Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart

I’ve long been intrigued by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Truth be told I’ve been a bit emotionally bothered by the story. I’ve often read it as if Pharaoh would have repented and turned out to be a good dude around plague #4 but because the Lord hardened his heart he remained a stubborn jerk.

I read it differently now.

The Purpose of Exodus

When I read the Exodus account what I see is a God that is flexing His muscle. He is doing it so that the whole world, and especially the Hebrews, might know who he is. You see this in Exodus 5:2 when Pharaoh says, “Who is the Lord…I do not know the LORD”. It’s not by accident that the Lord continuously says things like, “the Egyptians shall know” and “then you will know that I am the LORD”.

In the Exodus story it is as if God is challenging the mighty Egyptians to a weight lifting contest. And it becomes painfully obvious by plague 3 that “this is the finger of God” and the Egyptians don’t stand a chance. And so after plague 4 the mighty Pharaoh admits defeat…sort of. He’ll let them go but he is still under the delusion that he is control.

To use our weight-lifting analogy it is as if Pharaoh is hardening his heart and resolving to beat this God in the next match. “Okay, I’ll give you this one, but I’m going to train and then I’m going to kick your tail next time. Our magicians will figure out how to do the same thing that you did”.

I don’t believe that we should make too much out of the fact that there are verses were Pharaoh hardened his own heart. That is certainly happening. But I believe on top of that we need to hear what the Lord says at the beginning in Exodus 7:3. Here he says, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”. Ultimately what is happening is that God has raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of showing His power.

So why does He need to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Let us return to our weight lifting analogy. What happens if Pharaoh calls uncle around plague 4? It’ll be a great show of power, people will know that the LORD (at least in this instance) has gotten the best of Pharaoh.

But do you think the worship of Exodus 15 will be as deep and far reaching? Would they say, “your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy”. Could they say shatters? Or would they just say, “bruises”.

For the sake of Israel, for the sake of Egypt, and for our sake, God cannot just beat Pharaoh by a nose. He has to utterly embarrass and decimate him. And so he doesn’t let Pharaoh throw in the towel at plague 4. If he does there will rise up another power that is stronger than Pharaoh, and the Israelites will be wondering if maybe God will lose this time.

And so God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. He doesn’t let him cry uncle. He causes Pharaoh to keep going like a stubborn mule even though he is being whipped the whole way.

And let’s not think that if Pharaoh calls uncle around plague 4 that he’ll stop and turn into a good guy and start worshipping the Lord. I believe this is why the Bible also says that Pharaoh hardened his heart. He’s still a wicked dude. It’s just that  God isn’t going to allow him to be a pansy and call for a truce, and then go train with the intention of besting God later.

God in his glory and grace will shatter the mighty Pharaoh so that He can display His greatness. And this is to our greatest good. Pharaoh isn’t worthy of worship (or any of the other false god’s that will follow in his stead). And so God will crush these idols so that our heart’s will find satisfaction in the only place where true satisfaction can be found.

Comments

  1. says

    Well, you will certainly get many views from the predestined/free will POV on this one :-) I’m not Calvinist, so I believe God hardened Pharaoh’s already hardened heart. Pharaoh had the Hebrews there who inspite of their falling away always had a remnant of faithful. Although Joseph had been forgotten, the story surely lived on(to dramatic not to). Pharaoh had knowledge of God, but when Moses and Aaron first appear to him, he dierctly claims, “I do not know your God.” Know, as in I don’t believe, not that he’d never heard. Through the faithful Hebrews God had maintained a witness there. 10 times it says God hardened his heart, and 10 it says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. For me, from my POV and enderstanding of the whole predestination thing, God hardened further a heart that had already rejected Him, just as he’d do with the Jews in the time of Christ. Now, let the fireworks begin :-)

  2. says

    Nice article Mike. You have brought forward what God does at every display of his glory. He never retreats, or goes half way. A great thing to try and learn and follow.

    As I was reading the article, it also reminded me of the end times. God will pour out his wrath in the same convincing fashion, and judge sin, death, and the wicked completely. God is never mocked. What a great God we serve.

  3. Rick Mang says

    “And so God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. He doesn’t let him cry uncle.”

    I’m not sure I understand where you are going with this. Are you saying that God made pharaoh harden his heart against his will – or that God hardened his heart by not having mercy and compassion on him (by not regenerating him), and allowing him to persist in his wicked intentions? Did pharaoh act according to his will, or against his will?

    Thank you,
    Rick

  4. says

    Good question Rick… I like the way one theologian has stated “God’s hardening does not take away guilt, it renders it certain.” Our will is inclined to carry out what it knows.

