“And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)
In the last half of the Fourth chapter of Exodus, we read two rather peculiar verses. The first of these is Verse 21 where it is said that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and the second is Verse 24 where it states that God sought to kill Moses. Before we move on into Chapter 5, I would like to take a few moments to consider what exactly is being said in these verses and what it tells us about the nature and personality of God. Next time we are in Exodus, I would like to address Verse 24. For now, let us look at Verse 21:
The Hardening Of Pharaoh’s Heart
That the King of Egypt was stubborn, obstinate, and had a hard heart there is no doubt. But the pertinent question here is who exactly caused Pharaoh to become this way? Whose fault is it that he behaved in the manner that he did? No fewer than 17 times are we told in Exodus that Pharoah’s heart was hardened. Nine of those instances state that the Lord hardened his heart (including the occasion here in Ex. 4:21), three times it is stated that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and five times we are not told who it was that caused it. So, who ultimately bears the responsibility for Pharaoh’s actions and disobedience to the commandment of God to let the people of Israel go?
The first thing we should understand is what exactly is meant when the text says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. We know what a “hard-hearted” person is like, but here we have the actual act of the hardening of a heart. Does this mean that Pharaoh could be described as “soft” or “tender” hearted before his encounters with Moses (and the Lord)? Two Hebrew root words are used in the verses mentioned to describe the condition of Pharaoh’s heart. The first word carries a meaning of “firming up”, “strengthening”, or “growing stronger.” It is used in other parts of the Bible to describe “repairs” or “mending” of materials (e.g., it is used often in the Book of Nehemiah to describe the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem). The other root word carries the meaning of something becoming “large”, “difficult” or “heavy.”
Both words are used to describe something becoming firmer, stronger, bigger, or heavier. But never does it describe one thing becoming another. For example, in Nehemiah 3:32 we are told of a section of the walls around Jerusalem being repaired (rebuilt) by the goldsmiths and merchants. Before they worked on it, it had been a broken down section of wall; when they were finished, it was a stronger section of repaired wall. Yet it was a wall before they fixed it and it was a wall afterward. So, whatever it was that was in Pharoah’s heart after his encounter with Moses was not something different from what was there before; it was merely a stronger, firmer version of the same thing. When wet concrete is poured into a mold to form a sidewalk, it remains concrete both before and after it hardens. It doesn’t change into something entirely different.
Some have interpreted the idea of what this passage is saying to mean that God changed Pharoah’s personality and nature when He sent Moses to meet him. This is not what we are being told at all. Pharoah was not some innocent, kind, good-natured ruler only to be changed into a wicked tyrant by the hand of God. No, he was wicked before and after his heart hardened. The only thing that changed was his anger and his resolve to do the evil that was already present in his heart.
Another aspect of this matter is to understand that, in Verses such as Ex. 4:21, two separate actions are not being described, but a single act. God is not telling Moses to do the wonders He commanded him to do AND God will harden the heart of Pharaoh (as if to suggest that God would be forced to tamper with Pharoah’s free will in order to cause him to rebel). No, God is telling Moses that the very actions that He will do through the hand of Moses will themselves cause Pharaoh’s heart to harden. It is God’s actions that will cause the heart of Pharaoh to harden, but it is still Pharoah’s choice to respond in this manner. When I tell my kids to clean their rooms and they get angry about it (which happens sometimes!), it could be accurately said that I made them mad; but it is also true that they chose to respond that way rather than responding in obedience.
“For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth…What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:” (Romans 9:17, 22)
That God knew beforehand how Pharaoh would respond is certain. God is all-knowing. Yet in this encounter between a proud and hard-hearted man and a merciful but holy God, we have the mysterious tension between man’s free will and God’s sovereign will. In a perfect God’s dealings with sinful man, neither is ever frustrated or tampered with. God accomplishes His will and man reaps what he sows; freely deciding at every juncture his own course of action. That God knows the end from the beginning should never be interpreted to mean that He in any way affects that outcome by manipulating the free will that He Himself has placed within every man. Just because he knew what was already in the heart of Pharaoh, as He surely knows what is in the heart of every man, doe not mean that He moved the hand of Pharaoh nor tempted him to commit evil (James 1:13). It was God’s actions that caused Pharoah to strengthen his resolve, to stand firm in his obstinance; but it was ultimately the choice of Pharaoh to harden his own heart. He was free at any time to acquiesce and do what was right and just. He chose not to.