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R edeem er Bible Church

Unreserved Accountability to Christ. Undeserved Acceptance from Christ.

The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart, Part Four

Exodus 7:8-10:29

Speaking of people’s response to the absolute sovereignty of God, the 19th
century Baptist minister, Charles Haddon Spurgeon has said,

[T]here is no doctrine more hated by worldlings [sic.], no truth of which

they have made such a football, as the great, stupendous, but yet most certain
doctrine of the Sovereignty of the infinite Jehovah. Men will allow God to be
everywhere except on His throne. They will allow Him to be in His workshop to
fashion worlds and make stars. They will allow Him to be in His almonry to
dispense His alms and bestow his bounties. They will allow Him to sustain the
earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the
waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends His throne, His
creatures gnash their teeth. And we proclaim an enthroned God, and His right to
do as He wills with His own, to dispose of His creatures as He thinks well, without
consulting them in the matter; then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and
then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on His throne is not the God they

This is a tragic indictment of those who name the name of Christ. For to believe
anything less than that God is absolutely sovereign, free to exercise his power in accord
with the pleasure of his own will, is to believe in something less than the Christian God;
and thus to trust in an idolatrous lie.

“Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps 115:3). “The
LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all”
(Ps 103:19). God has the right and the wisdom and the power to do whatever he
pleases. For God is God and there is none like him, declaring the end from the
beginning. He is the Lord!

A careful study of the whole of Scripture will show that to ascribe sovereignty to
the Lord is to say that he is in control of all things, that he has ordained everything that
has happened, that is happening, and that will happen, both good and evil. We do not
have the right to ascribe to the Lord a limited or softened sovereignty because the
Spirit-inspired Bible writers do not. We must be content to rest in what God has said,
and to place our hands over our mouths in humble submission to his word.

Quoted in Arthur W Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1975), 32-33,
italics in original.

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Of course, Scripture also makes clear that though God somehow stands behind
both evil and good, he does not stand behind them symmetrically; he does not stand
behind them with equal ultimacy. God is not evil, nor is he the author of it. Neither is he
cruel, ordaining awful circumstances as some kind of divine sadist reveling in the misery
of his creatures. May it never be!

Since the Bible expresses with equal force that God ordains, uses, and brings
about evil circumstances in the world and that God is in no way to be construed as the
author of evil, we must never emphasize one to circumvent the other. In other words, it
would be biblically indefensible for us to say that since God is neither evil nor cruel, God
is therefore not sovereign over evil. Nor would it be correct to assert that since God is
sovereign over evil that he is a harsh and cruel, evil being.

We need to hold these two truths, these mysterious though rationally compatible
truths in tension: God is the absolute sovereign who causes well-being and creates
calamity and who does not take pleasure in afflicting the sons of men. I do not purport
to be able to reconcile these two difficult truths because such reconciliation is
unnecessary. If I may borrow the language of Spurgeon from a similar context—I don’t
have to reconcile friends.

God’s Sovereignty and Benignity

The friendship of these two truths is consistently represented throughout the
book of Exodus.

Israel’s cruel bondage is said to have reached the compassionate ears of their
God as early as 2:23-25.
Now it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt
died. And the sons of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried out; and
their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God. 24So God heard their
groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25God
saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them.

Though the people of God do not yet know that God has heard their cries, the
audience of Exodus knows that God is compassionate.

Later, in chapter 3, when God calls Moses to be his servant for the liberation of
the sons of Israel, the Lord tells Moses essentially what the narrator has already told us.
Look over to 3:7-9, 16-17.
The LORD said, "I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt,
and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their
sufferings. 8So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and
to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk
and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the
Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. 9Now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has
come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are
oppressing them...16Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, 'The
LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to

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me, saying, "I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt.
So I said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite
and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, to a
land flowing with milk and honey."'”

Then when Moses informs God’s people of God’s compassionate response and
of his promise to deliver them, notice how the people respond in 4:31.
So the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD was concerned
about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and

And it is in part on the basis of the Lord’s concern for the plight of his people that
he promises to take action in the form of the plagues, to bring them out of Egypt by a
mighty hand and an outstretched arm cf. 6:6.
"Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out
from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will
also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.'”

