The Mystery of Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
Default article daily reflection

And the LORD told Moses, “When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go.”

Exodus 4:21

When Moses finally accepted God’s call to return to Egypt in order to free the Israelites, God warned him in advance that the road ahead would not be easy. This would have come as no surprise to Moses, who surely didn’t expect Pharaoh to give up his massive slave force just because of a few miracles. However, the Lord did not say “Pharaoh will refuse for obvious reasons,” but rather, “I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go” (4:21).

This can be a troubling idea for at least three reasons. First, it seems to imply that Pharaoh is just a puppet whom God can move about at his will. But what about Pharaoh’s will? Doesn’t Pharaoh have any freedom of choice in the matter of his response to Moses?

Second, if God is responsible for Pharaoh’s hard heart, then it seems as if God is solely responsible for the terrible things that will happen to the Egyptians. This would make us wonder about the justice of God.

Third, as the story of Exodus unfolds, several passages make it clear that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (for example, 8:32). So which is it? Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Or did Pharaoh harden his own heart?

The answer supplied by Exodus is a perplexing “both/and.” The text credits both Pharaoh and God with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. At first, Pharaoh chooses to harden his heart against God’s will. In time, God adds divine power to Pharaoh’s own effort in this regard. And, of course, all of this is according to God’s sovereign design.

There is a profound mystery in this text. Specifically, it is the mystery of how both God and Pharaoh are involved in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Yet this points to the larger puzzle of how God works in and through us, both respecting our choices and working his sovereign will in us. I won’t be able to solve this mystery in this reflection, or in a hundred more. But what I do know on the basis of Exodus, as well as the broader sweep of biblical truth, is that we must continue to affirm both our responsibility and God’s sovereignty. When we choose to do what’s right, that reflects both our will and the movement of God’s Spirit within us.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: How do you think about the apparent paradox of Pharaoh’s hard heart? How do you deal with divine mysteries that exceed your understanding?

PRAYER: Sovereign Lord, most of the time I’m able to accept the mystery of your sovereignty. I know that you ordain all things, and that somehow we also have real choice in this world. Thus I can accept, in principle, the fact that Pharaoh hardened his heart and so did you.

But I must confess a certain uneasiness with this idea. Honestly, I wish I could blame Pharaoh completely for his hard heart. It would let you off the hook for the terrible things that happened to the Egyptians. But I recognize that your ways are not my ways and that you don’t want to get off the hook, so to speak.

Lord, I don’t ask to understand completely the mysteries that are beyond me. I do ask for greater wisdom, so that I might know you more truly and participate more faithfully in your work. Amen.