First, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Second, why was it hardened? Finally, how do these passages from Exodus and Romans apply to us?
I. Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart Before or After Pharaoh Hardened His Own Heart
This question is not unlike ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg.’ (All those who believe the biblical account of creation will know that the answer is ‘the chicken’.)
However, before we examine this question, we need to ascertain the condition of Pharaoh’s heart before Moses even arrives with a message from God. Was the heart of Pharaoh tender; did the evidence prior to his formal encounter with God indicate that he had neither inclination towards right or wrong? Had God not spoken to this man, would he have been found to be a just and righteous man?
Not at all. Every evidence we see before the arrival of Moses points to the very opposite reality. This is the man, who before Moses was born had ordered that every male child, born to the Hebrews, to be thrown into the Nile. Let us not waste any time making the case that Pharaoh had started out as a blank sheet neither inclined to wickedness nor to righteousness. The New Testament scripture will make the declaration that there is none righteous, not one.
This is a universal statement according to Romans 3. It applies not only to despots and dictators, but to youngest infants alive. Have you not observed an infant, who can neither walk, nor talk but who has been deprived of the thing they want most, be it a rattle, a bottle or a dolly? Have you not seen them a murderous rage that declares: ‘If I could talk I would curse you and had I control over my own limbs I would kill you – I hate you, because you have deprived me of what I want.’
By the time we grow to adulthood, we have learned to mask the beast within, to keep hidden the most wicked edges of our sin nature – but let none deny, that the sweetest little old lady, and the gentlest little old man have living within them a heart that has been hard and sinful from the moment of conception.
So I begin by saying that Pharaoh’s heart was naturally hard, as are the hearts of all humans.
Does this mean that God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart?
No. I believe that Pharaoh was sinful enough to damn himself to hell without any help; however the Word of God had a SUPER-HARDENING effect upon Pharaoh. That was God’s intent.
This is where things get interesting. Some commentators interpret Pharaoh’s response to God’s command in the following way.
(a) God commands through Moses that Pharoah should, ‘Let my people go.’
(b) Pharaoh hears the command, but hardens his heart repeatedly.
(c) After repeated ‘willful’ hardenings God takes over and hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
The Western world has an inclination to applaud this interpretation as it seems conform itself to our humanistic understanding of free will. We want to believe that any person is equally free to choose obedience or disobedience.
That is NOT, however, what the text says. Nor is it how the apostle Paul, writing thousands of years later, understands it.
Here is the sequence as scripture reveals it.
(a) God sends Moses to Pharaoh with a message and ALSO tells him that Pharaoh will refuse, because God intends to harden his heart. (Ex 4:21; 7:3)
(b) God commands through Moses the Pharaoh should, ‘Let my people go.’
(c) Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, in spite of disastrous plagues.
(d) God wrests his people from Pharaoh’s hand and then hardens him once more to destroy the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea.
It is important to point out that the earliest two references to hardening, before the first plague has fallen, state: ‘I will harden his heart.’
During the interplay between Moses and Pharaoh we see some occasions where the text declares that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and other places where the text declares that God hardened his heart. But we cannot deny that God has determined it before Moses even sets foot in Egypt again.
When we spring forward to Romans 9:14-16 Paul uses the story of Pharaoh as evidence that there is no injustice on God’s part in electing some to salvation and condemning the rest.
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
Paul makes the case that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is in no way unjust, because he is dealing with Pharaoh in the way his sin deserves. Rid yourself of the idea that sinners have some inherent ‘right’ to mercy. God could condemn all the world in justice and holiness today. He does not owe it to Egypt or America or Canada to save any. But in order to display the fullness of his glory, in love he sends his Son to redeem, at enormous price, people from every tribe and tongue and nation – by definition, he sends his Son to save the world.
II. Why Does God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?
There are two answers to this question. The first is explicit in the text, the second is implicit.
Below are the texts that spell out the explicit reason that God ordained the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: that God should be glorified. Glorified before the eyes of the Hebrew people by the great signs and wonders that would redeem them; glorified before the nations and peoples of the world; and glorified for all time.
