The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

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.

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23 Comments

Filed under Calvinism, free will, hardening

23 responses to “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

  1. slw

    Kevin,
    Very interesting analysis. When Paul speaks of Pharoah’s hardening his uses skleruno which I can see working well within the framework set forth in this post. The hardening would be more and issue of God leaving Pharoah to his own devices rather than actively making him something he was not.

  2. Yes, great article Kevin. I think I’ll give a link to this on my bog.

    Tim

  3. Hi Kevin, I agree. I think this way (below) of seeing the situation is preferable given what the Bible teaches if indeed it is a legitimate interpretation

    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.

    My thoughts here.

  4. The principles that I use in the interpretation of God’s actions are these:

    1. God’s character is righteous.
    2. Righteousness is defined in His Law.
    3. Love is the fulfilling of the Law.
    4. Love works no ill to its neighbor.

    Therefore, God does not work ill to His neighbor, and therefore He did not work evil on Pharaoh. I would not allow any interpretation of the verse that would violate these principles, regardless of how “obvious” it might seem to be. We should beware of making God into the image of sinful man, which is idolatry.

    Now, two types of statements are used in this respect: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Take this reference (but there are others):

    Exodus 8:15 – “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.”

    So, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?…God…or Pharaoh? The truth is that both did, but in very different ways. The Lord says, “My ways are not your ways.” God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by bringing him appeals and truth. Pharaoh hardened his heart in the same way that any other person’s heart is hardened against God…by resisting His appeals. Otherwise, why would God have given him so many chances to let the people go? “”Let favour be shown to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness.” Isa. 26:10

    We should also consider that God had given many evidences of Himself to Egypt: Joseph, the prosperity of the children of Israel while they dwelt in Egypt, the knowledge of the true God which they carried with them, the life of Moses. All of these were witnesses to Pharaoh that he should have acted on. Because he chose to ignore that and make the Israelites slaves instead, shows that he was resisting the Spirit of God.

    If God had never given all those witnesses, then Pharaoh would not have been as stubborn, for he would not have resisted so much light. But at the same time, that would have meant leaving many people in Egypt to perish (at the famine in Joseph’s time, for example), and that was not acceptable to a God of love.

    If I thought for one instance that God used some kind of mystical power to reach into Pharaoh’s innermost being and manipulate the chemistry to make Pharaoh really stubborn and evil, just so God could rain upon them plague after plague, then I would not want to serve that kind of a God, for who knows when He might decide to manipulate me in the same way? This in itself ought to show us that there is something terribly wrong with the traditional interpretation.

  5. Your conclusion, “God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart.”

    So, am I supposed to feel better that God made sure that Pharaoh would not repent? Does that not also suggest that God could make sure that any given person does not repent?

    • As Forster and Marsten said, “God, we may be sure, would rather that Pharaoh had repented than perished in the Red Sea.” God always prefers that a person repent, and He makes repentance possible.

      Pharaoh wasn’t interested in repentance. If he had been, we can be confident that God would have dealt differently with him.

  6. God merely confirmed what pharaoh had already decided. God did not make the decision for him, Pharaoh had every opportunity to repent but chose not to do so.
    This is unlike the Calvinist god who denies the majority of mankind the opportunity to repent so they can be saved.

    What God did with Pharaoh is very much like what He says He will do in 2 Thess 2 – where He said He will send a strong delusion to those who have refused to receive a love of the truth.

    “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie”

    • Jim

      If they truly “refused to believe the truth” God would have no need to “send them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie.” It is impossible to believe a known falsehood (lie) without being deceived. And by definition “deception” can never be by personal choice.

      A delusion is only needed because God knew that without it they would have believed, and it was not YET God’s choice to give them faith.

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  15. I’m not sure saying, “God simply gave Pharaoh the tenacity to follow through with the desires of his evil heart,” solves the problem or perhaps I’m misunderstanding what is being said.

    If God is giving Pharaoh tenacity to perform what he is to timid too do, is that giving accomplished in the same way it is mistakenly asserted that God hardens? What is the difference in the divine act between strengthening (making it tenacious) the heart to do evil as opposed to God hardening the heart?

