I am regularly surprised by how often I have conversations where the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart comes up. I’m not saying it’s every week or anything, but it’s more than I’d expect. It’s often in a context of discussing the issues raised by Calvinism concerning humanity’s freedom to make decisions. Are we free moral agents, or puppets with God as the puppeteer?
The other scenario to which people apply this concept is that of evangelism. If someone hasn’t responded to the Gospel message, then “maybe their heart is hard like Pharaoh’s.” This seems to give the Christian permission to give up on that individual and turn attention elsewhere. Of course, the possibility that maybe the other person won’t respond because of the aggressive nature the Christian brought to the discussion, or because the way the Christian treats his wife and kids is inconsistent with his message, is never entertained as a possibility. It’s much simpler just to blame the person with the “hard heart”.
I’m not willing to turn this post into a Calvinism debate. That’s been going on for hundreds of years and I doubt I’ll be able to settle it here. However, I will say that I disagree with Calvin. I do not believe that our choices and eternal destiny is predetermined by God. Foreknown, but not predetermined. We make our own choices and are responsible for their consequences. (eg. John 3:16, Acts 2:38)
Back in Exodus, I understand why the phrase “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” attracts the attention it does. How could a loving God make Pharaoh reject His instruction and then punish him for it? It seems inconsistent with our understanding of God.
Nahum M. Sarna provides a valuable analysis of this statement that I find clarifies its use and meaning a lot. He points out that between chapter 4 and 14 Pharaoh’s heart is said to harden 20 times, but we need to notice how these statements are distributed. 10 times God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, and 10 times Pharoah either hardens his own heart, or it is stated in the passive.
The first two times (4:21; 7:3) God predicts that He will harden Pharoah’s heart, but it’s still a prediction at this point, not an event.
The next seven statements (7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 13:15) are either passive “Pharaoh’s heart became hard”, or Pharaoh actively hardens his heart himself. It is not until after the 5th plague (9:12) that we’re told that God acted to harden Pharaoh’s heart (also 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). Then after the 6th plague we’re again told that,
When Pharoah saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)
I believe that the sequence of events provides the key to understanding the phrase. God only hardened Pharoah’s heart after Pharaoh himself had rejected God and His instruction. God gave Pharaoh multiple chances, and 5 major signs that he should listen to Him, but Pharaoh refused. At that point God decided something like, “Okay, if that’s your decision I’ll use your stubbornness for my glory. The deliverance of My people will bring more glory to My name, and you will be punished for your pride and disobedience.”
Pharaoh is responsible for his own decisions. What we see in God’s actions is that sometimes his judgment comes sooner than at other times. However, we need to recognize God’s grace in giving Pharoah 5+ chances to obey God, even though He knew what the outcome would be.
Other passages that seem to reflect similar circumstances include Romans 1:21-25, where people that choose to reject God’s message are abandoned to the consequences of their sinful desires and actions. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, and 1 Timothy 1:20 both speak of “handing someone over to Satan”. I don’t know the exact implications of this, but in both cases it’s a result of deliberate sin, and seems consistent with the examples of Pharaoh, and Romans 1. The good news about these latter passages is that in both cases the purpose of this action is to prompt repentance leading to salvation. In this context, I’m reluctant to conclude that even in Pharaoh’s case he ever lost the ability to obey God’s instructions and let the Hebrews leave.
Okay, so that’s a long post today on a complex topic. What do you think? Have you heard this phrase referenced in a different context? I’d love to receive your comments!