Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart in Exodus?

Contributing Writer
Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart in Exodus?

The Scripture teaches us that the Pharaoh we read of in Exodus had a heart that was hardened. But who was responsible for that hardening? In some passages, it appears like he hardened his own heart. Yet, in many other passages, God claimed credit for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. So just who was responsible for his hardened heart? Pharaoh? God? Or some combination of the two?

God Hardened Pharaoh's Heart

Throughout the Exodus story, we find references to God either hardening Pharaoh's heart or telling Moses that he would harden him. In Exodus 4:21, as God was calling on Moses to return to Egypt, he made it clear that he would harden the Pharaoh's heart so that he would not let Israel go. In Exodus 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17 we find this same thing expressed; God would harden Pharaoh's heart. In the last of those references, the hearts of the Egyptians as a whole were hardened, not just Pharaoh's.

It should be clear from this that God actively hardened Pharaoh's heart. Repeatedly, the inspired Scriptures affirm that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Regardless of what else we may find about the hardening of his heart, God was playing an active role in it.

Pharaoh Hardened His Own Heart

When Moses first called on Pharaoh to let Israel go, he responded with, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). While this verse says nothing specific about Pharaoh's heart being hard, it does show that Pharaoh was unwilling to listen to what God had to say. The scene was set here with Pharaoh setting himself up in opposition to God.

In Exodus 8:15, 32; and 9:34, we are told explicitly that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. There are several other passages in this account, like Exodus 7:13, where we see that Pharaoh's heart became hard, but with no reference as to who was responsible.

And yet other passages speak of Pharaoh's resistance to God. In Exodus 3:19, God made clear to Moses “that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” Exodus 7:14 says that Pharaoh's heart was unyielding and that he would refuse to let Israel go. And Exodus 13:15 says that Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let Israel go. You might understand Pharaoh's stubbornness to be a consequence of God’s hardening. But I believe it is more likely that these passages describe Pharaoh's own hardness of heart.

God Raised Him Up for a Purpose

One of the attributes of God that most Christians affirm is his sovereignty. But precisely what is meant by God’s sovereignty is a topic of debate. Does sovereignty require absolute control of everything that happens within the creation – including the thoughts and actions of humans? Or is there a place for true libertarian freedom for humanity within God’s sovereignty?

A complete answer to that debate is beyond the scope of this article. Yet it has a bearing on how we understand the topic at hand. Let’s look first at God’s sovereign activity here. And later, we will look at any responsibility Pharaoh may have had in hardening his own heart.

Exodus 9:15-16 is a crucial passage in understanding what God was doing as he hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In this passage, the Lord told Pharaoh, “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. 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.”

This passage reveals that God had at least two options available for delivering Israel from Egypt. He could have just destroyed Pharaoh and all of Egypt. And by so doing have freed Israel and allowed them to return to Canaan. But he did not.

The second option was what God chose to do. He chose this specific person to be Pharaoh. He put him into power at that time and place for a purpose, so that God’s name might be proclaimed throughout the earth. This second option became a contest between the gods of Egypt and the LORD God of Israel. In each of them, the power of God is demonstrated, and he gains renown among the nations – not to mention among his own people.

God chose this man to be Pharaoh. God placed him into power at the head of Egypt, and he did so for his own reasons. The Pharaoh of the Exodus may have thought he had his place because of his birth or ability. But those were only secondary reasons that God used to accomplish his primary reason. And that reason was, to put it somewhat crudely, to make a punching bag out of him.

Was Pharaoh a Helpless Pawn?

The question then is what responsibility Pharaoh had for his actions. Was he just a helpless pawn in God’s hands? Or did he have some freedom to have acted differently than he did?

I believe that Paul can shed some clarity on this question. 2 Thessalonians 2 discusses the coming of the antichrist and the people’s response to him. And in this discourse, we find the following:

“The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. 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 2:9-12).

This lawless one that Satan sends will deceive those who are perishing. But they are perishing because they have refused to believe. They are responsible for their lack of belief. The relevant part of this passage is what follows. God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe Satan’s lie. That delusion comes to those who had first refused to believe.

I believe that something like that applies to Pharaoh as well. Pharaoh was not a helpless pawn who found himself with a hardened heart through no fault of his own. Instead, I believe God used him and put him into power precisely because God knew that he would resist, allowing God to demonstrate his power over the gods of Egypt.

Pharaoh refused to let Israel leave Egypt. He hardened his heart toward God’s command. He bore responsibility for his actions. But God took that hardened heart of Pharaoh and further hardened it, ensuring that his power would be fully demonstrated to Egypt, Israel, and the nations Israel would later dispossess.

Pharaoh Acknowledged His Culpability

I find another aspect of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart interesting. During the plagues, Pharaoh acknowledged his sin, accepting responsibility for what was happening. In Exodus 9:27, after the plague of hail, “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. ‘This time I have sinned,’ he said to them. ‘The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.’” And he repeated this in Exodus 10:16 after the plague of locusts.

Pharaoh knew that he was acting contrary to God’s command in refusing to let Israel go. And by confessing his sin, he recognized that he should have, and could have, done otherwise. Pharaoh knew that he was fighting against God, and that he was wrong in doing so. But because of the hardness of his heart, he refused to back down.

So, Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart?

So, in the end, who hardened Pharaoh's heart? I believe that the Scripture teaches us that both Pharaoh himself and God were responsible for that hardening. Pharaoh was one who God put into a position of power specifically so that God could demonstrate his power in him. But God did not pick a helpless pawn. He chose one who, on his own, would resist God. And then God further hardened his heart.

There is much I do not understand about God’s sovereignty. But it is clear from the story of the Exodus that God has a purpose and plan, and that he uses people to carry out his plan. He used Moses to confront Pharaoh and to lead Israel out of Egypt. And he used Pharaoh to demonstrate his power. God chose both men to fulfill the role they were assigned. But I believe he chose them because of who they already were. His choice of these two men was not arbitrary.

Photo credit: Unsplash/AussieActive

Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.