There is a long controversy amongst Christians about how salvation works—do we choose Jesus from our own free will, or does God predestine us to choose him?
with this in mind, I am going to look at the example of Pharaoh, with whom Moses interacted when the Lord sent him to call the Israelites out of Egypt. I have witnessed and participated in not a few heated conversations on what happened to Pharaoh’s heart as God sent plague after plague upon the Egyptians.
The prevailing view of those whom I have encountered is, generally, that it was Pharaoh that hardened his own heart and therefore instigated the escalation in severity of the plagues, to the death of all firstborns in Egypt.
This is not the whole story, though. I’m going to walk through the passages in Exodus and we will see that it was preeminently God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, which was the plan from the beginning.
God Claims Responsibility
First, we start in Exodus 4, where Moses is going back to Egypt by the command of the Lord after having been released by his father-in-law in Midean:
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:21-23 ESV)
So before Moses returned to Egypt, God had already told Moses what was to happen, namely that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, and that Moses would have to threaten the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn.
Another key passage is at the beginning of Exodus 7; before Moses has told Pharaoh to allow Israel to leave Egypt. God, who is instructing Moses about what will happen says,
I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Exodus 7:3-4)
So God had already claimed ultimate responsibility for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by the time Moses and Aaron encounter Pharaoh; we need to keep that in mind.
Moses & Aaron before Pharaoh
In Exodus 7 starting at verse 10, Moses and Aaron have come before Pharaoh to tell him that he must release the people of Israel. After Pharaoh demands a miracle and they perform it, we read:
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said (Exodus 7:10-13 ESV).
Already Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Then the Lord sends ten plagues, after each of which the status of Pharaoh’s heart is reported:
But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 7:22)
“But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:15 ESV)
“Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:19 ESV)
“But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.” (Exodus 8:32 ESV)
“And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.” (Exodus 9:7 ESV)
“But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses.” (Exodus 9:12 ESV)
“But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” (Exodus 9:34-35 ESV)
“But theLord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go.” (Exodus 10:20 ESV)
“But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go.” (Exodus 10:27 ESV)
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.” (Exodus 11:9-10 ESV)
We can plainly see that after each of the ten plagues, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Four times it simply says it was hardened, three times it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and four times it says that it was the Lord who hardened the heart of Pharaoh.
God as the prime mover
It is clear from Exodus 4 and the beginning of Exodus 7 that God is the prime mover throughout the whole story. Pharaoh surely was making real choices, being tossed about emotionally, going back on his word, and hardening his heart against Israel and against God. But God was behind all of those choices, working even the rebellious will of Pharaoh according to His own purpose.
This is particularly clear in the episode immediately before the tenth plague:
“Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 11:9-10 ESV)
God was accomplishing other purposes in parallel to rescuing Israel—all the plagues were surely not necessary to get Israel out of Egypt. He says to Pharaoh that He used the plagues “so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14), and “for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Ex. 9:16).
Finally, the apostle Paul refers to Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:17-18)
Paul uses Exodus 9:16 as the ground for his final proof that God hardens hearts of men; it is therefore clear that the apostle Paul understood that it was God who ultimately set the heart of Pharaoh in its course.
In God’s Hands
Exodus gives us a distinct insight into the problem of the will, and the careful reader can discern that while Pharaoh considered himself supreme despite all that was happening to his nation (even his servants begged him to give in!), God was the absolutely sovereign actor in all that happened. Even the choices that Pharaoh made in hardening his heart are wrapped within the accomplishment of the will of God.
The state of hearts is in the dominion of God, both for softening and hardening. We cannot make our hard hearts soft on our own power—God must intervene on our behalf and give us a new heart. It is his free choice whether to regenerate a heart or to leave it in it’s hardened rebellion. Both demonstrate his glory and power and the greatness of His name, which is to be praised above all others.