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).