God has compassion for his people; he is not cruel; he has seen their chains and
he has begun to take action against Pharaoh in the form of severe acts of catastrophic

Now at the same time that Exodus depicts the Lord as compassionate and
gracious, holy and without blemish, it also depicts the Lord as sovereign over the evil
which has befallen the Israelites and the machinations of Egypt’s king. We see this
especially in the context of the plagues. Turn to 9:15-16.
"For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with
pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. 16But, indeed, for this
reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to
proclaim My name through all the earth.”

When God tells Pharaoh in verse 16 that he has allowed him to remain, he is not
speaking of mere permission. The Hebrew verb behind this translation means to
establish, to put in place. So what the Lord is saying is that Pharaoh has ruled and
continues to rule only according to God’s good pleasure. Contrary to Pharaoh’s exalted
self-image, Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the one with ultimate power. And since
Pharaoh only rules at Yahweh’s command, Pharaoh is Yahweh’s servant.

The Lord has more than proved that he could have destroyed Pharaoh and his
nation by turning the Nile into blood and by sending frogs, gnats, flies, animal
pestilence, and boils to Egypt, and with drawing them only at Moses’ behest. Pharaoh
need only look to what could have happened to him and his people to see that the only
reason he continues to hold office in Egypt is Yahweh’s doing.

We cite this as an example of God’s sovereignty over evil because of what this
Pharaoh (and by extension the earlier Pharaoh) has been doing to God’s people. If he

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had not been in power; if God had chosen another to rule in Egypt (like Joseph’s
Pharaoh), then God’s people would not have found themselves in such dire straights.
The evil policies of the two Pharaoh’s mentioned in Exodus have behind them a
sovereign God who ordained their respective rules, subjecting the people of Israel to
400 years of slavery.

Not only do we see God’s sovereignty over evil in the establishment of Pharaoh
to his lofty office, but we also see it in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Earlier in
Exodus, God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh will refuse
to let the people go. Notice 4:21 and 7:3:

The LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt see that you perform
before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his
heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Exod. 4:21)

"But I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders
in the land of Egypt.” (Exod 7:3)

Then when we come upon the first account of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness in the
plague narrative, we find that Pharaoh’s heart was hard in accord with God’s promise,
as God had said cf. 7:13.
Yet Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD
had said.

As this portion of the narrative unfolds, Pharaoh’s recalcitrance is mentioned

some twelve additional times, sometimes ascribing the hardness of his heart to Pharaoh
himself, sometimes to no one, and sometimes to the Lord cf. 7:14, 22-23; 8:15, 19, 32;
9:7, 12; 9:34, 35; 10:1, 20, 27. Thus we are to understand God’s hardening work not as
something merely reactive, but as something proactive. Pharaoh’s heart was hard and
Pharaoh hardened his heart as the Lord had said.

Now the reason why we set this forth as another example of God’s sovereignty
over evil is that Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness has resulted in his failure to submit to
God’s demand to let the people go. Thus God stands behind Pharaoh’s disobedience
as well as behind his despotic rule. And unless we are prepared to say that
disobedience to God is not a sin, we are left with the conclusion that God is sovereign
over Pharaoh’s evil. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the
LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).

So, on the one hand it is clear that God is by no means cruel. He is

compassionate, he has seen his people’s suffering, and he has begun their deliverance.
At the same time, God is sovereign over the evil which has been their lot for some 400
years. He is the one who placed wicked Pharaohs in power and did not appear to
restrain them from meting out pain upon Israel. He is also the one who has worked in
the current Pharaoh’s heart to insure his disobedience to the divine mandate.

Is God Just?

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Now perhaps though we cannot completely grasp the higher ways of God, we
are at least comfortable with the tension in Scripture surrounding God’s relationship to
evil. God is not the author of evil, yet he ordains whatsoever comes to pass. And since
God is not the author of evil, we also rightly conclude that God can never be considered
compassionless or otherwise cruel. Aside from this logical deduction, we have also
adduced biblical examples that testify to the Lord’s benign and magnanimous nature.

Yet when we reflect on a text like this, there is another feature that seems quite
puzzling, especially in light of the truth that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to insure
Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people go. God punishes Pharaoh and his nation (and that
quite severely) for this refusal. Doesn’t this seem puzzling to you? Think about it.

God works in Pharaoh’s heart to see to it that Pharaoh would be disobedient, and
then he acts in power to punish that very disobedience. This seems strange.
Something comparable would seem to be a police officer ripping the fuel pump out of a
person’s car, then commanding that person to move their car, and then ticketing them
for not complying. It doesn’t seem just. It doesn’t seem fair for God to harden a man’s
heart and then to judge him for his hardness of heart.

