Monday, September 21, 2009

The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart


After it arose in an on-campus Bible study, my daughter suggested that I address the question here in a blog article. Since the Northwoods Seelsorger loves the opportunity to ruminate on deep theological issues, he couldn't resist the temptation to oblige. The question at hand - "Did God harden Pharaoh's heart?" - presents one of the classic dilemmas of biblical interpretation: the potential contradiction. I say 'potential' because it appears as such without taking into consideration the entire context of the passage in question, as well as what has historically been called the analogy of scripture (or analogy of faith), that is, the interpretive rule of allowing the entirety of scripture to interpret and inform itself.

In the book of Exodus we read of how Pharaoh, supreme leader of Egypt, is progressively offered the mercy and grace of God through the ministry of Moses, only to spurn it in the end in confirmed unbelief. Specifically, it is said that his "heart was hardened." That is, his resolve to do and believe what he wished was firm and unyielding. He refused to change. Theologically, Pharaoh was simply impenitent. He shut himself off from God and His Word. His choice, his will.

There is a progression in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart that leads up to the passage in question (Exodus 9:12), which is a critical consideration for understanding what is happening. Let us first consider the following passages as our context:
Exodus 7:13 - Pharaoh's initial confrontation with Moses. Even though Moses prevails over Pharaoh's court magicians, the Bible says: "Still, Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them." He will not listen or respond to the truth, even when it is so plain and clear to see. He has already closed himself off from the beginning. Unbelief is unreasonable and irrational.

Exodus 7:22 - The first of 10 plagues has been visited on Egypt (the Nile, the source of life itself to the Egyptians, is turned into blood rendering it dead to life), sending a clear message from God that He wishes His people to be freed. But, as this verse indicates, "Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said." Second chance is rejected.

Exodus 8:15 - When God visits the land with a second plague, namely the invasion of frogs, Pharaoh panics and calls Moses in to plead for mercy (vss. 8ff). By God's grace and mercy Moses pleads before Yahweh, and indeed the frogs are taken away. However, "when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said." Notice that Pharaoh hardened his own heart!

Exodus 8:18b - Now even Pharaoh's own magicians recognize that these events are from the "finger of God." Yet, as predicted, "Pharaoh's heart was hardened...." Nothing changed. He wouldn't even listen to his own advisers, who as unbelievers themselves can see the plain truth.

Exodus 8:32 - It seems as if Pharaoh is finally softening, as he initially gives permission for the Israelites to go into the wilderness to worship, as was requested. Moses pleads with God to take the swarm of flies away, which He graciously does. Still, no real change: "But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go." Again, Pharaoh is hardening his own heart, even in the face of God's mercy.

Exodus 9:7 - The Fifth Plague breaks out with a death of the livestock in the land. Five plagues to convince Pharaoh to change his mind. The result? "But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go."

Exodus 9:12 - It is only with the Sixth Plague that we now read the passage that "the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh." Six times he was given an opportunity to change his mind (the first being before the first plague.) As the Lutheran Study Bible comments: "The Lord confirmed Pharaoh in his persistent unbelief." Was this an act of divine judgment? Very much so. Yet it came, as all of His judgment do, only after a period of mercy and grace. Pharaoh had many chances which he spurned and ignored. God did not single Pharaoh out to deliberately harden his heart, he merely allowed him to remain what Pharaoh had already done to himself. Although the time of mercy remains in this world to preach the Gospel so that hearts are turned to the Truth and thus brought to faith, God will not forever tolerate stubborn unbelief. Eventually his judgment will allow the person to remain as they wish. As C.S. Lewis once said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside. We seal our own judgment by the free will of our own unbelief. The judgement is that God allows it to be, He is not the original cause. This is the sense of what it means that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" after it is abundantly clear from several verses prior that Pharaoh had already done it to himself.

Exodus 9:34 - This time it appears that despite what occurred in in the previous account, Pharaoh now repents: "This time I have sinned," he told Moses. So again Moses pleads with God for mercy. Again God grants the request. And again - you guessed it - Pharaoh forgets and goes back to where he was before: "But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased,he sinned yet again and hardened his heart...So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened..." Was Pharaoh truly repentant as it originally seemed? Hardly. The fruits of true godly repentance would not be to return to immediately return to the sin when the consequences were lifted.

Exodus 10:16 - The same pattern as with the 7th plague, but now with locusts. - "I have sinned," Pharaoh again says. "Now therefore forgive my sin..." Yes, it says a second time that "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." However, don't lose sight of what is going on here. Pharaoh is not a repentant man. He's playing games with God. He does what he does only for his own good. This is not a confession of faith and it is plain to see.

Exodus 10:27 - Once more we read "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Pharaoh's response to Moses is absolute rejection now. He banishes him from his presence. He tells him he never wishes to see him again. "As you say," Moses replies. "I will not see your face again!" The days of mercy have ended. Pharaoh shut the door in God's face.

Exodus 11:10 - The last instance where we read that "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Yet it is noted that "Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh." He was given repeated opportunities to see God's work and respond. Jesus once said that He had to work while it was day, for the night was coming when no man can work. The "day" for Pharaoh came in the first six plagues. The "night" came in the last ones. But God's grace and mercy are never lacking.

The analogy of scripture, also reminds us in places such as Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:3 that God does not desire the loss of the wicked. He has no pleasure when they perish. He yearns for their salvation. God is not a God who desires eternal separation from His creation. He is governed by love and mercy. Yet, He is also governed by divine justice. Sin can be forgiven, but if faith be not present and forgiveness is rejected, the person is finally lost in the self imposed hell of unbelief; he faces the consequence of his own sin, willingly rejecting a mediator or substitute to pay the price. The Father has given to us in His Son the way to salvation. This offer of atonement is for all, none are excluded: "For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." (John 3:16).

The story of Pharaoh in some ways is a foretaste of the latter days in which we now live: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars who consciences are seared..." (1 Timothy 4:1,2). we know that as long as time remains so too does the opportunity to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ for the salvation of unbelievers. Still, the tragedy is that many will seal their own fate in this life long before they die. They will close the door of mercy and turn their backs on God. After a time God will simply leave them to be. Even in the time of Jesus when He sent out the 12 and the 72 on their missionary journeys, He informed them to "shake the dust from their feet" if the occupants would not listen. The Gospel would not come their way again. That is the worst judgment of all.

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