Exodus 4:21 (ESV): “And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”
The Bible speaks of the Israelites in Egypt in Exodus. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart “so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). Throughout the stories of the plagues Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, either by himself or God.
Why is this passage difficult?
Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Doesn’t this mean God is causing Pharaoh to sin? Does this mean Pharaoh is not accountable for his actions?
It is first important to note that God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart until after Pharaoh had himself hardened his heart against God (compare Exodus 7:13, 8:15, 8:32 to Exodus 9:12). As Geisler and Howe put it, “God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart contrary to Pharaoh’s own free choice” (65, cited below). It seems as though Pharaoh, freely reacting to God’s interaction, hardens his heart against the will of God. Such an interpretation is strengthened greatly by Exodus 5:2: “But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.'” Pharaoh declares that he does not know the LORD, and refuses to submit to the LORD’s will. Such rebellion demonstrates a profound choice to harden his heart.
Another way to respond to the challenges listed above would be to note Paul’s own interpretation of the passage in Romans 9:17: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.'”
Granted that all authority in heaven and on earth is given by God, the fact is that Pharaoh’s position of authority was given by God Himself. Therefore, the rebellion seen in Exodus 5:2 is even more haughty than previously thought. Not only that, but Paul’s comments on these verses show how God intended to use Pharaoh’s actions to show His power and authority over all the earth. Thus, God was using Pharaoh to spread His name such that even greater amounts of people could come into a saving relationship. It therefore seems as though God utilized Pharaoh’s hardened heart to bring about a far greater good: the spreading of His name. This is a theme seen throughout Scripture. Geisler/Howe cite the story of Joseph as another instance: Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God utilized this for good (445).
Instead of viewing this story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart as God somehow forcing Pharaoh to sin, we have two ways to counter such reasoning:
1) Pharaoh hardened his own heart against the commands of God (Exodus 5:2, 7:13, etc.), which means God did not cause him to sin and Pharaoh is accountable for his own actions
2) God utilizes the wicked actions of man to bring about His own purposes, while still allowing for freedom of the will. His omniscient (including, of course, middle knowledge) perspective allows for Him to take into account and plan for such evil actions and utilize even great evils for good.
The Lutheran Study Bible. Concordia Publishing House.
Geisler, Norman and Thomas Howe. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Baker Books. 1992.
This post is the fourth in a series I’ve been working on which discusses Bible Difficulties–hard passages in Scripture. Other posts in the series can be accessed here.