    It seems just as bad to say that God makes a person tenacious or is “assisting or encouraging someone” to do evil as to say God is hardening the heart to do evil. I don’t see a difference.

    Is the difference in *how* it is accomplished rather than what *is* accomplished?

    • I see it as a God’s judgement on a person who he knew would not repent. If Pharaoh’s timidity was a type of softness of heart that was open to repentance, I’m confident God would have worked differently. But Pharaoh’s timidity was more of a shrewdness to avoid consequences. The evil in his heart was there either way.

  16. Gene

    Hello, I have been strugglong between arminianism and calvinism for quite some time. It is verses like that dealing with the hardening of pharoh’s heart that give me pause.

    I was hoping this article would provide some clarity, and in a way it has, but it still leaves me with questions. If im understanding the article correctly, God assisted or strengthened pharoh’s heart to do the evil that was already in it. But what this means is that God prompted pharoh to do a greater degree of evil than what he would have otherwise done. That is, the premise of the article is that pharoh might not have gone back on his word so many times without God’s “hardening” of his heart. This is not satisfying to me, as one who finds calvinism disturbing, because it means God prompted a degree if evil that would not have otherwise existed.

    Any response to this would be appreciated.

    • Thanks for the comment Gene, and good question.

      It sounds like we both agree that it’s disturbing to hold that God prompts evil. This is particularly a problem of Calvinism, but as you point out, it still occurs in some sense with the Arminian interpretation of the Pharaoh/hardening passages. I’ll give you my take, you may not find it satisfying. But it’s the best I can do. :)

      First, God recognizes our evil desires, and faults us for them even if we don’t act on them. The fact that we don’t physically act out our evil desires doesn’t mean our heart is any better than the person who does act on those desires. It only means we’re more shrewd. For example Jesus says a man who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart. Similarly, 1 John says that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.

      If I desire another woman but don’t act on the desire because I’m worried my wife might catch me, in God’s eyes I’m still an adulterer. Likewise, if my wife leaves town for the weekend, and then I do act on my desire (because I’m not longer worried about my wife catching me), the adultry doesn’t suddenly become my wife’s fault because I’m no longer inhibited.

      I see something similar here with Pharaoh. He already hated the Hebrews, and wanted to kill them. God didn’t do anything to cause Pharaoh to hate them, he already did. As it related to Pharaoh’s shrewd self-restraint, God “left town for the weekend”, and then Pharaoh then had the tenacity to follow through with his pre-existing desire.

      Second and importantly, God really does want everyone to repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:9). Through God’s drawing grace, anyone can believe (Titus 2:11). Pharaoh could have believed, but he chose not to. God’s hardening of Pharaoh was judicial – it was an act of judgment that came as a last resort after Pharaoh had already rejected God multiple times. This is something that we are all at risk for, if we continually spurn God’s grace. Paul talks about this in Romans 1, saying that God has made his truth evident to everyone. Yet people exchange God’s truth for a lie, and then eventually God gives them over to their evil desires. God graciously restrains evil in everyone as an act of mercy, but if we continually spurn his grace, that restraint can be removed. This can happen corporately (as a society), or individually (what happened to Pharaoh). God reserves the right to remove the restraints when he sees fit.

      Along these lines, God has the right to use evil people to further his purpose. I think this is what Paul is talking about in Romans 9:22 when he says “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” An evil person who has already spurned God’s grace has no grounds to complain about how God uses him. There is an important difference here between Calvinism and Arminianism. In Calvinism, the evil person never had a genuine opportunity to repent, and never received grace from God to enable him to do so. So the evil person couldn’t have done other than what he did. In fact he was decreed by God to behave that way. In Arminianism the person really did have a genuine opportunity to repent and receive God’s grace, but spurned it. And God judges the person for it.

      This is what happened with Pharaoh, He continually spurned God’s grace. So God raised him up (spared him instead of killing him) in order to show his power and so that his name could be proclaimed to the entire earth (Exodus 9:16). The second reason is interesting too for the Arminan. God used Pharaoh the way he did so that his name could be declared to the entire earth. A pretty good reason.

      Hope that helps!

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