Whenever I began to consider what blog to choose for Exodus, my mind immediately jumped to the Pharaoh. Through the past year or so, a few people have posed concerns to me in regard to the Pharaoh and the passages speaking of God hardening his heart. I was never really sure of what answer I could confidently give; therefore, I really hoped that the question was relevant in a literary standpoint. After being given the “okay”, I began digging.
There are two questions that must be asked regarding the Pharaoh and his heart: the first being “Did God really harden his heart?” and the second being “What can we say about his eternal judgment?” This is relevant from a literary standpoint because we are given the implication from this piece of literature that God is just, loving, merciful, constant, and that he tempts no man (Ja. 1:13), so it is important to consider if God—in dealing with the Pharaoh— shows a character flaw or a contradiction in character. However, when researching the previously stated questions, the answers were soon discovered to be far more complex than a simple “yes” or “no” and “he went to Heaven”. Moreover, in order to answer the questions at hand, I not only searched for commentaries and outside resources, but I also considered it completely relevant to turn to other places in the Bible to find an answer.
For some, the answer could be found rather simply because in 1Sa. 6:6 it says, “Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?” This implies that the Pharaoh hardened his own heart; however, as you will soon see this is not quite conclusive enough to answer the question at hand due to the fact that in some parts of Exodus it says that the Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
First, I want to look at the narrative of Exodus and show how there are three different explanations for the hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart: the hardening by God (Ex. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8), the hardening by himself (Ex. 8:15,32; 9:34; 10:3; 13:15), and the hardening without specific origin (Ex. 7:13,14,22; 8:19; 9:7,35). The different explanations play an important role in that they allow the question, “Are they really any different?” to be posed. In other words, in each case did God do the hardening, in each case did Pharaoh do the hardening himself, or— for the really adventurous thinker—did his heart just harden by chance? The first two questions are to be answered in due time, but for the third is reserved for those of you who love a good challenge.
Next, in order to make sense of the occurrence of the Pharaoh’s heart hardening it is important to consider the question of, “Why would God harden the Pharaoh’s heart?” The answer to that is really the simplest of all answers in regard to the Pharaoh, and it can be found in Ex. 10:1-2; 14:17-18; 15:14-15; 18:10-11. The reason that God would harden the Pharaoh’s heart is found to be a threefold reason. The first reason being so that the Israelites would believe that God is who He claims to be and would follow Him, the second is so that the Egyptians would know that He is God and their gods are unreliable, and the third is so that neighboring nations would know that God is the one true God and would revere Him as such. In a nutshell, the reason that God would harden the Pharaoh’s heart to the point that the Egyptians are left in ruin is so that He could show his power, sovereignty, wrath, and glory.
Now, it is time to get in to the deep stuff by answering, “Did God harden the Pharaoh’s heart?” I will be posing my answer in two different parts: the first being from use of the Bible as reference to come to a conclusion, and the second being a use of external references.
When examining other Biblical references to the Pharaoh, there is a conclusion that be drawn that does not show a contradiction to the character of God being displayed in His dealings with the Pharaoh. In Exodus 9:16, when God is telling Moses what to say to Pharaoh, God says, “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.” This verse also made me ponder on yet another question. When it says that God raised the Pharaoh up for the purpose of showing His power, did He create the Pharaoh and proceed to mold the Pharaoh into the type of person he became? My answer to this question is no. I think that the answer to this question is found in John 19:11 and Rom. 13:1 in which we see that those that are in governing power are there by God’s allowance. I think that this verse is saying that God raised the Pharaoh (whoever he is) to the position of Pharaoh for the purpose of showing His power.
Another piece of the Bible to consider on this subject is Rom. 9:17-24 in which it says, “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.” (18) So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (19) You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (20) But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (21) Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (22) What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, (23) in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— (24) even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” Here we can find a quotation of what we had previously read in Exodus with some further enlightenment on the subject of the Pharaoh’s heart. Moreover, we have what brings me to the main question, “Did God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart?” The verses in Romans above (specifically verses 18 and 21) at first glance appear to imply that God had molded Pharaoh into the dishonorable piece of pottery that he appears to be in Exodus, and that He hardened him simply because He could. Moreover, when combined with 2Thes. 2:8-12 it would appear that God sent a strong delusion to Pharaoh to make his heart hardened. However, upon deeper search of these pottery verses in Romans, it is found that they are in reference to Jer. 18:1-10 in which the explanation is given that those pieces of dishonorable pottery can be made honorable by the potter: all it must do is conform to his will. Those pieces that are dishonorable are kept dishonorable only because of their lack of submission to the potter, and the potter essential stops working on the pottery. What can be surmised is that God makes a person dishonorable by not inflicting His will on them which is a result of that person not submitting to God. Therefore, when a person is made dishonorable by God, it is a removal of God’s influence from them, which is a result of that person refusing to acknowledge God and His commandments. Therefore, an answer can be given that when God hardened His heart, it was a result of God giving the Pharaoh over to his own desire of having a hardened heart. Some more supporting evidence within the Bible of this can be found in 2Ti. 2:20-21, Rom. 1:28, Ja. 1:13-15, and 1Co. 3:6-7.