Of course, this difficulty is predicated upon certain notions of justice that prevail
in our minds. In other words, we are implying that it is not just for God to act in this
way—to harden a heart and then punish for hard-heartedness. For us even to offer
such an objection suggests that that there is some standard of justice to which we are
appealing. In so doing, we are operating from at least two assumptions: (1) that we
know what justice is; and (2) that God is obligated to be just. So before we can address
whether or not it is fair for God to operate in this fashion, we need to address these two

God Is Just
Let us begin with this: God is only obligated to be God. This may sound like an
extremely simplistic assertion, but it’s not. Think about it again. God is only obligated to
be God. God has no obligations outside of himself. If we say, for instance, that God is
obligated to be truthful, why do we say this? We say this because God is truthful; he
cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Therefore God is obligated to be truthful because he is truthful.
We may also say that God is obligated to be holy in all his behavior—and why?
Because God is holy (Isaiah 6:3). God is obligated to be holy because he is holy.
These are just particular instances of the general axiom that God is only obligated to be

What this means is that there is no such thing as the abstract category “holiness”
to which God is obligated to conform. Neither is there the abstract category
“truthfulness” to which he must mold himself. And we could say this of every
predication we make of God. Why? Well, if abstract categories like holiness and
truthfulness were the standards to which God were obligated to conform then God
would cease to be God. There would be something loftier than God.

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So then, God is not constrained to be holy because being holy is virtuous. No,
God is constrained to be holy because that is what he is. He must be himself and he
cannot be anything greater (or lesser).

Practically speaking, this means that our notions of justice must be qualified by
God himself as he has set them forth for us in Scripture. Let us continue our
discussion, then, by asking this: Does the Bible teach that God is just? Is God a just

I’m sure that you know the answer to this question. And I’m not sure simply
because I know you, but because the Bible says that you know that God is righteous in
his judgments. In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul says that we “suppress the truth in
unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within [us]; for God
made it evident to [us]. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His
eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through
what has been made, so that [we] are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20).

He goes on to say that even in our unconverted state we are aware that God is a
righteous judge, and that sin deserves punishment. Listen to Romans 1:28-32:
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them
over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29being filled with all
unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they
are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil,
disobedient to parents, 31without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;
and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are
worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who
practice them.

Humankind has an innate sense of the justice of God. We all understand, but
suppress the truth that we are deserving of death for our wickedness.2

And in addition to the testimony of our own consciences to the justice of God,
there are countless biblical examples that we could cite. Here’s a sampling:

 Deut 32:4: The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A
God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.

 Ps 9:7: But the LORD abides forever; He has established His throne
for judgment, And He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment
for the peoples with equity.

 Isa 5:16: But the LORD of hosts will be exalted in judgment, And the
holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness.

See also Rom 2:14-16.

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 Dan 9:14: Therefore the LORD has kept the calamity in store and
brought it on us; for the LORD our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds
which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice.

Both the testimony of Scripture and the testimony of our own consciences
confirm that God is just. The judge of all the earth will always do what his right, he
never shows partiality, and when he condemns his condemnation always fits the crime.

And since God is just, whatever he does will be just—we can never rightly
accuse God of being unjust. We can put it like this: If God is doing it, then it must be
just simply because God is just. If we ever fall prey to the idea that somehow there is
injustice with God, then we are tacitly saying that there is a standard of justice outside of
God, a standard to which he is obligated to conform.

So we need to reevaluate and recalibrate our instruments for a biblical and God-
centered view of justice, rather than a man-centered, unbiblical one. As sinful creatures
we must adopt the mantra: “If God does it, it must be just” rather than to say that God
cannot do such and such, because in our judgment he would be wrong to do so.

This has an enormous bearing on our understanding of God’s actions as they are
set forth in the plague narrative. Since whatever God does is just, we must understand
the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and his decisive punishment for that hardness as
perfectly just. We must begin with the belief that it is just for God to behave in any way
he sees fit. And although it would certainly be wrong for us to do what is right in our
own eyes irrespective of the law of God, it would be equally as wrong for God to do
anything other than what is right in his own eyes—for he is the standard of justice.

It is this kind of thinking which accounts for the Apostle Paul’s handling of the
Roman Christians’ objections to God’s free choice in hardening whom he desires and
having mercy on whom he desires.

Turn over to Rom 9:14-21.

