Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and that is why he would not let the people go. Repeatedly, he hardened his own heart even further (see Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 12, 34, 35; 10:20, 27). However, it is also true that “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; see also 4:21; 7:3; 10:1). So how are we to understand this? Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Was Pharaoh’s heart hard because the Lord had hardened it? Or did God harden the king’s heart only as a punishment because Pharaoh had first hardened it himself? There are differences of opinion among commentators.
One viewpoint is that God did nothing to make Pharaoh’s heart hard. Those who take this viewpoint, that Pharaoh’s heart was hard because of his own choice, believe that God was actually trying to bring Pharaoh to repentance. The phrase “so that Pharaoh (or the Egyptians) might know that I am God” or a similar thought, appears frequently (Exodus 7:5, 17; 8:10, 19, 22; 9:14, 16, 29; 11:7). The knowledge of God mentioned is more than intellectual knowledge, so the statement is really an evangelistic invitation. The fact that a “mixed multitude” went up out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38) indicates that there were many Egyptians who did believe, and, therefore, the invitation was evangelistic in its outreach.
Another viewpoint is that God did everything to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Advocates of this viewpoint argue that the Bible says nothing explicit about God trying to bring Pharaoh to repentance. The first time anything is said about Pharaoh’s heart, it is God who is speaking to Moses, and He is saying, “I will harden his heart so he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). Since that is the first reference to this hardening, it is probably right to think that Pharaoh’s later hardening of his heart was the result of God’s prior determination. (Of course, God can harden hearts simply by withholding a softening grace, since our hearts are both hard and also harden naturally apart from any direct action by God or anyone else.)
Furthermore, Exodus 9:16 reports a word of God to Pharaoh in which He says: “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” The apostle Paul quotes this verse in Romans 9:17, concluding, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). This means that God is sovereign in the matter of salvation and that He owes no one anything.
Whether God intervened in a positive way to harden Pharaoh’s heart or hardened it merely by allowing Pharaoh to harden it himself is beside the point. In fact, the manner in which Exodus mixes verses about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart indicates that the question of which came first was not even an issue with the writer. In the final analysis, God determines all things, regardless of what the immediately preceding cause may be. What matters in everything is the glory of God. As Paul shows in Romans 9, God’s power, wrath and justice are glorified in His passing by the unrepentant, just as His grace, mercy, and compassion are exalted in the salvation of those who are being saved. In this case, God glorified His justice, power and wrath in His judgments upon Egypt. He displayed His mercy in His redemption of the Israelites.
A third viewpoint is that God and Pharaoh were both involved in hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Sincere Christians have debated the question of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man for centuries. It would seem that both are involved here. Still providing for the sovereignty of God in hardening Pharaoh’s heart, there is also a circumscribed area of freedom in which Pharaoh was responsible for his own choice to harden his heart. Though God twice predicted what would be the outcome, yet it was Pharaoh who consistently hardened his own heart during the first five plagues, and only then does the text consistently say that during the second five plagues (six through ten), the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God’s purpose of revealing Himself and His power can be effected in more than one way. This is not the only instance of God’s using a ruler to show His power and glory to His own people, as well as to the unbelieving world. In addition to Pharaoh, there are other instances in the Old Testament where God displayed His glory by hardening a heart, i.e., Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:30), the Canaanites (Joshua 11:20), Absalom (2 Samuel 17:14), and Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:15). On the other hand, Cyrus, whose position was similar to Pharaoh’s, also gave glory to God, in the fact that he very responsively and willingly let the people of Judah return to their land (2 Chronicles 36:22-Ezra 1:8; 5:13-6:14; and Isaiah 44:28-45:13). Pharaoh also could have been raised up by God to show His power and to proclaim His name in the same way that Cyrus did, but Pharaoh chose to be obstinate. In either case, the purpose that “they might know that I am God” was effected.
Christians believe in only one God. We are not polytheistic as the Egyptians were. But many things can take the place of God in our lives: our reputations, money, pleasure, another person, even an imagined right to use our time and talents as we ourselves see fit. God will not compromise with idolatry. The first of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have not other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). What things are functioning as gods in your life? Are you willing to repudiate them?
Our false gods do not go by the name of “gods,” but anything that sets itself up against God is an idol and should be opposed by Christians. Godless philosophies, such as extreme nationalism, secularism, humanism, and materialism are idols that must be opposed, just as Moses opposed the false gods and goddesses of Egypt.
Pharaoh wanted to compromise with God once he understood that he was dealing with a power greater than his own. However, God will not compromise. He is sovereign, and those who oppose Him will be broken ultimately as Pharaoh was. Are you fighting against God in some area of your life, obeying when you must but trying to win as many concessions from Him as possible? It is important that you abandon such folly and give yourself wholly to Him who is all wise, all-powerful and wonderfully good.
(The above information is from BSF Notes, BSF International, Lesson 7, “Battle Against the Gods of Egypt – Exodus 6:28-10:29”