that I might show my power in you,
and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills,
and he hardens whomever he wills.
Do human beings harden their own hearts against God? They certainly do. Does God harden human hearts? Yes, he certainly does. Does God cause human beings to rebel against him and harden their hearts when they do? Few would take that position, at least without a lot of clarification and hesitancy. Let’s see what we can learn from the example of Pharaoh.
I hope the information below will help you form your own conclusion. From the start, it will be helpful to read the previous message on Paul’s use in verse 17 of the quotation from Exodus 9:16. We will begin with a closer look at the context of that Exodus passage.The setting in Exodus 9
Why would Paul select a quotation that does not refer explicitly to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to support his emphatic conclusion in verse 18 that God “hardens whomever he wills”? We saw in the previous message that Paul had other good reasons to choose this quotation. And when we understand the context in Exodus 9, we find out how perfectly it also fits Paul’s conclusion about God’s hardening.
Six plagues have already taken place and even though they have become progressively stronger, Pharaoh has hardened his heart after each plague. Now in 9:12 God hardens Pharaoh for the first time. Right after this comes God’s warning to Pharaoh in 9:13–19. This warning, William Ford says, draws “attention to what YHWH could have done, what he has done instead, how Pharaoh has answered this, and what YHWH will do in response.”
What God will do is to commence a series of severe plagues, beginning with a deadly hailstorm. After the hailstorm devastates his nation while sparing the land of Goshen inhabited by the Hebrews, Pharaoh at first seems repentant (9:27–28), but after the hailstorm stops he hardens himself again. In 10:1 God for the second time hardens Pharaoh and his servants.
We should not conclude from God’s hardening that Pharaoh’s actions are now compelled by God, because God continues to warn him, looking for a response, and Pharaoh continues to harden himself. Facts such as these in the Exodus narrative deter us from simplistic answers.
With this background, we can better appreciate Paul’s selection of Exodus 9:16 for his argument. Paul knew his readers would be aware of the Exodus narrative and thus would understand the close association of his quotation with God’s hardening of the Egyptian ruler. But with that hardening also comes understanding of the ambivalence in the Exodus text.The divine purpose and power
What is clear from Paul’s use of the quotation is that God orchestrated events to display his power and proclaim his name in all the earth. God kept Pharaoh in power for that purpose and even “made toys of” the Egyptians (a possible translation of “dealt harshly” in 10:2, as Walter Kaiser points out).
Although God clearly defines his purpose, his drawn-out process leaves everyone—Pharaoh, at times Moses, and us—often uncertain of his dealings in each interaction. God’s purpose is not “specifically humanitarian,” meaning the rescue of his people, Ford explains, but rather that Israel and Egypt will “know that I am YHWH.” Ford comments,
When God commissioned Moses to go to Egypt, God assured Moses of what was to come in his confrontation with Pharaoh: “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let people go” (4:21). This statement, more than any other, demonstrates God’s sovereign control over the deliverance process. God knows the outcome because he controls the outcome, but he does it in a way that does not violate human volition and responsibility.
The statement in Exodus 4:21 is best viewed as a summary in advance of the outcome after the plagues have ended (except the killing of the firstborn). God sought to assure Moses that the outcome is not in doubt, so he should approach the king with courage. For a similar summary in advance, see 7:1–5. God’s hardening of Pharaoh, as we saw, began in the middle of the process, after Pharaoh had repeatedly hardened himself (9:12). And even the Hebrew verb for harden in 4:21 is subject to ambiguity.The verbs for “hardening”
On the surface harden in 4:21 appears to be a case of God’s having predetermined the condition of Pharaoh’s heart, and this verse is often cited by skeptics as proof of God’s cruelty for holding people responsible for actions God dictates. That is a wrong charge in any event, but in this verse the Hebrew word may denote action by both God and Pharaoh.
Three Hebrew words are used for hardening. Walter Kaiser observes that in this instance the verb is ḥāzaq, “to strengthen, confirm,” as Kaiser defines it. He cites an argument by George Bush (Notes on Exodus, 1976) that the language implies the following: God so ordered events that Pharaoh, “without any positive divine influence exerted upon him,” took the occasion “to confirm himself in the disregard of the counsels of the Most High.… This God is said to have done because he permitted it to be done” (Bush’s emphasis). Kaiser says Bush cites usage that agrees with this conclusion in Judges 9:24; 2 Chronicles 26:8; Isaiah 35:3, 41:7; and Jeremiah 23:14.
