What does it mean: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?

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By BibleAsk Team


The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a significant theme in the book of Exodus, raising questions about divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and the nature of God’s justice. The narrative details how Pharaoh repeatedly refused to let the Israelites go, despite experiencing God’s power and series of devastating plagues. The Bible attributes this stubbornness to Pharaoh’s own choices. This essay will this narrative, utilizing references from the Bible.

Introduction

The story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart unfolds primarily in the book of Exodus. As God commands Moses to demand the Egyptian king release the Israelites from slavery, the king’s persistent refusal sets the stage for a series of divine judgments.

Pharaoh’s Heart: A Dual Perspective

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is described from two perspectives: God’s permission and Pharaoh’s own willful resistance. These perspectives can be seen as complementary rather than contradictory, providing a deeper understanding of the interplay between divine sovereignty and human freedom.

1. Pharaoh’s Own Hardening

Several passages indicate that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, suggesting he was culpable for his actions.

Exodus 8:15 (NKJV): “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not heed them, as the Lord had said.”

Exodus 8:32 (NKJV): “But Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go.”

In these verses, Pharaoh’s repeated refusal to heed Moses’ demands is a direct result of his own decision, emphasizing human responsibility.

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was evident first of all in the fact that he paid no attention to the demand of the Lord to let Israel go. His refusal was not restricted to the plagues the Egyptian magicians were able to imitate, but included those which the magicians themselves acknowledged to be “the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). It continued also after the fourth and fifth plagues, which fell upon the Egyptians but not upon the Israelites, a fact of which the king was informed (Exodus 9:7).

The hardening of his heart was demonstrated even more clearly when he broke his promise to let Israel go on condition that Moses and Aaron would remove the plague, and when he was forced to confess that he had sinned (Exodus 9:27). Thus, when Moses was told, before reaching Egypt, that the Lord would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21), God referred to the continued refusal of the king to obey Him and release the Israelites.

God gave Pharaoh opportunity after opportunity to change his mind—ten separate plagues and multiple visits from Moses (who repeatedly articulated God’s word to him). But this long process resulted in giving Pharaoh more opportunities to be hardened in his rebellion—contrary to God’s will for him.

2. God’s Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

Conversely, the Bible also explicitly states that God would make Pharaoh’s heart “firm” so that it would not move.

Exodus 4:21 (NKJV): “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.'”

Exodus 9:12 (NKJV): “But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.”

These verses show that God would not allow the king’s determined evil feelings toward Israel to change. God allowed the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The Lord confronts all people through circumstances and His Word, but each person is responsible for his or her own separate, individual reactions.

The rejection in the king’s heart was in no way an act of God, but rather a deliberate choice on his own part. By repeated warnings and displays of divine power, the Lord made His truth known to Pharaoh in order to lead him to cooperate with His will. Even the heathen recognized the fact that it was Pharaoh and the Egyptians themselves who hardened their hearts, and not God (1 Samuel 6:6).

The Purpose of Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart

Understanding why God would harden Pharaoh’s heart requires examining the broader context of the Exodus narrative and God’s ultimate purposes.

1. Demonstrating God’s Power

The king’s hardening of his heart allowed God to demonstrate His power and sovereignty over Egypt and its gods.

Exodus 7:3-5 (NKJV): “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.”

The king’s hardening of his heart allowed God to perform signs and wonders, showcasing His supremacy and ensuring that both the Israelites and Egyptians recognized His power.

2. Fulfilling God’s Promises

The king’s hardening of his own heart helped in fulfilling God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob regarding the deliverance of their descendants.

Exodus 6:6-8 (NKJV): “Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.'”

The king’s hardening of his heart was instrumental in bringing about the events that led to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, thus fulfilling God’s longstanding promises.

3. Revealing God’s Justice

The narrative also reveals God’s justice in dealing with Pharaoh’s persistent rebellion and oppression of the Israelites.

Exodus 10:1-2 (NKJV): “Now the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.'”

Through the king’s religion, God not only judged his defiance but also created a lasting testimony of His righteous judgments and mighty acts among those that didn’t know Him.

The Interplay of Divine Will and Human Responsibility

1. Divine Will

God’s Will means that He has ultimate authority and control over all creation, including human actions.

Romans 9:17-18 (NKJV): “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’ Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”

The Lord used the king’s rebellion to show miraculous intervention on behalf of His people.

2. Human Responsibility

The Bible emphasizes human responsibility and the consequences of our choices.

Deuteronomy 30:19 (NKJV): “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”

The call to choose life reflects the importance of human decisions and the accountability that comes with them. Pharaoh’s repeated choices to harden his own heart exemplify his full responsibility in the narrative.

Theological Reflections

This story provides rich material for theological reflection on several key issues:

1. The Nature of God

God’s actions with the Egyptian king show His character of justice and mercy.

Exodus 34:6-7 (NKJV): “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.'”

This self-revelation to Moses encapsulates the balance of God’s mercy and justice, as seen in His dealings with Pharaoh. God takes no pleasure in the suffering and death of the wicked, but rather desires that all men repent and be saved (Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), and causes His sun to shine upon the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45). But as the sun affects different materials in different ways, according to their own nature so the influence of the Spirit of God upon the hearts of men brings out different effects according to the condition of the heart.

The repentant sinner allows God’s Spirit to lead him to a new birth experience and salvation, but the unwilling hardens his heart over and over. The very same manifestation of the mercy of God leads in the case of the one to salvation and life, and in that of the other to death. Each person decides his own destiny.

2. Human Free Will

This narrative illustrates how human choices and divine purposes can coexist.

Proverbs 21:1 (NKJV): “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

This proverb suggests that while humans make choices, God’s will ultimately guides the course of history to fulfill His good purpose of redemption.

3. The Problem of Evil

God can use even the evil intentions and actions of individuals to fulfill His righteous plan.

Genesis 50:20 (NKJV): “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”

Joseph’s words to his brothers encapsulate a principle that can be applied to the story of Pharaoh: God can bring about good through human evil, using it to accomplish His divine purposes.

Conclusion

The narrative of Pharaoh hardening his heart in Exodus presents the role of human responsibility in making decisions. Through this story, the Bible reveals God’s power, justice, and faithfulness, encouraging believers to trust in His sovereign plan even when it is beyond human understanding. Ultimately, this story serves as a profound theological lesson. It challenges us to reflect on the nature of God, the reality of human free will, and the ways in which God’s purposes are accomplished in the world.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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