  5. says

    Adrian Rogers has some great comments on Pharaoh:

    “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart.”

    “All God did was to crystallize the sin that was already in him [Pharaoh]. God did not take a little tender child and say, ‘I’m going to harden your heart and then I’m going to cast you into Hell.’”

    Pharaoh “had blasphemed the God of Heaven, and God had warned him. God has sent His messenger to him, but this man stubbornly and arrogantly said ‘no’ to God. It was then that God further hardened the heart of this man whose heart was already hardened. But don’t get the idea that God just raised up Pharaoh to send him to Hell. God warned Pharaoh, but he wouldn’t heed the warning.” -Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, TN; SBC president.

    See more at:
    http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com/2011/08/adrian-rogers-on-predestination.html

    David R. Brumbelow

    • says

      So that whole Romans 9 bit can be… ignored? God raised up Pharaoh in order to knock him down so that everyone would know God can beat up anyone he wants without anyone tough enough to stand up to him. That’s essentially a direct paraphrase of Romans 9:17.

        • says

          Of course I did, because a non-Christian is blind to the truth, right? And cannot possibly see the Bible for what it actually says rather than through the interpretive lens of theological watering which tries to make the biblical message more palatable.

          • says

            sounds a bit defensive Chris…. try again. But, you have read it correctly,…. the heart that is made alive by the Spirit is set free by the truth. My prayer is that your reading turns to understanding.

        • says

          “Of course I did, because a non-Christian is blind to the truth, right?”

          Correct. Until he is given spiritual understanding. You may believe (you in general) that Jesus was an historical person but was not God. But believing he existed is not the same as having spiritually opened eyes.

  6. says

    “And let’s not think that if Pharaoh calls uncle around plague 4 that he’ll stop and turn into a good guy and start worshipping the Lord. I believe this is why the Bible also says that Pharaoh hardened his heart.”

    I think you’re right here, but I’m not sure what difference that would make. In the story, after a few rounds of pummeling, Pharaoh was ready to call it a day. It’s not that he wanted to become a Jew or join Moses in worship, it’s that he realized his resistance was futile and would only lead to further decimation. We accept this kind of motivation all the time in politics. War is typically all about letting the other guy see that his actions can only continue at a high price. Our current economic sanctions against Russia, though less violent than God’s domination of Egypt, is for the same.

    But think about what this means. Actually, there’s no need for that: you plainly state it in your article and Christian theology readily accepts it. God wanted to kill more people and cause ongoing hardship for more people so that everyone would know he is the toughest dude around. In most cases, we have very unflattering things to say about people who act like that, but in this case, it’s God so it must be okay…? Much of Christian theology says that God is just to punish anyone at any time for any reason because we deserve it anyway and even when he wipes out sources of food or wipes out children, our only response is to praise him for his goodness.

    Keep in mind there are reasons why people think Christianity and Judaism (and others, but they aren’t relevant to this particular story) are terrible religions which blind people to true goodness and justice.

    • Rick Mang says

      “God wanted to kill more people and cause ongoing hardship for more people so that everyone would know he is the toughest dude around.”

      Don’t ignore the fact that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

      Rick

        • Rick Mang says

          It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone could think that there is any unrighteousness in God for giving justice to the wicked. Usually, we think that the judge that lets the criminal off, is reprehensible.

          Rick

          • says

            Yes, those children and cows were wicked indeed, to use the extreme examples. The alleged judgment against Egypt hit everyone except the observant Jews – from those Egyptians who really did do terrible, nasty things to those who were just going about their lives all the way down to the children.

            Now, I don’t accuse God of unrighteousness. He doesn’t exist; he cannot be unrighteous. The problem is when people read about genocide and oppression and slaughter and brutality and think it defensible. The Old Testament tyrants justified their brutality by claiming God told them to go wipe out entire cities, right down to the children, or claiming God told them they could capture and rape foreign women (“a womb or two for every man”), etc, etc – and many people today – including myself until far too recently – think such actions can be defended as not only just, but reason to give glory to the alleged being who allegedly okayed such genuine wickedness.

          • says

            Chris R.,

            “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

            Of course it makes no sense to you.

          • says

            GK Beale does a good job of digging into this passage…. this is kind of long for a blog, but I thought it did have some substance and is helpful…..

            “The concluding phrase appended to v 13, ka’aser dibber YHWH
            (”as the Lord had said”), is probably the most significant in the whole plague narrative complex, especially as it pertains to the cause of the hardening. This phrase may also provide confirming evidence for our present perfect preference of hazaq and for linking the hardened condition of 1: 13 to Yahweh’s ultimate influence. The phrase occurs six times between 1:1 and 10:1 as a concluding formula to six different hardening predictions. Because this phrase takes on great importance in the present argument, it must fully be explained within its pentateuchal context.

