The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart
In Exodus 5, we see Moses first encountering Pharaoh after God commissions him to lead His people out of Egyptian bondage. It began with a simple request, but Pharaoh responded, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Exod. 5:2). Let us take this first encounter between Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh as an introduction to help understand the problem many find in discussing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. While the contest is going on between God through Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, at the same time, God is
manifesting and extending His longsuffering nature to Pharaoh. When Pharaoh told Moses, “I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel go,” he did not take any time to investigate: “Who is this God? Tell me something about him. I would like some information.” However, he immediately makes his answer without investigating further or asking any questions. Therefore, Pharaoh made his decision from the very beginning that he was not interested. This is very important to understand as we go further into the text and see his continual rejection of God. In addition, notice the heart of Moses’ request: “The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword” (Exod. 5:3). All Moses requested was a special, yet simple, appeal for three days to go and worship. Was this entreaty unfair or unreasonable? God could have challenged Pharaoh immediately and said, “Let my people go completely, or your firstborn will die.” Nevertheless, God did not do this, which shows His longsuffering nature. Pharaoh did not comply, but made their burdens more difficult.
The background of what we are studying here in Exodus is a prophecy that God told Abram, which occurs in fulfillment with the Exodus from Egypt: “And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance” (Gen. 15:13-14). Notice they would be afflicted. Is it just for God to judge a nation that afflicts another people, whether it is His own people or whomever it may be? Yes, because that is characteristic of God. Moreover, God predicts this prophecy to Moses: “And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go” (Exod. 3:19- 20). Thus, God knew that Pharaoh would not let them go, but no reference is made here to God doing anything to the heart of Pharaoh to keep him from letting them go. Again, God says the same thing (Exod. 7:3-4), because nothing has taken place yet.
The first occurrence of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is in Exodus 7:13: “And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had said.” Please note the successive passages that discuss this difficult subject:
“And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the Lord had said. And Pharaoh turned and went into his house, neither did he set his heart to this also” (Exod. 7:22-23). Please note that the ASV states, “And Pharaoh turned and went into his house, neither did he lay even this to heart” (Exod. 7:23).
“But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart, and hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had said… Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, This is the finger of God: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had said… And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go” (Exod. 8:15, 19, 32).
- “And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go… And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had spoken unto Moses” (Exod. 9:7, 12).
- “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem” (Exod. 13:15). The marginal rendering of the ASV has, “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh hardened himself against letting us go….”
- After leaving Egypt, God says, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honored upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord. And they did so” (Exod. 14:4).
- “And I, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honor upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten me honor upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17-18). Note that God not only says this about Pharaoh, but now about all the Egyptians. This passage is very seldom ever even read when discussing this matter of hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
Therefore, if we want to understand about what the Bible is talking concerning this subject of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, we need to get the whole picture, because to read just the verses that mention the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and not read all these other passages to see the whole picture is misleading.
Now, let us observe other passages to help understand this difficulty. Following the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, God gave them a law by which to abide (Exod. 20:2-6), connecting their command to worship God and avoid idolatry with what they experienced in their time in Egypt (cf. Exod. 12:12). How did they get to that point? Go back in time and search through history to when Joseph, son of Jacob, is in Egypt standing before Pharaoh and interpreting his dreams (Gen. 41:37-40). Consider that Joseph is in a position to present the God of heaven and earth to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. We see this a little later on when the sons of Israel find the money in their sacks that Joseph had secretly hid therein, and they are afraid of what will happen; in fact, they are honest and admit what happened to the steward (Gen. 43:18-21). Yet, note the reply of the Egyptian steward: “Peace be to you, fear not: your God, and the God of your father, hath given you treasure in your sacks: I had your money” (Gen. 43:23, emp. SW). He has the knowledge of the true and living God—where did he obtain this knowledge? He did so through Joseph. Yet, the next book transitions with the profound statement: “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). What was the attitude of this Pharaoh towards God? Joseph brings the name of God into Egypt and before Egypt, since all came to him during the famine for relief. Joseph, symbolic of the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, would be a manifestation that this God is the only true and living God. What if the people refuse that knowledge, and do not care, turning aside to bow down to idols? This is what is happening in Egypt, which is what God says in Exodus 20:5-6. While God says this to the Israelites, He said it in the background of the very experience they had encountered. The Egyptians worshipped idols, regardless of the name of God introduced to them through Joseph, because a king arose that knew not Joseph, and the blessings he had provided to Egypt. Consequently, this Pharaoh knew not God, but the important thing to remember is that he did not care to learn anything about Him. In contrast with him are those who obeyed and who had been blessed – the Israelites.
