The Hardening of Pharaoh

Exodus 4:18-32

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2016

For the last few weeks, we have been looking at God’s call to Moses at the burning bush. We also looked at his response to that revelation. God gave him his life mission and Moses gave God ten reasons why he couldn’t do what God wanted him to do. They were excuses.

The real reason was that he simply didn’t want to do it. Eventually, he said, “Send someone else” but God finally got through to him and he obeyed God’s call for his life. He headed back to Egypt. For the first time, Moses began to do things God’s way, instead of his way.

In the rest of Exodus 4, Moses goes back to Egypt and talks to the Jewish leaders in Egypt. I want to give a quick overview of the rest of the chapter and then focus on one verse.

Moses accepts his call and tells his father-in-law. Before he leaves Midian, he gets permission to leave from his father-in-law (4:18). We would not have done this. We would have said, “God has called me. I am God’s man and he has given me a job to do” but he got permission from Jethro first and then heads back to Egypt.

Before Moses gets to Egypt, two things happened. Moses almost died. We will look at this next week. The other thing that happens is that God spoke to Moses’ brother Aaron. Where was Aaron the last forty years? He was in Egypt. Aaron gets a word from God. God tells him to head toward Midian to meet Moses (4:27). They meet somewhere between Egypt and Midian.

It is a family reunion. They haven’t seen each other in forty years. We saw the reunion of two brothers in Genesis (Jacob and Esau). That was a reunion of twin brothers. It was a reunion of two brothers who were estranged. Esau wanted to kill Jacob in the past.

This is another reunion of brothers (Aaron and Moses). These brothers were not estranged. They just had not seen each other in forty years and they are not both old. One is eighty and the other is eighty-three. They meet in the desert with their walkers.

Aaron tells Moses what has happened in the last forty years in Egypt to the Jews. Moses tells Aaron what God told him at the burning bush. He even did the three miraculous signs God gave him. Then, he gave Aaron an incredible ministry opportunity. He asked Aaron to be his spokesman for the mission, his press agent. Aaron agreed.

We learn something about Aaron.  He was open to God’s call in is life. Aaron received a call for ministry here but it was a different call than what Moses received. God didn’t speak to Aaron through a burning bush.

In fact, he had a better response than Moses did. He did not make up excuses why he couldn’t do the job. He was also humble. He could have said, “I want to be the redeemer. I am the older brother. I will be the one in charge. You work under me” but he did not do that.

Then they both head back. Moses and Aaron form a ministry team. They work together like Paul and Barnabas. There are some advantages to having a team of two. Moses had an inside contact. He had not been in Egypt in forty years.
When they get back, they speak to the elders in Egypt. It is a meeting of two brothers and twelve elders.

Aaron does the talking and Moses did the signs (4:29-30) and we see their response. The Jews believed. God said that they would believe and they did. They might have been more open to the message because it came from Aaron.

He was one of them but the miracles of Moses added further confirmation to the message. The last time Moses tried to be the deliverer, he had no miraculous signs. He did not have God’s power and presence with him. The Jewish leaders had a threefold response to this message and miracles from God.

Their response was faith, reverence and worship. They believed the message. They bowed their heads and they worshiped. It is the same response we should all have any time God’s Word is proclaimed in power.

There should be faith, not skepticism. There should be reverence for the word of God. There is very little reverence for the bible in the church today. In fact, some pastors even ridicule it. If we really believe that this book is the Word of God and not just the word of man, it would completely change our attitude.

Finally, it should lead to worship. All bible study should lead to worship. They did not just admire Moses for his miracle working ability. They praised God that he heard their cries and would deliver them from their bondage.

A Problem Passage

What I would like to do for the rest of our time is to focus one verse in this chapter. It is one of the most difficult passages in the whole Book of Exodus. Some people might have a problem with this verse. I am going to do the best I can to explain what it means.

There are simple passages in the Bible and there are the hard passages in the Bible. The Apostle Peter said so. He said that some of the writings of the Apostle Paul were hard to understand (II Peter 3:15-16).

There are many books you can buy that deal with the hard passages of Scripture (e.g., Hard Sayings of Jesus, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Hard Sayings of the New Testament, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, etc). People struggle with these hard verses.

I heard a true story of one preacher who was going to be speaking on Romans 9. He read the passage and one woman was so offended that she got up and walked out of the church. He had not even said anything about the passage. The verse itself seemed so offensive that she walked out. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen today.

