Why did God harden Pharaoh's heart?
The best, most direct, simple answer to the question above is: “In order to demonstrate His power, and in order that His name might be proclaimed throughout the entire Earth.”
“But,” you may say, “that doesn’t sound right to me. It just doesn't seem to me that God would arrange for a person to actually sin and rebel just to make Himself great.”
At which point I would ask, “How do you propose that we determine the truth about what motivates the heart of God? Will we base our conclusions on our own feelings about what seems right? Or will we base our conclusions on what God Himself says in the Bible to be true about what motivates Him?”
Many wise and reputable commentators propose that when the Bible says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, what it really means is that God simply facilitated a process that Pharaoh himself initiated. After all, the Bible repeatedly also states that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, i.e. Exodus 8:15 and 32.
Dr. Norman Geisler, for instance, a scholar whose work we regard highly and frequently cite in this publication, holds that God did not directly harden Pharaoh's heart (or anyone else's heart for that matter) contrary to their own free choice, but only indirectly, through their own choice. In their excellent book When Critics Ask (©1992 Victor Books), Geisler and Howe say,
“God in His omniscience foreknew exactly how Pharaoh would respond, and He used it to accomplish His purposes. God ordained the means of Pharaoh's free but stubborn action…”
And that's the position of many other respected commentators. But not all. There are those who believe that the simplest and most accurate reading of Exodus chapters 4-9, and the corresponding text in Romans 9:17ff, rather indicates that it was God Himself and none other who was the primary, initiating, direct, and driving force behind Pharaoh's choice to harden his heart.
Romans 9 is perhaps the most difficult chapter in the Bible to read, accurately understand, and fully accept, because what Romans 9 teaches flies in the face of our human inclination to be independent, self-determining, and proud. Romans 9 indicates that it is God, not us—not me—who is in control. In fact, it shows that God is in such total control that He can and does sovereignly elect to show mercy to some people while hardening the hearts of others. And it shows that He is just in doing so. And it shows that I am in no position to challenge Him on the matter (Romans 9:20-21). And it shows that I am also still fully responsible for all of my actions and accountable for all of my choices.
Am I then saying that God Himself actually arranged for Pharaoh to sin?
Yes, in much the same sense that He arranged for Joseph's brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (Genesis 50:20), Satan to attack Job (Job 1:12), Jews and and Romans to crucify Jesus (Acts 2:23), and sin to exist in the first place.
Well, if that's true, how can we explain what seems like a contradiction—that God wills sin which is, by definition, against His will.
Theologians have often handled this paradox by concluding that there are two wills in God, sometimes referred to as God's sovereign will and His revealed (perceptive) will, or His will of command and His will of decree. And also by understanding that in God's view and plan, it is good that there is evil in this world. Note—that is not to say that evil is itself good; only that evil serves a worthy end and is therefore an important and integral part of God's good purposes.
But isn't God compassionate toward all men—even sinners? And if so, how could He harden Pharaoh's heart while simultaneously loving him and feeling compassion for him?
Dr. John Piper addresses this as follows:
“There is a genuine inclination in God's heart to spare those who have committed treason against his kingdom. But his motivation is complex, and not every true element in it rises to the level of effective choice. In his great and mysterious heart there are kinds of longings and desires that are real… Yet not all of these longings govern God's actions. He is governed by the depth of his wisdom expressed through a plan that no ordinary human deliberation would ever conceive (Romans 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 2:9). There are holy and just reasons for why the affections of God's heart have the nature and intensity and proportion that they do.”
Author: Daryl E. Witmer of AIIA Institute.
Text Copyright © 2007, AIIA Institute, All Rights Reserved—except as noted on attached “Usage and Copyright” page that grants ChristianAnswers.Net users generous rights for putting this page to work in their homes, personal witnessing, churches and schools.
Sources and recommended resources:
- Audio file from Desiring God
- “Are There Two Wills in God?” from Desiring God
- God's Covenants, God's Discipline, God's Glory, Vol. 4, by Donald Grey Barnhouse, Scripture Truth Book Co., n.d.
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