The issue of Pharaoh and the hardening of the heart as found in the Book of Exodus can seem problematic to many – believer and non-believer alike. When we read a text like this, it seems troubling: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.”
Of course the context here is Yahweh’s miraculous delivery of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The ten plagues (Ex. 7-10) are the centrepiece of this story, and even before Moses begins to challenge Pharaoh, we are told that God will harden his heart. Indeed, Moses is warned of this back in Ex. 3:19.
Is this fair? Is this just? How can Pharaoh be held responsible if God has hardened his heart? On the surface at least, it seems that this is ethically and theologically problematic. But it in fact is not. Indeed, simply reading through this section of Scripture will provide the solution to this apparent problem.
As one reads about the power encounters which take place, one quickly discovers that there are in fact three elements to this equation. There are three different ways Scripture describes this hardening process:
-Sometimes we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as in Ex 10:27.
-Sometimes we are told that Pharaoh hardened his heart, as in Ex. 8:32.
-Sometimes we are told that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as in Ex. 7:22.
Some want to break this down into four different categories, with the first option mentioned above broken into two different formulations:
-I (Yahweh) will harden Pharaoh’s heart (eg., Ex. 4:21; 7:3)
-God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (eg., Ex. 9:12; 10:1)
Taken together, these three (or four) different perspectives on the same matter bring new light to this topic. What we have here – as we do throughout Scripture – is the old conundrum, if you will, concerning God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
Now since entire libraries have been written on this mega-theological topic, don’t expect me to resolve it all here in a brief article. But the short answer is, both are biblical truths which are continuously affirmed, and both have to be held together, even if in tension.
We are told everywhere in the Bible that God is sovereign, God is in control, and his purposes come to pass just as he wills. Yet we are also told everywhere in Scripture that we have a degree of freedom, we can make genuine moral choices, and we are accountable for our actions.
Thus God is said to be sovereign in all things, yet humans are morally culpable for the choices that they make. If we cannot fully resolve in our finite minds how these two truths can cohere, that simply speaks to our limitations, not to any inherent contradictions in the biblical data.
So back to Pharaoh. When these three different ways of looking at the hardened heart are taken together, we simply have another illustration of the admittedly mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Both are at work here, and both need to be given their full weight.
The Exodus account makes it clear that Pharaoh is fully responsible for his actions, and God will judge him accordingly. In 9:34 we are plainly told that “Pharaoh sinned again. He and his officials hardened their hearts.” His was a voluntary action for which he is culpable.
Yet this pericope also tells us in no uncertain terms that Yahweh is accomplishing his purposes. We see this so often in Scripture, as in the story of Joseph, the story of Esther, or even in the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. In these and other narrative we see God at work, interweaving his purposes with human choices.
One way to see how this all combines is to simply look at just one small portion of this story: Ex. 9:34-10:1. In these three verses we see all three main ways of discussing this hardening: Pharaoh hardened his heart (9:34); Pharaoh was hardened (9:35); and God hardened him (10:1).
So the writer of Exodus is making it clear that all these ways of looking at the hardened heart are valid, and somehow they all can stand together, without contradiction or logical inconsistency. Plenty has been written about this. A few thoughts from some respected theologians are worth recording here.
D.A. Carson wrote an entire PhD thesis on this divine/human interplay which later became a book in 1981. After discussing the Pharaoh episode, he says this: “Yahweh not infrequently hardens the hearts of men. . . . But the Old Testament writers in such cases seem to presuppose that this is nothing other than due judgment; while elsewhere self-hardening is pictured as reprehensible action for which the person is morally accountable (Zech. 7:11; Prov. 28:14). Impersonal determinism might well harden arbitrarily; but behind the hardening of the Old Testament is the God who cries, ‘Harden not your hearts’ (Ps. 95:8).”
Alec Motyer nicely explains the human/divine mix in all this: “Humans are so created that the choices they make contribute to forming character, and character thus formed promotes the making of similar choices to produce a fixed habit. . . . Choosing and habit forming are things we all know about. What none of us knows is when the ‘point of no return’ will be reached.”
He continues, “Sadly, we can pass the point where freedom to change has been lost and still retain the illusion that ‘I can give it up anytime I want!’ Thus the situation in which Pharaoh found himself was not peculiar to him but is intrinsic to the human condition. Only God foresees the decisive, freedom-destroying choice, and only he knows at once when the choice that kills freedom has been made. Indeed, the Bible goes further and claims that because he is God, it is he that fixes that point.”
Douglas Stuart provides some background material as to just how important Yahweh’s encounter with Pharaoh was: “The Egyptian Pharaoh was supposed to be a pure person, a divine manifestation of the gods, and one whose sovereignty over the people was credentialized in part by the purity of his heart. The idea that Yahweh could do whatever he wanted with Pharaoh’s heart, and specifically could ‘harden’ it, therefore, was both an evidence of Yahweh’s control of all things including the mightiest monarch of the day and also evidence that Yahweh had done what the Egyptians thought the ‘gods’ would usually do – weigh the heart and decide whether its owner was worthy of eternal life or not. In effect, then, each time that Yahweh is described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart, the alert reader is reminded that Yahweh had, as it were, weighed Pharaoh and found him wanting.”
The New Testament writers of course pick up on this theme of Pharaoh, his heart, and the divine will. Paul in Romans 9:14-18 speaks to this, where he talks about God having the freedom to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and to harden whom he will harden. The divine signs that Moses utilised could soften some, and harden others, as Jesus also discovered.
As Philip Graham Ryken remarks, the signs and wonders were just as much for the Egyptians as the Israelites. And when Moses was told to perform these wonders before Pharaoh, it was “not so he will let God’s people go, but exactly for the opposite reason. Rather than making a believer out of Pharaoh, the signs would harden him in his unbelief. In his stubbornness he would refuse to let God’s people go. The miracles of Jesus Christ had much the same effect: According to God’s sovereign will, some believed and were saved, while others doubted and were condemned.”
These are awesome truths to reflect on as believers today present the gospel. Even if signs and wonders accompany our witness, different people will give different responses. Some who are open will receive the word, while those who are closed will reject it.
Jesus spoke to this often. Even if we posit behind all this the sovereign actions of God, we will all still be accountable for what we do with Jesus. Ours is not to ask whether God has hardened this person or that. Ours is to make sure that we are not hardening ourselves in unbelief and rebellion.
So this passage, and others like it, is not really all that problematic. We must always allow God to be God, but we must concentrate on our own choices and our own responses. God will take care of his part, but we must pay careful attention to our own.