One of the interesting studies of the Old Testament is the account of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses, and God. In Exodus 4:21 we read that, “The Lord said to Moses when you go to return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?
There are numerous cases throughout the Bible where the hardening of the heart is an issue. Is God making Pharaoh a robot with no choice but to make the catastrophic decision not to allow the Israelites to leave? Does God make a person’s heart hard and then send them to hell because of their hard heart? How can that picture be harmonized with the concept of a loving and kind God who wants everyone to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what does that mean and how did it happen?
Like a lot of questions about God and the Bible, we can answer this at least in part by a careful study of the meaning of the biblical words. The first word we need to understand is the word “heart” which is the Hebrew leb or lebab. In 1 Samuel 25:37 we read about a man named Nabal, and we are told his heart died within him and he became as a stone. In 2 Samuel 18:14 we see Joab thrusting three darts through the heart of Absalom. In 2 Kings 9:24 Jehu shoots an arrow at Jehoram and hits him in the heart. The word heart is used in a physical sense 29 times. However, most biblical uses of the word “heart” do not involve the organ that beats in our chest.
Proverbs 23:7 gives us a different use: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. He tells you to eat and drink, but his heart is not with you.” The Bible uses the word heart 257 times referring to personality characteristics, and 166 times it refers to states of consciousness. First Samuel 1:8 says, “Hannah, why do you weep, and why is your heart grieved?” Heart refers to intellectual activities such as in 1 Kings 3:9 where God gave Solomon an understanding heart. We find the word used 195 times referring to volition or purpose. In 1 Samuel 2:35 we read, “And I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in my heart and my mind.”
The other keyword to understand in this discussion is the word “hardened” which is the Hebrew chazaq which means “to make strong.” Normally this word describes things that make us insensitive. Hebrews 3:13 tells us that we can “be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin,” and verse 8 and 4:7 indicate humans choose to do the hardening. Job says he was hardened in sorrow in Job 6:10. Daniel 5:20 talks about a king’s heart being lifted up and his mind hardened by pride. Psalms 95:8 indicates we can harden our own hearts and references the Israelites in the wilderness as an example. Nehemiah talks about Israel hardening their necks and their rebellion against God.
So what does Exodus mean when it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? We will examine that question tomorrow.
–John N. Clayton © 2018