Paul has been illustrating that God’s choice for salvation depends upon his own
good pleasure. To make his point clear, he turns to the example of Jacob and Esau,
who, although they had not even been born and had not yet done anything good or bad,
God ordained the older to serve the younger: “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” (9:13).

Beginning in verse 14, Paul anticipates an objection from his readers. Look at
verse 14: What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? Paul
answers his rhetorical question with a categorical denial: May it never be!

Then in verses 15-18, he explains why it is not at all unjust for God to choose
some for salvation irrespective of their good or bad behavior. Notice first verse 15: For
from Exodus, from the life of Moses. In Exodus 33, Moses asks the Lord to show him
the Lord’s divine glory and God responds by saying, “I Myself will make all My goodness

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pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be
gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show
compassion” (Exod 33:19).

God’s mercy-showing is thus the product of his own free choice. I will have
mercy on whom I have mercy. God is saying that it is his prerogative alone to show
mercy. He is the one who chooses those who receive it. This is why Paul says what he
does in verse 16: So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who
runs, but on God who has mercy.

Then Paul gives another example from Scripture, this time of his action in
controlling Pharaoh. Notice verse 17: For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS
If we need another example to demonstrate that God’s saving activity does not depend
on human will, look at salvation’s counterpart—judgment. Why is Pharaoh in power?
It’s purely to serve God’s purposes in putting his glory on display. Pharaoh needs to be
there in order for God to multiply his mighty deeds of judgment.

So for Paul, the examples of Moses and Pharaoh, as the Old Testament text
makes clear, are conclusive. Look at verse 18: So then He has mercy on whom He
desires, and He hardens whom He desires. The salvation of some and the
reprobation of others are purely made on the basis of God’s free and sovereign choice.

It is important that we fully appreciate how Paul is answering this question, this
objection. He anticipates that the Romans will ask this: “Doesn’t God’s selection of
Jacob over Esau before they were born make God unjust?” Paul’s answer is amazing:
“No,” he says, “because God has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he
desires.” Doesn’t this seem strange to you?

In many churches today the answer that might have been expected from Paul
would be something like, “No, because God has given man free will, to choose the good
or the evil. And God looked down through the corridors of time and saw that Esau
would have turned out to be a bad character and Jacob a faithful one. God is not unjust
because God was responding to choices that Jacob and Esau would make in the

This, of course, is somewhat of a caricature; regrettably, however, it isn’t too far

from the mark. And you can see how it does exegetical violence to what the text
actually says. Paul says that God loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were born,
without respect to anything they had done or failed to do, so that God’s purpose
according to his choice might stand.

“Perhaps,” says Paul, “this seems unjust for God to behave this way. It is not.
And I’ll tell you why—because God has mercy on whom he desires and he hardens
whom he desires. It is entirely his prerogative. And since showing mercy and
hardening are entirely his prerogative, it is also perfectly just for him to do so, because

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he is just.” So Paul’s answer is this: if God has claimed this as his right, then this is
evidence enough that it is just.

So when we approach the passages from Exodus that address the hardening of
Pharaoh’s heart, we must begin with the assumption that whatever takes place on
God’s part is and in fact must be just.

How Can God Find Fault?

Now we are ready to answer our own question, the question with which we
started this inquiry into the justice of God; namely, “Is it just for God to harden
Pharaoh’s heart and then punish Pharaoh for his hardness of heart?”

Well, let me ask you this: is this what God does to Pharaoh? If the answer is
yes, then we must say that it is just for God to harden and then punish for hardness.
For if God has done it then it must be just.

But before we leave this subject, we need to get back to the illustration we gave
earlier. We said that for God to behave in this way might seem a lot like a police officer
removing your fuel pump, demanding that you move your car, and then ticketing you for
your noncompliance. If this is how you are understanding God’s activity of hardening,
then you your yes to God’s justice in Pharaoh’s hardness of heart will have been given
on the basis of a misunderstanding.

In the case of the police officer, the car with which he tampered had been in
perfect working order. There was no defect in the fuel pump or in any other system of
the car prior to his tampering. Then when you got back in the car and you really, really
wanted to obey the officer, you couldn’t do so because he had vandalized your vehicle.

This unproblematic car is not the car with which God works. God made men
upright and we (on our own) have sought out many evil devices. All of us are fallen.
We are all sinners. And the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.
Prior to conversion, we are all irresistibly inclined to evil. We are slaves of sin. And we
need to keep this in mind if we are going to understand what it means that God is just to
find fault in a heart that he hardened.