Furthermore, consider a study of Romans 1:18-2:11 in view of this background. Here is an ungodly and unrighteous Gentile ruler against which the wrath of God is revealed (Rom. 1:18). Yet, God manifest Himself to this Pharaoh and all the Egyptians through Joseph (cf. Rom. 1:19). If Pharaoh and the Egyptians cast off the knowledge of God that Joseph and his family brought them, who was responsible for that? Thus, if God, by some direct act, hardened the heart of Pharaoh, making it impossible for him to believe and accept the evidence of Joseph (as Calvinists allege), then indeed, he would not have been without excuse (cf. Rom. 1:20). Yet, Paul declared, “…so that they are without excuse.” The application fits perfectly with Pharaoh and Egypt. If the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart means something by direct action of God that God did, then indeed Pharaoh would not have been responsible for what he had done. However, this passage says they are without excuse. Pharaoh and Egypt became unthankful, and glorified not God (cf. Rom. 1:21). As a result, they became idolatrous in their polytheism, and turned aside to idolatrous worship (cf. Rom. 1:22-23). Therefore, why did God give them up? Here is the judgment of God that He is bringing upon them as a result of their rejection (cf. Rom. 1:24-27). He gave them over to a “reprobate mind” (Rom. 1:28), which the marginal rendering has, “…a mind void of judgment”. Now, with all the evidence presented to Pharaoh so that finally he would relent and then change his mind, has not a man reached the state in life where he is void of making a proper moral decision when he saw all that God did through the plagues? Even his own magicians of the false religion said to him, “You are seeing the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19)! Still, Pharaoh hardened his heart against the very counsel of his own priests. Here is a man who brings upon himself the inability to make decisions that are proper and right by hardening himself (just as the Bible says). When that takes place, then the judgment of God follows that. Among the sins that follow are “covetousness” and “murder” (Rom. 1:29)—why did Pharaoh not want Israel to leave? Was it not because of covetousness? Moreover, what did Pharaoh try to do when the Israelites began to multiply? He murdered the male babies. Continuing in Romans 1:30-31, how many times did Pharaoh, when under pressure because of the plagues, call Moses in and say, “Alright, Moses, you can go,” and then turn right around and break his word? What is that called? That is “covenant breaking.” In other words, we are reading exact descriptions in principle of the things taking place in Exodus. Furthermore, does a man have any kind of human natural affection when he commands babies to be murdered? Has not something happened within a man when he has no feeling to the degree of commanding babies to be killed? Would this not be a sad state? How much mercy did Pharaoh have? Thus, how could he miss the judgment of God when He brought plague after plague before him, and even his own priests admitted that they were from the true God? According to what we have read, we have seen a picture of Pharaoh, and the text says that knowing the judgment of God, he is worthy of death (Rom. 1:32). Nevertheless, let us continue to read through the chapter break in Romans as if it was not even there. Here is Pharaoh, as the king, who determined that these people ought to die in judging Israel (cf. Rom. 2:1). Yet, remember the manifestations of God’s goodness to Egypt through Joseph (cf. Rom. 2:2-4). What is the purpose of God’s goodness in Romans 2:4? Look at the amount of time God gave them with Joseph and Jacob’s family moving down there and through the time of Moses. God intends for His goodness to lead every man to repentance, not just some men. Did God manifest His goodness toward Pharaoh? Sure, He did. Therefore, the purpose was for God to lead Pharaoh to repentance. Is there God on one side working to lead a man to repentance, and on the other side making it impossible for him to repent (as Calvinism would have to attest in the case of Pharaoh)? If so, God is fighting against Himself, and I do not believe that at all. Thus, Paul continues to say that the hardness of heart is related to impenitence (cf. Rom. 2:5). Every time Pharaoh changed his mind, it was a matter of prudence and not penitence, for it if was penitence, he would not have changed his mind with Moses after he said, “You can go.” The fact that he changed his mind shows the change that took place was prudence and not repentance. Yet, the goodness of God is to lead to repentance, not prudence. Paul continues to discuss the fact that there is no distinction with God (Rom. 2:6-11). He treats everyone—Jews and Gentiles—alike! Thus, here is a description of what took place in Exodus, and the principles by which God works.
