Please explain what it means when it says that the Lord “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart.
There are several passages that speak of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The first time this is mentioned is in Exodus 4:21, where God announces his intention to do this, saying 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” (see also: Ex. 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17).
I suppose there are a couple of things our questioner has in mind about this: (1) what exactly did this hardening consist of, and (2) was God unjust to harden his heart?
We must be cautious in answering the question about what the hardening consisted of because the Bible doesn’t explain it. But I think we would not be too far off the mark to suppose that, at a minimum, God withdrew whatever positive influences operated upon Pharaoh’s mind. The Bible teaches that we are by nature sinful. We are born into the world with a spiritual defect, in that we have a natural bias toward evil. Left to ourselves we would become monsters. But God hasn’t left us to ourselves. He has ordered the world in such a way that many restraints are placed upon the natural development of our sinful tendencies. For example, the moral instruction we received from our parents, the force of habit and custom, the dictates of conscience, authority figures who keep us in line through a fear of punishment, and the sense of shame we would feel if we should do evil.
But what if all these restraints upon our sinful inclinations should be removed? What if we had no sense of shame? What if our conscience was seared (1 Tim. 4:2)? What if—as in Pharaoh’s case—there was no human authority over us and we could do whatever we wanted without fear of punishment?
I think at a minimum we could say that this is what the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart consisted in. The Lord removed all the positive influences for good and gave him over to fully act out the evil that was in his heart. Three times in the first chapter of Romans Paul speaks of this sort of thing as he describes the moral degeneration of the Gentiles as they turned their back on God. He said,
- God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity (v. 24)
- God gave them up to dishonorable passions (v. 26)
- God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (v. 28)
He took away their moral restraints and allowed them to fully act out the evil that was in their heart. He did the same to Pharaoh.
But over and above this, it may be that God sent an evil spirit to afflict Pharaoh. The Lord did this in the case of King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). This was a punishment for sins already committed. And this is something we must always bear in mind. It was not the case that in Pharaoh God took a good man and made him bad, or that he took a holy man and made him sinful, or a righteous man and made him wicked. Rather, God found Pharaoh to be a wicked man and he punished him for his wickedness. A part of that punishment consisted of giving him over to fully act out the evil that was in his own heart, and this may have included turning him over to the power of a demonic spirit.
I think it’s significant that the Bible not only says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but also that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34). And several times it says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without specifying whether it was the Lord or Pharaoh who hardened it (7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35; 14:5).
The point is that God did not find Pharaoh a good man and make him bad. No, Pharaoh was a wicked man who was fully responsible for his own demise. A part of his punishment was being turned over to his own base instincts.
Paul dealt with these issues in the ninth chapter of Romans when he said,
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 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. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:14-21)
The one lump of clay is the mass of fallen sinful humanity, and Paul says, “May not God show mercy to some and harden others, as he sees fit?” The answer of course is yes he may. He is sovereign and may do whatever he pleases. But notice that in neither case is any injustice done to anyone. Some who deserve wrath receive wrath, while others who deserve wrath receive mercy. Another way to put it is: some receive justice and others receive mercy, but no one receives injustice. Pharaoh and the Egyptians received justice, Israel received mercy, and we ought to glorify God for both.