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.
So, the next time you start to count ceiling tiles during a biblically sound sermon, I pray you remember that statement. Alright, let’s move on.
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.
Is your heart growing hard?
If it happened to Pharaoh, then it could be happening to you. But, how can you know?
For some of you the answer is, ‘No.’
Some of you are persevering well spiritually through this COVID pandemic, which has wreaked spiritual havoc on many. Some of you are still waking up in the mornings, or still making time in the evenings, or setting aside some other time in the day to read God’s Word. You set time aside to pray, to memorize God’s Word, to read and study theology, to journal about how God is working in your life. You’re earnest to know Him deeper, and you long to fellowship with Him more intimately. The Word of God is at work in your life. You sense it, and you see it’s fruit. The Lord is graciously leading you to deeper maturity where you are experiencing victory over sin and warm rich affections for God—which you joyfully sing about when the local church you belong to gathers for corporate worship.
So, I believe some of you reading this have grown closer to heaven through all the chaos of 2020. Hear me clearly on this—I rejoice with you, and I will exhort you to keep moving forward! Do not let up. Do not give in. Do not turn back. Press forward being the salt and the light of the world. Stay steadfast in pursuing holiness in a godless culture. Keep running this race well, and rejoice and be encouraged that God is pleased with your devotion, love, and obedience!
But, I also know that for some of you—you have grown closer to hell in all the chaos of 2020. For some of you, when you look back over the last eight months of your life, you sense something akin to a spiritual embarrassment, and for good reason.
Your unused Bible has now collected enough dust for you to spell hellbound with your finger. Your prayer closet is like a dry desert of death. You are no witness to others, but in fact you are more of a deterrence for the kingdom. A hypocrite that leads others away from Christ by your double living, and The Lord is not ignorant of it.
In light of this spiritual plight, you have not experienced victory over sin, because to be honest you no longer desire that victory. Your heart has become so calloused and so desensitized that you have come to love your sin, and you engage in it freely and almost without shame. Your sinful love affair with pornography, sexual immorality, drugs, idolatry, and all other forms of sensuality has drug you deeper and deeper, and further and further away from the living water of Christ.
And, shall I dare mention the lack of participation in the local church worship that so many are unashamed of? Let me give you a rich secret: Saved people go to church. If you are medically able to attend, but find it a better comfort for you to skip, well I hope you are ready for hell because that is exactly what you are preparing yourself for. On the odd occasion that you do attend you sense nothing but a coldness, an irritation, and a deep unexplainable frustration. No worries, I can clear that up for you—it is the hardening of your sinful heart. And so, you sit there and count the ceiling tiles while we sing and preach. You do this because you have no desire to hear what we are singing about or even what is being preached to you.
Boy don’t you see, Hell has gripped your heart with all its fury and it is becoming hardened like clay exposed to the sun.
You do not listen because you are not able to. You do not sing because it is not within you. You do not seek Him, because you have no desire to know Him. Hell has gripped your heart, and it is becoming harder by the moment.
If you think that I am speaking roughly to you, I won’t deny that. But I am also speaking truthfully. Listen, I am not speaking roughly for roughness sake—I am concerned greatly for the eternity of many.
Dear friend, please hear my heart: turn away from your apathetic and sinful ways and come and know the fullness of true life. I want that for you. Turn away from the fires of hell that have gripped your heart, and be satisfied once and for all in the joy and love and grace of Christ. I want that for you.
I perceive that someone reading this has been experiencing a hardening heart over the last eight months, and maybe you didn’t quite understand what was occurring until just now. But perhaps, the Holy Spirit through this study of God’s Word has made it plain to you that your heart has been hardening. If that is the case then rejoice sinful one! For if it so then the hardening has at least been paused momentarily by the grace of God! And, you need to respond immediately. Contrary to what many people think, God is not obligated to even speak once, much less twice! If you are unsure of how to respond then reach out to your local church pastor. He has been praying for you. He is specifically concerned for you. Reach out to him and seek godly, wise counsel.
Friend, hear me. If God is dealing with you, then act accordingly. For to remain unrepentant will only harden your heart more, but the gracious ointment of repentance, when applied in faith, will soften the stoniest of hearts.