To make mention of the previous point: in verses 22-23 or Romans 9 we find further evidence for the reason the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened was for God to show his power and glory. What we can conclude is that God endured the hardness of the Pharaoh’s heart (vessels of wrath in Rom. 9) in order to show His power. It important to make note that if God is omnipotent then He could have just wiped out all the Egyptians from the get-go and not had to enact any of the plagues; however, rather than doing that God endured the hardness of the Pharaoh’s heart. In doing so, He showed His power through the plagues that he released upon the Egyptians, and showed His mercy by making an exception out of the Israelites.
When looking at external-to-the-Bible resources I found several different views, but all pointed to the same direction: the Pharaoh did it to himself. “In the case of Pharaoh, the hardening was at once a righteous judgment, and a natural result of a long series of oppressions and cruelties.” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible; 1847-1885; Ex. 4:21) Barnes here implies that God did harden the Pharaoh’s heart, and that Him doing that was an act of righteous judgment for the hardness of the Pharaoh’s heart in dealing so cruelly with the Israelites. Another supporting comment of this proposal was made by Matthew Henry when he said, “Pharaoh had hardened his own heart against the groans and cries of the oppressed Israelites, and shut up the bowels of his compassion from them; and now God, in a way of righteous judgment, hardens his heart against the conviction of the miracles, and the terror of the plagues.”(Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible; 1708-1714; Ex. 4:21) Based upon these two men’s commentaries, God did harden the heart of the Pharaoh, and it was an act of God’s judgment upon the Pharaoh for his mistreatment of the Pharaoh. However, I do not like this explanation as much for the reason that it concludes that God removed the Pharaoh’s free-will.
Another commentary written by Adam Clarke comes to the same conclusion as me. The most interesting thing to me about his commentary are his quotations of St. Augustine in which he says, “Non obdurate Deus impertiendo malitiam, sed non impertiendo misericordiam; Epist. 194, ad Sixtum, ‘God does not harden men by infusing malice into them, but by not imparting mercy to them.’” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible; 1810-1826; Ex. 4:21) and also, “Non operatur Deus in homine ipsam duritiam cordis; sed indurare eum dicitur quem mollire noluerit, sic etiam excaecare quem illuminare noluerit, et repellere eum quem noluerit vocare. “God does not work this hardness of heart in man; but he may be said to harden him whom he refuses to soften, to blind him whom he refuses to enlighten, and to repel him whom he refuses to call.’”(Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible; 1810-1826; Ex. 4:21) Clarke, in reference to Augustine here says that God hardens men’s hearts indirectly by removing his will from that person, not by directly applying force to harden a man’s heart. Therefore, Clarke seems to be concluding that the Pharaoh’s heart being hardened was a result of God no longer trying to soften it. “So because a man has grieved his Spirit and resisted his grace he withdraws that Spirit and grace from him, and thus he becomes bold and presumptuous in sin… From the whole of Pharaoh’s conduct we learn that he was bold, haughty, and cruel; and God chose to permit these dispositions to have their full sway in his heart without check or restraint from Divine influence: the consequence was what God intended, he did not immediately comply with the requisition to let the people go; and this was done that God might have the fuller opportunity of manifesting his power by multiplying signs and miracles, and thus impress the hearts both of the Egyptians and Israelites with a due sense of his omnipotence and justice.” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible; 1810-1826; Ex. 4:21) This is further acknowledgment from Clarke that God indirectly hardened the Pharaoh’s heart by not applying divine influence; in other words, allowing the Pharaoh to go his own route. Moreover, that God allowed this to happen in order to fulfill a greater purpose of declaring Himself as God. Therefore, by Clarke’s explanation we can come to the same conclusion as me: that God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart indirectly by allowing the Pharaoh to continue down his own path. He did this rather than using a forceful hand, removing the free will of the Pharaoh, and forcing him to soften his heart.
“With that in mind, Bullinger’s fourth list of idiomatic verbs deals with active verbs that ‘were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do’… James MacKnight, in a lengthy section on biblical idioms, agrees with Bullinger’s assessment that in Hebrew active verbs can express permission and not direct action. This explanation unquestionably clarifies the question of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that God would permit or allow Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened.” (http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1205) This is rather interesting because it observes the actual language of the Hebrews and Greeks to determine the meaning behind the passage. Nevertheless, the conclusion is the same as mine: that God didn’t directly harden the Pharaoh’s heart.
There is another explanation that uses a literary device called a metonymy. Since I know this has been long I won’t be going into detail about it, but it is also found at http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1205. This explanation could be true and go hand in hand with the rest of what I have previously concluded about the Pharaoh being put into power by God, but it would be trampled on by determinists without another 300 word explanation. Therefore, any determinists out there that would like to debate this subject— I am willing to do so.
So, at long last I have come to the conclusion that God did not directly harden the heart of the Pharaoh, but rather indirectly hardened his heart by removing divine influence from him. Moreover, founded upon the terms stated, it can be concluded that if God had softened the heart of the Pharaoh, he would have removed his free-will rather than the other way around. Therefore, it can be concluded that God had no contradiction in character, but rather—the the narrative account of Exodus— remained as He is.
As for the question of the Pharaoh’s eternal judgment there is no conclusive answer to be found. Psa. 147:19-20 says, “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. (20) He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules. Praise the LORD!” and by that we can possibly conclude that the Pharaoh did not know the judgments of the Lord; however, a discrepancy with that is that God had not yet made this covenant with the people of Israel while at Egypt. Therefore, it may or may not apply to the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. However, if my conclusion is correct about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, then the judgment of Pharaoh is in respect to the Pharaoh’s own free will to make his own decision, so judgment could justly be applied by God.