            Of the approximately 200 times the phrase is employed in the
            Pentateuch, nearly 150 of these denote an exact correspondence between a preceding action and a subsequent action (or word). Of these, about 95 refer to acts to be accomplished or having been accomplished in exact correspondence with the way in which Yahweh previously said they would. Two of these denote that the performance of a future act by Yahweh will be effected in exactly the same way as a past act performed by him (Deut 28:63; 31:4). In other passages it is used in the same manner except that the future act is to be performed in exactly the same way it had been previously predicted or commanded by Yahweh (or occasionally Moses), and either Yahweh or man is to be the effecter of the action. In many of these verses ka’aser appears in the same concluding formula as in Exod 1:13 (with the exception that
            siwwa ["to command"] usually replaces Dabar ["to speak"]). Some of these uses are found in a context of promise-fulfillment: the previously spoken word is seen to have been “certainly spoken” so that it had of necessity to occur, and consequently may be viewed in the framework of prophetic promise.

            It is probably in this precise sense that the ka’aser dibber YHWH
            formulas of Exod 7:13ff should be understood. The reasons for this
            should already be evident, but are as follows: (1) the majority of the times when the three words YHWH, dibber and ka’aser occur together in the Pentateuch, they function within either a promise-prophetic framework or a promise-prophetic fulfillment framework; (2) the prophecies of Exod 4:21 and 7:3 are further evidence that 7:13 is a specific fulfillment of them, especially since 7:13 contains the two most essential elements of these prophecies as having been accomplished, i.e., “hardening” and “not listening.”

            However, even if it be somehow concluded that 7:13 is not a prophetic fulfillment formula, the concluding formula must nevertheless be viewed as denoting an accomplished act in which the essential details of the act are performed in exact correspondence with the previously spoken word of Yahweh.
            When one refers back to this spoken word (4:21; 7:3), he finds three essential details of which the future act was to consist: (a) the heart of Pharaoh was to be hardened; (b) this hardening was to result in Pharaoh “not listening” or “letting Israel go” and (c) the subject of this hardening act was to be Yahweh himself. The first two elements are clearly indicated in 7:13, but Yahweh is not directly mentioned. It should be concluded, though, that Yahweh is viewed as the ultimate cause of the hardening in this verse because of the predominant “exact correspondence” character of the ka’aser phrase. The same conclusion should also be drawn at Exod 7:22; 8:11[15], 15[19]; 9:12 and 9:34.55

            Thus the 7:13 hardening is to be seen as either the continuation of
            Pharaoh’s hardened condition in 5:2 or as the resulting condition of a second hardening by Yahweh prior to the serpent miracles.”

            Pretty good outline of God in action.

  7. says

    Come on Chris…. People have always wanted to tell God what to think, do, and be compassionate about. That is nothing new.

    Did poor Pharaoh stop what he was doing? Of course not, he was wanting to tell God what to think, do, and be compassionate about.

  8. says

    I like how one preacher put it as to why Paul wrote what he did given all the Scripture he could have quoted about hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

    To show from Scripture that God “hardens whom he wills,” Paul turns to the great old story of the Exodus from Egypt. And he chooses one verse from those 10 chapters, Exodus 9:16, and quotes it here in verse 17: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.'”

    Why this verse from all the verses that he could have chosen that speak of hardening? Why choose one that does not even refer to hardening, and then draw out the conclusion: “He hardens whom he wills” (v. 18)? ~John Piper

  9. Jess says

    Chris Roberts,

    Would you elaborate on the Christian Theology that God will punish “anyone”, at anytime. Are you saying that God will punish the Christian?

      • says

        Although in point of fact it seems apparent that this particular answer could tend toward ambiguity, leaving a person or persons uncertain as to whether I meant ‘Yes’, ‘Why’, or some other arbitrary word which might be represented by the simple symbol ‘Y’. In order to help clarify matters, I note that the symbol in question bore the meaning ‘Yes’ as in ‘Yes, Jess, I would be glad to save time by shortening my answers a bit’ – an explanation which, I hope (but have no reason to assume with high confidence) will clear up matters henceforth. One might conjecture that at some future time I may interchange the meaning of this symbol, so that instead of ‘Y’ meaning ‘Yes’ it may be taken to mean ‘Why’ or some other arbitrary word which might be represented by the simple symbol ‘Y’. All I can offer in response to such conjecture is the assurance that if said ambiguity should occur in the future, I would be happy to clarify with a brief summary, such as this one.

