The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart
Introduction. (Exodus 7:1-6 ) The Bible teaches that when God brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, in order to demonstrate His power, He “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” so that he would not let the Israelites go. This has been a very controversial and misunderstood doctrine. Some have argued that this teaches that God actually made Pharaoh do all that he did in opposing Moses and God Himself:
Martin Luther, in his Bondage of the Will claimed that...
“God made Pharaoh wicked; that is from a wicked seed” (Section 83).
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, in speaking of Pharaoah, and
others who rebelled against God, said that God...
Is this what the Bible teaches? What does it mean, when the Holy Spirit speaks of God hardening the heart? This evening we are going to spend some time looking at what is said about this event and consider what the Bible teaches about the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
“...bends them to do his judgements, just as if they carried their orders engraved
on their minds...all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by
his providence, so that he not only exerts power in the elect... but also forces the
reprobate to do him service.” (Bk I, 18.2).
The statements about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart can be divided into four sections based upon how the English translations render four different tenses regarding God “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart. Note: These may themselves reflect a bit of doctrinal bias on the part of translators. Hebrew tense is a little more complicated than the way in which the English simplifies it. [Note: English trans. render these four with different tenses: Future, Imperfect, Perfect & Future again. - Heb. has Hif. impf; Piel impf; Hif. pf & Piel pf].
For the sake of our study we won’t challenge this, but simply divide the text in four sections: 1). God’s Instructions to Moses through the Fifth Plague - “I will harden”; 2.) The Sixth & Seventh Plagues - “The LORD hardened”; 3.) The Eighth through the Tenth Plagues - “I have hardened” & 4.) The Red Sea Crossing - “I will harden.”
Three different words are used in these texts somewhat synonymously for “harden.” We will consider some of these as we go along. It is unfortunate that the English renders all of these words “harden.” That creates a “doctrinal” monolith that is not in the text. There are some subtle nuances that can be gleaned from considering the full meaning of these words.
I. Section One: God’s Instructions to Moses Through the Fifth Plague - “I will harden”
- Instructions to Moses. What God Says:
- “I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go” (3:19). FOREKNOWLEDGE
- Isaiah 46:10 - God is a God who declares “...the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’”
- Psalm 139:4 - The Psalmist says to God - “...there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.” God knows what will happen before it happens and what man will do before he does it.
- “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (4:21). DETERMINED COUNSEL
- Acts 2:23 - Peter, speaking of God’s plan with regard to Christ’s death says of Jesus - “Him, being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;” Here we note that God knowing how “lawless hands” would act, God determined how he would use this for His purpose - the redemption of mankind.
- “Harden” (Exodus 4:21) Heb. chatzaq -“to be or grow firm, strong, strengthen” (Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Brown, Driver, Briggs, p. 304) Can apply to the effect someone’s word has upon another:
Note again: What God Says: (further in the text)
- Judges 7:11 - God assures Gideon that when he hears the dream that a Midianite man dreams “...you shall hear what they say; and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.” This with only 300 men.
- I Samuel 23:16 - When David was forced to flee from Saul - “Then Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and strengthened his hand in God.”
- II Samuel 2:7 - After the death of Saul, David sends word to Saul’s men, saying - “Now therefore, let your hands be strengthened, and be valiant; for your master Saul is dead, and also the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.”
- Nehemiah 2:18 - Encourages those building the walls with the kings words and as a result - “they strengthened their hands to do this work.” These examples are important because they show that this word used to apply to what God did to Pharaoh can refer to the effect someone’s word has upon another.
- “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and wonders in the land” (7:3).
- “Harden” (Exodus 7:3) Heb. qashah “to be hard, severe, fierce...stiff, stubborn” (Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Brown, Driver, Briggs, p. 904). Can be used of stubbornness:
- Deuteronomy 10:16 - The people are told - “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.”
- II Chronicles 36:13 - Says of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah - “he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD God of Israel.”
- Proverbs 28:14 - Says - “Happy is the man who is always reverent, But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.”
- Jeremiah 19:15 - God, through Jeremiah, says that Babylon will destroy Jerusalem, because the people - “have stiffened their necks that they might not hear My words.” These examples are important as well because they show us that another of the words used for what God does to Pharaoh can be used of human stubbornness and obstinacy.
- When God Says: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and wonders in the land” (7:3). It shows DETERMINED COUNSEL
- “Pharaoh will not heed you so that I may lay my hand on Egypt” (7:4).
- “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand on Egypt” (7:5). Note: Whatever this “hardening” is it is intended to cause Egypt to know that the LORD is God - not to prevent this knowledge.
- Note: What Happened:
- “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard...” (7:13a).
- “...he did not heed them” (7:13b).
- “...As the LORD had said” (7:13c).
- Note further: What God Says:
- “Pharaoh’s heart is hard” (7:14a).
