God’s Sovereignty Over Pharaoh’s Heart

If you have studied the book of Exodus, you have most likely noticed the parallel language that is present at the end of the plagues. God warns Pharaoh through Moses, demands the release of the people of Israel, and threatens a plague if Pharaoh will not comply. Pharaoh refuses to do what God says, the plague comes, and something in the land is wrecked. Then Pharaoh asks for help and promises some sort of freedom to Israel. Moses prays to God and the Lord stops the plague. Then, in each instance, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he goes back on his word, and he does not let Israel go.


One of the questions often asked by readers of Exodus is, “Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” In some passages, we read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. But, in other passages, we see God quite clearly declare that he, the Lord, hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Which is it?


Exodus 9:34 – 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.


Exodus 10:1-2 – 1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, 2 and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.”


First, let us be wise here and remember that it is not likely that the Lord inspired this passage to bring us to a point of debate over first or second causes, of synergism or monergism. This passage is there to show us some very clear and obvious truths. God is over all. God moves through the hearts of kings and rulers. God works events to display his own glory.  


But, we also need to grasp that some grand truths are present in the holy and inspired word of God. Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Yes. Did Pharaoh harden his own heart? Yes. So, who is to blame for Pharaoh’s sin? The answer there is Pharaoh. God never forced Pharaoh to do anything that Pharaoh, in his sinfully hard heart, did not wish to do. But, then, did God participate in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? Yes, he did—he says he did. Did God sin? Nope, God can’t do that.


But wait, we don’t like this. We don’t fully understand it. We demand an explanation. But, who do we think we are? Who are we to demand that the Lord clarify for us his ways so that we can sit in judgment as to whether or not we like his methods? God does not tell us exactly how the balance of God hardening and Pharaoh hardening worked. While you and I may try to sketch out how we think it worked, the Scripture has no interest in revealing that to us. Thus, neither does God. He has is ways, they are above and beyond ours, and we do not have the right to demand to know them.


God does explain something to us in this passage. At the beginning of chapter 10, God tells us why he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He did so, “that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” So, God says he hardened Pharaoh’s heart so he could show his power in the plagues, so he could show his glory, so we could know he is the Lord. God did what God did in order to display his power, his justice, his might, his glory.


Notice what God did not say to us. He did not tell us, “I only strengthened his already hard heart. Don’t worry, I didn’t have anything to do with actually making him worse, that wouldn’t be fair.” God did not give us any reason in this passage at all to tell us how the whole hardening process or the pattern happened.


And so often, right here, we want to reshape the story. We are afraid, if somebody hears this, they will not like God. We are afraid that somebody will not approve of God working in this way. We think that maybe Jesus would not act like this. But, in all this we are very much wrong.


God is perfect. God is not judged by an external standard of righteousness, something outside him that measures him. We are measured by the righteousness of the Lord. We have no right at all to even consider sitting in judgment over the choices, actions, and motivations of the Lord. He is the one who is sovereign, not us.


What supreme arrogance it would be for me to say to God, “I’m not sure that you treated Pharaoh rightly by hardening his heart. I think you should have allowed him to do what he wanted with no interference. But it looks like you messed with him here. I’m not sure I approve.” Then, were I to continue with, “And, I really do not know that it is OK for you to display your power and justice by crushing the Egyptians the way that you did. You are not allowed to act like that. You are supposed not to let any people hurt.”


Were I to say such things, what would have happened? In my own little arrogant imagination, I would be putting myself on the judge’s bench and God in the place of the accused who must defend himself. I would be making myself the prosecution, bringing evidence against the actions of the Lord all the while I would also be the jury, deciding if I approved of God’s explanation to me. This, dear friends, is never the proper position for humans against the Lord.


When Job accused God, the Lord never answered to Job or explained his rationale. Instead, God pointed out to Job, through about four chapters of questions, that Job is far too small and far too limited to possibly grasp the workings of the Lord. And when Job realized what he had done, he declared his repentance because he saw that he had foolishly stepped out of line (cf. Job 42:1-6).


Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Pharaoh did. God did. Did God ever do wrong? No, not at all. Do we have the right to decide whether we like what God did? Not really, because we are sinful and limited creations attempting to question the glorious, holy, perfect Creator.


Does this apply to other topics? Does this passage and explanation apply to something like sovereign election in salvation? I think it does, but that is for another post and for you to consider as you study the Scriptures for yourself. I know this, God’s ways in salvation are just as much his as are his ways in handling Moses or Pharaoh. If the word of God says that my only way to come to the Lord is through him drawing me to him (John 6:44), giving me the ability by his power (John 6:65), bringing to life my dead heart (Ephesians 2:1-ff), and granting me faith as a gift (Ephesians 2:8), I certainly have no reason to question him and complain at his methods. I have no more right to judge the ways of God in salvation than I have to judge the ways of God in the Exodus. God is good. I am limited. The Lord’s word is perfect and true. May I love the Lord and surrender to his perfection without ever placing myself in the position to try to be the judge again.


Let me add, in case this all looks too harsh, that God has displayed himself to us as so wonderfully kind and gracious too. The same God who did this with Pharaoh is the God who let little children come to him even when the disciples wanted to push them away. The God who squashed the Egyptians to display his glory also displayed his glory by healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and—most gloriously of all—giving his own life to pay the price for the sins of all his people. God is not mean. No, his ways are not ours. His holiness is beyond us. But we must not allow one picture to be our only image. The Lord is right, always right, in his justice and in his mercy, in his love and in his wrath.