In response to our 90-Day Challenge to the read the whole Bible, we had some great questions on Monday night. What does it mean that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart"? Does God sometimes override our free will for his own purpose? And if so, is it really free will?
But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment.
Ex 7:3–4, ESV
This passage, and the twenty other references to Pharaoh's hard heart in the following chapters, have long been concerning to critics, and even some believers. It seems to imply that God will force the king of Egypt to make a sinful decision, and then punish him for it -- ultimately killing him and his whole army in the sea. If so, this is the height of injustice; even more disturbing, it would mean that God can revoke our free will at any time -- which really is no free will at all.
Who hardens his heart?
Joel's answer on Monday is a good place to start: it's vital to note that Pharaoh first hardens his own heart. The first place we see any reference to hardening is Exod 4:21; but in this verse, God only tells Moses what is going to happen, at some point in the future. The first time we see Pharaoh's heart actually hardening, he does it on his own, with no help from God. And in fact, he does six times in a row!
From the Bible Knowledge Commentary:
...in the next seven references Pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart (Exod 7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7) before God is said to have hardened it (Exod 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). God’s first hardening came after the sixth plague. Pharaoh hardened his own heart six times by his refusals. Then later he hardened it again in response to the seventh plague, and God hardened his heart after each of plagues 8-10.
As a side note, it's significant that there are seven references in each case; numbers often (but not always) have symbolic meaning in the Bible, and seven is the number of fullness. Pharaoh is fully committed to harden his own heart, apart from any action that God takes.
But does the fact that God also "hardens" his heart take away from Pharaoh's free will? I don't think so. If you look at the translator's note on 4:21 in the NET Bible, you'll find an important insight to the word usually translated "hardened":
tn Heb “strengthen” (in the sense of making stubborn or obstinate). The text has the expression (va’ani ’akhazzeq ’et-libbo), “I will make strong his will,” or “I will strengthen his resolve,” recognizing the “heart” as the location of decision making (see Prov 16:1, 9).
This implies that God is making stronger the intent that Pharaoh already had in his heart; rather than making the choice for Pharaoh, God confirms the choice that Pharaoh has already made.
Pharaoh's heart is hardened both as a result of his own decision and God's action. To look at it in another sense, God influences Pharaoh's heart simply by giving him instructions. Anytime anyone is told what to do, they will have one of two reactions in their heart: either they will listen and obey, or they will be stubborn and refuse. Sometimes, depending on what they are being told to do, being stubborn is a good thing. Other times, what they are told is for their own good, and they refuse simply for the sake of refusing. And, as anyone who has ever put a toddler to bed knows, the more they are told to do it, the more stubborn they become. Every time God repeated his command to Pharaoh, it made him more resolute not to comply.
This true for all of us; what has God prompted you to do? Have you responded with obedience, or have you hardened your heart against his voice?