- “He refuses to let the people go” (7:14b). What God Said Would Happen -- Happened
- The Plagues. Note: What Happened:
- The First Plague- Water to Blood
- “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard and he did not heed them as the LORD had said” (7:22).
- “Neither was his heart moved by this” (7:23). This is what the Lord said would happen - and what God called “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart
- The Second Plague- Frogs
- “When Pharaoh saw there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not heed them as the LORD had said” (8:15). This also is what the Lord said would happen - and what God called “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart
- This shows that God saying - “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” = “[Pharaoh] hardened his heart"
- The Third Plague- Lice
- “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and did not heed them just as the LORD had said” (8:19). This also is what the Lord said would happen - and what God called “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart
- This shows that God saying - “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” = “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard”
- The Fourth Plague- Flies
- “Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go” (8:32). The same thing that happened here is what happened before - which God called “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart
- This shows again that - “Pharaoh hardened his heart” = God saying - “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”
- The Fifth Plague- Diseased Livestock
- “The heart of Pharaoh became hard, and he did not let the people go” (9:7). This also is what the Lord said would happen - and what God called “hardening” Pharaoh’s heart.
- What Have We Seen So Far?
- The FOREKNOWLEDGE of God God knew that Pharaoh would not let them go
- The DETERMINED COUNSEL of God God determined how He would use this situation.
- God saying - “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” = “Pharaoh hardened his heart” = “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard”
II. Section Two: The Sixth & Seventh Plagues - “The LORD hardened”
- God’s Purpose For Pharaoh. [Note: To study this topic, I would urge you to spend a good deal of time with Exodus chapter nine. This is a very important chapter in which a great deal is explained about what it means that “The LORD hardened” Pharaoh’s heart.]
- The Sixth Plague- Boils
- “The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses” (9:12).
- Some say to this point God had not yet “hardened” Pharaoh: In this they try to modify the deterministic view of those like Luther or Calvin and acheive a “middle ground.”
“...Pharaoh was given five chances to repent (in connection with the first five plagues) but hardened his own heart, and only after that did God confirm Pharaoh’s decision by hardening Pharaoh’s heart...God does not harden the heart of anyone but a confirmed rebel” David Stern, Jewish Commentary on the New Testament, p. 391
I have even known of brethren that hold views very similar to this. This is just as dangerous as the views of Calvin & Luther because it still puts God in the position in which - if you just go far enough He then pushes you the rest of the way!
- Clearly, God allows rebellion-clearly He expects a certain willingness to accept His word-clearly He knows before hand who will rebel-but that is different than Him ever doing anything directly to encourage, empower or support sin.
- However, the text says...
The “hardening” which God promised is already in operation.
- “I will harden his heart” (4:21).
- “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and wonders in the land” (7:3).
- “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard...As the LORD had said” (7:13).
- “Pharaoh’s heart is hard” (7:14).
- God Says: “For this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you...” (9:16). God “raises up” both the wicked and the righteous for His purposes. This is not to say that God makes the wicked to be wicked. He does, however, know how people will act.
- “As yet you exalt yourself against My people in that you will not let them go” (9:17).
- Notice: God says to Pharaoh... “you exalt yourself” - “you will not let them go” God says that Pharaoh does this himself.
- If God’s “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart prevents Pharaoh from being able to let them go, why would God attribute to Pharaoh what God Himself is doing?
- Those who “regard” God’s word. Note: What Happened:
- The Seventh Plague- Hail
- “He who feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and livestock flee to the houses” (9:20).
- “He who did not regard the word of the LORD left his servants and his livestock in the field” (9:21).
- Listen to What Pharaoh Says:
- “I have sinned this time” (9:27a).
- “The LORD is righteous...” (9:27b).
- “...and my people and I are wicked” (9:27c).
- Listen to What Moses Says:
- “As for you and your servants, I know that you will not yet fear the LORD God” (9:30).
- Their sin was that they did not fear or regard God’s word - they were “hardened” by it.
- The Parable of the Sower
- “...The Seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11)
- “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). The Difference is the condition of the Heart. This leads to the question...
- Is God’s Word Ineffectual? This is part of what Paul addresses in Romans chapter nine. [Note: if you want to understand Romans nine better - spend sometime in Exodus chapter nine.] Paul asks if God’s word was ineffectual in the fact that not all of the Jews accepted Jesus. In the same way that God used Pharaoh’s reaction to His word to show His glory-God used the rejection of some of the Jews of Jesus as the occasion to show the “wonder” of the gospel to the Gentiles.
- “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11)
- God’s word is intended to soften the good and honest heart and harden those rebellious to it.
- Those who did not “regard” God’s word. Note What Happened:
“And when Pharaoh saw that the rain the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants” (9:34).
- “Harden” (Exodus 9:34) Heb. kabed “to be heavy, weighty, burdensome, honored” (Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament Brown, Driver, Briggs, p. 457) Can apply what one does to themselves:
- I Samuel 6:6 “Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?”
- What Have We Seen So Far?
