Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

Pharaohs HeartWho hardened Pharaoh’s heart? When and why?

In the story of the Ten Plagues in Exodus, there are 20 comments on the condition of Pharaoh’s heart. In some verses, it is said that Pharaoh hardened his heart. In other verses, it is said that God hardened his heart. In other passages, it simply comments that his heart was hard ..and in two verses, he repented (heart was softened?)

In attempting to explain what is going on with Pharaoh’s heart, there are several explanations that people commonly give. Unfortunately, most of those explanations don’t consider what the Bible actually says about the story, and don’t take into consideration the deliberateness we see Moses using to describe the events. If we start with the assumption that Moses simply wasn’t babbling (this becomes evident as one studies the details), we actually see several patterns emerge. But in order to see the pattern, we need to list the details.

# Verse Who What A/C* When Why
1 Exo 4:21 God Hardened C Before Moses went to Egypt So that Pharaoh won’t let His people go
2 Exo 7:3 God Hardened C Before the plagues So that Pharaoh will resist, God will smite Egypt, bring His people out, and the Egyptians will know that He is Lord
3 Exo 7:13,14 N/S Hardened A Staff turned to serpent “As the Lord had said”
4 Exo 7:22 N/S Hardened A Water turned to blood “As the Lord had said”
5 Exo 8:15 Pharaoh Hardened A Frogs abated “As the Lord had said”
6 Exo 8:19 N/S Hardened A Dust to gnats “As the Lord had said”
7 Exo 8:32 Pharaoh Hardened A Flies abated
8 Exo 9:7 N/S Hardened A Egyptian livestock killed
9 Exo 9:12 God Hardened A Boils on all Egyptians “As the Lord had said”; “For this reason I have raised you up: to show you my power so that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” (v16)
10 Exo 9:27 Pharaoh Repented A Hail damage “I have sinned. The Lord is right. I and my people are wrong”
11 Exo 9:34 Pharaoh & Servants Hardened A Hail abated When Pharaoh saw the hail stop, he sinned and hardened his heart
12 Exo 9:35 N/S Hardened C Hail abated
13 Exo 10:1 God Hardened C Hail abated That I may show these signs of Mine among them; That you may tell your generations how harshly I dealt with the Egyptians; That you may know that I am the Lord
14 Exo 10:16 Pharaoh Repented A Locust Appeared “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you”
15 Exo 10:20 God Hardened A Locust Abated
16 Exo 10:27 God Hardened A Darkness
17 Exo 11:10 God Hardened C (Summary) “Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” (v9)
18 Exo 14:4 God Hardened A Before the Red Sea “I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”
19 Exo 14:8 God Hardened A Pursuing the Israelites
20 Exo 14:17 God Hardened C Seeing Israelites walk through Red Sea “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” (v18)
  1. * A/C = Action vs Comment
  2. * N/S = Non specified. Neither God nor Pharaoh is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Quick Stats:

  • God hardened: 10
  • Pharaoh hardened: 3
  • Non specified: 5
  • Pharaoh softened: 2
  • God softened: 0

For the record, we will note that it is never said that God softened Pharaoh’s heart. This observation is quite relevant, as it completely undermines the the unstated objective of several attempts to explain what’s going on.

Here are the patterns that emerge:

