Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart: Who Was Responsible?

The ninth chapter of Romans seems to be one of the more debated passages in the New Testament. In this chapter, in particular Romans 8:10-21, Paul says that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. That he raised Pharaoh up and hardened his heart to display his power. And that he did this according to his own purpose in election. That nothing Jacob, Esau, or Pharaoh did contributed to his choosing.

But is that assessment true? In particular, was Pharaoh an unwitting agent who had no input concerning his actions. Was he nothing more that a puppet that God used to accomplish his purpose in delivering Israel from Egypt? Or was Pharaoh complicit in his actions during the Exodus?

God’s Purpose with Pharaoh

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Romans 9:14-18 NIV

In the greater context of this passage, Paul is justifying God’s actions in choosing Jacob over Esau, apart from anything they had done. Was God unjust in doing that? Paul adamately affirms that he was not. And Pharaoh is then used as an example to demonstrate his point.

But what is he an example of? Apparently, according to verse 18, of God’s hardening. Rather than extend mercy to Pharaoh, God hardens him in order to demonstrate his power through him.

Two things are clear from this passage. First is that God raised up Pharaoh. He was the Pharaoh of the Exodus because God put him there at that point in history. And, secondly, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would resist the demand to let Israel go. And, as a result, God was able to demonstrate his power via the plagues that struck Egypt.

So, to repeat the question above, was Pharaoh merely a puppet? Or is he complicit in his refusal to let Israel go?

What Exodus Says About this Hardening

Before answering that question, let’s look at what Exodus has to say about Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. There are more references than I can adequately explore here, but I do want to look at representative samples of three types of passages.

The first group of passages are those that show God hardening Pharaoh. The first of these is in Exodus 7:3 where God tells Moses that “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” There can be no question that God intended to actively work to harden the heart of Pharaoh. This is repeated again in Exodus 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17. In all of these passage God says that he will harden Pharaoh, or the Egyptians.

But the second group of passages tell a different story. In these passages Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Exodus 8:32 is an example of this where, after the plague of flies, “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” Exodus 9:34 also expresses the same thing.

The third group of passages concerning the hardening of his heart do not specify the agent of the hardening. Rather they simply reflect that his heart was hardened. Exodus 7:13 is an example of this where “Pharaoh’s heart became hard“, and Exodus 7:14 where God tells Moses that “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding.

The Role of Pharaoh’s Will

There is another group of passages I would like to briefly look at as well. These do not specifically mention the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. But they do express Pharaoh’s complicity in what was happening.

In Exodus 9:2 Moses is to tell Pharaoh, “If you refuse to let them [the Israelites] go“, then the Lord would bring a plague on Egypt. It seems that Pharaoh has some option here. He could have chosen to let Israel go. Otherwise the ‘if’ in this passage would seem to be meaningless.

In Exodus 9:27, 34, Pharaoh first acknowledges his sin, and then sins again. He is acting in disobedience to God’s command to let Israel go. There are several other similar passages where Pharaoh is described as acting contrary to God’s will for him. But that would seem strange if God’s will for Pharaoh was that he refuse to let Israel go. In that case Pharaoh would be acting in obedience to God and would not be sinning.

God and Pharaoh Both Contributed

So now back to the passage in Romans and the quote concerning the Pharaoh. In this passage in Romans, Paul quotes Exodus 9:16, but verse 17 is applicable to this discussion as well.

But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go.

Exodus 9:16-17 NIV

In this passage you see the involvement of both God and Pharaoh. God raises Pharaoh up for a specific purpose. And Pharaoh sets himself against God’s people. How you reconcile these two actions will be a reflection of your view of God’s sovereignty.

The Sovereignty of God

For some folks, God is sovereign only if he is directly in control of all that happens. If God ever has to react in response to another’s actions, then he is not sovereign. But I believe that is really a limited view of sovereignty. Indeed, a sovereign God will always accomplish his purposes. No one will be able to frustrate his purposes. But that does not mean we all have to act according to some predetermined plan that God has for his creation, and individually for each of us.

God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. . . . Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.

A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

As Tozer puts it, only if God is truly sovereign can he allow humans to have moral free will. Just how God’s sovereignty and human free choice relate together is not clearly expressed in the Scripture. But that they both are at work in what happens in the world is clearly expressed in the Scripture. And nowhere more clearly than in what happens with Pharaoh. It is God who raises him up and hardens his heart. But Pharaoh also hardens his heart, and personally chooses to act the way that he does.

Another Example

There is an unrelated passage in 2 Thessalonians that helps me to understand what is happening here with Pharaoh. Paul it talking to the Thessalonian church about the coming Antichrist and those who perish due to his deception.

They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

2 Thessalonians 2:10b-12 NIV

Paul says that those who follow this Antichrist perish because of their own actions. They refused to love the truth and be saved. They first made a choice. And then, for that reason, God stepped in and sent them a delusion so that they would hold firmly to the lie of Satan.

The delusion God sent to these people was in response to their first refusing to believe the truth. God’s action only magnified their distance from God. A distance that they were initially responsible for.

I believe it is quite possible that the same thing happened with Pharaoh. Pharaoh set his heart in opposition to God’s demand to release Israel. And then God further hardened him.

Raising Pharaoh Up

I find the issue of God raising up Pharaoh to be of more interest than the hardening of his heart. God put Pharaoh into his office at the head of Egypt at that particular point in history. And this really points us back to God’s sovereignty.

I do not believe that God created that specific man with the goal of making him the villain in the story of Israel’s deliverance. Instead, I believe that God knew his nature and what he would do in specific circumstance. And that in some fashion God ensured that this man would rise to rule over Egypt when it came time to deliver Israel. And in raising him up, God was able to use him to “display [his] power in [Pharaoh] and that [God’s] name might be proclaimed in all the earth“.

But Pharaoh is not the only one who God raised up at that time. He also raised up Moses. One who was initially unwilling to be used by God. But who finally accepted his role in the drama to be played out. God raised up both of these men and put them into their leadership roles as Villain and Deliverer.

Conclusion

I do not believe that God took an unwilling Pharaoh, hardened his heart, and used him to glorify himself. Rather, I believe that God took a proud man, made him ruler of Egypt, and then used him to demonstrate his power over Egypt and its gods. God did not make Pharoah something he was not. Rather he magnified what he already was in order to accomplish his purpose.

God knows our hearts before we are born. And he can, and does, use each person for his own purpose. Even those, like Pharoah, who are acting contrary to God’s will.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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