The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. -Exodus 4:21 NIV
A recurring theme in Exodus is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh repeatedly goes back on his word and refuses to release the Israelites as he promised. At first Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Each time after God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to let the Israelites go.
God hardening the heart of Pharaoh is referred to in Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 10:1, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17. It is also alluded to by Paul in Romans 9:17-18.
This “hardening ” of Pharaoh is of particular concern to the Arminian. On the face it seems to indicate that that God was coercive and changed Pharaoh’s heart to cause him to do something that he wouldn’t have done otherwise. If God worked in a coercive manner with Pharoah, He could presumably act in similar ways towards others. This seems to contradict the notion that God’s character is intrinsically good. If God is good in a sense that we can begin to grasp, He wouldn’t arbitrarily change a person’s heart to make him do evil things.
Thankfully, we really can trust God. He is good, and His character is above reproach.
To better understand the “hardening” of Pharaoh , it is important to note that the Hebrew word chazaq (translated as “harden” in English) does not carry the same connotation in Hebrew that it does in English. Chazaq is usually translated as “encourage”, “strengthen”, “repair”, “fortify” and “assist”. In God’s Strategy in Human History, Forster and Marston note that:
The English phrase hard-hearted carries to many people overtones of cruelty or unrepentance. Thus “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” could be taken to mean that God prevented him from repenting. We are not saying that those who translated the AV RV and RSV intended this, but rather that the ordinary English reader could get this impression- and in our experience often does! This puzzles him, for the Bible clearly teaches that God is not willing that any should perish, but desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth…God, we may be sure, would rather that Pharaoh had repented than perished in the Red Sea…The paradox need not arise if we remember that a phrase in one language should not be simply equated with a phrase in another.
Forster and Marston provide a chart that documents occurrences of the word chazaq. It is a term that is frequently used in the Old Testament (They document 55 examples outside of Exodus). The only time chazaq is translated as “harden” is in reference to Pharaoh in Exodus. In all other occurrences, chazaq is translated as “strengthen”, “encourage”, “repair”, “fortify”, etc.
Here are a few examples:
In the passages above, chazaq describes assisting or encouraging someone with a course that they have decided on. It means helping someone to do what they already want to do.
The same is true of God in his dealings with Pharaoh. God did not change Pharaoh’s heart to make him want to kill the Hebrews. Pharaoh already wanted to kill them. What God did was give Pharaoh the courage to follow through with what he already desired to do. Pharaoh was an evil man, but he was also timid and fearful of the Hebrews and their God. God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart.
Understood in this sense, we can see that God’s dealings with Pharoah were above reproach. As a result, we can be confident that God’s dealings with us will also be good and trustworthy.