A reader seeks comment concerning those passages where God is spoken of as hardening the heart. Did Pharaoh, and do we truly have freewill in such circumstances?

When God had brought Moses from the  deserts of Midian back to the land of  Egypt he declared: “When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all these wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the  people go” (Exod 4:21). Though Moses would shew miracles before Pharaoh, God would harden his heart. This hardly seems just, some contend. God hardens a man’s heart, then condemns and punishes him and his people for that very hardness of heart. If this injustice is the way of the God of the Bible,  then we can rightly reject both the Bible and God.

But we know that God is always just: “the  judgments of the Lord are true and righteous  altogether” (Psa 19:9). So we must look a little  further to discern lessons concerning the nature of  the human heart, seen at its worst in the implacable  hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and to learn as Paul  declared “that the judgment of God is according to  truth” against the man manifesting “hardness and  (an) impenitent heart” (Rom 2:2–5).

Moses stood before Pharaoh and spoke God’s  command: “Thus saith Yahweh God of Israel, Let  my people go, that they may hold a feast unto  me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said, Who is  Yahweh, that I should obey his voice to let Israel  go? I know not Yahweh, neither will I let Israel go”  (Exod 5:1–2). Pharaoh responds with high-handed  disdain; and we begin already to see the heart of  the man.

Yahweh declared to Moses in more detail His  purpose with Pharaoh in Exodus 7:2–5: “and Aaron  thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he send  the children of Israel out of his land. And I will  harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and  my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall  not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon  Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people  the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by  great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that  I am Yahweh …” God would bring out Israel and at  the same time execute judgment upon Egypt, and stubborn, wilful, hard-hearted Pharaoh would be  central to both purposes.

Though God declared in Exodus 7 that He  would harden Pharaoh’s heart, it is very relevant  that from that time, right through all the first five  plagues, on arguably seven occasions, the record  indicates that “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (Exod  7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7). When, through the  rest of the plagues, the record declares that “Yahweh  hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, it is clear that Yahweh  is merely through the circumstances of each plague  stirring up that natural disposition already there in  Pharaoh’s obstinate heart. Jesus taught that “A good  man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth  forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil  treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matt 12:35).  What but “evil things” could come from the heart  of Pharaoh, “an evil man”?

In Exodus 9:16 Yahweh declared: “And in very  deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to  shew in thee my power; and that my name may be  declared throughout all the earth.” The Apostle  Paul quotes this verse in Romans 9:17 and then  adds in verse 18: “Therefore hath he mercy on  whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he  hardeneth.” God gave Pharaoh ample opportunity  to respond positively to the trials brought upon him.  Moses even interceded for him before God at least  twice (Exod 9:27–35; 10:16–20) but the result was  only that yet again when Pharaoh saw the plague  withdrawn, “he sinned yet more, and hardened his  heart, he and his servants” (Exod 9:34). We should  note that expression: “he sinned yet more”. This is  no academic exercise on the issue of freewill. To  harden the heart in the face of such an open display  of divine power is sin indeed.

The real issue is the state of a man’s heart before  God. On this hung the destiny of Pharaoh, and on  this hangs our destiny too. When Israel were in the  wilderness, God declared through Moses: “Speak  unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an  offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with  his heart ye shall take my offering.” God seeks  our whole heart, willingly given. To the inquiring  scribe who sought to know which was the greatest  commandment, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy  heart…” (Matt 22:36–37). Pharaoh’s heart was like  the hard ground “by the way side” in the parable  of the sower, but ours must be the “good ground”,  “they, which in an honest and good heart, having  heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with  patience” (Luke 8:15).

In Philippi, Paul encountered “a certain woman  named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of  Thyatira, which worshipped God (and) heard us:  whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended  unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts  16:14).

God was just to harden Pharaoh’s heart. He  manipulated circumstances which simply reinforced  a natural stubbornness which would brook  submission to no man, nor even God himself. God  was just to open Lydia’s heart. Here was “an honest  and good heart”, ready to hear and willingly respond  to divine principles. In neither case was the principle  of freewill breached.

Pharaoh was not barred from a positive response  to trial and a submission to God’s evident power;  he could have exercised his freewill to submit,  but he exercised it instead to resist. God knew he  would, but Pharaoh’s personal responsibility was  diminished not one whit by that knowledge.

Lydia could have rejected the gospel, and not responded to God’s invitation. But she had a  disposition to hear, and God lovingly worked with  that. See the terms used of her. She worshipped; she heard; she attended; she was baptised. God knew she would respond, but her personal responsibility  to do so was not diminished.

God does not over-rule the principle of freewill. He did not do so with Pharaoh and will not do so  with us. But he will try us as he did Pharaoh of old.  Let us then in thankfulness for our calling, exercise  ourselves in the things of God day by day, with good  and honest hearts, and “having heard the word, keep  it, and bring forth fruit with patience”.