If Bush is correct, the word for harden in 4:21 appears to denote God’s permissive will rather than his determinative will. On the other hand, Ford observes that in this verse and others “YHWH makes a point of emphasising that it is he who will be hardening Pharaoh with an emphatic אֲנִי before the verb (4:21; 7:3; 10:1; 14:17 ‘And I, I will harden …’)”.
At various times God uses all three verbs for harden. John Lange notices a gradual progression from “make firm” in 4:21, to “make hard” in 7:3, to “make heavy or blunt” in 10 1. Lange concludes that “Pharaoh’s self-determination has the priority throughout” and that “the hardening influence of God presupposes the self-obduration of the sinner.”Scholarly opinion on God and Pharaoh
I should note that scholars have counted in the Exodus narrative 20 instances of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. Half of these instances speak of Pharaoh hardening his own heart and the other half assign the causality to God. Of course, equivalency of citation does not mean equivalency of causation.
God’s redemptive purpose is clear in the case of Israel, and it should not be overlooked in the case of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. Kaiser states, “Pharaoh was no mere pawn to be toyed with at will, for the object was that he too might come to experience personally and believe (‘know’) the incomparability of God’s person and greatness.” God’s judgment on Pharaoh was the result of his spurning of God’s mercy, as Charles Swindoll observes:
R. C. Sproul views Pharaoh from the perspective of God’s “common grace,” the favor of God that benefits all people, as distinct from “special grace,” which is for the redeemed. He notes that one function of common grace is the restraint of evil. Pharaoh, Sproul reasons, would have wanted to act more wickedly than he actually did, so all God had to do to use the king for his divine purpose was to remove the restraints. Free to do fresh evil, Pharaoh stiffened himself all the more against release of the people.
By removing the providential restraints on Pharaoh’s wickedness, God “therefore passively hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” Sproul says. Thus God accomplished two things, according to Sproul. He executed judgment on Pharaoh through the king’s own actions. God also demonstrated to the people of Israel that their “deliverance came not through the beneficence of Pharaoh, but through the redemptive grace of God.”Also of interest is this comment by Jewish biblical scholar Nahum Sarna:
The focus of the apostle
Paul’s use and interpretation of the plagues narrative clearly highlights God’s sovereignty and justice. Everett Harrison says Paul “does not so much as bother to indicate that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, an evidence of unbelief and rebellion, because he is emphasizing the freedom of God’s action in all cases.” And as Douglas Moo states, “The ‘hardening’ Paul portrays here, then, is a sovereign act of God that is not caused by anything in those individuals who are hardened.”
Moo goes so far as to suggest that Paul’s portrayal of “hardening” seems to provide “important exegetical support for the controversial doctrine of ‘double predestination’,” God’s sovereign decision to bestow his grace on and save some individuals, and “to pass over others and so to damn them.” More acceptable to me is Moo’s insightful conclusion:
Know that he is God
Having done my best to map out the circumstances and issues surrounding Pharaoh’s hard heart, I hope this quick tour will now help you to settle your own heart and mind on the matter. It might be helpful to ask yourself a few questions as to the relative roles played by Pharaoh and God: On a scale from God’s permissive will to determinative will, where would you position the needle? Where do you think Paul would position the needle? Or maybe a better way to think about the matter is to ask, What does God permit and what does he determine?
Would you agree that everything God did concerning Pharaoh, including the hardening of his heart, was for the specific purpose of displaying God’s power and proclaiming his name? That, as I see it, is how Paul interprets Exodus and what he thinks God specifically determined. Nevertheless, we should examine verses 14–23 before we make a firm conclusion.
Bible experts likely never will reach consensus on the interaction between God’s decree and a human being’s freedom of choice (free only within the constraints of sin). The only mind able to penetrate these things belongs to God himself. Paul, one of the smartest persons to walk on this planet, understood this well: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).
A few things are certain. The Exodus narrative would have us know that through the plagues and deliverance of his people God will make sure Egypt, Israel, and the world know that he is God. Paul would have us know that God is sovereign and just in all his actions. The most important takeaway for each one of us, therefore, is to know that he is God and to live accordingly.
You can find many more resources on the subject if you wish to pursue it further. For a brief introduction here is the Bible Project. John Piper emphasizes God’s sovereign action. Also consider this perspective. Ford’s book is a valuable source for detailed study.