“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.” ~Exodus 7:3-4
This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last instance in the Bible that doesn’t fit neatly within our theological box. That God would harden Pharaoh’s heart messes with our sophisticated sensibilities about God, namely that he is a safe, kind, benevolent and loving Deity who would never raise someone up just to throw them down.
What are we to do with this difficult part of the Bible? It would be so much easier to deal with if it just appeared once, a vague Scriptural anomaly, but it doesn’t. Not just once and then swept under the rug, this statement about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart appears ten times here in Exodus and yet again in Romans 9:16-18? Obviously, the Bible doesn’t try to hide this just because it is difficult to explain or because it makes us uncomfortable. No, it is unavoidably here for us to grapple with.
On the one hand, there are some that would have it that God was simply responding to what was already in Pharaoh’s heart, thus relieving God of any responsibility in the matter of hardening the king’s heart in order to justify destroying him. On the other hand, there are those who would quite bluntly declare that God created Pharaoh exactly for the express purpose of destroying him in order to bring glory to himself.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between. The fact is, God does involve himself in the details of man’s affairs in order to bring about his sovereign plan, and he is well within his unimpeachable righteousness to align those who are his enemies for utter judgment so that his great power might be displayed in all the earth. Pharaoh is Example A of this. Yet at the same time, we must note that Pharaoh was duly warned that his stubborn refusal to obey God would result in judgment. (Exodus 4:23) We also find that the hardening God brought about in Pharaoh’s heart was, interestingly, matched by Pharaoh hardening his own heart: Ten times God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20, 27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17) and ten times Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34,35; 13:15).
Ten times God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and ten times Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God, whose will and whose ways are inscrutable, is within his absolute sovereignty to bring about what he desires in human affairs—including hardening a ruler’s heart; yet man is never without personal responsibility in surrendering to the sovereign rulership of God.
What does that tell us? Simply that God, whose will and whose ways are inscrutable, is within his absolute sovereignty to bring about what he desires in human affairs—including hardening a ruler’s heart; yet man is never without personal responsibility in surrendering to the sovereign rulership of God.
Does that make this uncomfortable piece of Scripture any easier to swallow? No—and yes. No, it will always shake that comforting image of a loving, safe God. Yes, we can lean into the track record of God’s loving omniscience and righteous omnipotence, and along with the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:33-36, declare with utter certainty in the face of mysterious passages like this,
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Yes indeed, glory to God forever. Soli Deo Gloria!
“Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent.” ~J.I. Packer
Reflect and Apply: Jonathan Edwards, considered to be America’s greatest theologian, wrote, “In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, we act all. For that is what produces, viz. our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects, wholly passive and wholly active.” Reflect on that statement; then ask yourself, “How am I doing in my part?”