Furthermore, when Peter declared, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9), does not the term “all” include Pharaoh? Consider how Pharaoh treated Moses (cf. Matt. 10:40- 42). Was not Moses a prophet? How did Pharaoh receive Moses? He did so neither as a prophet nor as a righteous man! Yet, God had given an age-old principle in Genesis 12:3 concerning the relationship of others with His people: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” In other words, one who receives a prophet is one who recognizes the God of Abraham, and thereby, God will bless him. The one who receives a righteous man recognizes the righteousness that comes through that means and consequently, God blesses him. Jesus had reiterated this principle with the illustration of a child in Luke 9:46-48. Was Pharaoh humble, or did he want to be great? What was Pharaoh’s attitude toward the Israelite male children? Was this not a manifestation of the kind of heart Pharaoh had?
In the next place, when you read from the King James Version, I do not think we would have any problem really with the statement that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” Yet, when the statement is made that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” that may give us some problem. I might suggest that when we have a potential problem in the King James Version, we ought to check with another reliable translation, such as the American Standard Version, because the margin of the text in various places helps with the statements made concerning the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In fact, the American Standard Version gives a rendering in every passage either in the text or in the margin that differ from the King James Version. Actually, three Hebrew words are translated “hardened” in the King James Version for one English word. This shows there is a distinction between them. Note the following:
- In Exodus 7:13, the margin of the ASV says, “Pharaoh’s heart was strong.”
- In Exodus 7:14, the text of the ASV says, “stubborn,” and the margin says, “heavy.” Note that.
- In Exodus 8:15, the text and the margin of the ASV says, “heavy.”
- In Exodus 8:19, the margin of the ASV says, “strong.”
- In Exodus 8:32, the margin of the ASV says, “made heavy.”
- In Exodus 9:7, the text of the ASV says, “stubborn,” and the margin says, “heavy.”
- In Exodus 9:12, the margin of the ASV says, “made strong.”
- In Exodus 9:34, the margin of the ASV says, “made heavy.”
- In Exodus 9:35, the margin of the ASV says, “made strong.”
- In Exodus 10:1, the margin of the ASV says, “made heavy.”
- In Exodus 10:20, the margin of the ASV says, “made strong” (cf. Exod. 10:27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17).
Therefore, in every instance, we see the text or the marginal rendering of the American Standard Version has either “made strong,” “made heavy,” or “was stubborn,” denoting the attitude of Pharaoh’s heart.
