Let me share with you one of the most troubling verses I read in the Old Testament.
Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as The LORD had said.Exodus 7:13, ESV.
You may not realize it—but that very thing may be presently happening to you. If Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, so can yours. But, let’ save that for the end. First, and most importantly, let me explain what The Bible is teaching us through the hardening heart of Pharaoh, then you decide if it becoming true of you.
Exodus 7:13 is in reference to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and his stubborn refusal to obey the Word of God by letting the people of Israel go free from Egypt, to worship The LORD. The phrase which piques our interest in this verse is the idea of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. That is an interesting idea, and I think it is one that makes many people feel very uncomfortable. I say that because as the story of Exodus unfolds, we see that this progressively hardening heart of Pharaoh is ultimately, without dispute, the determining factor in his destruction. Make no mistake—The end of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened is Pharaoh lying dead on the seashore (14:30).
Aggravating our likely uncomfortableness is the reality that sometimes the Bible links the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart directly to the sovereign choice of God. Exodus 4:21 is a good example. There The LORD says,
But I will harden his heart so that he will not the people go.Exodus 4:21, ESV
The plain reading of that is that God will make Pharaoh hard in his heart. However, at other points in the story, Moses links the hardening of the heart directly with the voluntary action of Pharaoh. A good example is Exodus 8:32,
But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.Exodus 8:32, ESV.
The plain reading of that is that Pharaoh has done this to himself. He has hardened his own heart. And yet, there are several times in the story where the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart isn’t directly linked to either, God or Pharaoh and just sounds like a neutral statement. Such was the case in the passage we read earlier from Exodus 7:13,
Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as The LORD had said.Exodus 7:13, ESV.
I think the theme of divine sovereignty in relation to human responsibility makes a lot of people uncomfortable here. However, despite that, Moses was apparently not uncomfortable using it—by my count, Moses uses the term, or a form of it, twenty times between chapters 4 and 14. The Lord obviously wants you to wrestle with this theme of heart-hardening, God’s sovereignty, and human responsibility.
Do you realize that this idea of hardening hearts is sprinkled through the entire biblical narrative, too? It doesn’t just disappear after Pharaoh’s demise. God actually uses this same theme to describe Isaiah the prophet’s preaching ministry to the people of Israel,
And He said, ‘Go and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV
And, don’t chalk this up as just another difficult Old Testament idea. It’s clearly a theme that Jesus Himself also uses to describe His preaching! In fact, He says that the entire purpose for Him teaching the crowds in parables is synonymous with Isaiah,
So that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.Luke 8:10, ESV.
I think this makes us uncomfortable because it reveals a terrifying truth to us about preaching the Bible—namely that it is extraordinarily dangerous. If you get nothing else from all of this, at least get this:
Every time you listen to biblical, solid, true, preaching your heart is either being transformed making you fit for heaven, or it is being hardened making you fit for hell.
But, wait. What does it all mean? What does it mean, biblically, for the heart to become hard?
Let’s explore three quick questions to give a full answer.
1. What was his heart hardened towards?
It’s easy to see the answer to this question when we consider the context of the Exodus 7:13. Always, always, always do the rich work of context, context, context.
Exodus chapter 7 opens with a dialogue, between The Lord and Moses, where Moses is receiving his marching orders for the Exodus. To be concise and to the point, Moses is to give the words of God to Aaron, who is commanded to speak those words to Pharaoh. These words that are to be spoken to Pharaoh are the commandment from God for Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. To free them from Egyptian slavery. Anticipating that Pharaoh will not believe them, The Lord equips his messengers to work specific miracles in order to confirm that the words they are speaking are in fact, the true Word of the Living God.
The miracle they are empowered to work is throwing down their staff in front of Pharaoh, which supernaturally transforms into a snake. However, Pharaoh calls out his dark secret arts magicians and they work the same thing—throwing down their staffs which also become snakes. But, and this is important, the staff of Aaron, now a snake, swallows the other snakes. Clearly, this is demonstrating God’s superior sovereignty and power over the magicians of Egypt. And, it is a clear confirmation that the One True God has spoken to Pharaoh through the men of God, Moses and Aaron.