We are going to look at a difficult verse today. It is controversial. As Christians, we often do not deal with the difficult passages of Scripture. We skip over them. Preachers do that as well. We will not do that in this class. It is an advanced topic. It is the kind of thing you might talk about if you go to seminary. We are going to look at some deep theology today. It may even change your view of God.

I want us to begin by reading two passages, one from the OT and one from the NT. Exodus 4:21 says, “The Lord said to Moses, “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” (NIV).

Romans 9:16-18 says, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (NIV)

Difficult Questions

This raises some profound questions. Did God want Pharaoh to let his people go? Yes. Why would He do this so that Pharaoh would not let them go, if He wanted them to go? God says that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let his people go. He told Moses this before he even set foot in Egypt. In fact, it does not just say it once. Ten times we are told in Exodus that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart or did harden it (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). What does it mean that mean?

It poses some moral problems. How could a good God harden Pharaoh’s heart? That doesn’t sound fair. It sounds capricious. It even sounds immoral. It sounds like God is tempting Pharaoh to sin. It sounds like God is the author of evil and that he is causing others to sin.

God tells us in Scripture not to harden our hearts many times and here God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then punishes him for having a hard heart, just so He could demonstrate his power and his name could be proclaimed throughout the whole earth. That doesn’t sound right. It seems to make God unrighteous. How do you answer this? Well, there are a number of things that we can say from this incident.

Lessons from the Hardening of Pharaoh

Lesson One: Sin hardens the human heart.

What does it mean to have a hard heart? We all know someone who has a hard heart. We may even live with someone like that. What is it like to have a hard heart?
We all have met people with hard hearts. They are not neutral to the gospel and Christianity. They are hostile. They mock and ridicule it. People who live a life of gross sin often have a hard heart. Sin causes hearts to grow hard.

If you live in sin, you don’t seem to have an interest in spiritual things. You do not want to go to church or to spend time with other believers. In fact, you avoid them. Sin hardens the hearts of unbelievers. It also hardens the hearts of believers. That is why professing Christians are told in the NT not to harden their hearts (Hebrews 3:8).

When people reject the truth, their hearts get hard. Every time Pharaoh rejected God through Moses and Aaron, his heart became harder and harder. We will look at some of the characteristics of Pharaoh next week, as we look at Exodus 5.

Lesson Two: God never causes anyone to sin.

God does not sin and He does not cause others to sin. God does not make a good man bad or a bad man worse than he is. God did NOT cause Pharaoh to sin. He did not make Pharaoh evil. God does not take a soft heart and make it hard. Pharaoh was evil before this.

He was already in a hardened state when we are told that God hardened Pharaoh. God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart until after the sixth plague of boils (Exodus 9:12). The first time we are told God did this. During the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart without any help from God.

James 1:13-14 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (ESV). That verse tells us two things about God.

1) God does not sin at all.

James says that God cannot be tempted with evil. Psalm 145:17 says, “The LORD is righteous in ALL his ways and faithful in all he does” (NIV). Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and ALL his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (NIV).

Romans 9:14 says, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?” (KJV). He raises the question, Is God unjust? Paul says, “No”. It means “absolutely not” or “by no means”. As Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25 NIV).  Goes not only does not sin, He CANNOT sin.

It is impossible for God to sin. It goes against his nature. God is light and in Him is NO darkness at all (I John 1:5). What does that mean? It means that God is absolute perfection. There is not sin, impurity or imperfection in God at all. God is pure light. Whatever this means that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it does not mean that God sinned.

2) God does not even tempt people to sin.

God not only cannot be tempted to evil, He does not tempt others to sin. That is clear from this verse. Whatever this means that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it does not mean that God tempted Pharaoh to sin. Whatever God did when he hardened Pharaoh’s heart was not unrighteous but righteous.

Lesson Three: God never violates human free will

God did not violate Pharaoh’s free will. He did not force Pharaoh to do something that he did not want to do. Pharaoh hardened his heart of his own free will. This can be proven from Exodus.

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said.” (8:15)

But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” (8:32)

Pharaoh hardened his own heart by his own choice. In fact, Pharaoh hardened his heart before God did. The first time we are specifically told that Pharaoh hardened his heart is Exodus 8:15. The first time we are specifically told that God hardened his heart is Exodus 9:12.  God predicted in Exodus 4 that he would harden pharaoh’s heart but does not do it until Exodus 9 after Pharaoh had done it himself.

