Why Would God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart? And How Did He Do It?


We are not programmed to obey God so that we are able to love Him.


The Bible is a complex and rich tapestry, but we often fail to see the patterns, let alone the overarching pattern, of it. For me at one time, it was like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side – just a jumble of threads going seemingly everywhere and nowhere, without any discernible design.

At the same time, the Bible is not safe. I found it to be a harsh reflection of me when I read it for the first time. It was dangerous.

It commanded itself to me, but I didn’t always like what I saw or felt. Primarily, I didn’t like what reflected back at me about myself.

I will never forget the day in a world religion class as a college freshman that I read these words:

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Hebrews 4:12 NIV

I wasn’t a believer then, but I could see it, and it made me feel uncomfortable. Even though the rich meaning of Scripture was veiled to me at the time it reflected back to me and probed my heart to expose the worst aspects of me.

I read in the words of David today in my reading from the Psalms:

“With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.”

Psalm 18:25-27 ESV

God deals with each of us according to our own hearts. We see Him presently “as in a mirror dimly”, Paul says, “but then we shall see Him face to face!” (I Corinthians 13:12 ESV) We see God in this life through our own reflection, which may not always be clear.

We see in Scripture our own hearts mirrored back at us, and we see God as if He were standing over our shoulders looking on. How we respond to what we see and to determines how He reveals Himself to us.

As I read through Exodus in my daily reading, I read the passage in which God told Moses he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Moses would do miraculous things in front of Pharaoh, but Pharaoh would not be moved by them. (Exodus 4:21)

This seems odd at first blush that God would do that. How can we blame Pharaoh for his hard heart if God hardened it? Why would God even do that?

To begin with, notice what God says to Moses in the previous chapter: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.” (Ex. 3:19) God knew Pharaoh.

God knows our hearts also. He knows the thoughts in our heads. He knows the words that are uttered from our mouths before we even speak them. (See Psalm 139:1-4) God may appear to mysterious and veiled to us, but we are transparent before God.

God knew Pharaoh. Pharaoh treated the Hebrews like slaves. When Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people have a three-day festival to worship God, “Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.’” (Exodus 5:2)

Instead of letting them worship God for three days, Pharaoh demanded more work from them. Pharaoh called them lazy and increased their workload. (Ex. 5:1-17)

Pharaoh was already hardened. God knew his heart. God who knew how Pharaoh would respond. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart not by changing Pharaoh’s heart; God simply gave him opportunity to double down on the direction he was already going.

I think of Romans 1 in this context. Paul said that God has made Himself plain enough for people to know Him, but people chose not to honor Him, or be grateful and became “futile in their thinking”. They claimed to be wise, but became foolish, exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and animals” – things God created. (Romans 1:19-23) So this is what God did:

“God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator….”

Rom. 1:24-25) 

No more ominous words might be read in the Bible than these: God gave them up. He doesn’t make people go the direction they choose, but (at some point) He gives people up to their own desires. He stops trying to compel people to stop and change direction (which is the meaning of repentance). He simply lets people go their own way.

This is what He did with Pharaoh. To Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened already, God revealed himself in the form of plagues and disaster.

God gives us the capacity for self-determination, but He created us for relationship with Him. We are not programmed to obey Him so that we are able to love Him.

God shows Himself as a loving God to the merciful and the humble. He appears differently to the proud and the stubborn. God appears differently to us depending on the lenses of our own hearts, minds and souls through which we view Him.    

God and His Word are veiled to those who are determined to go their own way. Pharaoh told Moses, “I don’t know your God.” Pharaoh was completely unwilling to consider a different point of view.

Tim Keller says that Paul, when he was a Pharisee, had “a view of The Bible that made it opaque to him”. He viewed God as a strong God, the people of Israel as a strong people, and the Messiah the Jewish people expected to come as a strong Messiah.

Paul was a fiercely proud Jew who defended the honor and the purity of Jewish law by persecuting the people who began to follow Jesus. He stood by while Stephen was stoned to death, and Paul obtained orders to imprison all believers in Jesus.

John says that God became flesh and dwelt among people; God came to His own people, but they didn’t know him. (John 1:1-10) Paul was one of God’s “own”, but Paul didn’t recognize Jesus because he didn’t fit the image of the Messiah that Paul (and other proud Jews) has developed.

Paul didn’t expect a “suffering servant”, even though Isaiah, the prophet, described the Messiah as a suffering servant in at least three different chapters. (Isaiah 42, 52 and 53) Paul was seeing God through the lens of Jewish ethnic pride and self-righteousness.


On the road to Damascus, when Jesus confronted him, Paul’s view of The Bible was flipped inside. He had to let go of everything he thought he knew, and it began to make sense in a brand-new light.

Paul was traveling to Damascus to find people who were following Jesus and put them in prison. When Paul arrived in Damascus, though, he was a changed man.

On the way, he encountered Jesus and was blinded. He was led by the hand into Damascus, where he fasted and prayed, trying to process the encounter. As he was praying, a man sent by God came to him and prayed with Paul. Something like scales fell from Paul’s eyes, and he was baptized.

Paul’s lens had to be completely reconfigured. The way he viewed God and the world had to be changed completely. Only then did he truly see. Only then did it make sense.

Years later, Paul’s description of Jesus to the Philippians reflected the complete change in the way Paul viewed him and God:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8

Paul would give the rest of his life telling people of Jesus and explaining the significance of his life, death and resurrection.

Jesus told the Pharisees, who clung stubbornly to the same kind of self-righteous, prideful religiosity as Paul, “If you knew Me, you would know My Father.” (John 8:19 and 14:7) In other words, they didn’t know God the Father, because if they had known Him, they would know Jesus.  

We must be willing to let go of what we think we know to know God. We must be willing to humble ourselves to the God who transparently knows us so that we can know Him. We need to let go of ourselves and the notions of ourselves and the world to which we cling to see God authentically for who He is.

The people of Israel hardened their hearts in the wilderness journey from Egypt to the land God promised them. Thus, the writer of Hebrews says:

“Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.”

Hebrews 3:15

The tendency of the human heart is to rely on ourselves and how we see the world, to trust no one else, and to “harden our hearts” in that respect. If we want to know God, we must see past ourselves – past the person in the mirror. We must soften our hearts toward God and be willing to receive Him as he is.

God doesn’t make us obey Him because He wants us to love Him. God will let us go our own ways, but He desires for us to come to Him. When we do, He gladly receives us and shows Himself to be merciful, kind and full of grace – so much that He was willing to become like us and sacrifice himself in human flash to redeem us for relationship with Him.

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