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Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

“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.

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17 responses

  1. Thank you so much for using your teaching skills, your gift of knowledge and understanding, to bless us. This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is something that I have not really gotten, but me . . .I just try not to get hung up on everything that I don’t understand. ha! Or I’d never read any of His word. Having you go through and explain scripture is wonderful for me. I can now have a deeper understanding than before, and a deeper appreciation and love for God because of that. God bless you and yours as you spend time before Him!

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  2. Loren,

    The same hardening even happens today when Christians witness to unbelievers of many sorts…. Instead of taking God’s word to heart, they harden their hearts even more against God and all Christians….. Did the Christian harden their hearts?…. Yes and not really….. These people bring God’s judgments down upon their own heads.

    Thank you very much for writing on this…. I hope many will come to a clearer understanding of what happens in situations like these.

    Margaret

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  3. Loren, Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful post. I love this line: ” 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.” This made me think of the various passages in the New Testament that talk about the elect. I’ve heard arguments that God is unfair in electing some and not others. But I have always believed that He choose the elect based on His knowledge of who would follow Him, of who desired humility and goodness in the deepest part of their hearts. Those who are not part of the elect are not because of His knowledge that they would not choose to follow Him and that they already had pride and self-will ruling in their hearts. Your explanation of the word “hardened” in the passages regarding Pharoah confirm my understanding of this difficult principle. Peace, Linda

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  4. For those of us who love the Lord, we recognize that we are finite people attempting to comprehend an infinite God. When we do come across a portion of Scripture that seems to be inconsistent with what we know about our Lord, we realize that the problem is not with God but with our own understanding. Therefore, we seek for understanding and allow His Spirit to teach us. Unfortunately, there are many who do not approach the Word of God in this manner because they are actually trying to find some error, inconsistency, or discrepancy in the Bible. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers, but I do my best to address these areas in the Bible as I come to them; both for the sincere Christian as well as the skeptic (I know that this website is read by both).

    Personally, I try not to get hung up on passages like this either, but if I can offer a satisfactory explanation to help someone who finds such verses to be a barrier to faith or a point of contention, then writing the post was time well spent. Thanks, Deb, for the wonderful encouragement, your comments are such a blessing to me :)

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  5. Thanks, Margaret, I appreciate the encouraging comments :)

    I read an interesting quote that said: “The same sun that melts butter hardens clay.” So it is with the Gospel. For those who receive it, it softens our hearts to receive the love of God. To those who reject it, it is an offense to them that does nothing but further harden their hearts.

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  6. What excellent observations, Linda, thanks :)

    The doctrine of Election presents problems for a lot of people because they think of it in human terms. A concept like Election would be cruel, unjust, and unfair if a human being with limited knowledge were to attempt to undertake such an endeavor. How could anyone “pre-determine” the fate of someone who has not even been born yet? Consequently, they think of God as arbitrarily and with gross indifference setting some aside to save while viciously relegating others to an eternity in Hell. But we must surely realize, as you mentioned, that an omniscient God must have some idea of who will be receptive to the Gospel and who will not. I don’t believe that He “elects” anyone to go to Hell, but He does know from the very foundation of the world those who will and will not accept Christ. Those who will accept Christ are the “elect”; those who will not are not the “elect.”

    For me, this answers the objection that many have raised about those who have never heard the Gospel (which I prayerfully hope to write about in a later post; most likely in the study of Romans, Lord willing). The Apostle Paul preached to the Athenians at Mars’ Hill: “[God] hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of [people’s] habitations” (Acts 17:26). God has carefully decided the time and place in which every person ever born would live. If that person would end up being willing to come to Christ, then God surely would have caused them to be born in a time and place where they could hear the Gospel. God would not cause a man to be born in 6th Century South America if they were someone who would receive the Gospel, were it presented to them. No, that person, whether they were born in the ancient wilds of Africa, or in Great Britain during the height of 18th Century revival, or even in the United States today would reject the Gospel even if they were to hear it preached from the lips of the most gifted evangelists the world has ever known. And the rejection would be their choice, not God’s pre-determination.

