Other parts of our reading for the year will feature a fantastic cast of characters: talking donkeys, statues with balance issues, and golden mice among others. This week, however, an organ takes center stage. The lump of flesh in question is, of course, the heart of Pharaoh, which is about as soft as a manhole cover.
Those who follow the false doctrine of Calvinism love Pharaoh’s hardened heart. In fact, some of them use it as Exhibit A to establish that we don’t actually have free will. Where the Bible says, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” they want to read it as, “God stuck His finger in and gave Pharaoh’s brain a good stir, so that the poor guy wasn’t capable of obeying Him even if he wanted to!”
If true, this would be alarming. Do any of us like the thought of an omnipotent Being who would take away our ability to be righteous and then condemn us for being wicked? However, there are a couple of reasons why we aren’t required to reach such an extreme conclusion.
First, direct intervention in Pharaoh’s psyche is hardly the only way that God could have hardened his heart. I’m a million miles away from being God, but I know with certainty how to harden my wife’s heart. If I want to, I can guarantee that I’ll be in a rip-roaring fight with her five minutes after I walk in the door.
This isn’t because I have mystical powers. It’s because I know my wife and know exactly which buttons to push (and I’m guessing most husbands could say the same). If I understand her well enough that I can goad her into a hostile reaction by saying/doing the wrong thing, then surely God understood Pharaoh well enough to do the same thing to him!
As for why God, the God who desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, would do such a thing, consider the progression of hardening in Exodus 7-14:
“Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (7:13)
“Pharaoh’s heart is hardened” (7:14)
“Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened” (7:22)
“He hardened his heart” (8:15)
“Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (8:19)
“Pharaoh hardened his heart” (8:32)
“The heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (9:7)
“The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (9:12)
“He sinned yet again and hardened his heart” (9:34)
“The heart of Pharaoh was hardened” (9:35)
“I [the Lord] have hardened his heart” (10:1)
“The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:20)
“The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27)
“The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (11:10)
“The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (14:8)
God is never said to harden Pharaoh’s heart before 9:12, and Pharaoh is never said to harden his own heart after 9:34. The turning point comes in 9:16, where God declares to Pharaoh, “For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Pharaoh will glorify God, period. The only question is whether he will do so willingly or not.
Before this, Pharaoh has had six plagues’ worth of opportunities to choose the willing route. However, by the seventh plague, he’s proven his obstinacy so thoroughly that God isn’t giving him any more chances. From now on, God isn’t trying to get Pharaoh to listen. He’s trying to provoke him, because it’s abundantly clear that the only way Pharaoh is going to glorify God is unwillingly, as a defeated, devastated adversary.
It’s not God’s fault that Pharaoh has ended up as God’s punching bag. It’s Pharaoh’s. Even now, God doesn’t control our minds, but He does control our destinies. If, through stubbornness and rebellion, we chisel our name onto God’s enemies list as deeply as Pharaoh did, we won’t diminish His glory either. We will only succeed in ensuring our own destruction.