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Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

By David A. DePra

The story of Pharaoh, and his refusal to let Israel go, is familiar to all who know the Bible. But there is a curious aspect to this story of the Exodus. It has to do with the fact that the account states, "God hardened Pharaoh’s heart."


The Bible refers to the fact that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened fifteen times in the Exodus account. Six of those times it clearly states that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. Four times it states that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. And five times it simply says Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and doesn’t give the cause.


What does this mean? Does it mean that God deliberately ordained, and caused, Pharaoh to refuse to let Israel go? Does it mean that God caused Pharaoh to sin against Him? Or does it mean something else which is elsewhere taught in the Word of God?


The Answer


The Bible never teaches that God makes anyone sin, ordains that people resist Him, or talks out of both sides of His mouth. God doesn’t command obedience, and then harden people so they disobey, only to then punish them. Actually, the Bible gives clear and direct teaching on what it means when it says that "God hardens" the heart of anyone.


Perhaps one of the better scriptures on the subject is found in Hebrews:


To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do always err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. So I swore in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.) Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. (Heb. 3:8-13)


Focus in on the phrase, "Today IF you will hear His voice…." The implication here is that God is already speaking to all. There is no thought here that we must invite God to speak to us by our first softening our hearts. Nor that if we harden our hearts, God will stop talking. Rather, the picture is that God has been, is, and will be speaking.


Based on this, the question is simple: Are we hearing God? Again – the question isn’t whether God is talking. He IS. The question is whether we are hearing.


"To hear," in scripture, always means "to submit to." It means "to be open to," or to "be receptive." The Greek word is the same root as the one for "obedience." Thus, when Hebrews says, "Today if you will HEAR His voice," it is talking about being receptive to His voice.


Notice how clearly the rest of the passage now becomes. Hebrews says, "Today IF – which denotes a condition – we will hear His voice, we must do what? We must NOT harden our hearts. Or, to put it in the positive, IF we will hear His voice, we must open our hearts. It is the condition of our hearts which determine whether, or what, we hear. If I refuse to be receptive to God, I won’t hear Him. If I open myself to Him, I will hear Him.


But here is the whole point: God is speaking whether I am open to Him, or have hardened myself again Him. He isn’t going to stop speaking. But it is precisely because of that, that the same voice of God – which He intends for my edification – will harden me if I refuse it.


All through the Bible we find the same principle. What God intends for my salvation – His grace – will itself judge me if I refuse it. What God intends to set me free – Light in Christ – will condemn me if I instead love darkness. What God intends to soften me – His love – will harden me if I reject it. God isn’t going to stop invading my heart and my life. He can’t stop. He won’t stop. But if I refuse Him, what God intends to set me free, will, because of my unbelief, be the very Truth that judges me.


The reason it works this way ought to be clear. Once I see Truth and Light, I can no longer plead ignorance. Once I KNOW, I can’t say I don’t know. Once God speaks, I can’t say He hasn’t spoken. The point is, I do not have the choice as to whether God speaks, or as to whether God calls me. I do not have the choice as to whether God brings Light into my world. But I do have the choice as to what I am going to do with it. My choices are two: Hear and embrace the Truth, or harden my heart.


So what we see is that God DOES harden the heart of people! But not by CAUSING them to resist Him, in the sense of ordaining that they do. No. God hardens people’s hearts by continuing to bring the Truth to those who continue to set themselves against Him. Because God will not leave them alone, and because they continue to resist, the result is a hardened heart.


You see, God could simply STOP working with such folks. He could say, "Well, I see that this one is not going to turn to Me, so I’ll stop trying to turn them." But God won’t. Instead, He continues to seek them out, and continues to invade and prod them -- in the desire to get them to turn. But if they won’t, the result will be a heart which is hard in a way that it would not be hard had God left them alone.


In the final analysis, this is what God is going to do with all men. God will have no one sitting on the fence. Each person is going to have to choose over Jesus Christ. We don’t decide whether to be presented with the choice. We do the choosing. It is given to us as to how we will chose -- not whether we will choose.


