Ten Plagues of Egypt: Lesson 3: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

Sinful human nature can be powerfully deluding. You may have met, or know of a person, who stubbornly refuses to do what is right. He arrogantly pursues his own interests to the detriment of others including himself. Maybe you have persistently counseled your friend to obey God’s commands only to find her reject your counsel and make a complete mess of her life.

Maybe your colleague has turned his nose up at numerous reprimands and found himself on the unemployment line looking for work elsewhere. What about that teen who follows the wrong crowd, rejects his parents correction, and the prodigal life? These illustrations have many names and faces. They are all too common because sinful human nature has not changed in thousands of years.

When you read the account of the ten plagues, you may be struck with the stubborn arrogance of Pharaoh. Over 20 times, the topic of Pharaoh’s hardened heart appears throughout Exodus 4–14. Why would Pharaoh endure the cataclysmic plagues, refusing to let the Israelites leave? This issue is important to understand for at least two reasons. First, it provides a lesson on what happens when the sinful heart refuses to obey. Secondly, it reveals something of how God brings glory to Himself in a sinful world.

What was hardened? Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. What is meant by the word “heart?” It comes from the Hebrew word, lev (bl]). “Heart” refers to man’s personality or character. It includes man’s intellect, will, and emotions. It is the conscience.[1] Probably the closest English equivalent to this Hebrew word is “mind.”

What was involved in the hardening? Three different Hebrew words are used to communicate the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart – qashak, kazaq, and cavod. The first word, qashak, means “to make hard or make stubborn.” The next word, kazaq, means “to grow firm, stout, rigid, or hard.”

The final word, cavod, means “to be heavy, weighty or burden- some.”[2]

When Pharaoh stubbornly refused (qashak) to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. (13.15)

Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard (kazaq) and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said. (7.13)

And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened (cavod) his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him. (10.1)

These synonyms show Pharaoh’s stubborn, resolute refusal to listen to God. He was determined in his mind and will to do as he pleased, hardening his heart against God’s warnings.

Who caused the hardening? Logically, we can find only three options: 1) Pharaoh hardened himself; 2) God hardened Pharaoh; 3) God and Pharaoh were both involved in the hardening process. The chart on page 5 illustrates who did the hardening. Let’s look at the first two views:

View 1: Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Victor Hamilton writes, “What is noticeable is that there is no reference to God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh until after the sixth plague is well under way . . . at least for a while Pharaoh had control over his own choice, but never did he exercise control over the consequences of his choice.”[3]

The problem with this view (among others) is that in two places (4.21, 7.3), God specifically states that He is initiating the hardening process – “I will harden.” Before the plagues began, God said He will harden Pharaoh’s heart.

View 2: Only God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. David Gunn writes, “God was ultimately the only agent of heart-hardening…. Pharaoh is depicted as acting against his own better judgement, a mere puppet of Yahweh.”[4]

This view ignores the fact that Pharaoh consciously and willfully determined not to let the people go (cf. 13.15). Pharaoh simply did not want the people to go. He was not a puppet without a mind of his own.

View 3: God was the ultimate cause of the hardening process while Pharaoh, of his own will, actively hardened his own heart.

This view is not an attempt to remain neutral on the subject. I am not suggesting that both equally hardened Pharaoh’s heart. We know that the Bible says that both were involved in the process (see illustration below). Yet, the narrative opens with God stating His intent – “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Those events happened just as God had determined. God initiated the process, and Pharaoh followed suit. Does this view violate God’s justice and minimize Pharaoh’s culpability? No.

How does one reconcile God’s justice and Pharaoh’s responsibility? The answer comes by understanding two realities about life. First, the sinful human heart is already on a downward course to destruction (Ge 6.5, De 11.16; Ps 141.4). Pharaoh was not a neutral being. He was sinful, hostile to God, and desperately wicked. God did not have to invent evil in the heart of Pharaoh. It was already there.

Secondly, the sinful heart is restrained by common grace. Common grace is the blessing He gives to all people. God sends the rain on the evil men as well as the good men (Mt 5.44).

The following references from Exodus 4–14 show who caused the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart

  • 4.21 I will harden his heart.
  • 7.3 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.
  • 9.12 The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
  • 10.1 I have hardened his heart.
  • 10.20 The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
  • 10.27 The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
  • 11.10 The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
  • 14.4 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.
  • 14.8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh.
  • 14.17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians.