In Exodus 3:19-20 and Exodus 4:21, God made the announcement concerning the wonders that He would do before Pharaoh. I would like to make several comments about miracles from some passages in the New Testament that I believe would be worthwhile to help us understand something about the miracles in relation to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This would show the part that God had in the matter through the miracles that He did to give the occasion for Pharaoh to harden His heart, for it is in this sense that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. First, in Mark 6:52, Mark records of the disciples of Jesus Christ, “For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” Think about the miracles that God performed through Moses before Pharaoh, when he did not consider the significance of the miracles. Thus, when Mark makes the statement here in Mark 6:52, then it is not that they did not see the miracle or think about it but that they did not take into consideration the significance of that miracle. Failing to see the significance of the miracle, the Bible makes the statement that “their heart was hardened.” Apply this to the wonders that Moses did before Pharaoh. He failed to see the significance of those miracles, or even listen to his own magicians and those involved in enchantments when they finally said, “This is the finger of God.” Here is the significance of the miracles, but Pharaoh did not look at it from that standpoint. Thus, if some of the Lord’s disciples failed to consider the meaning and significance of the miracle, and “their heart was hardened,” why can we not see the same principle concerning Pharaoh? That is exactly what took place. Second, two chapters over, Mark records Jesus warning His disciples about “the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:14-21). After this second miraculous feeding of the multitudes, a failure to grasp the significance of that miracle produced the words of our Lord: “Have ye your heart yet hardened?” Third, in John 12:37-40, John quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, which gives the background of the statement: “He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.” God commissioned Isaiah, and he had seen the glory of the Lord in the vision. God told Isaiah after he volunteered to go to the people, “The heart of this people is made fat”—in other words, God tells Isaiah to go and preach, but they are not going to listen to anything he would have to say. Of course, the ultimate end of them not listening will be the Babylonian captivity. Thus, there is the principle and the process of the hardening that took place, even among God’s own people, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Therefore, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not something that is special, unusual, unique or that which does not have application to anyone except Pharaoh. To read it in that sense is to misread what the Bible says concerning the matter.
Consider some passages in Proverbs to help us with this matter.
- In Proverbs 21:29, the margin says, “As for the upright, he considered his way.” Think about the account when Moses first went before Pharaoh, and told him that God requests his people to go. Pharaoh immediately said, “Who is God? I am not about to do that!” That is a wicked man that hardeneth his face, that is, his heart.
- “Happy is the man that feareth always: but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief” (Prov. 28:14). About whom does this refer? This refers to anybody. Does that include Pharaoh? It surely does; he is just like everybody else. Therefore, when Pharaoh hardened his heart, this is exactly what happened to him.
- “He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Prov. 29:1). What did God do to Pharaoh through Moses? There were the miracles and plagues that Moses presented to Pharaoh, and he would first let them go, but then he would change his mind. Therefore, he hardened his neck or heart. He became stiff-necked, rebellious, and suffered the consequences that came from it.
- Solomon declared, “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle” (Prov. 18:19). Why? This is true because of the very process about which we are talking—being offended causes one not to give the consideration that he ought to reprove, instruct and such like. When Moses stood before Pharaoh and told him to let these people go, what effect did it have on Pharaoh? He was offended at the very idea! That is shown in the context when he added the burdens to the nation of Israel.
Therefore, we have here some divine principles from Proverbs that have general application to Pharaoh as much as they do to other people as well.