This was God’s intent, and this was the exact result.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Exodus 10:1-2 ESV)
(God addressing Pharaoh through Moses.) 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 ESV)
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so. (Exodus 14:4 ESV)
(Moses song after passing through the Red Sea.) The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased. (Exodus 15:14-16 ESV)
(Rahab, the prostitute, describing her own people.) For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:10-11 ESV)
Down through the history of Israel we hear the story recounted and retold – the story of the Exodus and God’s glory in creating a people by his own power and will. Truly God’s glory RESOUNDS through the history of Israel. (See Ex 20:2; Lev 11:45; 19:36; 22:33; 25:38; 26:13; Num 15:41; Deut 5:6; 6:12; 8:14; 13:5; 13:10; 20:1; 1 Ki 12:28; 17:36; Neh 9:18; Ps 81:10; Am 2:10)
Forty years later as Joshua leads the nation to the walls of Jericho, we hear on the lips of Rahab the testimony that the Canaanite nations tremble before the God of the Israelites, because they have heard of the Exodus and of God’s power to crush his enemies (Joshua 2:10-11).
Four thousand years later the world still knows the story. Indeed, God’s power has resonated around the world and down through the ages. This was his purpose, and his purpose was achieved. (We have not one but two major motion pictures and a major animation inspired by the story – albeit bent to Hollywood’s ends.)
There is also an implicit reason. Paul uses Pharaoh to exemplify the opposite side of unconditional election: For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:15-16)
The first definition listed by Dictionary.com for mercy is: ‘compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power…’
Mercy can never be demanded. Mercy is never a right belonging to anyone, let alone everyone. The person, towards whom mercy is shown, is a person who has fallen into the power of the one who shows mercy.
Mercy releases the one who should be rightly bound. Mercy does not demand payment, in spite of debt owed. Mercy offers life, where everyone expects death.
God is free in bestowing mercy.
God is free in withholding mercy.
To some, according to the mystery of his will (Eph 1:3-10), he extends mercy, which they did not deserve. To the rest, God gives justice.
The implicit reason that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, is that is exactly what his sin had bought him – the wages of sin are death (Rom 6:23), and God settled Pharaoh’s bill with his own justice.
Let no one be confused. Nowhere in scripture is the faintest suggestion that God’s mercy extends to every human. His common graces may send rain upon the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45), but his mercy is determinative. God gives mercy freely to whomever he will, and when God extends mercy, it never fails to achieve its objective (2 Cor 4:4-6). But in many cases, God does not extend mercy, and who can fault him, or complain that giving justice to the guilty is unjust?
It is the extension of mercy that changes the trajectory of the soul. Many may come under the preaching of the gospel – but the result of the gospel in the reprobate is merely to harden the sinful heart; while the result of the gospel upon the elect is to bring forth saving faith. The reprobate freely reject God and fairly receive the wages of sin. The elect graciously are given sight, and with it mercy.
III. Application for Today
I believe there are a couple of important applications to carry away from this study.
First, I believe that the doctrine of election is one of the most hopeful doctrines in all of scripture, in spite of the certain knowledge that there are some people who will never respond to the gospel. We have no way of knowing who will and who will not respond – but the doctrine of election teaches that as long as a person lives, there is reason to believe that they might yet be converted by the gospel. EVEN if they have rejected the message many times before.
In 2 Timothy 2:10 Paul writes to Timothy from a prison cell where he is chained as a criminal. He declares that he is suffering for the gospel, but he goes on to state in verse 10: Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. This firmly rejects any form of hyper-calvinism that would be disinterested in missions or evangelism. It is the very fact that among the masses are the elect that fuels Paul’s endurance of suffering.
Paul knows better than most the strange workings of God’s mercy. When did Paul first hear the gospel? We don’t know for certain, but we know that he heard it preached at least once with power from the lips of Stephen and rejected it. He held the cloaks of the men who were stoning Stephen. From there he went on to press the persecution of the church – until that providential moment on the road to Damascus when Jesus broke through.
The declaration that God is free in giving mercy should fuel us to preach the gospel even to those who seem hardest to it.
Second, these passages should encourage us to hold fast upon the Word of God even when the powers that be show no inclination to hear us or heed us. God’s glory can be revealed both in those who humble themselves under his Word and those who are hardened by it. We may have to suffer terribly for a time, but the same God who brought Pharaoh to his knees is enthroned in heaven. Let us be so bold as to take our stand and proclaim the Word of God, believing that God will glorify himself through it.