  10. says

    Good article, good observations, nice give and take in the comments, a little humor, a little “C” word thrown around. So let me just be a curmudgeon and ask about this:

    “He has to utterly embarrass and decimate him…”

    Decimate? Really? “I don’t think this means what you think it means.”
    First there is the classic understanding that decimate means a tithe or 10% destruction. Which clearly you don’t mean. Then there’s the the more modern sense of ‘near complete destruction’ – perhaps 90%. This may be what you mean. But is 90% enough? I think besides sparing many Egyptians lives, God’s victory was complete. There was not a resource left at Pharaoh’s hand that could have any impact against God.
    So, maybe that’s what you meant. But Decimate? I don’t think so.
    At best unclear, at worst, confusing.
    But hey, in the classic sense of the word I didn’t come close to decimating your blog. I mean its about 99 and 44/100% right!

    • says

      That’s a great comment.

      I’ll stand by my usage of decimate. Though I’m always open to learning of a word that might be more precise.

      If you check out Webster’s I’m going with 3b in my use of the term.

  11. says

    I would like to quote Dr. Jimmy Millikin of Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary. I heard him preach and he touched on this some 30 years ago as my old mind counts time. Dr. Millikin asked the question, “What did God have to do to harden Pharoah’s heart?” “Nothing,” was Millikin’s reponse!!! if I remember correctly? I have always understood him to mean that he just left him to his own self (forgive the grammar) and to his own devices. That was all it took for God to harden his heart. Leave him in his own depravity and remove any influence of grace.

    • says

      Except the text doesn’t say God sat on his hands, it said God actually did something. That interpretation is a pretty big (albeit convenient) dance around the text.

    • says

      I think it is clearly that Pharaoh hardened his own heart because of God’s determination to first harden his heart.

      Ex. 4:21: “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.”

      Pharaoh could not do otherwise.

  12. Tom Bryant says

    Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? We all try to answer it according to whatever particular theological or in Chris R’s case non-theological (meant kindly) position. The truth is we don’t know.

    We know that the plagues were aimed at the various and multitude of gods, Egypt had. We know that He was freeing His people from the land of Egypt. But why did God choose this rather than just transporting the people into the land in a miraculous and unexplainable show of His power and glory?

    It’s a simple kind of answer to say, He did it for His own glory. I believe that. But that answer leads to other questions such as how does God receive glory from the deaths of thousands?

    What do we know? That Pharaoh hardened his heart and God hardened His heart, period. He did it for His own reasons.

    • says

      Tom,

      How does God get glory from the deaths of thousands?

      People DESERVE to die. It is just. It is right. It points to the majesty of the Law of God.

      It points to the world beyond this present world. many people ignore death, preferring to bury their fear so as not to face its coming.

      It is only in the messed up perverted thinking of the world where they blame God for such deaths,
      ~but everyone dies, sooner or later.
      ~at the appointed time?
      ~and who appoints that time but God?
      ~do you not think He not also determines the means, as well?

      • Tom Bryant says

        Parsonmike,
        I am glad that makes sense to you. I am not blaming God. I believe we all deserve to die because of our sins. I strongly believe in the sovereignty of God. But you’re just fooling yourself thinking that somehow this explains what the Bible clearly says about what God did to Pharaoh. It is fully within God’s right to do whatever He chooses. He is the Lord God of the Universe. The judge of all the universe will do what is right.

        My argument is that we don’t know WHY God did it. We are trying to systematize the acts and will of our loving, righteous and sovereign God. I just don’t think it is possible.

        Personally, I’d rather just take what the Bible says literally true and let God fill me in on the “why”, if He so chooses, when we get to heaven.

  13. says

    This is a helpful article, Mike. I’m glad that people are willing to wade in to the tough to understand passages, admit that they’re tough to understand, and do the best we can to see what difference they’re supposed to make in our lives.

    Chris–Michael Walzer’s book “Exodus and Revolution” has been helpful to me with this story. He makes the connection between the plagues and the gods of Egypt. He says that the Israelites, after 400 years, had become “naturalized Egyptians.” No one would remember a time when they didn’t live surrounded by idols and monuments to the gods of Egypt, and I have to imagine that, while enslaved, the Egyptians’ gods seemed to have the upper hand.

    As Moses is writing the Exodus story 40 years later, we have to give some space to the possibility that he is interpreting events through the lens of his own faith and experience. He actually refers to the plagues as “diseases” in Deuteronomy 7–could it be that diseases befell the Egyptians? We know that diseases can wipe out whole herds of cattle. We know diseases can give people boils and kill children. We know there can be solar eclipses, hailstorms, algae blooms, etc. There can be infestations of frogs and locusts.

