
I believe that initially, Pharaoh had a choice in how he responded to God’s authority over his life, but we are foolish to think we can always presume on His grace. None of us will recognize or believe in God unless He opens our eyes and grants us faith to believe, but we are all accountable. God has given us enough revelation of Himself in the created world that we are all without excuse (Romans 1:18-20). Pharaoh had already rejected this general revelation. God’s hardening of his heart sent him down the path he had already chosen. As God continued to reveal more and more of His power and authority, Pharaoh passed the point of no return and God decided his fate. My Spirit shall not strive with man forever (Genesis 6:3).
Thirdly, we have to remember that Pharaoh was not innocent. He stood guilty before God for his sins, and instead of repenting and believing, he rebelled and exalted himself against God. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
Does God still harden hearts? Well, I will say this; His character and nature do not change. We forget this because we live in the age of grace, especially if we have partaken of the bounty and blessing of Christ’s atoning blood. We don’t like to imagine that God would harden someone’s heart, but we also must accept that He is sovereign and just in everything He does.
Scripture warns us, even as believers, to take care that we do not harden our own hearts, and tells us exactly how it happens, using the children of Israel as an example. They watched as Pharaoh’s heart grew hard and they saw what happened, yet as we know, they fell into the same patterns in the wilderness, hardening their hearts and testing God through unbelief and disobedience (Hebrews 3:19; 4:6).
Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. … Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end. (Hebrews 3:7-9,12-14).
I find it interesting that many of the plagues Egypt suffered have similar attributes to the progressive judgments God will pour out on the earth during the Tribulation. They will have the same purpose, to reveal God as the highest and only authority and to call men to repentance before it’s too late. Unfortunately, many will have already hardened their hearts so much so they will blaspheme God, even as they face death.
The Bible speaks a lot about our hearts. How grateful I am that God’s grace reached out to me and softened my heart to respond. How thankful I am that His grace toward me was not in vain, and I pray that I will never presume on it or take it for granted.
What happened to Pharaoh is a warning to all of us to keep our hearts tender toward the Lord, to repent quickly when convicted of sin, to obey the commands of Jesus, and to remain faithful in studying and believing God’s Word, so that doubts and unbelief do not lead us astray (Hebrews 4:11-16).
Psalm 28:14 – How blessed is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.