Why Did God ‘Harden’ Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus?

In Psalm 10:4, the psalmist says, “In his pride the wicked man does not seek Him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Pride was the root of wicked Pharaoh’s problem in the book of Exodus—a sin that hardened his heart over time, but the Bible tells us God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart. What can we learn from this Egyptian ruler’s downward spiral into destruction?

What Role Did Pharaoh Play in the Story of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt?

The Pharaoh who oppressed Israel was not the ruler Joseph knew (Exodus 1:8). Some believe this new Pharaoh was Rameses—also spelled Ramses or Ramesses. Rameses is the name of a city during the exodus (1:11). But the Bible does not give us this ruler’s name. Archaeology gives some clues, but ancient Egyptian history is confusing and unreliable. Egyptian records include contradictions and sometimes leave out historical events—especially if they shed a bad light on a particular Pharaoh. 

It appears the Pharaoh who ruled in the early chapters of Exodus was dead by the time Moses sought to free Israel (Exodus 2:23; 3:7-9). Rameses II may have been the early oppressor of God’s people, and his son, Merneptah, would have ruled during the exodus. But Amenhotep II is also identified as the exodus Pharaoh by many biblical interpreters—the most popular choice. However, if dates of Egyptian dynasties are shifted in Egyptian chronology—which is often inaccurate—Neferhotep I may also be a possibility or even Tutankhamun. There simply isn’t enough detail to positively identify the correct Pharaoh. 

What can be known is this: The Pharaoh of the exodus was incredibly resistant to letting the Israelites leave Egypt! The pharaohs had enslaved the Israelites—the number of which is disputed by Bible scholars—for 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41) before the exodus. Ancient Pharaohs were considered gods, which contributed to their arrogance. The pharaoh of the exodus was an evil, totalitarian dictator—cruel and vindictive, brutally abusing and oppressing the Israelites (Exodus 1:9-16; 2:23; 3:9; 6:5). 

What Is a Hardened Heart—and Can it Get Harder?

The writer of Hebrews warned, “Do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:8) for good reason. A hardened, obstinate, and calloused heart dulls a person’s ability to understand truth (Mark 8:17-18). It can cause people to resist and disobey God. This was certainly Pharaoh’s issue, seated in his willful sin and lack of repentance. A deeply hardened heart is like the “seared conscience” in 1 Timothy 4:1-2. God gives such people over to their sinful desires, emanating from a debased, reprobate mind (Romans 1:18-24, 28). Pride and arrogance certainly can deceive and harden a heart (Obadiah 1:3-4; Daniel 5:20-21). 

The Bible speaks both of Pharaoh hardening his own heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Before we deal with those two seemingly contrary truths, it’s helpful to understand what the word “harden” means and how a heart hardens. In “God’s Hand and the Pharaoh’s Heart,” Pastor Joe Rigney writes about three words for “harden” in the Hebrew language. These words indicate a progression.

First, Rigney says, “harden” can mean “to stiffen.” This happened long before Moses met with Pharaoh. The ruler was already stiff-necked and cruel. Second, “harden” means “to strengthen.” This word occurs numerous times in the storyline. Sometimes it is ambiguous as to who is causing the strengthening, and sometimes God actively does it. This strengthening is a reinforcement in the direction a person is already moving. Third, “harden” means “to make heavy; to deaden.” 

In other words, Pharaoh was already stiff-necked and rebellious. He continued to dig in, doubling down in arrogance, and God strengthened or reinforced that direction. Finally, all ambiguity disappeared. Pharaoh crossed the line, refusing to repent “even when his servants urged him not to ruin Egypt (10:7), Rigney said. The king’s heart was set like stone against God, so God deadened it. 

Did Pharaoh Harden His Own Heart?

Pharaoh’s pride and arrogance caused rebellion against the Word of God spoken through Moses. When Moses tried to give him a proper, humble view of God, Pharaoh refused to consider his words. In “Danger in Pride,” Jamie Wood wrote, “Pride beckons you to buy into a lie that you are something you are not. … Pride is a rebellion against God because it attributes to self the glory and honor of God alone.” But also, she said, “Humility forges the way for wisdom.” Pharaoh was far from being humble. He wanted all the glory, honor, and authority in his kingdom, so he made the foolish choice to defy the God of Israel.

Pharaoh selfishly put his own reputation above the Egyptians’ welfare. When his leaders and magicians understood the terrible plagues were from the God of the Israelites—the leaders and people highly regarded Moses—the king ignored their concerns (8:19; 10:7; 11:3). His authority would not be challenged, and his glory would not be shared. 

In the first five and the seventh plagues God sent on Egypt, the hardening seems to come through  Pharaoh’s will, or the source is ambiguous. After the plague of the blood, his heart “became hard” (7:22). After frogs covered the land, he “hardened his own heart” (8:15). When Egypt was infested with gnats, his heart “was hard” (8:19). When the flies came, “Pharaoh hardened his own heart” (8:32). When the Egyptians’ livestock died, Pharaoh’s heart “was hard” (9:7). When the heavy hail came, Pharaoh “hardened his own heart” and it “was hardened” (9:34-35). In “When Pharaoh’s Heart Grew Harder,” Tim Mackie wrote, “God called Pharaoh to humble himself and acknowledge that God is his authority and that he cannot redefine good and evil on Egyptian terms.” Pharaoh refused.