    Thanks again, Linda, for the thoughtful comments, God bless you!

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  7. Loren, I find this extract to be very, very deep: “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.” Painful? Maybe. Truth? Indeed.

    God hardened the Pharoah’s heart (which was already tough), but He could have softened it if He chose to – after all, He parted the Red Sea not long after that episode. The gentleman simply made Himself available and God used him.

    My mind is running back and forth trying to remember the incidents that could be considered ‘hardening of hearts’. ..
    – Haman… he built the gallows and plotted to hurt others. He died on the gallows.
    – Lot’s wife … decided that what she was leaving behind was worth more than the promise ahead.
    – Nabal … wouldn’t share of his ‘more than enough’. Heart attack was his reward

    Then there were others …
    – like Saul the Painfully-hardened-cruel-murderer of those-who-chose-to-follow-Christ. But He changed when He met God.
    – or Zaccheus who had a heart change when He met Jesus.
    – or Nebuchadnezzar who wanted to burn the Hebrew boys alive. (How hard was that?!) His heart changed when God revealed Himself .
    – The Bible has so many records of people whose lives were changed when they met the Lord yet many chose not to change.

    For some it’s hard to imagine that God did not force the Pharoah’s hand but the ball was in his court. He chose to play tough and received what He earned.

    Thanks for sharing Loren. May our hearts be in a state of readiness to hear when He speaks and to do as He bids.

    Blessings,
    ann

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  8. “God hardened the Pharoah’s heart (which was already tough), but He could have softened it if He chose to”

    That brings up something to contemplate, does it not? Why is it that some hearts soften while others harden? How is it that so many (like those in your examples) hardened their hearts against God while others softened their hearts and came to Him? As you said, the “ball was in Pharaoh’s court” and it was ultimately his decison (as it was for each of those in both categories of your examples).

    It is quite mysterious how two people can respond in two totally different ways to the same thing. I wrote in a recent post about Professors Alistair McGrath and Richard Dawkins and how these two brilliant men can look at the same scientific data about the Universe and reach such diametrically opposed conclusions concerning the metaphysical significance of it. The one is convinced of God’s existence by the same evidence whereby the other denies Him. Surely the difference in perspective must be born, not in the mind, but in the heart.

    Or what about the two thieves who were crucified on either side of the Lord Jesus? Both men were in identical conditions and predicaments; both men watched the same events unfold; both men witnessed the very same things. Yet the one cried out to Jesus for mercy while the other remained silent, preferring to die a lost sinner. Why is this? The heart of one was softened by what he saw while the other’s heart was hardened. As Dr. Scofield wrote in his Reference Bible: “One thief was saved, that none need despair; but only one, that none may presume.” The choice was theirs.

    Thanks, Ann, for the great comments; God bless you :)

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  9. What about Sihon? The Lord hardened his spirit.

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  10. Arielle and Josh

    1) Why didn’t the Pharoah kill Moses?
    2) Why throughout the story is the Pharoah’s heart hardened by himself and God?

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  11. 1.) Why didn’t the Pharaoh kill Moses?

    I actually have contemplated that very question myself :) What would have prevented the mighty ruler of Egypt from simply issuing the command and being rid of this aggravating prophet of the Lord? Let me suggest a few reasons:

    A.) Moses Was Under Divine Protection

    First of all, Moses was commissioned by God for a very specific purpose and the plans of the Lord could not have been frustrated or rebutted by anyone — even the Pharaoh. God went with Moses into the presence of Pharaoh (Ex. 3:12) and surely His hand of protection was upon him. Moses’ life would not end until his work was completed (Deut. 34:5-7).

    B.) Pharaoh Recognized A Certain Degree Of Supernatural Power In Moses

    While Pharaoh believed that the gods he served were greater, we should remember that the Lord “Made Moses a god unto Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1). The Egyptians were a highly superstitious people and they would likely have been very reluctant to kill someone who demonstrated supernatural and mystical power.

