In the book of Exodus we read the account of the ten plagues in Egypt. Was Pharaoh really responsible for his wicked choices in this story. After all, didn't God "harden his heart"? Keep Reading…
Exodus 8:30-32 - Then Moses left Pharaoh and prayed to the Lord, and the Lord did what Moses asked: The flies left Pharaoh and his officials and his people; not a fly remained. But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.
Exodus 9:11-12 - The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all the Egyptians. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses.
Did Pharaoh get a bad deal? Was he forced into hardening his heart? Was God the source of Pharaoh's evil behavior? When you read the account of Moses, Pharaoh and the ten plagues, it would be natural to have some questions in mind.
Let's start here. What do we know about God? James 1:13 says, "For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone." So where did the evil impulse in Pharaoh's heart come from? James 1:14-15 continues, "But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." In other words, Pharaoh's own evil desire and his decision to act upon that desire was the source of his sin.
What do we also know about God? 2 Peter 3:9 says, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." God desires everyone to turn from their sin - even Pharaoh. Also, in Ezekiel 33:11 we read, "As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.'" So we understand that God does not take pleasure in wickedness or in the death of the wicked.
What does it mean, then, that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart"? Let's take a look at Romans 1:21 for some insight. It says, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." This passage is talking about a people who had knowledge of God, but chose rebellion instead of worship. In fact, they began to worship the creation rather than the Creator.
Romans 1 then gives us the progression of the rebellion. Foolishness led to idolatry, which led to sexual immorality, more shameful lusts and then homosexuality. Romans 1:26 says, "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts." It seems that when a person continues in increasing cycles of rebellion, a hardness sets in. It is like a person says, "I desperately want my sin, and I am willing to rebel against God at all costs." And God responds with incredible grief (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9), "Ok. I will let you have what you want." In this sense, he gives people over to their rebellion. This would be similar to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart by God.
In the account of Moses, Pharaoh and the ten plagues, the mention of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is mentioned eighteen times - nine times where Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 7:13–14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34–35) and nine times where God hardened Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). In the first five plagues, Pharaoh was said to have hardened his own heart. It was not until the sixth plague that we read of God's involvement in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.
From this account of Pharaoh and the Israelite exodus from Egypt we can learn about the serious implications of ongoing rebellion against God. Sin has consequences! Sometimes we see an immediate physical consequence to our sin… but not always. A consistent consequence to sin, though, is a hardening or de-sensitizing effect on our hearts. This is why David cried out after sinning against God, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me" (Psalm 51:12). He longed for a renewed sensitivity to God and a new experience of the joy of his salvation.
When we habitually sin in an area, it is harder and harder to sense the Lord's conviction. This is not God's fault. We are the ones hardening our own heart. It is a very scary position to be in when God begins giving us what we are demanding. He does not give us over to our sin as an ultimate punishment, but rather as an extreme effort in saving us. This is much like the process of church discipline in 1 Corinthians where a sexually immoral man is "handed over to Satan so that his sinful nature is destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5).
God is full of mercy. He perseveres with his creation. Even in the midst of our sin, he shows such forbearance. But do not show contempt for "the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience" (Romans 2:4). As you recognize the frightening prospect of being hardened by your rebellious choices, flee sin! Call out to the Lord for a soft and sensitive heart that is quick to listen and obey.
Missionary. Teacher. Worship Leader. Deeply desiring to make God's Word accessible and understandable to all. May you be transformed as God's Word fills your life.
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