It is at this point in the story that we are told, ‘Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as The LORD had said.’ I think the context is very clear. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the clearly confirmed Divine Word of the One True God. The Lord spoke to Pharaoh through the men of God, in this case Moses and Aaron, and in response to those words, Pharaoh’s heart became hard, or stubbornly unrepentant. That this can actually happen ought’ to make you tremble. Let’s move on to the next question…
2. What was the result of his hardened heart?
I don’t think we need to do a whole lot of work here to get the answer. Primarily, because the text is just so clear. For all the mystery associated with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the result of it is practically indisputable. I’ll just quote Moses here: and he would not listen to them.
This is detrimental. This is terrifying. This is baffling. God, in rich and awesome grace, has spoken a word to Pharaoh. You do realize God did not have to take that route, right? He is fully capable to have just squashed Pharaoh like an ant and flung open the gates of Egypt, all in the same breath. Yes, contrary to popular opinion, God is that sovereign. However, He choose not to take that route. It’s amazing when you think of it from this perspective: God graciously gave a word to Pharaoh, but because Pharaoh’s heart became hard towards God’s word, Pharaoh would not listen to the gracious word of God.
Take note of what I am telling you. The hardening of the heart reveals the handicap of the human heart. It reveals the terrifying truth that you are incapable of listening to the Man of God who is proclaiming to you the truth of the Word of God, apart from the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit of God. Plainly put, apart from the Holy grace of God—Pharaoh is hopeless. That ought’ to make you tremble.
Let’s move on to the final question.
3. Who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart?
If you remember, just a few minutes ago, I shared a verse that directly linked the hardening of the heart to God, ‘But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…’ (4:21, 7:3). I also shared a verse that very clearly attributes the hardening to Pharaoh himself, ‘But Pharaoh hardened his heart…’ (8:32). And yet the main verse we have been looking at, Exodus 7:13, seems to just take a neutral stance. So, which is it? Who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart?
Here’s my best answer: Both. Yes, both God and Pharaoh are involved. I don’t think we need to choose one or the other, and I think we get ourselves into trouble when we do. The Bible clearly attributes the hardening of the heart to both parties, and so I think we need to understand it this way. But how can both, God and Pharaoh, be involved in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?
First, you need to understand that God can be involved in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart without being the active agent. Perhaps it is wise to say it this way: Pharaoh’s heart became hard towards the Word of God because God’s Holy Spirit was not removing the earplugs handicapping Pharaoh’s sinful heart. Remember, the sovereign hardening reveals our own spiritual handicap. That is to say plainly—If Pharaoh is going to hear and respond positively, that is obediently, to The man of God preaching the Word of God, then God must remove the earplugs from Pharaoh’s heart. Again, without God, Pharaoh is hopeless!
Now, The Lord obviously chose not to act redemptively towards Pharaoh. How can I say that? Because Pharaoh’s heart was never softened. And so, The Lord in His sovereign right passively passed over Pharaoh. I think it is crucial for you to get that right. Don’t misunderstand the point and think that God is going around putting stoppers into the ears of people’s hearts, so that they won’t listen. That’s not what is happening. Rather, it is that God in His sovereign right as Lord chose not to remove the earplugs that sinful Pharaoh had put there himself. And, I can also say this: Pharaoh was okay with that.
This leads me to the second part, God is passive; but Pharaoh is active in this. I can say it this way. God withheld Himself from Pharaoh, and that was completely harmonious with the desire of Pharaoh’s heart. Recall what Pharaoh said in Exodus chapter 5, when Moses first made God’s words known to Pharaoh. He responded by saying,
Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go? I do not know The LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.Exodus 5:2, ESV.
That does not sound like a person who wants to know God. Pharaoh clearly is expressessing that he has no knowledge of this God of Moses, and his tone, I would argue, is pretty clear that he lacks any interest in knowing Him either. And so, every time the clearly confirmed Word of God comes to Pharaoh through the men of God, Moses and Aaron, he rejects The Lord. He stubbornly refuses and remains unrepentant in his sinful ways. And this unrepentance progressively makes his heart harder, and harder, and harder.
As I said, the true preaching of the Word of God is a dangerous task for those sitting on the opposite side of the pulpit. Be careful when you listen to good preaching. Take care to make sure that your heart is not being made fit for hell. Take care of your heart when you come to church. Make no mistake, if this happened to Pharaoh, then it could be happening to you. So, pray with trembling and strive with dependence upon God to make certain that it isn’t.