    C.) Killing Moses Would Have Been Bad “Publicity”

    Remember Pharaoh’s initial response to Moses’ demands: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice…?” (Ex. 5:2). It is very likely that Pharaoh actually enjoyed (at least in the beginning) the opportunity to demonstrate the power under his command. He asked Moses and Aaron for a miraculous show of power and then summoned his own magicians to respond in kind (Ex. 7:8-13). Pharaoh wanted to humiliate Moses by showing that the power of Egypt was superior to any that would challenge it or its gods. Becoming frustrated midway through the contest of gods and simply putting Moses to death would have definitely reflected poorly on his image of himself as an invincible deity!

    D.) Moses Was A Relative By Adoption

    Lastly, we can’t forget that Moses was raised up by the daughter of the previous Pharaoh, who was likely the father or grandfather of the current Pharaoh. Moses and the Pharaoh now sitting on the throne were cousins, of a sort, and had grown up within the same household (some movie adaptations of the Exodus story present them as having grown up side-by-side and being similar in age, but we don’t really know if this was the case). Moses was not some unknown Hebrew peasant who came out of nowhere; we are told in the Book of Acts that he was educated in all of the wisdom of Egypt and was a prodigious student of the knowledge of the day (Acts 7:22). He was raised as an Egyptian aristocrat and I am sure that his former position would have caused Pharaoh to treat him with some semblance of dignity. Additionally, the Egyptian people had great respect for Moses (Ex. 11:3) which would have cast the Pharaoh in a very bad light had he decided to just arbitratrily execute him.

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to ask this very thought-provoking question. I really do not have much to add to what I wrote in this article addressing your second question, so I hope that the explanations I suggested are satisfactory. May the Lord bless you as you seek to understand and know His Word :)

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  12. […] Nevertheless, the question is asked with regards to God’s election: If God chooses some and not others, then is it not God’s fault that sinners reject Him since He has not chosen them? If God has chosen to not show mercy on some, are they then to blame for their actions? In addition to the illustration of Esau we are given the example of the Pharaoh of Exodus, whom “God hardened” against Himself and the Hebrews. Since God “hardened his heart”, how can we blame Pharaoh for his actions? First of all, God never changes a person’s heart for the worse, He merely compels the wicked to do what is already in their heart to do in order to fulfill His purposes (for further reading on who really hardened Pharaoh’s heart, click here). […]

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  13. […] advice for folks with celiac – don’t!   No wheat of any kind.  The Bible said Pharaoh had a hardened heart.  Egyptian mummies had heart disease […]

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  14. i dont think God has hardened pharoah’s heart.’Adam including pharoah his descendant has become like one us{God} knowing good and evil after eating the forbidden fruit and not before,thus rejecting God’s will and traded for serpent viles and craftiness which became part of fallen human race{first adam’s values}.cain was angry and dejected when his gift was rejected but God said you will be accepted if u do what is right if not sin will control you.you must subdue it and be its master.pharoah puffed up with pride, resembling lucifer
    in every ways humiliated mosses and GOD to the very core so God delivered pharoah’s mind to depravity.do not blame God but pharoah wanted to contest wih God so God caused the circumstances to hardened his heart so the battle became very intense.its our carnal nature that make our thoughts n mind come aganist the will of God.Let the wicked forsake his ways and return to the Lord for He will have compassion,my ways and thoughts are higher than your ways says the Lord just as the heavens are higher than the earth.chandy

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  15. […] (Research to the following answer came from: Answers From the Book)  […]

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  16. Hi Loren, thank you for an excellent article, I enjoyed it. Perhaps one small point, before a mix of concrete is poured and hardened it is called cement; after pouring and when it has hardened it is known as concrete. However that does not detract from the quality of your article.
    Bryen.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Good catch, Bryen, thanks!

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