Our subject implies that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart went through a process of progressive development. The hard heart of Pharaoh became as it were harder in the measure that the mighty strokes of God’s judgments came down upon the head of Pharaoh and his servants. Exodus 4-14 gives us a description of that process. And in the New Testament Romans 9 sheds light upon the subject under discussion. The interested reader would do well to read the above mentioned chapters before reading this article.
We are all acquainted with the fact that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is ascribed both to himself and to God. Some commentators claim that we read ten times of Pharaoh that he hardened his heart and ten times that the Lord hardened his heart. However, this is a very arbitrary division which certainly is in conflict with the historical facts as related in the book of Exodus. Fact is we read oftener of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart than of Pharaoh himself hardening his heart. And some texts, as e.g. Exodus 7:22, 8:19 and Exodus 9:35 do not state at all who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In these texts we merely read: “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.”
Perhaps it also should be stated in this connection that in the original several different words are used to express the idea of hardening. Our “Statenvertaling” has brought out the different shading of these words by translating ‘verstokken’ (), ‘verzwaren’ ( ), ‘verkarden’ ( ). Looking up these verses you will notice they state “God verstokte Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh verzwaarde his heart, God verhardde Pharaoh’s heart.” That God verstokte and verhardde Pharaoh’s heart means according to the original words that He strengthened it, ( ), that He made it sharp, hardened it ( ). And that Pharaoh verzwaarde his heart means that he made it heavy, expressing the idea of dull, insensible, ( ). We merely mentioned these three examples to show that the original uses various words which our Authorized Version translates harden or hardened. This implies of course that the original has a shade of difference in the various words which is not preserved in the translation of the King James Version.
And now a few remarks as to the historical setting. Israel has been in Egypt for a few generations. Another king has arisen who did not know Joseph. And as the children of Israel multiplied very rapidly this new Pharaoh starts to subject them to severe hardships with the purpose to keep them down by an iron rule and to even partially destroy them. However, this devilish purpose ends in utter failure as far as the destruction of the Israelites is concerned. The successor of this cruel tyrant ruthlessly continues the work of his predecessor. Israel becomes a people of bondage, of slavery. Finally the moment has arrived that Israel’s God will bring deliverance to His people. The man chosen for the task to bring Israel out of bondage is Moses, the mediator of the Old Testament. After the Lord has prepared Moses for his life’s task, first in Egypt, then in the wilderness, He calls His servant Moses to go back to Egypt and do all the Lord commands him to do. And the Lord charges him to go with this significant demand to Pharaoh: “When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand? but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn. And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.” (). From these words we learn that Israel is God’s son, His firstborn, His peculiar treasure. This implies of course that Pharaoh has made of God’s firstborn a slave. And now God, Jehovah, the God of all the earth comes to Pharaoh and tells him by the mouth of Moses and Aaron: “Let my son, so cruelly treated by thee, go, that he may serve Me. He is not thine, he is Mine.”—But before Moses and Aaron go the Lord informs them already that Pharaoh will not let Israel go, the Lord will harden his heart and it is only after God has poured out His vials of wrath upon Pharaoh and Egypt that Israel will be delivered by the mighty hand of God.
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh as told. They tell him the message of the Lord: “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” (). Pharaoh realizes immediately that he is not dealing here with a kind request but with a command from the God of the Israelites. His response? We read that in verse two of the fifth chapter: “And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go.” And here begins as it were the hardening process of Pharaoh. From the outset he denies that he knows the Lord Jehovah. Not knowing Him why should he let His people go. And even if he did know the Lord he would not let Israel go. The latter is implied in the expression: “Neither will I let Israel go.” Thus from the outset he as it were challenges God to show that He is the Lord, to manifest Himself as the God who can command Pharaoh, who as the absolute Sovereign even Pharaoh must obey.
