(“Questions From Israel’s Exodus” series: post #8)
Scholars have long debated which of Egypt’s Pharaohs was the Pharaoh of the Exodus story. Some of the candidates are Amenhotep II, Raamses I, Sethi I, Rameses II, or Merenptah. What isn’t up for debate, though, is the fact that this Pharaoh had no desire whatsoever to release the Israelites from their Egyptian bondage.
Sometime shortly after Moses’ departure from Midian, God told him, “When you stand before Pharaoh, make sure that you perform the miracles (the signs, the wonders) that I have empowered you to do.” But then God foretold what was going to happen. He said, “But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21, N.K.J.V.). This marks the beginning of a fascinating theme in the Exodus storyline as time and time again mention is made of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened concerning releasing the Israelites.
Three different Hebrew words get translated as “harden” or “hardened” in these passages. One word means “to be strong,” which relates to rank stubbornness.” Another word means “to be heavy,” which relates to willful unresponsiveness. Another word means “to be hard or severe,” which relates to determined obstinance. Working together these three Hebrew words describe Pharaoh’s response to the request to set the Israelites free.
As for how Pharaoh’s heart actually became hard, the relevant passages break down into three categories:
- Nine times the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart: 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:4; 14:8.
- Three times the text says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart: 8:15; 8:32; 9:34.
- Six times the text simply reports that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened without specifically identifying which party did the hardening: 7:13; 7:14; 7:22; 8:19; 9:7; 9:35.
While some people recoil at the idea of God actually making a person’s heart harder (more committed) in regards to rebelliousness and sin, the book of Exodus isn’t the only place where the Bible teaches that God doesn’t always beg sinners to repent. For example, Romans 1:18-32 says of certain people, “God gave them up” and “God gave them over.” This giving up/over means that God basically said to these determined sinners, “All right, if you don’t want to worship Me and submit yourselves to Me, HAVE AT IT. Go indulge in your sins as much as you desire. Dive down to the deepest depths of what you want to do.”
Another example is 2 Thessalonians 2:6-12, where we learn that there is coming a day when God will send a certain group of people “strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” N.K.J.V.). In the context of that passage, the term “the lie” is used in reference to the Antichrist. But why would God send people strong delusion to get them to believe the great lie that will be the Antichrist and his agenda? The answer is that these people will be ones who have refused to “receive the love of the truth, that they might saved” (N.K.J.V.). Here again the point is that God will give these people a push to take them further down the road their attitudes and actions have already shown they want to travel. As in the Romans 1:18-32 passage, it’s not God who begins the process of rebellion. The people do that all by themselves.
This brings us to the Pharaoh of the Exodus story. Did God harden that man’s heart toward releasing the Israelites? Yes, He did. But it’s not like the man’s heart was initially soft toward the Israelites and God forced a pole reversal. God didn’t say, “Wait a minute, if this guy releases the Israelites of his own volition, I won’t get the glory for the deliverance. So, I’d better harden his heart so that I can ride in and save the day.” No, the fact that this Pharaoh had already ascended to the throne and had done absolutely nothing about changing the plight of the Israelites proved that he had no intentions of ever granting them their freedom. All God did was say (in essence), “Okay, since that is your attitude, I’m going to put it on steroids and use it to accomplish my sovereign work.”
Another verse that can help us understand what happened is Exodus 9:16. There God speaks through Moses and says to Pharaoh, “But indeed for this 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” (N.K.J.V.). This verse is important enough to be quoted in the New Testament in Romans 9:17, and both verses match up perfectly with the Bible’s consistent teaching that God is the one who raises up rulers and places them in positions of authority (Daniel 2:21; 4:17; 4:25; 4:32; 5:21; Jeremiah 27:5-7; Romans 13:1).
What we must understand, though, is that God raising up each ruler does not mean that each ruler will be a godly person who will make godly decisions and do godly things. To the contrary, if a person is not submitted to God, and yet God still raises that person up to a position of ruling authority, that means that God has plans to use that ruler in a way other than the one we might expect. This was the case with the Pharaoh of the Exodus. God knew ahead of time that this wicked man saw no reason why the Israelites should be released, and yet God still raised him up to be Pharaoh. Why? It was because God planned all along to use the man’s inborn stubborn rebelliousness to create the backdrop for the ten plagues with which He would judge Egypt. Think of it this way: If God couldn’t receive glory from that Pharaoh’s life by way of submission and servitude, He would receive it by way of breaking that man before the audience of all Egypt.
Summing things up, the answer to the question, “Does God harden hearts?” is, “Yes, He sometimes does.” What He never does, though, is harden hearts that are soft. As for why He sometimes hardens hearts that are already trending hard, the only way that He can glean glory from such lives is to glean it by way of judgment. This makes the equation read as follows: the harder the heart = the greater the judgment = the greater the glory gleaned. You see, God has determined that He will receive glory from each person’s life. It’s just a matter of what brand of glory it will be and how He will go about receiving it.