So when we read about "God hardening" anyone’s heart, it means that God continues to approach someone who will not turn to Him, for the purpose of pushing them to a final choice. God wants them to turn. But if they won’t, He will push and push until their choice to refuse Him is complete.


If you were in a room alone, with music blasting from overhead loudspeakers – music you hated – you would try to "tune it out." Perhaps you would try to focus on something else. Or maybe turn on the TV, or a radio. But suppose every time you did, someone turned the music up even louder! You would eventually either have to give in and listen, or try even harder to "tune it out."


Well, it works like this with God – who is always playing "good music." We are in a process where we will either stop and open ourselves to Him, or try to "tune Him out." But the more we try to tune Him out, the louder He is going to yell! That is because He loves us and is faithful. Pray to God that we don’t get to the place where our hearts become so hard that God is not able to make an impression upon them.


The writer of Hebrews isn’t talking about losing our salvation, but his point proves the possibility, and shows that we do have a choice. He warns us:


Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing (Greek – standing aloof) from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.


Again – God is speaking. He will make sure we know He is speaking, and will give us all the grace in the world to turn and listen. But He won’t make us listen. And if we persist in hardening our hearts and closing our ears, God will simply turn up the juice.


This is perhaps expressed most profoundly in the gospel of John:


And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hates the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (Jn. 3:19-21)


Again – we don’t get to decide as to whether Light is going to come into our world. Light IS come, whether we like it or not. We choose what to do with it. The same Light that God intends for our salvation and freedom, will condemn us if we "love darkness, rather than light."




We now turn our attention to a passage of scripture in the New Testament which says that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. Paul has just illustrated through Jacob and Esau that God’s grace is independent of our qualifications or merit. God offers it to all – Jew and Gentile. Now, Paul talks about Pharoah:


For the scripture says unto Pharaoh, "Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth." Therefore has He mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom He will He hardens.

Thou wilt say then unto me, "Why does He yet find fault? For who has resisted His will? Nay, but O man, who are you that replies against God? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, "Why have you made me thus?" Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor? What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction? And that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory.


Paul intends to use the example of Pharaoh to show the Romans, who were Gentiles, that God has not given up on the Jews. Indeed, He wants to show that God can even use someone who rejects Him to be an instrument in His plan and purpose. Why does he want to show them that? Because Israel rejected Him. And God used THAT to bring in the Gentiles. And the fact that the Gentiles are offered salvation, will, in turn, be used to make Israel jealous. Paul is simply showing them that even a guy like Pharaoh can be used by God to work His purpose.


But first let’s see whether Paul is teaching that God deliberately caused Pharaoh to resist him. Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would resist Him? Or did God use the fact of Pharaoh’s hardened heart to His own purposes?


Paul gives us the reason why God raised up Pharaoh. He quotes God: Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth. For what purpose did God raise up Pharaoh? To show His power. To declare His name.


How did God do this through Pharaoh? By seeing to it that Pharaoh was in power when it was time to free Israel. God KNEW that Pharaoh would resist Him. God knew that despite plague after plague after plague, Pharaoh would refuse to let Israel go. THAT is why He raised Him up. The result would be glory for God.


Now note: God did not WILL or CAUSE Pharaoh to sin. No. Rather, God KNEW this individual would not turn. So God saw to it that he was in power at that point in time.


God spoke as loud as He could through Moses, trying to get Pharaoh to turn. There are even indications, from time to time, that Pharaoh was beginning to bend. God was just, fair, and good to Pharaoh. But no. Pharaoh would not turn. He never did. And God, who knows all, knew He would not.


This is a good example of God NOT causing anyone to sin, but using those who do to His own purposes. The Bible says, "He makes even the wrath of man to praise Him." (Ps. 76:10) It is easy for God to make sure those who reject Him are in the place He wants them, when He wants them there. He can use even their sin – sin God hates – to a Redemptive end.