We are quite well acquainted with the history which follows this initial command of God and Pharaoh’s reply. Hence, I do not deem it necessary to follow the process step by step. Immediately the king goes to work and increases the burden of the Israelites, thereby mocking the Lord and showing his contempt for the God of Israel. Hereupon the Lord pours upon his head and upon the heads of his servants ten great and mighty plagues. At first Pharaoh tries to match the wonderwork of God by calling on his wise men and sorcerers to perform the same signs which are performed by Moses and Aaron. It seems as though he succeeds somewhat for we read: “Now the magicians of Egypt they also did in like manner with their enchantments.” However, soon they fail altogether. The plagues of God become heavier, more severe. But Pharaoh is unmovable as a rock, every time the plague is passed he refuses to let the Israelites go. Naturally, in the measure that God’s judgments become more pronounced it takes a harder heart to refuse to listen to the Word of God and heed His command. Pharaoh certainly received an exhibition of the power and glory of the Lord he refused to acknowledge as God. He is even brought so far that more than once he acknowledges that God is God indeed and that he, Pharaoh, has sinned. (). Still, the moment the plague is passed and the danger seems to be over Pharaoh refuses to let God’s people go. To the very end, even while he is pursuing Israel into the Red Sea, he says within his heart: “There is no God.” Didn’t he know any better. Of course he did, but he refused to bow before the Almighty, he hated the Lord with bitter hatred. And the more and the clearer God revealed himself unto Pharaoh by His word and mighty acts the more he hated Him. It was no lack of knowledge that Pharaoh finally perished in the Red Sea but he was an utter spiritual fool.
The question may now be asked: “How do we explain this hardening process of Pharaoh?” It seems to me it should be emphasized first of all, particularly with a view to many who disagree with us on this subject, that Pharaoh is fully responsible for the hardening of his heart and, hence, responsible for his sin. He hardens his heart, he deliberately wills to walk In the way of sin. In the entire history as we briefly reviewed it Pharaoh is the rational moral creature whose delight it is to walk in the ways of sin. Had you asked him: “Why do you do this, why do you persist in this evil way, he would have answered: “Because I want to do this, I will oppose the Lord to the bitter end for I hate Him.” Still more, he might have said: “I could do otherwise, I could let Iferael go, but I refuse to do it because I hate the God of Israel.”—Thus it always is with the sinner and his sin. Man is morally free. God’s power and God’s providence never annihilates man’s moral freedom of choice. That’s why man as a rational moral creature, as a willing, thinking, deliberately acting person is the author of his sin. We certainly maintain and must maintain the responsibility of man.
However, this does not exhaust the subject we are dealing with at present. Scripture in clear and unequivocal language states repeatedly that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Before Moses has spoken to Pharaoh the Lord tells him that this is His very purpose with Pharaoh. (). And Paul in Romans 9 also emphasizes this very thought. Here we read the words: “For the Scripture saith 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” (vs. 17).
Commentators in various ways and by many subtle reasonings have tried to minimize the force of these words. It has been said e.g. that God started hardening Pharaoh’s heart after he had hardened himself and showed himself to be a hopeless sinner, worthy of God’s fierce judgments. Others claim that God permitted Pharaoh to harden his heart. And thus we might mention other attempts to soften the expression that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.’”’ However, all these attempts are but in vain and clearly contradict the force and plain meaning of the above expression. The hardening process of Pharaoh teaches us that even though God maintains the ethical nature of man, man’s very heart and thoughts and will and action is subjected to the overruling, almighty will and providence of God. God strengthens Pharaoh’s heart, God makes it hard. To put it in very plain words: “Just because God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh can harden his heart.” That is Scripture. This does not make God the author of sin, as some have claimed. But the very fact that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart teaches us as clearly as anywhere else in Scripture the absolute sovereignty of God.—Can we fully understand and fathom this doctrine? No? but neither is this necessary at all. It is the natural, rebellious mind that wants to oppose and contradict this doctrine. However, the believer who confesses a God who is really God and derives great comfort from this doctrine because even though in Pharaoh we are dealing with a ‘special case,’ the principle implied always holds and is true with, respect to all reprobate men. And that is comfort. Of course man hardens his heart, but above man stands God. And through evil men God also maintains His cause and realizes His purpose, even so much so that wicked man can only harden his heart because God hardens him. God does not merely reign supreme in the physical world, as He so clearly demonstrated to Pharaoh, but also in the ethical world, He reigns supreme in every man’s heart. That makes God ah and man nothing. And thus the Lord is always glorified. He is and remains the Potter, we are the clay. He hath mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth.