Concerning free will, one of the more perplexing texts is the account of Pharaoh in Exodus. Ten times in this account we find some statement that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (cf 4:21, 7:3, 14:4). However, there are also ten instances where the text says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (cf 8:15, 32, 9:34-35). Calvinists have attempted in vain to reconcile the statements to their own disgrace and the derision by skeptics. Others struggle with the apparent discrepancy in free will and what the text says God did, concluding that Pharaoh had no choice but to act as he did (not unlike Judas Iscariot). So, how do we reconcile these statements?
First, we must recognize that the statements are not contradictory. Those who accept inspiration and biblical inerrancy understand the Bible cannot contradict itself. Thus, there must be a plausible explanation to reconcile these texts.
Second, we must affirm man’s free moral agency. It is unbiblical to affirm that Pharaoh had no choice in this account. God does not violate man’s free moral agency, else He could not be just in punishing Pharaoh if He indeed caused Pharaoh to sin.
Finally, we must ask the proper question. The question is not, “Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?”, which the text clearly and repeatedly says He did. The proper question is seen in the title of this article, namely, “How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” In answering the question of “How?”, we must ask, “Are there other instances of God operating on the hearts of others? And if so, how did God accomplish it?
One of the most well-known statements in this regard is found in Acts 16 and the conversion of Lydia and her household. In verse 14, the text says, “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” Lydia is the only hearer mentioned in the text as having her heart opened, yet all the women present are spoken of as being baptized following the teaching of Paul. Question, did the Lord operate directly on Lydia’s heart, or did He use means, that is, working indirectly through some medium?
In John 16, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, who would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (v 8). In John 17, Jesus spoke of having given the apostles the word they would preach to the world (v 8, 18). Jesus also spoke of all who would believe in Him through the apostles’ words (John 17:20).
In Acts 2, the apostles preached the gospel, that message given to them by the Holy Spirit (v 4). In verse 36, Peter concludes his opening salvo with this statement, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (v 36). In response to the preaching of the word, Acts 2:37 says, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” In this case, we see the preaching of the word of God as the means by which men are convicted in their heart by the Holy Spirit.
Finally in this respect, in Acts 7:51 Stephen accused his Jewish audience saying, “You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.” Were they in a literal battle against the Holy Spirit (and winning), or were they resisting the words of Stephen given by the Holy Spirit? So then, as it was the Spirit-given word of God preached that convicted the Jews at Pentecost, and as it was the Spirit-given word of God preached that Stephen’s audience resisted, it was the Spirit-given word of Paul that opened Lydia’s heart and the hearts of those women with her.
As the Spirit-given word softens some as it hardens others, it was the message and signs of God given through Moses that hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Knowing all things, God knew that Pharaoh’s stubborn heart would not be persuaded. Thus, He could speak of hardening Pharaoh’s heart when in truth it was the word and signs given through Moses that caused Pharaoh to further harden his own heart.
One more point in this respect… In Exodus 10:1 we find the Lord claimed to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart as well as the hearts of Pharaoh’s servants. Yet in verse 3 we see Pharaoh condemned for refusing to humble himself. He obviously possessed free will. Finally, even his servants relented by verse 7, pleading with Pharaoh to let Israel go. Thus, the prospect of more plagues softened the hearts of the servants while hardening the heart of their king. All possessed free will, but acted in opposite ways to the same stimuli. Such brings to mind the old saying that the same sun that melts wax also hardens clay.
God still operates on men’s hearts today, and He does it now exactly as He did then, through the Holy Spirit inspired word of God. When I read or hear a message from God’s word that moves me emotionally and exhorts me to greater service, God is working on my heart. When one hears God’s word and resists it or gets angry, God is working on his heart as well. Same God. Same word. Different response. But both will still answer to God in the Judgment. TC