Look at verse 19: You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For
who resists His will?” The question is that if no one can resist God’s hardening work,
how can he fault men for the hardness of heart that he has performed in them? How
can God blame someone who appears to be no more than a “victim” of his changeless
decree? This answer, too, is amazing. Notice verses 20-21: On the contrary, who are
you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the
molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a
right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and
another for common use?

In the first place, Paul is saying that the question is profoundly arrogant; it is a
question that we have no right asking. What right does a lump of clay have to make
demands of the potter? He can do with us what he wills because he made us.

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But remember, he didn’t make us sinful. He made us and when he finished he

saw all that he had made and behold, it was very good (Gen 1:31).

Why do I mention the sinfulness of man? Because the vessel that the potter
assigns an honorable use comes from the same lump as the vessel that he assigns for
dishonorable use—and the original lump is corrupt; the original lump is sinful. That
lump is deserving of God’s omnipotent wrath. How do I know this? Well, look down to
verses 22-23: What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make
His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for
destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels
of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…

What I want you to see is that the vessels are called vessels of wrath in verse
22 and vessels of mercy in verse 23. It should go without saying that a vessel of wrath
is a sinful vessel. But it is not only the vessels of wrath that are sinful; it is the vessels
of mercy as well. If they were not sinful, they would not need mercy, they would not be
vessels of mercy; they would be vessels of merit.

This is why we can say that the one lump that the potter uses to make both noble
and ignoble vessels is sinful. And it is from this sinful lump that the creator, the potter
makes some for mercy and some for wrath. Both are deserving of wrath. But with one
God chooses to magnify his mercy, and with the other God chooses to magnify his holy

So the arrogance of asking if it is right for God to find fault, comes not simply
from the fact that he’s God and we’re not. It comes from the fact that we are sinful,
rebellious, wicked creatures and he is the holy, righteous, and good creator. So for us
to ask if it is right for God to find fault with men whose wills he has hardened against
him is to ask whether or not God is just to find fault with sinners in general.

So when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, God is not putting fresh evil in Pharaoh’s
heart. He has no authority to create sinful beings; sin can never be attributed to him.
But he does have the right to deal with sinful beings (all equally deserving of his
righteous wrath) as their sovereign, in any way he sees fit.

This should give us great insight into the process of hardening men’s hearts
generally, and into the process of hardening Pharaoh’s heart particularly.

Pharaoh, being a fallen man, is a sinner. And every Pharaoh that had served at
the Lord’s pleasure had been a sinner. Some were more just in the exercise of their
office than others. Yet all were sinners, which raises a very interesting question: if all
these men were sinners, fallen men in their minds, emotions, and wills; hostile to God,
suppressors of the truth in unrighteousness; wicked, filthy idolaters; children of wrath;
and by nature, God haters, how is it that not all of them were as bad as they possibly
could have been? If all men from birth are irresistibly inclined to evil, then what is it that
prevents them from running after evil to the same degree?

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Since the king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD, and
since no man left to himself can keep from spiraling downward into the filth of his own
corruption, it seems fair to suggest that it is the Lord that prevents men from being as
bad as they could be.

Turn back to Genesis 20:1-7 to see this most vividly illustrated.

Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled
between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar. 2Abraham said of Sarah his
wife, "She is my sister" So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3But God
came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, "Behold, you are a dead
man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married." 4Now Abimelech
had not come near her; and he said, "Lord, will You slay a nation, even though
blameless? 5Did he not himself say to me, 'She is my sister'? And she herself said, 'He
is my brother.' In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done
this." 6Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart
you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let
you touch her. 7Now therefore, restore the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will
pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely
die, you and all who are yours."

Why is it that Abimelech did not lie with Sarah? Simply this: because God kept
him from doing it.

And this is the way it is with all men. It is what theologians call the doctrine of
common grace. Though mankind is radically depraved, mankind is prevented from
being as bad as it possibly could be as an expression of God’s kindness.

What this means is that in order for God to make people more disobedient it is
not necessary for him to place fresh evil in their hearts. All he has to do is give them up
to a freer expression of their own evil. God hardens hearts by letting men do what they
want to do in their sinful condition. He gives them over to do that which is not proper.

The evidence of Exodus makes it clear that this is precisely how God operated in
the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Throughout Pharaoh’s interaction with Yahweh we
see Pharaoh doing only what he wanted to do.

The first and simplest piece of evidence indicating that Pharaoh was following
after his own sinful inclinations is that the hardening of his heart is attributed to his own
agency three times in the narrative from 7:8-10:29. Pharaoh hardened his own heart
and did not listen to Moses and Aaron.

Second, throughout Scripture hardness of heart represents an attitude for which

men are blameworthy. Three terms are used in the narrative to refer to hard-
heartedness. The first, found in 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27 means to grow stout,
rigid, and hard, with the idea of perversity. In Malachi 3:13 it is translated “arrogant.”

The second appears in 7:14; 8:15; 8:32; 9:7, 34; 10:1 and means obstinate,
obdurate, and stubborn. And the third term, though it is not used in our narrative, is

Manuscript for Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart, Part 4 © 2004 by R W Glenn

found in 7:3, a passage in which God says that he will make Pharaoh’s heart hard in
order to multiply his signs in Egypt. So we should take it into account for our
understanding of the hardness of heart manifested in Pharaoh in 7:8-10:29. This third
term means immovable. It is translated with the well-known phrase “stiff-necked” and is
used of the Israelites themselves later in Exodus.3

In light of all of the terminology used, we may say that to be hard-hearted is to be

obstinate, arrogant, stiff-necked, and perverse. It refers to a rebellious attitude, most
often toward the Lord. As one Hebrew scholar has aptly stated: “The ‘hardening of the
heart’…expresses a state of arrogant moral degeneracy, unresponsive to reason and
incapable of compassion.”4 This description of Pharaoh’s condition indicates that his
behavior, though ordained of God, is completely his own.

A third example of Pharaoh’s own desire to disobey the Lord is exemplified by

the progressive nature of the hardening of his heart. What we see in the text before us
is not one act of hardening, but many acts and statements of hardening throughout the
narrative. Interestingly, one act of hardening in the progress of the events of the text
doesn’t make Pharaoh or his servants totally impervious to outside influences. A
striking example of this is found in Ch 10.

Notice what the Lord says in verse 1: I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the
heart of his servants. Not only is Pharaoh’s heart made obstinate by the Lord, but his
servants as well. Yet in spite of this divine hardening, notice the servants’ response in
verse 7: Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long will this man be a snare to us?
Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not realize that
Egypt is destroyed?” Even they implore Pharaoh to comply!

Hardening is an act that occurs again and again throughout the narrative. As
each hardening occurs, Pharaoh becomes harder and harder. Thus we may say that at
the beginning of the events, Pharaoh’s heart isn’t as hard as it is at the end cf. 10:28-29.
As with any callous, it takes time for it to become sufficiently impervious to pain. What
this shows is that God’s hardening does not make Pharaoh a “rag doll”;5 for as one
commentator says, “[T]hese events would not redound much to the glory of God if it
were only a matter of God’s outwitting a windup toy.”6 Pharaoh continues to make
choices—bad choices, choices certainly ordained of God, but nevertheless his real
choices with real (and dire) consequences for himself and his people.

Fourth, hardening his heart is not the only evil behavior attributed to Pharaoh’s
agency throughout our passage. Look back at 7:14; it says, Then the LORD said to
Moses, “Pharaoh's heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.” Pharaoh,
and no one else, refuses to let the people go.

See 32:9
Nahum M Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication
Society, 1991), 23.
Peter Enns, The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), n.p.
Terence E Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 102.

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Now turn over to 10:3 and read with me: Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh
and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will
you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve
Me.” Through Moses, the Lord asks Pharaoh how long he plans on refusing to humble
himself to the Lord and let his people go. Clearly, even the Lord understands Pharaoh’s
refusals to be in harmony with Pharaoh’s own will.

In addition to the language of refusal being attributed to Pharaoh, the text also
says numerous times that Pharaoh would not listen to the Lord. And just as the Lord
calls Pharaoh to account for his refusals to humble himself, so too does he call Pharaoh
to account for his unwillingness to listen, to obey the divine mandate. Look back at
7:16: You shall say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you,
saying, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness. But behold,
you have not listened until now.”7

While it is certainly true that God has worked in Pharaoh’s heart, he has not so
worked as to eliminate Pharaoh’s own desires in the matter. All of Pharaoh’s refusals to
listen and humble himself and let the people go are his own.

