“But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” – Ex. 8:15

Some mistakenly believe that God, to establish His name, did directly and irresistibly harden the heart of the Egyptian Pharaoh. According to this interpretation, we are led therefore to believe that in order for God to make a statement to the nations (Ex. 10:2), that He would commit at least one soul to eternal destruction when the individual had no choice in the matter. The cost of being hardened, whether self-inflicted or God-inflicted, is separation away from God. The question is would a just and righteous God make a person sin?

“Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had severely dealt with them, did they not allow the people to go, and they departed?”- 1 Sam. 6:6

It should be pointed out that the Biblical text states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And Paul state that He “hardens” whom He desires (Rom. 9:18). But how does God do this hardening? Does He harden in such a way that permits the individual to exercise His own free will? If so, that intepretation would be more desirable and still be in keeping with what the Scripture says. Is there any indication that the Pharaoh had any say in this hardening of his heart?

The Bible states that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15). What are we to do with this seeming contradiction? The laws of interpretation do not allow us to ask “which” did the hardening [as in, one or the other], for the answer would pit one passage of text against the other. It is better to ask “how” were Pharaoh and God both responsible for the hardening?

There are two possible ways which God could have hardened Pharaoh’s heart; directly or indirectly. It is difficult to see how we could choose to believe the direct method and still believe that Pharaoh had anything to do with hardening his own heart which the passage I cited says he did. Given the choice between God’s direct or indirect action, why would we choose an action by God that would appear so unrighteous? And after all, are not there plenty of hard-hearted and obstinate people for God to choose from in the world that He wouldn’t have to harden a perfectly good heart? Yes again. Since God determines the times and seasons for unfolding His will, isn’t it reasonable that He could accomplish the same mission without robbing one man of his free will? Yes. Can God accomplish His purpose of magnifying his name unto the nations without making a man disobey Him? And yes again.

There is a more desirable method of interpreting God’s part in the hardening process. Realize that God’s omniscient ability to foresee and then select the perfect time for Israel’s deliverance allowed him to look across the landscape of human history and select Pharaoh as a proper candidate. Along this line, let us not forget two facts;

First, God told Abraham 430 years earlier that his descendants could not have their land because “the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full” (Gen. 15:16). The point I wish to make is that God worked his plan to bless Abraham’s descendents into a time when men were most sinful and deserving of punishment. God did not have to make the Amorites sinful to bring about this judgment; He did not speed up their downfall when He selected the time when Israel would be delivered and be led to the promised land. Likewise, the sinfulness of Pharaoh was full the day Moses commanded him to free Israel.

Second, when Moses was first commissioned to be God’s spokesman, God knew what kind of man Pharaoh was. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion.” (Ex. 3:19). The significant point to be made is that God knew the man; God did not make the man. God chose the circumstances for delivering His people, but it was Pharaoh who decided whether or not to obey.

Also let us realize that by His choosing a plan of escape and salvation that would prove onerous to so powerful a man, He made it unlikely that only a god-fearing and humble man would submit. God sent two old men (Moses was eighty) — without the aid of army forces — before Pharaoh with a simple message to “let my people go” (Ex. 5:1). God set the stage, and Pharaoh’s pride and arrogance made him a willing actor. Yes, through this indirect method, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

In our day, God hardens the hearts of the “wise.” He says there is salvation through the cross which is a foolish message to some (1 Cor. 1:18-23). When we preach Jesus Christ, we preach what is described as a “stumbling block” to the Jews. Paul’s countrymen stumbled over “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:8). Because Jesus said some very difficult things to his disciples, some withdrew (John 6:58-68). His teachings were hard to accept, but not impossible. Did God have to make it so hard for them to believe in their Messiah? Yes, but the truth is sometimes difficult to accept. But it is not hard for those who love and seek the truth. For those who are open and honest, there is salvation. God’s plan, in Moses’ day and in ours, has always left free will and the power to choose intact. God never hardens the heart of someone who is seeking the truth. But those who are too wise and smart to believe, He will give them over to a “depraved mind” and He will send upon them a “deluding influence” so as to believe what is false (Rom. 1:28; 2 Thess. 2:11).

The very same principle that was at work with Pharaoh also applies here so that the Gospel of Christ hardens the heart of some and it softens that of others. Instead of sending His Son, God could have come to this earth with 20 billion angels and His awesome appearance would have melted the most belligerent and obstinate heart. He didn’t, so He indirectly hardens those who reject His Son, and He has mercy on those who believe.

B.W. Johnson wrote one of the best explanations for what is being described: “[H]e did it [hardended Pharaoh] by a law of the universe that whoever turns from the light shall become blind, and whoever steels his heart against the truth shall find his heart hardened, then they were morally responsible if they had turned from the light and hardened their hearts. It is a physical as well as a moral law that he who turns from the light and seeks to abide in darkness will become blinded until he will “believe a lie and be damned.” This is the only Scriptural explanation for how God hardens a heart. A god that would harden a good and sincere heart, would be unjust and unfit to judge the world. A god that would force a man to sin and then judge him for being hard-hearted would not be our God. We have a just God who judges the world with righteousness.

God is the Potter and we are the clay. The clay does not have a right to speak back to or challenge the will of the Potter. The Jews challenged God, like clay talking back to the Potter, because God saved Gentiles who believed. God hardens and softens who He wills. And His will is to harden all who think they are smarter than God: who think the cross is foolish. God softens the heart through the love He demonstrated at Calvary. God hardens and softens without ever interfering with a person’s free will. God is good.

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Read more HERE on the personal culpability of Pharaoh. It contains some very good information on the meaning of the words being used in the Exodus story.
Moses in the Promised Land

Categories: egypt, harden, heart, pharaoh, potter

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