The Bible clearly declares that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. That truth bothers some people. “I know that is what the Bible says, but it does not seem fair that God would purposely harden a man’s heart.” What about it?
The word “Pharaoh” is found in the Bible about 280 times. Who was Pharaoh? “Pharaoh” was not a personal name, but rather a general word or title for the king of Egypt. A number of different Pharaohs are mentioned in the Scriptures. The Pharaoh who is the focus of our study was king when Jehovah sent Moses to deliver His people out of Egyptian bondage. That particular king is the one that the Bible describes as having a hardened heart.
Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? First, it is a biblical truth that the Pharaoh who ruled in the day when the Israelites were rescued from Egypt had a hard heart. Sometimes the Bible simply says that the man’s heart was hardened, without indicating who was involved in the hardening process. For instance, following the plague that caused the Egyptians’ livestock to die, “Then Pharaoh sent, and indeed, not even one of the livestock of the Israelites was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh became hard, and he did not let the people go” (Exodus 9:7).
There are other verses in which we read that the Lord God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It is written, “But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses” (Exodus 9:12). So, there is no denying that God had a hand in causing Pharaoh to have a hard heart. But, that is not all.
Did you realize that there are some Bible passages that indicate that Pharaoh hardened his own heart? It is true: “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not heed them as the LORD had said . . . But Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also; neither would he let the people go” (Exodus 8:15,32).
What was the context of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? What the Bible says about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was connected with God’s charge to him to release the Israelites, Pharaoh’s refusal to do so, and the ten plagues that Jehovah sent against the stubborn ruler and his people. When Aaron and Moses appeared before Pharaoh and told him that God said, “Let My people go,” the king’s proud response was, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:1,2). With such a mindset, this Pharaoh was on a crash course with disaster! God would use ten miracles/plagues – ten disasters that would touch Egypt and crush Pharaoh’s will. Following those, he would comply with God’s demand to release Israel.
What was the purpose of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart? It certainly was not to cause him to be lost eternally. God takes no delight in the wicked choices of evildoers and does not want one single person to perish (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9), so it is inconceivable that He would work to ensure that Pharaoh would be a rebellious, lost person. Hardening the king’s heart was not about his own personal spiritual standing with God. Rather, it was done in order to get Pharaoh to heed the instructions of the Almighty concerning his dealings with the children of Israel. Pharaoh needed to be persuaded (1) that the God of Israel is the one, true God and (2) to release the Israelites. God told Moses, “But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go” (Exodus 3:19,20).
How did the Lord harden Pharaoh’s heart? God did not take over Pharaoh’s heart and force Pharaoh to be obstinate and rebellious. No, the Lord gave him commands that his headstrong nature did not want to accept. The Creator charged the king to submit to Him, and he resisted. God pushed and the king pushed back, his heart becoming harder and harder. Again, this process was connected with the plagues or miracles that God sent. They infuriated the king. But, ultimately, the plagues would work their intended purpose. God told Pharaoh, “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). God later told Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him” (Exodus 10:1). In the end, following the death of the firstborn in every Egyptian family, which was the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh gave the Israelites their freedom.
It is extremely important to see that Pharaoh had a free will, or freedom of choice, throughout the whole process. After each plague that God sent on the land of Egypt, Pharaoh could have chosen to change his mind and do what the Lord told him to do – release His people. Before the eighth plague came, God sent this message to Pharaoh: “How long will ye refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Exodus 10:3). So, the truth is, at any time Pharaoh could have humbled himself and submitted to God’s will. He simply refused to do so.
All that God has ever said or done has been done for the benefit of mankind, with His every word and action somehow being related to His plan to save us via Jesus. May we always be ready to submit to Him.
— Roger D. Campbell