Why did God harden Pharaoh's heart? In Exodus 9:12, we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Does this mean that God is responsible for the way the pharaoh behaved? Did God make someone hard-hearted and cruel?
Why Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?
First, we need to get something straight. The question of whether God made Pharaoh cruel is extremely misguided. Take a look at his behavior in Exodus and tell me you see a depiction of a good and just leader doing his best to treat the Israelites with respect.
That is not the picture we get of Pharaoh at all. You have to keep in mind that the Israelites were mistreated and enslaved. We are told several times that Pharoah had a hard heart anyway (Exodus 8:15; 8:32). Despite numerous warnings and plagues, Pharaoh was not going to budge. And this was not an oddity in the behavior of Egypt’s leaders.
The pharaohs had kept the Israelites enslaved for 400 years by this point. Think about that. Four hundred years of forced labor, no rights or privileges, abuse, derision, and everything that comes with slavery. They had experienced the worst humanity had to offer at the hands of the Pharaoh and his government.
No, this man was no innocent victim of a cruel God, making him do something he did not want to do. Pharaoh had it in him to do what his people had done for the entirety of that 400 years, and His heart was already as hard as could be.
Despite God attempting to warn him, which was God offering him a measure of grace, Pharaoh continued to be obstinate in his hatred and mistreatment of the Israelites. So, what does Scripture mean when it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
Bible Verses about Harden Hearts
Proverbs 28:13-14: "Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity."
Ezekiel 36:26: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."
Ephesians 4:18: "They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart."
Hebrews 3:8: "Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness."
Why Are Hearts Hardened - Why Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?
One of the central causes of human suffering is that we insist that we are in charge of our lives. We are sovereign. We do not want to serve anyone else unless of course there is something to be gained in doing so for us. We climb the corporate ladder, seeking power through position.
We look for our next sexual conquest, to make us feel good and satisfy our lusts. We acquire lots of money, so we can live independently and self-sufficiently. In pursuing all of these material desires, we often find they do not fulfill us, so we need more money, more power, more objects to fulfill our lusts.
The cycle is never-ending when we are in charge of our lives. Pharaoh had all of these things in abundance. He was waited on hand and foot. He had the best foods, the most comfortable living spaces, clean water, a bath, lots of money, power over an entire kingdom, and a harem filled with wives and consorts to satisfy his fleshly lusts.
But he also had something else. He had power over other people’s lives. That is a frightening thing for anyone to have. With the snap of a finger, he could make a pauper wealthy, or a wealthy man a pauper. He could free a slave or enslave a free man. He could find a new wife or take another man’s wife.
Indeed, he could put someone to death on a whim, if he so chose. All of this power, along with his hard heart, made for a very frightening and cruel man. Pharaoh made it clear through his rejection of God’s warnings that he was in charge, not God.
He would not bend the knee to some strange foreign God when he, as Pharaoh, was a living deity himself! God knew Pharaoh’s heart well. Better than Pharaoh even. Scripture tells us that there are certain times and conditions under which God will stop striving with us and let us be in charge of our lives (Romans 1:24).
The entirety of Romans 1 explains how humanity consistently rejected God, and so he allowed us to be in charge of our lives and we engaged in idolatry. How humanity was sexually immoral, and when we were in charge of our lives that immorality became perversion.
And from there literally every kind of sin, every kind of moral violation followed. When God gives us over to our own charge, our own control, we always become hard of heart toward the will of God. It is the natural result of fallen humans refusing to allow God to control our lives.
When Scripture tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what it means is that God allowed Pharaoh to have his way. Of course, that way led to disaster for the Egyptians, as the path of sinful humans always does.
It was simply a matter of God ceasing to strive with Pharaoh, offering him the continual grace of warnings, and allowing him to have his own way and learn the lesson the hard way. This is not cruel, but sometimes a necessary way to deal with obstinate people.
Most parents have experienced a situation wherein their son or daughter was insistent on a particular course of behavior or a decision of consequence that the parent knew would lead to disaster. No amount of warnings, reasoning, or cajoling would change the child’s mind or turn them from their chosen course.
At that point, all a parent can do is step back and allow their son or daughter to experience the pain of a bad decision. Sometimes the child learns that lesson and does not repeat it. Others, sadly, will continue to insist on having things their way, no matter what warnings they might have received.
Pharaoh was the latter of the two examples. He had to experience the pain and disaster before he gave in, and even then, he refused to admit he was no match for the Almighty God of the Israelites (Exodus 14:9-28).
Why Does This Matter?
Why did God harden Pharaoh's heart. Let us not make the mistake of ascribing evil behavior to the holy God. Just as the parents in our example cannot be blamed for the result of their son or daughter’s choices, neither can God be blamed for Pharaoh’s hard heart.
He tried again and again to reason with him, to warn him, but Pharaoh refused. Do not be like Pharaoh. Heed the warnings God provides in Scripture, do your best to live in His will and you will avoid a hard heart.
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J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.
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