And just in case you might have been inclined to think that Pharaoh was jumping
in the car without the fuel pump desperately wanting to drive, look at 10:27: But the
LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh
is unwilling to give his consent to let the people go.

The fifth example of Pharaoh living according to his own desires is found three
times in the narrative. Three times God speaks of Pharaoh’s refusals conditionally; that
is, he tells Pharaoh that if refuses to let the people go, then he will unleash the forces of
nature against him.

"But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with
frogs.” (8:2)

"For if you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them, behold, the hand of
the LORD will come with a very severe pestilence on your livestock which are in the
field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks.”

'For if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into
your territory.' (10:4)

These are genuine conditionals and genuine refusals. God doesn’t interact with
men disingenuously. Of course, this does not mean that God has not predetermined
the outcome of the events of the text—he certainly has. What it does mean is that
although God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh is still acting of his own volition.
God’s activity in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart does not in any way mitigate
Pharaoh’s responsibility; neither does it violate Pharaoh’s will in the matter—he is doing
precisely as he wants to do.
See also 7:13, 22; 8:15; 9:12.

Manuscript for Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart, Part 4 © 2004 by R W Glenn

With all this before us we are able to begin to see how God hardens men’s
hearts. God gives men over to do what they love. Men love the darkness rather than
the light. And were it not for God’s restraining grace, the world would be an even filthier
place. So when God hardens Pharaoh’s heart he does not take a perfectly good car
and rip out the fuel pump. He does not implant fresh evil. He simply removes his
restraining grace to allow Pharaoh’s sin to flourish.

Now before you question the justice of God in removing his restraining hand,
remember, he has never been, nor will he ever be obligated to continue to restrain sin.
If he were obligated to limit men’s sins, then grace would no longer be grace, it would
be a wage. And if it was a wage, then we would deserve to have our sins restrained.
We need to keep a clear doctrine of sin in our minds and hearts if we are going to see
the justice in letting men go in their sin so that God may accomplish all his good

So we may say this: God has truly hardened Pharaoh’s heart in accord with his
promise to do so, and that Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness is his own. Notice, however,
that we are not saying that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because it was hard. No,
God fashioned Pharaoh into a “vessel of wrath.” What we are saying is that God
hardened an already sinful heart, which is why we can say that Pharaoh never acts
contrary to his own will. Our confession is again helpful: “God, from all eternity, did, by
the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably ordain
whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is
violence offered to the will of the creatures” (WCF/LBC 3.1).

This statement does justice to the biblical material. Sinful men never act contrary
to their own will in the fulfillment of God’s sovereign purposes. In the case of Pharaoh,
we have seen that God hardened his heart and that Pharaoh hardened his own—
Pharaoh did not want to obey God’s command; he was willfully disobedient.

All God did to make Pharaoh’s heart hard was to give him more freedom to
exercise his will in accord with his own sinful nature and desires. God’s hardening work
does not make anyone sinful. Instead, it frees up already sinful people to enjoy what
they love most.

So then let us ask our question one more time: Is it just for God to harden
Pharaoh’s heart and then punish Pharaoh for his hardness of heart? Absolutely and
unequivocally, yes. We have learned that it is just for three reasons: (1) it is just simply
because God has done it (we could stop here, but since the Bible doesn’t we go on); (2)
it is just because Pharaoh is a sinner and it is God’s sovereign right to do with sinners
as he pleases; and (3) it is just because God in no way does violence to Pharaoh’s
will—Pharaoh does exactly what he wants to do; God simply removes all restraint so
that Pharaoh’s sin can flourish.

God forbid that we would ever question the justice of God! Do you see how
audacious it is to complain to God on the basis of fairness? For God to have been fair

Manuscript for Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart, Part 4 © 2004 by R W Glenn

to Pharaoh, the Lord ought to have killed him upon his conception. This is what sinners
deserve, whether it’s Pharaoh or you and me. If God wants to take sinful people and
make them impervious to his commands, who are we to question God? The reason we
are vessels of mercy is not because we have come from a meritorious lump. We must
never forget that the lump from which we have been made is the lump of fallenness, of
rebellion against God.

Instead of questioning the justice of God in the damnation of sinners, we ought to

join in with Augustus M Toplady (1740-1778) and sing, “A debtor to mercy alone…”

Redeemer Bible Church

16205 Highway 7
Minnetonka, MN 55345
Office: 952.935.2425
Fax: 952.938.8299

Manuscript for Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart, Part 4 © 2004 by R W Glenn