In this passage we are confronted with the very difficult statement from God that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. God is commanding Moses to go back to Pharaoh with the same message Pharaoh has already reacted to with anger. God tells Moses that Pharaoh is going to be opposed to the command to let Israel go, even though God will send powerful judgments that ought to humble Pharaoh.  Pharaoh’s recalcitrant heart is on exhibit here.

God, however, does not just say Pharaoh will harden his heart. He says to Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.” Here, God is repeating what he has said before to Moses in chapter 4. In Romans chapter 9, Paul also brings up the fact that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Whenever something is repeated in Scripture, it is meant for us to think especially deeply upon it. Though the subject of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is difficult, we will lose the benefit intended for us if we do not consider it thoroughly. God is not just relaying the story to us. He is confronting us with his sovereignty.

God was not just hoping things worked out in the Exodus. He was working out every detail according to his sovereign will and good pleasure. This includes the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, so that God may be glorified both in his sovereignty and his judgments.

It still leaves us to unravel the tangle of God hardening someone’s heart. We must first consider this negatively, or what it does not mean. For example, it does not mean God infused or created something into Pharaoh, so that he would be recalcitrant in his opposition to God. Pharaoh had all that was necessary inherent in his own sinful nature to resist God even to his own destruction.

Paul in Romans 8 teaches us that the sinful nature is hostile to God, at enmity with God. Pharaoh had added to his sinful nature the accelerant of the vanity connected to being regarded as a deity. The Egyptians viewed the Pharaoh as divine. There was no one to correct him or restrain his sinful nature. He was conditioned to being the superior power in any confrontation. He was full of malice.

Also, we should dismiss any thought God was the author of Pharaoh’s sin by tempting Pharaoh. God commands Pharaoh what is good, what is the right thing to do. James 1:13 tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”

Whatever we conclude about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we must conclude that God is not forcing or tempting Pharaoh to do what Pharaoh does not want to do. Pharaoh is acting on his own volition, exercising his own will, according to what Pharaoh wants to do.

How then does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Dr. John Mackay, in his excellent commentary on Exodus, says this: “By withdrawing restraining influences, plus challenging Pharaoh’s authority, status, and power, the Lord brought about Pharaoh’s unmitigated opposition to God’s right command.” In other words, God withholds grace from Pharaoh, giving him over to his sinful nature.

God owes men justice: this God never withholds. He will not act contrary to his holy, righteous nature. He will by no means clear the guilty. God owes no sinful man grace. He gives it according to his Sovereign will. This is, of course, a very deep truth, beyond our searching out.

However, we can take away from this the need to humble ourselves before the Lord. We are not the Lord’s counselors;  we are his subjects. He is sovereign, all wise, perfectly holy and good, just, loving, and eternal.

In Christ, God’s justice and love are glorified. Christ meets the demands of God’s justice on the cross by being the substitute for what is owed sinners and pays in full the debt of all their sin. He also glorifies the love of God in providing so great a salvation.

What we must learn and hold onto when we read of the hardening of Pharaoh is our own need of grace. We must call on the Lord for a sense of our own propensity to be blinded by our sinful nature, and the need we have of his Spirit to magnify our need of Christ.