3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4 Pharaoh will not listen to you. (Exodus 7:3-4)
This whole issue of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart can be difficult to process. We can picture Pharaoh as the innocent victim of God’s sovereign plan. We imagine him as the helpless puppet who would have let God’s people go long before the tenth plague, if only God didn’t keep hardening His heart.
As Tara-Leigh emphasized in the podcast, God is absolutely sovereign over the hearts of men and women. But that does not mean humans have no agency. And it absolutely does not mean that they are not responsible for the hearts being turned away from God.
Even the text itself doesn’t credit God with the heart hardening every time. Let’s look at it, plague by plague (these are from the English Standard Version):
Before the first plague (Ex. 7:13), “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” It doesn’t say God did it, nor does it say Pharaoh deliberately hardened his own heart. Let’s take this one as, “Pharaoh was already predisposed to not listening to Moses and Aaron.”
The First Plague: Water into Blood: Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened (predisposed against God) after his own magicians duplicated the trick (7:22).
The Second Plague: Frogs: Verse 8:15 says that when Pharaoh saw there was a respite (in other words, no more frogs), hehardened his own heart and would not let the people go. So once the crisis passed, so did the conviction.
Side note: Isn’t it just like Satan to make you think your problem is solved by giving you MORE of the problem? “Oh, so you’re dealing with a plague of frogs? Watch this: I’ll have my magicians give you… more frogs! Ta da!”
The Third Plague: Gnats: Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (8:19)
The Fourth Plague: Flies: Pharaoh hardened his heart (8:32). So, Pharaoh still has some agency at this point.
The Fifth Plague: Livestock: Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (9:7).
The Sixth Plague: Boils: Now we see something for the first time. In 9:12, The Lord hardened his heart. It is the same phrase for the eighth plague (locust; see 10:20) and the ninth plague (darkness; see 10:20). With the exception of the seventh plague of hail (9:35), this is the language for the rest of the plagues. God is doing the hardening.
So theologically, what are we to make of this? I think there’s a point of no return when it comes to sin and repentance. That up to a point, we are still capable of making a decision towards God. And He is patient with us. He wants all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). He is kind to us, knowing that His kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
But only up to a point. If we reject God’s kindness enough times, we will eventually lose the ability to choose Him. I think this is what happens with Pharaoh. Far from being an innocent pawn to God’s sovereignty, his own stubborn, willful, rebellious heart eventually brought him to the point he could no longer choose the right. We see the same thing happen in Romans 1, when God gives the unrighteous over to “the lusts of their hearts” (Romans 1:24); to “dishonorable passions” (1:26); and to a “debased mind” (1:28). God didn’t harden their hearts. He just quit softening them.
So there are two lessons we can get from the plague narrative. The first is that the Lord is incredibly patient. But the second is that not even God’s patience is bottomless. Reject God long enough, and eventually you will be unable to do anything else.