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.