Have you ever wondered, for instance, why God allowed a certain person to hurt you? Maybe it was so you could learn how to forgive. God didn’t make them hurt you, or cause them to hurt you. What they did was SIN, and wrong, and they are responsible. But God allowed it, and used it as an opportunity for you to grow. They are responsible for their sin. You are responsible for forgiving them.


Paul continues about Pharaoh. He says that God deliberately "raised up" Pharaoh for His own glory – knowing Pharaoh would resist Him. Paul specifically says that "God hardens whom He wills to harden." In other words, as we have seen, God will turn up the juice on those who refuse Him, even if it means they will not turn. If this hardens them, it is just. God says it is just. God "hardens" in this way by not leaving them alone.


Now notice the question Paul then asks: Just in case we think that it is odd, or unfair, that God continues to push at one who is hardening his heart, Paul asks the rhetorical question that most of us would ask: If God does this – deliberately comes at Pharaoh with Truth, knowing that Pharaoh will resist -- then, "Why does God yet find fault? For who is able to resist God’s will?


One clarification here: When Paul asks, "Who is able to resist His will?," the context clearly does NOT mean that whatever Pharaoh did had to be God’s will. No. It means that no one is able to resist the fact that God is going to invade their life WITH His will. As we saw, we cannot resist God bringing His will. We can only choose what to do with it.


So God sometimes brings His will and His purpose upon those who He knows will refuse Him and become hardened. We cannot resist the fact that God brings His will. We must simply choose whether we will yield. Paul anticipates our possible objection to this and answers, "Who are you to question God? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, "Why have you made me this way?"


The question here is not whether it is fair for God to form an evil person, who He then ordains will sin. No. God never does that. The question is about how it is fair for God to disturb someone who is set against Him, to the point where it results in them fully rejecting Him. Would it not have been more "loving" to simply keep those choices from such people? To let them be, so that they would never even have the choice to reject God?


The answer is NO. People are going to eventually choose one way or another. And God knows best when to bring that choice. God took this individual we know as Pharaoh, and raised him up to the place where he was given choices and opportunity to reject God that he would not have otherwise had. Was it just for God to see to it that this person was used like this? Sure. Pharaoh made his choices. God used them.


One side-bar question: If Pharaoh was totally depraved, without any possibility of choosing RIGHT, then why would God need to harden his heart? Seems like it would have been hardened just fine without God.


God’s Redemptive Purposes


If God didn’t care to redeem anyone, then there would be no hardened hearts – not in the way they are hardened because God seeks people out. This is the day of judgment. God is invading this planet with His Holy Spirit. People are going to choose, one way or another.


What we see here is a principle: The more grace God gives, the more my heart will become hard if I reject that grace. Yet because God wants to redeem, He will not stop giving grace. Thus, it can be said that God is doing the hardening because without Him bringing the grace, I would have nothing against which to harden myself.


Thus, we have a spiritual principle: The same grace which softens the heart of those who submit to God, will harden the heart of those who resist Him.


Can you see that? God is doing things in my life for the purpose of getting me to turn to the Truth. He wants to soften my resistance to Him. But if I choose to respond to those things by further hardening myself against God, then in a figurative sense it can be said that God is doing the hardening – because without Him taking the initiative to try to soften me, I would not even have the choice to harden myself. There would be nothing to choose AGAINST.


In Romans 1 we see this clearly illustrated. In verse 24, 26, and 28, we find that God "gives people up to" all manner of terrible things. Why? Because He ordained them to these things? No. He gives them up to these sinful things because that’s what they have chosen. They have continually hardened themselves against God. In response, God has, as it were, "turned up the juice" on His loving chastisements and judgments, trying to save them. But if they respond back to God by further hardening themselves, God has no choice but to give them up to what they desire— not because that is what God ordained—but because things have reached the point where that is the only possible outcome of their choosing. Yet even then, God will seek to use their sin to bring them to repentance. He is an eternal Redeemer.


