With apologies to Dickens: Pharaoh’s heart was hard, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Pharaoh’s heart was as hard as a nail. You could go further and say that Pharaoh was Scrooge-like in the hardness of his heart. But try to understand the cause of Pharaoh’s hard heart, and then the questions begin.
Some things we can say for certain. God knows Pharaoh, and he knows how he will act. He tells Moses, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him” (Exodus 3:19). Even before Moses confronts the Egyptian ruler, God declares, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). God gives reasons for his action: so the Egyptians will know that he is the Lord (Exodus 7:5), so he could show his power and so his name would be proclaimed in all the earth (Exodus 9:16), and so the Israelites could tell their children and grandchildren how God dealt with the Egyptians and so the Israelites would know he is the Lord (Exodus 10:2).
It’s also true that Pharaoh hardened his own heart when faced with some of the plagues Moses brought upon Egypt. Twice Pharaoh repented of his hard heart when he saw the extent of God’s judgement, but he hardened his own heart when the plague was removed.
When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had said through Moses. Exodus 9:34-35
Paul addressed these events in Romans 9, removing any doubt about God’s involvement in hardening Pharaoh’s heart. He went on to justify God’s action:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? Romans 9:19-24
Paul says we have no more right to second guess God than a pot has the right or ability to second guess the potter. He implies that God creates each of us for his own purposes. He echoes God’s explanation in Exodus that God raised up Pharaoh and hardened his heart in order to demonstrate his power. I do wonder what it means that God endured with patience a “vessel of wrath” like Pharaoh. Why would the potter need to endure his pot or be patient with it?
Many arguments about the Bible boil down to one of two conclusions, but I think sometimes both conclusions are true. With man it may be either/or. With God it can be both/and. God did harden Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh did harden his own heart. God did raise up Pharaoh in order for God to demonstrate his power and bring to himself a people on whom he could shower his mercy. Pharaoh did despise his own repentance. God knew Pharaoh’s heart even before he hardened it. I wonder what he saw there?
I’ll leave you with a haiku about Pharaoh. It isn’t very theological, but I think it captures the tension between him and God:
God pushed him
to be hard-hearted —
it was so easy.
– Robert Dellinger