Reference: Exodus (Various Verses)
In Exodus 4-14 there are 20 occurrences in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. That wouldn’t seem like such a big deal except for the fact that in half of those occurrences it says that the LORD is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Why would God do that? Doesn’t that seem like the God is manipulating Pharaoh’s will? Doesn’t it seem like he is forcing Pharaoh to do evil, when perhaps he otherwise would have done good? And in the end does God hold Pharaoh responsible for the actions that God himself forced him to do?
First of all, we need to remember who the bad guy is here. This Pharaoh and his forefathers had subjected the Israelites to cruel slavery for generations. The Egyptians had become one of the richest and most powerful empires of the ancient world. The economic benefit of free labor is not something that Pharaoh would have given up easily (just look at our own country’s history, the emancipation of the Slaves led to the bloodiest war in American History and it was all about economics). So it is safe to say that Pharaoh’s heart is already about as hard as it can get. Furthermore, half of the instances of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened occurred with no mention of God doing the hardening. In other words, this is a guy who had it out for Israel and was determined to defy God at every turn.
Concerning the trouble with the fact that God prophesies that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 14:4,17) we should keep in mind the nature of God’s prophesies, namely, that they are usually conditional. In other words, God is saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart IF he does not do what I say” in which case the issue of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is already a mutt point, because if Pharaoh doesn’t do what Moses asks him to do (i.e. “Let my people go”) then his heart is hardened, not by God’s doing but by Pharaoh’s own greed, pride, and selfishness (see 1 Samuel 6:6).
In 2 Chronicles 36 there is another similar situation where it seems like God is pulling the strings of a leader who holds the fate of Israel in his hands. Only in this instance the heart is not hardened, the heart is “stirred”. It says in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 that God “Stirred the heart of Cyrus” to let the people return to Israel after their 70-year exile. This is a situation that we don’t usually call into question because it is much easier to swallow the idea that God would move a leader’s heart to do something good rather than the contrary. So does that mean that in Pharaoh’s situation God pulled the evil string and in Cyrus’s situation God pulled the good string? Not at all. One of the tough things that we need to grapple with is that God is fully sovereign (in control) AND his people have complete free will. If that seems like an impossible combination, then welcome to the bigness and complexity of our God. Unfortunately there is no blog-ready answer for that conundrum.
Lastly, some people say that God made Pharaoh’s heart hard so that he would have more opportunity to show how great he is. Exodus 9:16 makes it clear that God’s glory was definitely put on display because of the actions of Pharaoh. But while it is true that God’s greatness had an opportunity to be put on display every time Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, that does not mean that God was pulling the strings to make the situation go that way. Certainly God was glorified by his great rescue of his enslaved people from Egypt, but he would have been glorified as well if Pharaoh had let the people go right away, just as was the situation when the Exiled people of Israel returned to Jerusalem from Babylon several generations later. This was a very similar situation, but God was still glorified in that situation just as he was glorified during the exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh was making his own decisions, and even then God was glorified.
All this to say, Pharaoh had a free will and with that free will he made his heart very hard. The only thing that God did to ‘harden’ Pharaoh’s heart was to say through Moses “Let my people go!” An unwelcome command that made Pharaoh very grumpy. Often times our hearts become hard when God asks us to do things that we don’t want to do, but that doesn’t mean that God is the one making our hearts heard. That’s a bad decision that we make all by ourselves.