According to Exodus 9:12, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was a tumultuous portion of the biblical narrative and serves as a complex and contentious topic among theologians, scholars, and believers alike. The notion that God actively caused someone’s heart to harden, particularly in the context of such a significant conflict, raises challenging questions about divine justice and the free will bestowed upon humans.
The dramatic altercation between Pharaoh and God about the destiny of the Israelites in slavery presents many questions. Was God responsible for how Pharaoh hardened his heart? If that is the case, why would He put up with it? How did this conflict get to such a dangerous level, and what lessons can we draw from Pharaoh’s fall from power?
What Is A Hardened Heart?
There’s a good reason why the Bible provided a warning about not hardening the heart in Hebrews 3:8. Mark 8:17–18 also shows that hardened, stubborn, and sinful hearts dull people’s ability to comprehend the truth, possibly resulting in disobedience and even hostility against the living God. Pharaoh’s intentional wickedness, hatred, and refusal to repent were at the heart of the problem.
1 Timothy 4:1–2 describes an extremely hardened heart as a “seared conscience.” According to Romans 1:18–24, 28, God abandons such people to their evil inclinations, which come from a corrupt and wicked soul. Arrogance and pride can also mislead and harden the heart, as stated in Obadiah 1:3–4 and Daniel 5:20–21.
During the first encounter between Pharaoh and Moses in Exodus 7:13–14, Pharaoh’s heart “became hard.” The Hebrew term for “became hard” (enunciated, khazaq) is neither passive nor does it specify who is acting first. It is a “stative” word, which means it does not specify whether Pharaoh or God is doing what is happening.
The NIV leaves room for interpretation, which may have been the intention. Unfortunately, some later translations have substituted their own meaning for the original, changing the word to “was hardened.” In other words, the original active verb is transformed into a passive one.
Who Hardened The Pharaoh’s Heart?
At times, it is said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart towards the Lord, whereas in others it is stated that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God either directly or indirectly tells Moses that he would be hardening Pharaoh’s heart at many points in the Exodus story. In Exodus 4:21, as God was calling on Moses to return to Egypt, He reiterated that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites leave Egypt.
To see why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, one must read Exodus 9:15–16. In the passage, God told Pharaoh: “I could have reached out My hand by now and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you out. But I raised you up for this very purpose, so that I could demonstrate My power to you and that My Name might be proclaimed throughout all the earth.”
As should now be obvious, the answer to “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” was that it was His own deliberate decision. The Bible states categorically that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Whether it was the ten plagues or the many warnings that were sent to him, God knew that Pharaoh’s own heart was unmoved.
According to Exodus 5:2, Pharaoh’s initial response to Moses’ demand that he release Israel from slavery was, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” This verse doesn’t directly address the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, but it does demonstrate his unbelief and hesitation to listen to God. At this point, Pharaoh had positioned himself as an adversary to God.
God called Pharaoh to be humble and admit that He alone is his authority and that Pharaoh could not, and should not, redefine good and evil based on Egyptian terms. Sadly, Pharaoh refused, and as stated in Exodus 7:13 and 8:15, he hardened his own heart.
Additionally, other verses speak about Pharaoh’s defiance of God. According to Exodus 3:19, the Lord told Moses, “that unless compelled by a powerful hand, Egypt’s king will not let you go.” In Exodus 7:14, we learn that Pharaoh’s own heart was hard like a rock and that he would not release Israel.
Exodus 13:15 adds that Pharaoh was stubborn and refused to release Israel. Some Christians may believe that God’s hardness contributed to Pharaoh’s intransigence. But when it came to humility, Pharaoh was not even close. He foolishly chose to oppose God in pursuit of all the glory and prestige in his realm.
Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?
God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not an act of arbitrary or manipulative whimsy on His part. As a matter of fact, God has the ability to execute anyone at will. According to the Bible, there are scenarios in which God will cease fighting for us and give us free rein over our life (Romans 1:24).
Romans 1 also discusses how God gave humanity free will, while we used it to worship idols because we didn’t want to be responsible for our own lives. It also talks about humanity’s sexual immorality and how that morphed into outright depravity when humans were in command. Then every conceivable sin and immoral act unfolded.
When God hands us over to our very own control, we inevitably harden our hearts against God’s will. Due to our fallen nature, we naturally resist God’s authority, and as a result, we suffer the consequences of our sins.
God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in the scripture to imply that He let Pharaoh do anything he wanted. It is inevitable when humans are consumed by evil, the darkness in their souls ultimately leads them to tragedy and death.
He simply stopped contending with Pharaoh, gave him the illuminating grace of warnings, and let him do as he pleased so that he may learn the lesson the hard way. This is not a cruel approach, but rather one that is occasionally required when dealing with stubborn individuals. God, with His formidable spirit, allowed Pharaoh to go through the pain and catastrophe before giving in, but even in those moments, Pharaoh refused to admit defeat before the Israelites’ Almighty God (Exodus 14:9–28).
What Can We Learn From The Pharaoh’s Story?
The bottom line is not for God to tell us that He orchestrates evil. Rather, the story is a cautionary tale to remind all of the earth, “Don’t be like Pharaoh!” The human heart and mind may take some very strange turns when the wrong desires of our flawed nature are allowed to run unchecked.
God’s heart is merciful and kind, and He will always give us second opportunities. However, as seen with Pharaoh’s hard heart, there are occasions when the detrimental habits of a person become so ingrained that there is no turning back.
It is clear from God and Pharaoh’s showdown that the Creator is a master planner who employs human beings to carry out His plans. Moses was sent by God to face Pharaoh and free the enslaved Israelites from Egypt, and He made use of Pharaoh to show off His might. Both individuals were specially selected by God to carry out their respective missions.
God can use evil to further his goals, but that doesn’t imply He planned it. Like Joseph’s brothers, Pharaoh is accountable for his own wrongdoing and judgment, yet no amount of human wrongdoing can stop God’s plan to save and bless all nations.