Pharaoh hardened his own heart

  • 8.15 He [Pharaoh] hardened his heart.
  • 8.32 Pharaoh hardened his heart.
  • 9.34 He and his officials hardened their hearts.
  • 13.15 Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go.

Pharaoh’s heart became hardened

  • 7.13 Pharaoh’s heart became hardened.
  • 7.14 Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding.
  • 7.22 Pharaoh’s heart became hardened.
  • 8.19 Pharaoh’s heart was hard.
  • 9.7 His heart was unyielding.
  • 9.35 Pharaoh’s heart was hard.

God gives both the evil man and good man knowledge of Himself (Ro 1.21). It is common grace that restrains the evil heart (Ps 76.10).

Pharaoh was a depraved, sinful human being. He followed the destructive sinful desires of his own heart. As such, God removed grace from him allowing him to plunge further into sin. It is as if God let out more rope for Pharaoh to hang himself.[5]

Does this violate Pharaoh’s freedom? Absolutely not. Pharaoh’s freedom was increased. He freely followed the course of his own sinful nature. He knew he was violating God’s command and was given ten specific warnings that he would suffer consequences (Ex 9.27; 10.16). Freedom in the hands of the wicked will ultimately lead to destruction.

Why was it hardened? The discussion of Pharaoh’s hardened heart usually ends in heated debate. This difficult doctrine has more to offer than debate fodder. There was a grand purpose behind Pharaoh’s hardening that demands our attention. God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart on a whim. He intentionally planned this situation to bring about some important lessons that must not be overlooked.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart . . . that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt. . . . I will get me honor upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gotten me honor upon Pharaoh, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. (10.1–2; 13.14–16; 14.17–18)

God provided a memorial of mercy and love for the Israelites. In His mercy and love for the Israelites, God desired to leave a memorable story for the next generations. With any act of God’s mercy, future generations tend to minimize or even forget God’s grace in the lives of their forefathers. God’s purposes were fulfilled, for this incident is recalled throughout the rest of Scripture (Dt 6.22, 1Sa 6.6, 2Ki 17.7, Ne 9.10, Ps 136.15, Isa 19.11, Jer 46.25, Eze 30.21, Ro 9.17).

God glorified Himself by showing His faithfulness, mercy. In no un- certain terms, God showed Himself faithful. He was true to His covenant with His people. We see this truth in the use of the name “LORD.” This title was a special covenant title for the Israelites. For it was used when God wanted to remind the Israelites of His special relationship with them. While the focus of debate usually centers around Pharaoh, the narrative was written to indelibly etch on the minds of His people that He alone is merciful, faithful, and loving to His people.

God demonstrated His power and justice. Pharaoh believed he was one of the gods. Physically speaking, he was probably the most powerful individual of his time. Egypt was at its zenith militarily. The plagues were designed to bring Pharaoh and the rest of Egypt to their knees. God said, “I will get me honor.”

Conclusion: Some ask “How can a loving and merciful God harden someone against righteousness and judge him for it?” Consider the Apostle Paul’s response to this very question.

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. . . . it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (Ro 9.14–16)

  • Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. God righteously dealt with Pharaoh. God did not attack a neutral man. Pharaoh was a sinner who was hostile toward God (Ro 8.7). He was also a wicked king who cruelly treated the Israelites. Pharaoh deserved his judgment.
  • . . . but of God that sheweth mercy. God was merciful with Pharaoh and the Israelites. First, God could have killed Pharaoh and sent him to Hell. Instead, He gave Pharaoh plenty of opportunities to repent. Second, if God idly sat by and let Pharaoh continue his oppression on the Israelites without judgment, then God would have been unrighteous.

Unsaved men today have the same hostility and propensity to stubbornly resist God. The Apostle Paul calls them foolish men (Ro 1.21–22). May we understand that Pharaoh is not the only one to have had a hardening of heart? We ought always strive to maintain “hearts of flesh” and not have “hearts of stone” (Eze 36.26).

[1] BDB, p. 524.

[2] BDB, pp. 905, 304, 457 respectively.

[3] Emphasis mine. Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Baker, 1982), p. 171.

[4] David Gunn, “The ‘Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart’” in Art and Meaning (JSOT, 1982), pp. 72–96. Cited by Robert Chisolm in BSac 153:414.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Tyndale, 1986), p. 1405.

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