- God says Pharaoh “exalts” himself.
- The Holy Spirit says they did not “regard” the word of God.
- Pharaoh says “I have sinned.”
- Moses says they do not “yet fear” God.
- Text says Pharaoh “hardened his heart.”
Exalting self, refusing to fear & regard God’s word and sinning against God -- is having a “hardened” heart - is being “hardened” by God.
III. Section Three: The Eighth through the Tenth Plagues - “I have hardened”
- Remember What Happened:
- “And when Pharaoh saw that the rain the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants” (9:34).
- What does God Say about this?
- “I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants (10:1a). Note: God considers these the same things (i.e “I have hardened his heart” & “he hardened his heart”).
- Why Did God Allow This?
- “...that I may show these signs of Mine before him (10:1b).
- “...that you may tell in the hearing of your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt...” (10:2a)
- “...that you may know that I am the LORD” (10:2b). These are benefits that will come to the Israelites. Do you think the Israelites saw this very clearly? This reminds me of Paul’s words in Romans 9:22-23 - God endures with much “longsuffering” the behavior of the “vessels of his wrath” (i.e. those He has created even though He knows they will rebel against Him) so that “he might make known the riches of His glory” to the “vessels of His mercy” (i.e. those whom He has created who do “regard” His word and receive His mercy).
- Note Further, What God Says:
- “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve me (10:3).
- If God’s “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart prevents Pharaoh from being able to let them go why, again, would God attribute to Pharaoh what God Himself is doing?
- The Final Plagues.
- The Eighth Plague- Locusts
- The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go” (10:20).
- The Ninth Plague- Darkness
- “The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go” (10:27).
- Note the Final word of God: What God Says:
- “I will bring yet one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt” (11:1b). DETERMINED COUNSEL
- “Afterward he will let you go from here” (11:1b). FOREKNOWLEDGE
We see What Happened:
- “The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land (11:10).
- The Tenth Plague - Death of the Firstborn
- What God Said Would Happen - Happened: Israel Left Egypt
IV. Section Four The Red Sea Crossing “I will harden”
- Finally note: What God Says:
- “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them” (14:4a).
- “...that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD ” (14:4b).
- “I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them...then the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (14:17-18). This is like Exodus 7:3-5 - “That they may Know that I am The LORD”
- Whatever this “hardening” is it is intended to cause Egypt to know that the LORD is God - not to prevent this knowledge.
What Have We Seen?
- God allowed Pharaoh to “exalt himself.”
- He did so to demonstrate His power and show Israel and the Egyptians that He is God.
- Pharaoh “hardened his heart” by failing to “regard” God’s word.
- The effect which God’s word had on Pharaoh is what is called God “hardening” his heart.
- God did not cause Pharaoh to sin, but used Pharaoh’s rebellion for His own purposes.
These conclusions are not “ new interpretations” of the text. In fact, early Christian writers drew many of the same conclusions:
- Early Christian Writers:
- Clement of Rome (ca. 96 AD) - “Pharaoh and his host and all the rulers of Egypt, their chariots and their horsemen, were overwhelmed in the depths of the Rea Sea, and perished for none other reason but because their foolish hearts were hardened after that the signs and the wonders had been wrought in the land of Egypt by the hand of Moses the servant of God” To the Corinthians, 51.
- Irenaeus (c. 130-200 AD) - “God, knowing the number of those who will not believe, since He foreknows all things, has given them over to unbelief, and turned away His face from men of this stamp, leaving them in the darkness which they have themselves chosen for themselves...He did also at that time give over to their unbelief, Pharaoh, who never would have believed, along with those who were with him” , Against the Heresies, Bk. 4, 29.2.
- Origen (ca. 185-254 AD) Showing the foolishness of the view that holds that God’s hardening made Pharaoh sin writes - “For if he is hardened by God, and commits sin in consequence of being hardened, he is not the cause of sin to himself; and if so, then neither does Pharaoh possess free-will. And some one will say that, in a similar way, they who perish have not free-will, and will not perish of themselves.” Origen (ca. 185-254 AD), De Principis, Bk. 3, 1.7
Writing later, explaining how God’s word can effect a hardening on some, writes - “And as if the sun, uttering a voice, were to say, ‘I liquefy and dry up,’ liquefaction and drying up being opposite things, he would not speak falsely as regards the point in question; wax being melted and mud being dried by the same heat so the same operation, which was performed through the instrumentality of Moses, proved the hardness of Pharaoh... the result of his wickedness...” Origen (ca. 185-254 AD), De Principis, Bk. 3, 1.11.
- Scriptural Principles.
- James 1:13-14 - “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed”
- Habakkuk 1:13a - “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness”
The God whose pure eyes do not behold evil and who tempts no man - did not, does not and will not harden anyone directly so as to cause them to sin!
- Pharaoh’s words were right when he said in Exodus 9:27 “I have sinned...The LORD is righteous...”