Pharaoh's Hardened Heart

A Well Known Account

In Exodus we find the well known story of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. The story includes the call of Moses, his challenge to Pharaoh, and the Ten Plagues. In the midst of this story is an unusual phrase that is used to describe the attitude of Pharaoh. When confronted by Moses, the text describes several times that Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened” (Exo. 7:13, 22, 8:15, et al., NASU).


This term has created some controversy in seeking to interpret its exact meaning. To best understand this phrase, one must consider two key facts:

#1: No Direct Interference

This is not an example of God’s direct interference in the mind of Pharaoh. This has, for some, become the common understanding, but such an understanding would destroy any notion of both free will and the cause of sin. God does not tempt man to sin (James 1:13), nor does He choose for man. With this in mind, the phrase must then describe something indirect.

#2: The Real Focus

The focus of the phrase is upon the cause of Pharaoh’s hardening, not the hardening itself. Some influence caused the hardening as a reaction, which can itself describe the indirect influence. The choice to have either a “soft” or “hard” heart still resided solely with Pharaoh himself.

Important Application

With these facts in mind, we can better understand what is being described in this context, and find important application. Many times Pharaoh is seen as merely the villain of the story, but this is an oversimplification. Pharaoh’s “hard” heart is caused by the demands of God’s Will. When God placed a demand upon Pharaoh’s life (e.g. to release the Israelites), it was a demand upon his authority, his economy, his pride, etc. The choice to obey or reject such a demand was Pharaoh’s alone, and his response was to harden, or “close off” his heart to God’s Will.

When seen in this light, Pharaoh is not as much the villain of a story, but the example of all mankind at one point or another in their lives. It is true that Pharaoh’s position made the situation unique, especially for the purposes of God. But in contrast with our own lives, has there ever been a time when God has demanded something of us we did not want to do? If God’s Word demands the giving up of a sinful behavior, or commands the following of a behavior, do we always respond without challenge? Of course not. So, when we fail to heed God’s demands, one could say He has “hardened” our hearts as well.

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