    If Moses–who by the time he is writing is one of only two people who have survived the entire Exodus march–is creating the “national story” of Israel, it was standard for one nation’s victory over another to be seen in terms of one god’s victory over another. Thus, when Moses tells of Yahweh’s dominance over the gods of Egypt, well, there was a god of the weather and the sun. There was a frog god and a cow god. The Nile River was a god. The Pharoah was considered a god, and thus his firstborn son–the future Pharoah–might have really been the final battle showing Yahweh’s supremacy over the gods of Egypt.

    Did it all happen just like it’s written? I guess it’s possible. Did Moses interpret the events as acts of Yahweh when creating Israel’s national story? Seems like it.

    Ultimately, the power of this story is not in deciding whether it’s literally or figuratively true. The power comes when people trust that God’s instructions to us are far superior to the instructions we receive from other sources. The call to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves often comes into conflict with the many gods of our world that clamor for our allegiance. When people give this call a chance in their own loves, and then testify to others about the difference it made, we see that this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and the God of Jesus Christ and the apostles who followed Him, is far wiser and far more trustworthy than the other gods this world has to offer.

  14. says

    The story also points to the ultimate victory over and the complete destruction of every moral entity and idol, real or perceived, that raises a fist in defiance to the Lord God. They will be laid waste and His victory complete.

  15. says

    J. Vernon McGee on Pharaoh:

    “What does it mean to harden Pharaoh’s heart? Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Yes, but in this way: If Pharaoh were a tenderhearted sweet fellow who desired to turn to God and was happy to have Moses deliver the children of Israel because Pharaoh wanted to do something for them, then it was mean of God to harden the heart of this wonderful Pharaoh. If that is the way you read it, friends, you are not reading it right. The hardening is a figurative word which can mean twisting, as with a rope. It means God twisted the heart of Pharaoh. He was going to squeeze out what was in it. God forced him to do the thing he really wanted to do.” -J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible.

    David R. Brumbelow

    • Don Johnson says

      David,

      Good point. That’s why the term hardened is used. God didn’t change Pharaoh’s heart, He hardened it. Pharaoh wasn’t acting against his will, but in accordance with it.

    • says

      Don,

      “Pharaoh wasn’t acting against his will, but in accordance with it.”

      Exactly! That’s the bondage of the will Luther and Edwards talked about. God doesn’t need to force man to act against his will. Man in his natural will always act according to his depraved heart. Amen brother.

          • volfan007 says

            Well, Les was taking what J. Vernon McGee said, and was turning it around to his viewpoint. So, either he didn’t get it, or else he was trying to twist what Dr. McGee said ……

            Les, Les, Les….

            David

            PS. I sure wish I could eat some of that great jambalaya that we used to eat at Mid America. Boy, that was some good, good stuff.

      • Don Johnson says

        Les,

        God wasn’t forcing Pharaoh to act against his will. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so he wouldn’t change his will. Thus he would not let the people go. Pharaoh is a good example to show there is no bondage of the will. Even wicked Pharaoh had the ability to change his mind, but God stepped in and made sure he didn’t.

  16. Mysterious One says

    Excuse me but didn’t the Pharaoh use his own free will be stubborn? Since when did God take away that king’s free will? The Almighty didn’t do that because He doesn’t want mindless puppets.

  17. Tyler says

    “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Exodus 9:16. It seems pretty clear that God intended to use Pharaoh to display His glory in the salvation of Israel through the judgment of Pharaoh. This is exactly the point in Hardening Pharaohs heart.

  18. Tyler says

    “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Exodus 9:16. It seems pretty clear that God intended to use Pharaoh to display His glory in the salvation of Israel through the judgment of Pharaoh. This is exactly the point in Hardening Pharaohs heart.

  19. Fyne says

    Not quite, Mike. Letting scripture control tradition, in the specific case of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the (predestined) hardening of heart in Exodus chapters 7, 8, 10, 11 and 14 is predicated on God’s foreknowledge of the prior condition of Pharaoh’s heart, Exodus 3:19-20 cf. Exodus 15:9,10. The text of scripture does not bare out the (if unintended) suggestion that God arbitrarily (and unjustly) hijacked Pharaoh’s will for the sole purpose of throwing his weight around like some cosmic dictator. Pharaoh’s heart was no different from any others then and now. In a way of analogy, the heat of God’s action/presence will harden or soften hearts depending on the condition and predisposition of heart whether clay or wax. God’s decimation of the gods of Egypt was an act of divine grace to deliver the Egyptians “and all the earth” from false worship and trust in worthless idols, and turn them to the One and only true God.

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