  • God never says that Pharaoh hardened his heart – God always says that He hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
  • God stated first that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart.
  • Pharaoh repented twice, yet God still hardened Pharaoh’s heart. There are many who believe that God only did to Pharaoh what Pharaoh did to his own heart. This point should be cause for pause.
  • Pharaoh never really has a reason for hardening his heart. It is implied to be pride and arrogance.
  • God always has one consistent reason for hardening Pharaoh’s heart: “That the world will know that I am the Lord.” In retrospect, as we consider the story of Pharaoh, if we do not see God’s deliberately harsh actions as evidence of His glory and might (Ex 10:1-3), then we are not getting the message that God intends for us to get – we’re not seeing God as He intends to be seen (which means, we might be seeing a figment of our imagination – an idol).
  • A peculiar instance occurs with the Plague of Hail. We see all three descriptions applied to one heart-hardening event: Pharaoh and his servants hardened their hearts (9:34), Pharaoh’s heart is described non-specifically as being hardened (9:35), and God is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart (10:1). These three verses are describing one event and, despite the chapter break, are all sequential. I believe this instance gives us a clue as to what is going on: God and Pharaoh, both together, are hardening Pharaoh’s heart: God, from His throne of sovereignty; Pharaoh from his fallen humanity – both are working in concert to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that God can use him as an example of His glory and sovereignty (10:1-3).
  • Even when we see Pharaoh softening his heart (twice), we do not see God and Moses rejoicing in this positive turn of events – instead, we see God going back in and hardening Pharaoh’s heart. It should be made abundantly clear that nowhere in this book are we given an indication that God intends for Pharaoh to repent. Paul echoes this divine intent in Romans 9. It is God’s intention to raise Pharaoh to this elevated position and that Pharaoh’s heart be hardened and that he be destroyed and that through this, God’s name would be known around the world.
  • Although this document focuses on Exodus, we should note that the rest of the Bible is in agreement with what we see here in Exodus. There are no passages in the Bible that teach that Pharaoh was first to harden his heart.

Here is a brief list of incorrect explanations:

  • God wants all people to repent. Pharaoh hardened his own heart and Moses didn’t know the difference, ignorantly blaming God for the action. There are a number of problems with this approach.
    • It ignores the fact that God repeatedly gave the same reason as to why He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. God never says that His intention was Pharaoh’s salvation.
    • If God’s intention was for Pharaoh’s salvation, why did God and Moses not rejoice when Pharaoh repented twice? Instead of rejoicing, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again.
    • Believing that Moses was incorrect ignores the gravity of Moses’ standing as a prophet of God (Deut 18). Lying and dishonest prophets were to be killed and labeled as untrustworthy.
  • God hardened Pharaoh’s heart only after Pharaoh first hardened his own heart.
    While this appears true when we lay out the series of events chronologically from Pharaoh’s point of view, we need to consider the following:

    • It ignores the intention that God had at the outset and disregards His stated objective: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let my people go.”
    • The Bible never implies that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as a response to what Pharaoh first did.
    • God’s objective and actions were decided before Pharaoh comes on the scene, and God sees it through to the end. His intentions and actions before (Ps 105:24-25; Exo 4:21-23), during (Ex 9:16) and after (Rom 9:16-18) Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh are consistently the same.
  • God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart – He simply turned Pharaoh over to his own heart and set him in spiraling downward (Rom 1).
    This explanation has several problems:

    • It ignores God’s stated intentions with Pharaoh. Rom 9 picks up on this theme and elaborates on it. If Moses misunderstood the events and God’s intentions for Pharaoh, then it would appear that Paul misunderstood them as well. “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.'” – Rom 9:17.
    • God’s stated objective was to deliberately bring Pharaoh up to the head of his country for the express purpose of demonstrating His power in crushing Pharaoh so that His name would be proclaimed throughout the world. (Pharaoh was not the firstborn, and not the direct heir to the throne. If he was the firstborn, he would had died in the 10th plague.)  If we embrace any other reason for God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we are walking away from the Bible.
    • Psalms 105 nullifies the opinion that the first person to harden his heart was Pharaoh: [+] And the Lord made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants. (Ps 105:24-25)

If books, movies and documentaries are any indication, it’s worth noting that of the number one story in the Bible being repeated world-wide is the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The second most often repeated Biblical story is the story of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea. In other words, because of the story of the Ten Plagues, Exodus and Ten Commandments, this story of history is the 2nd most frequently repeated story in the world. This is a good thing. It would be a bad thing if we ignored the reasons God gives  for the story.