Even after God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it did NOT stop Pharaoh from exercising his free will. The first time we are told God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was with the sixth plague of boils (9:12). After the seventh plague of hail, we are told Pharaoh hardened his own heart again.  “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts.” (9:34). God’s action did not prevent Pharaoh from doing what he wanted to do.

Lesson Four: Divine hardening is a consequence of sin.

It is a judgment on sin. God judges sin. He judges it in Moses. He almost killed Moses on the way to Egypt. He also judged Pharaoh. He hardened his heart. Hardening only comes to the wicked. Some people emphasize God’s sovereignty to an extreme. They say that God is sovereign. He can do anything He wants. No, He cannot. There are some things that even God cannot do. He cannot sin and He cannot tempt people to sin.

I have to disagree with a nationally known pastor on this point. I like John Piper but Piper, along with some other scholars, believe in unconditional hardening. They believes that God can harden anyone any at any time unconditionally. That would make God the author of sin.

Alexander Maclaren wrote, “God hardens no man’s heart who has first not hardened it himself”. God does not just arbitrarily harden the hearts of people. When God hardens someone, it is a divine judgment for sin.

God does not harden a righteous man who wants to follow God. God does not harden a godly man and make him ungodly. God does not take someone who had a soft heart and give him a hard heart. God hardened the Pharaoh of Exodus. He did not harden the Pharaoh of Genesis.

God gave that Pharaoh of Genesis some dreams that he could not interpret. When Joseph gave him the correct interpretation, he accepted it. He accepted the revelation from God and acted on it. He made some changes in the country in light of that revelation.

He even praised Joseph’s God. God did not harden that Pharaoh. The Pharaoh of Exodus was a different matter. He was wicked. He was arrogant. He said, “Who is the Lord that I should follow him?” He believed that he was a god. He even had people worship him. He enslaved people and not just any people, God’s people.

He opposed the plan and program of God. He rejected the Word of God proclaimed to him. He had an even greater revelation. He had miracles performed before his very eyes, which confirmed the message, and he still rejected it. This was a judgment of God on someone who was already sinful.

It is a consequence of sin. The wicked are just confirmed in a state that they were already in and had freely chosen. Those who are hardened are given the punishment that they deserved and have freely chosen. Those shown mercy are given what they do not deserve. God is not obligated to save anyone. God shows mercy on some people and softens their hearts.

Lesson Five: Divine hardening is indirect.

This is an important point. How exactly does God hardening sinners? You don’t have to turn to scholars today to find out what this means. Many of the old writers hit the nail on the head and explained exactly what is going on here. I will start with Augustine (354-430 AD).

Augustine lived in the fourth century. He was one of the greatest theologians of the early church. He said, “God does not harden men by imparting malice into them, but by not imparting mercy.”  He does not do it by infusing evil into them but by withholding His mercy.

John Gill (1697-1771) lived in England in the 1700s. He was the first major Baptist theologian. You can read his commentary online. He was not only a pastor for fifty years, he was a scholar. By the age of eleven, Gill learned Greek and Latin. We tend to think our educational system is better today than it was in the 1700s.  I am not sure about that.  Some students today graduate high school and can barely read and write English.

Gill commented on what it means that God hardens people. He wrote, “God only leaves them to the hardness of their hearts, and denies them the grace which only can soften them, and which He is not obliged to give”

Albert Barnes (1798-1870), the 19th century Presbyterian scholar, explained it this way. Barnes wrote, “When God hardens a wicked sinner, he does not exert a positive influence, but leaves the sinner to his own course.” God hardens the wicked not by action but by inaction.

We have several examples of this in the NT. The Apostle Paul mentions both Jews and Gentiles who are hardened by God. In Romans 1, he gives the example of the Gentiles who reject God in spite of abundant evidence and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Three times, God says that He gives them over to the sinful desires of their own heart (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).

It is a form of judgment. God removes the restraints and lets the heart do what it wants to do. In Romans 11, he says that Jews today who have rejected their Messiah are in a hardened state (Romans 11:7). It is not as full hardening but a partial hardening (11:25). They have rejected their Messiah and have been given over to unbelief. They are already in unbelief and are simply given over to unbelief

Lesson Six: God uses evil to bring glory to himself.

We saw that in the case of Joseph’s brothers and we will see it here.  God takes the evil heart of Pharaoh.  He resisted God and opposed God.  God is going to glorify himself through Pharaoh.  His incredible power and glory will be displayed because of his opposition to God.

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