"Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2)
As I made my way through the plagues I began to wonder why God would harden the heart of Pharaoh. Exodus 3:19 shows that God knew the stubbornness that resided in Pharaoh’s heart, so why would God harden it further? Chapter 10 brings some clarity to the situation, and here are some conclusions that I’ve made from studying this episode in the book of Exodus.
Two reasons are given in these verses as to why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I’ll take a look at these individually...
First, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because this Pharaoh was not a God-fearer, unlike others who had come before him (Exodus 1:8), and the God of the Hebrews was nothing of significance in his heart and mind (Exodus 5:2). To have let the Israelites depart for a few days to satisfy their own religious convictions would have done little to impact him and the Egyptian people about the reality of the one true and living God. The Israelites would have gone, worshipped, and returned with no change in their own conditions nor would there have been a change in the heart of Pharaoh towards them or their God. You see, God wasn’t just going to liberate His people in this episode, His plan is even bigger in scope than that. God was going to begin stirring up the nations of the world with a revelation of who He is, and Egypt was the first nation on His list. Soon, all the nations of the earth would hear about the power of the God is Israel.
God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is then, in a certain sense, a means of God’s grace toward the nations. Yes, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s already stubborn heart was a sort of means of grace toward him and his people. How so? Because had He not hardened his heart and had Pharaoh let the Israelites worship for a few days, the true and living God would still not have been real to this pagan king, and God is on a mission for His own namesake that all the nations of the earth would know Him. Hardening the heart of Pharaoh was, in a sense, a prerequisite for the miracles that would follow. A prime example of God’s goodness using what was intended for evil (a Pharaoh’s stubborn heart) to accomplish His perfect and good plan to awaken the nations.
So God in His wisdom and grace instigates the drama of Israel’s exodus by hardening the heart of a king who had much to learn about the true and living God and about the ingenuity of his own pagan gods. What follows in chapters 7-12, plague after plague, gives clear demonstration that the God of Israel is true and the Egyptian gods are fakes. This becomes so apparent to the Egyptians that by the end of the ordeal they all fear God and his people (Exodus 12:30-36) and the nations begin to tremble about what was going in with this peculiar Hebrew people group and their powerful God (see Joshua 2:9-11). This doesn’t free Pharaoh from the responsibility of his choices. The hardening of his heart, while it showed to him the reality of the one, true, and living God, also showed the reality of his contempt for that God. His nation would learn in numerous ways what it is to cross with the God of Israel.
Secondly, and more evident, is the effect God actions had on His own people. This can be easily seen and understood considering the circumstances: these are people who were waiting and crying for deliverance for many years. God heard them (Exodus 2:23-25), and His plan of worldwide upheaval and divine deliverance resulted in the people’s belief in Him (Exodus 14:31). The rest of the drama found in the Old Testament unfolds the story of how faithful or faithless them people would be.
Written by Michael Conn.
Michael is a seminary student at Bob Jones University where he will be completing his MA in pastoral theology. To know Michael is to know his passion for ministry. Michael worked closely with Caleb in several different ministry venues including interning at Colonial Hills Baptist Church where Michael became a very close friend with all of the Phelps family. Michael and his fiancee Irene will be getting married in June.