Man’s Failures and God’s Glory


Unless we see that it is the continual offer of God’s grace that actually results in the hardening in those who refuse, we will interpret scriptures such as the one in Romans 9 wrongly.


Back to Pharaoh. Paul says God chose Pharaoh—for what purpose? "...that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth." Now, why does this have to mean that God ordained Pharaoh’s choices? It doesn’t mean that at all. All it really means is this: God knew that Pharaoh would harden his heart, because God knows all hearts. So God raised Pharaoh up and put him in that position of authority, so that He could use Pharaoh’s hardness for His own purposes. So that God could show that He is greater than anyone who might resist Him.


Do you see that? God did NOT cause Pharaoh to reject Him. But God knew that the individual who would eventually become Pharaoh WOULD reject Him. Thus, God saw to it that he did become Pharaoh – so that God could use his rejection to His own glory.


But let’s ask: What if Pharoah had chose NOT to harden His heart? Well, then God would not have "raised him up" for the stated purpose. God, knowing this ahead of time, would have seen to it that a person who He knew WOULD harden their heart was Pharoah.


On the Potter’s Wheel


Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, "Why have you made me thus?" Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor? What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction? And that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory. (Rom. 9:20-23)


The big question here is this: Are the "vessels unto honor," and the "vessels unto dishonor," the kind of vessels they are by God’s will, or by their own choice? Clearly, they are the kind of vessels they are by their own choice TOWARDS God’s will. But if that is the case, then why does Paul ridicule the question asked by the clay to the potter, "Why have you made me into this?" That would seem to say that it is indeed the potter who makes the clay into what He pleases.


The answer goes back to what we saw earlier about the hardening of the heart, and how it is the result of the refusal of grace. The Truth is, God wants ALL to become vessels of honor. ALL of us. But Paul is saying that if I resist grace, then grace will mold me into a vessel of wrath. His grace will cause me, because of my rejection of it, to be "fitted to destruction." I will become, not a beautiful vessel, but a distorted one. Why? Because by my choices I am resisting the hands of the potter.


The question, "Why have you made me into this," by the vessel of wrath, is another way of saying, "Why didn’t you leave me alone? Why did you have to press upon me with your hands in such a way?" Or, in some cases, "Why did you place on me such a responsibility? I was better off before you called me?"


Here, we are reminded of Judas, who, if Christ had not called him, would have never been in the position to make the terrible choice he made. But Christ DID call him. And he did make his choice. Can he then turn and blame Christ for picking him instead of someone else? Paul allegorically pictures one such as Judas blaming God for "forming him" by putting him on a potter’s wheel, and applying His hands on him in such a way as that.


The point is once again that God chooses each of us for a purpose. He does the calling. We don’t get to decide that. But we get to choose how to respond. We cannot later blame God for giving us a responsibility.


By the way, vessels of wrath are what they are because they ask the question, "What have you formed me this way." You won’t hear a vessel of honor asking that question. Asking that question is what it means to harden your heart. You want your will, not God’s.


But you know what? God will not relent from His purposes. He will not give up. God will continue to mold and mold until we either bend to Him or break. And if we continue to resist Him, then He will use us -- "vessels of wrath" -- any way He pleases – as He did Pharaoh.


The picture of the potter’s wheel is striking. If a lump of clay resists the hands of the potter, then those hands will press harder. If the clay continues to resist, the hands will press harder. In the end, if this continues, the clay will be malformed, and fit for nothing but the garbage heap.


Paul is simply saying that God will not stop pressing harder, in order to get us to turn. But if we refuse, then those hands He intended for our good, will break us. What He intended to soften us, will harden us. Vessels of wrath, at that point, may say, "God, why didn’t you stop? Why did you continue pressing, and make us turn out this way?" God will say, "You belong to Me, like it or not. I wanted to form you to my glory. And I never stop pressing to that end. The fact that you resisted Me every step of the way will not stop Me. You will either be a vessel of honor or a vessel of destruction." *


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