“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.”
– Exodus 7:3 (NKJV)
God raised Moses to deliver Israel form over four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. In the context of this call, God said he would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” so he would not want to let the people go. When Moses faced the Pharaoh it was very obvious that he was obstinate against releasing the Israelites. Again, the Bible many times states that God hardened his heart.
Quesiton: How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Often we think God did something special… something spiritual. When I read this story as a child I would imagine God visiting Pharaoh at night while he slept and casting a spell on his heart. But let’s approach it in a more adult fashion, and be true to our principle:
Principle: Let the text interpret itself!
Here is a brief timeline of events within which the concept of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is seen in the book of Exodus (Chapter: verse):
7:13 – Moses rod turns into a snake, Pharao’s sorcerers do same, but theirs is swallowed up. And Pharaoh Hardened his heard
7:22 – Moses turns the water in the Nile to blood. The magicians did same. Hardened.
8:15 – Frogs invade Egypt, but God kills them after Moses intercedes. Hardened.
8:19 – God sends Lice. The magicians cannot do so. They confess it is the work of God. Hardened.
8:32 – God sends flies. Moses intercedes. Hardened
9:7 – God kills all the livestock with pestilence. Hardened
9:34 – God sends thunder and hail. Again Moses intercedes. Hardened
So: the only thing God did is merely perform miracles to persuade or force Pharaoh to release the people. God did not spiritually manipulate his heart in any way while he was asleep or something.
9:35 gives summarizes this entire series of events by saying: “And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened” – KJV
The New King James Version is a little more revealing: “So the heart of Pharaoh was hard.” In using the conjunction “so”, the NKJV reveals that it was in this way – ie the performing of those miracles (or plagues) – that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Nothing more.
We see then that in every instance where it appears God is “hardening” the Pharaoh’s heart, it was actually Pharaoh hardening his own heart
Pharaoh starts by saying “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (5:2)
In some verses the phrase reverts to “and the LORD hardened his heart (.9:12, 10:1, 11:10)” But now we know that it simply means God performed a miracle which Pharaoh and his court refused to respond positively to.
So if all God does is send the plagues can we really accuse him of hardening the heart of Pharaoh? Or do we blame Pharaoh himself for the manner of his response to the miracles?
Wax, Clay and a King
Consider this illustration: Wax and clay are both put in the heat of the sun. The wax melts, but the clay is hardened. The sunlight is the same. The response or effect depends on the substance subjected to the heat. Similarly, the response to the miracles depended on the heart of Pharaoh himself. In effect, we can understand it as God saying, “I will perform distressing miracles in the eyes of Pharaoh, but I know that they will only make him more stubborn… yet I will prevail, and my people will be delivered.”
Afterall, consider another King, David. God performed the miracle of revealing his secret sin through the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:1 – 14. David’s heart could have become hardened like the clay if it wasn’t right with God, but controlled by selfishness. Instead, his heart was melted like the wax. So clearly, the substrate is the issue – a good heart is melted by the word of God, a selfish one is hardened by the same.
A Celestial Corollary
In a sense this is a story not merely of Pharaoh, Moses and Israel, but of the Devil, Christ, and the church. God gave Lucifer plenty opportunity to reconsider his early pride, but the once mighty angel only hardened his heart against the Almighty’s advice. Every intervention God has made since then in the affairs of men has made him more hateful and more determined to oppose the plans of God.
No wonder we read: “…For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” – Revelation 12:12, NKJV
Hebrew Tongue Twisting
But if Why would God use such confusing language? That is a legitimate question. The Hebrew writers use idiomatic expressions in the Bible, and this is one of them. Sometimes active verbs like harden, deceive, were used not to indicate the actual doing of the thing, but the permission to do what the doer is supposed to do. 1
In light of this, W.E. Bullinger has surveyed the Figures of Speech Used in the Bible and suggests the phrase is better understood as “I will permit or suffer his heart to be hardened, that he shall not let the people go.”
Another example in Jeremiah 4:10, “ ‘Lord God, surely thou hast greatly deceived this people’, Should be:
Thou hast permitted this people to be greatly deceived
If we understand that the Hebrew writers were just like us, using colloquial and idiomatic expressions to express their thoughts, such passages will become clearer. So when God send snakes to bite the Israelites in the desert, he merely permits them to be exposed after they reject him. When he sends strong delusion over the wicked in the last days, he merely allows them to believe what they want.
My name is Agana-Nsiire Agana. For explanations to other Bible passages please visit www.provingallthings.org/thebible
Until next time keep studying the word. Prove all things, and hold fast what is good!
1 Bullinger, E.W. (1898), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968 reprint).