Why Did God Also Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

Suddenly, the pattern changes. With the plagues of the boils (9:8-12), locusts (10:13-20), darkness (10:21-27), and death of the firstborn (11:1-10), the Scriptures say God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” That hardening continued even as he pursued the Israelites leaving Egypt (14:4-8). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because 1) Pharaoh was ungodly, not innocent; 2) he was already hardening his own heart; and 3) God sovereignly purposed to demonstrate His power and glory even through Pharaoh’s hardening (Romans 9:17-18). 

God predicted Pharaoh’s resistance in Exodus 3:19: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” Early on, Pharaoh rejected God (Exodus 5:2). God extended mercy with warnings throughout the plagues—giving Pharaoh opportunities to humble himself, repent, and change his evil ways—but with increasing rebellion, Pharaoh chose to bring more judgment on himself and Egypt.

Some might ask, “If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, how can Pharaoh be morally responsible?” Can both God’s sovereign choice and man’s responsibility be true? In “Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?,” Daryl E. Witmer referenced Romans 9: “God is in such total control that He can and does sovereignly elect to show mercy to some people while hardening the hearts of others. And He is just in doing so.” 

In the same article, Dr. John Piper wrote, “There is a genuine inclination in God’s heart to spare those who have committed treason against His kingdom. But his motivation is complex, and not every true element in it rises to the level of effective choice…. There are holy and just reasons for why the affections of God’s heart have the nature and intensity and proportion that they do.” God’s hardening of Pharaoh was not capricious or manipulative. Neither did it mitigate Pharaoh’s culpability. People are fully responsible and accountable for their actions and choices.

Erik Raymond wrote in “Why and How Did God ‘Harden’ Pharaoh’s Heart?” that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as He simply revealed himself. “He revealed his power, supremacy, love for his people, hatred of sin, etc. through the signs and wonders of the plagues,” Raymond said. “It is a biblical axiom that revelation devoid of illuminating grace hardens sinful hearts” (see John 8:45). God does not desire anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). He gave Pharaoh numerous opportunities to repent, but his depraved, unbelieving heart bucked against the knowledge of God and suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-19). God judges all people justly; and neither Moses nor Paul suggest God was unjust or immoral in his dealings with Pharaoh (Exodus 9:16; Romans 3:5-8). At some point, God “hardens,” leaving the reprobate to pursue their sinful, rebellious ways. 

What Lessons Can We Learn from the Story of Pharaoh?

Both good and evil begin in the heart (Luke 6:43-45). Pharaoh’s responses teach us much about a hardened heart.

Consider the cause. Pharaoh’s heart didn’t just happen. Jesus told His disciples hardness of heart comes from a sinful, unrepentant heart (Mark 8:17-19). Sins build up and can cause an inability to distinguish between right and wrong. The conscience can be desensitized or “seared” (1 Timothy 4:1-2). Just as King Nebuchadnezzar was deposed because of arrogance and a heart hardened with pride (Daniel 5:20-21); those sins were at the root of Pharaoh’s hard heart. God detests and opposes pride, and Christians must guard against it (Proverbs 16:5, 18; James 4:6-7). 

Consider the consequences. A hard heart can dull the senses so people cannot see or understand truth. Dr. Charles Stanley wrote in “The Danger of a Hardening Heart” that Pharaoh “chose to ignore the obvious” even as his magicians came to their senses and acknowledged God’s work—“This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). The desensitized conscience—debased and immoral (Romans 1:18-24)—is not trustworthy for making wise choices, because it ignores or rejects God’s wisdom. God warns believers not to be wise in their own eyes, but to fear God and turn from evil (Proverbs 3:7).

Consider God’s solutionSadly, Pharaoh continually rejected Jehovah’s remedy for his hard heart, failing to recognize his prideful spiritual condition. God knew this wicked ruler’s heart—that he would reject His mercy. Unlike David, who prayed for God to search and know his heart (Psalm 139:23-24), Pharaoh spurned correction. He refused to repent. Christians know the Lord offers life and hope through confession of sin and obedience to His Word so they will not develop a hard heart (1 John 1:9; Psalm 119:9-11; 2 Timothy 3:16).

If those developing a hard heart would only come to God, He would pour out His love and offer mercy and hope. In “When Does God Harden a Sinner’s Heart?” John Piper wrote, “there is no hardness in the human heart against God, either from God’s decree or from human depravity, which is so hard that God himself cannot overcome it and save the hardest sinner” (Ezekiel 11:19; Jeremiah 32:17). The writer of Hebrews appeals to us: “Today… do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8). Regarding that, in “The Danger of Unbelief,” Dr. Robert Jeffress wrote, “To delay trusting God when you are tested, to delay obeying God when you are ordered, is to risk developing a hard heart and falling away from the living God.” When it comes to dealing with a hard heart, “tomorrow” is a deceiving, dangerous word!

Resources

GotQuestions.org, “Who Was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?” “Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?” & "What Are the Causes and Solutions for a Hardened Heart?
AnswersInGenesis.org, “How Long Were the Israelites in Egypt?
DiscoveringTruthMinistries.org, “Danger in Pride
TheGospelCoalition.org, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart” & “Why and How Did God ‘Harden’ Pharaoh’s Heart?

Crosswalk.com, “Does God Harden Hearts?
DesiringGod.org, “When Does God Harden a Sinner’s Heart?
ChristianAnswers.net, “Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?
Equip.org, “How Could Pharaoh Be Morally Responsible if God Hardened His Heart?

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Игорь Салов


Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.

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