Finally, in Romans 9:14-17, Paul refers to the case of Pharaoh, which he took from Exodus 9:16. When we read that, it sounds as if God, in a direct way, raised up Pharaoh by some special means in order that He might manifest His power. Instead of “raised up,” the American Standard Version renders it to be “I will cause thee to stand.” The problem develops from a failure to remember from where we come—remember Paul quoted this very passage. Consider another passage that we have already seen to see how and when God raised him up. Then, if we can, we can learn something about what is taking place. In Exodus 1:8, we have the explanation of how God raised up Pharaoh and the very statement of when it took place. Is anything direct, special, unusual or unique about this taking place? Did God, by some special means, bring him to power, overruling Pharaoh’s own will and other things involved? He absolutely did not. “Strong’s Concordance of the Bible” defines the word “arose” in Exodus 1:8 to come from a primitive root word which means, “to be.” We can see the same identical word in Judges 2:10, which is exactly what this says about Pharaoh: “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” To what does it have reference? It has reference to that generation that grew up after Joshua and all the elders who outlived Joshua. Thus, if we put God in the place for Joseph in Exodus 1:8, then we will have the identical statement made. Did God do anything special to cause that generation to arise in Judges 2:10 that knew not God, or was that according to their own direction? To answer this question, let us see the context of Judges 2:6-7—this generation of people has grown up. It is a second generation, not the generation that saw their deliverance from Egyptian bondage; they only heard about it. They had no first-hand knowledge of it. Therefore, their deliverance from Egyptian bondage did not have all that meaning and significance to them. What will take place? Joshua dies in Judges 2:8-9, and now notice Judges 2:10. Consequently, go back to Pharaoh. Joseph goes to Egypt; think about all the things that took place with him in Egypt as a manifestation of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He saves all of them from famine. The Egyptians have first-hand knowledge of what Joseph, a servant of God, has done to save Egypt from famine and starvation. The result was that they recognized the God of Joseph, granted liberties to Jacob and his descendants to live in Goshen, manifesting that kind of attitude towards him, with the steward and even Pharaoh himself acknowledging the God of Joseph in Genesis 41 and Genesis 43. Here are people symbolic of recognizing the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Yet, time has passed (Exod. 1:8). Those who lived to see and experience the blessing Joseph brought in Egypt are all dead and gone. Another Pharaoh arose who had not lived through this. What is the result? He knew not Joseph and did not appreciate him. In so doing, he turned aside to idolatry, instead of recognizing God. Thus, in Judges 2:10-11, we have an identical principle of how God raised up another generation of the descendants of Abraham, who forgot about the truth made known and never saw the deliverance. They did not recognize the importance of God and turned aside to idolatry. Therefore, what is the difference in Romans 9:17 and Exodus 1:8? I believe that they are identical; there is not one whit of difference! I realize the fact that God is always in control, but that same thing was true with the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, in Judges 2:10. Had not God made a covenant with Abraham that from his seed, all nations would be blessed? He absolutely did. Suppose the generation in Judges 2:10 had remained and followed that course of life. What would happen to the promise? It would have gone down in default. Yet, who made these people do what they did? What caused them to change the path they were following? Read of the judges and their deliverance throughout the book, and we will see the principle involved. For example, when the Midianites overran the Israelites, they cried unto the Lord. Here, instead of resisting, they became penitent. What about Pharaoh when the plagues were brought upon Egypt? Instead of repenting, he resisted. Therefore, the process involved took place.
I need to point out one more important fact about this—when we look at Romans 9, Pharaoh represents the entire Egyptian nation, not just the individual, Pharaoh. This is also true in Exodus. As king or head, “Pharaoh” is symbolic of the Egyptian nation. One might say, “I do not believe that.” Well, let us see if it is just Pharaoh alone that is involved. In Romans 9:11-12, Jacob and Esau stand for nations, not individuals. The same thing is true for Pharaoh. Next, notice the plural pronouns “we” and “us” in Exodus 1:8-10. Was there anything direct by God to cause Pharaoh to make a decision as that? Pharaoh is not the last king who has made a decision as that. The truth of the matter is in Isaiah 30, God’s own people made an alliance with Egypt in case of war, and God condemned them because of their lack of faith in him. The point and the principle are the same. Then, notice the pronoun “they” in Exodus 1:11-14. Afterwards, when Pharaoh charged all his people concerning the murder of the Hebrews boys (Exod. 1:22), are the Egyptians going to be involved in the death of these children, or just Pharaoh? Why then would it say that he charged all his people? Therefore, the nation is guilty before God just as surely as Pharaoh, which is why we see their heart was hardened also. In fact, Pharaoh stands as a symbol for the nation of Egypt (Exod. 3:7-10; 6:5-6). Thus, we see the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage had to do with God’s power over the nation as such (Exod. 7:4-5), and with Pharaoh only as a symbol of that nation, which is the very point Paul made in Romans 9. In fact, we later see some Egyptians who are beginning to recognize that the God of Moses is indeed God (Exod. 9:19-21); they are not following Pharaoh anymore.
Therefore, when we look at the idea of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, it covers much more about which we often think. May God continue to bless us as we study difficult topics as this one.