Summary: The idea of God hardening Pharaoh's heart gnaws at our sensibilities... but we know that the LORD is sovereign not only in His mercy, but also in His judgement.
THE HARDENING OF PHARAOH’S HEART
The book of Genesis ends with a delightful illustration of how God works all things, even bad things, for the good of His people. Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers, but found his promotion in Egypt. As Prime Minister he was able to bring relief from famine not only to Egypt, but to all the surrounding peoples, his brothers included.
If ever anyone had the right to be bitter and angry then I imagine Joseph had that right. Thankfully he saw things differently: ‘Am I in the place of God? You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good’ (Genesis 50:19-20).
This gives us an interesting insight into the Providence of God: ‘A man's heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps’ (Proverbs 16:9). God is sovereign over all things, even over the wicked schemes of those who have evil intentions.
Joseph and his brothers settled in Egypt. All was well until we hear an ominous note at the beginning of the book of Exodus: ‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8).
What happened was that the LORD ‘turned their hearts to hate His people and deal craftily with His servants’ (Psalm 105:25). Pharaoh and Egypt enslaved the Hebrew people, and sought to slay their sons.
It is against this background of infanticide that we are first introduced to Moses, who would become his people's leader. As a small child he was placed in a basket in the midst of the bull-rushes at the side of the River Nile. This was done in accordance with his parents' faith (Hebrews 11:23).
When Moses was grown, he knew that he was going to deliver his people from the hands of Pharaoh, but did not yet know how. After one false start he was discovered to be a murderer, so he fled from the face of Pharaoh and spent forty years in the wilderness.
When the LORD finally met him in the burning bush, Moses was told: ‘When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put within your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go’ (Exodus 4:21).
Between Exodus 4:21 and Exodus 14:17 there are eighteen references to the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Ten times, the Lord is said to harden Pharaoh's heart. Five times the reference is neutral (i.e., his heart ‘was hardened,’ or ‘became hard.’), and three times Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart.
The idea of God hardening Pharaoh's heart gnaws at our sensibilities, and yet it does not stand alone in Scripture. Samson's lust for a Philistine woman, an unholy union which his parents approved, was said to be ‘of the LORD’ - He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines who (incidentally) had dominion over Israel at that time (Judges 14:4).
Likewise David's numbering of Israel is attributed both to the LORD (2 Samuel 24:1) and to Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1). This is another demonstration of the way in which God accomplishes His divine purposes through the instrumentality of Satan, similar to that in the book of Job.
We may also consider the path that Jesus took. Early in His ministry the Holy Spirit ‘drove Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (Mark 1:12-13). Never for one moment does God yield His sovereignty to the Prince of this world.
The Lord ‘steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51), knowing what would befall Him there. He knew already who would betray Him, and pronounced that it would be better for that man if he had never been born (Mark 14:21).
We know that the LORD is sovereign in His mercy, but also in His judgement: ‘The LORD has made all for Himself; even the wicked for the day of doom’ (Proverbs 16:4). “He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardens” (Romans 9:18).
On the journey Jesus on more than one occasion warned the disciples of His imminent death by the hands of wicked men. This became foundational to their own preaching of the cross of Christ (see Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
The testimonies of Assyria, Babylon and Persia may also be brought to account to prove that it is not Pharaoh, nor Satan, nor the princes and Presidents of this earth who are ultimately in charge. ‘The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes’ (Proverbs 21:1).
It is God who is absolutely sovereign, and rules over all. It is Jesus who appears at last as King of kings and Lord of lords.