The Hardening Of Pharaoh’s Heart


Every now and then I hear an interesting question being asked which takes a little more study to find a reasonable answer. One such question is this one, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Behind this question for many is the idea that Pharaoh didn’t have any free will, and therefore, he had no choice but to do what God wanted him to do.


In the Book of Exodus, we read how Moses had been commanded by God to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let His people go, Exodus 9:1. It’s understandable that Pharaoh was reluctant to do so because the Israelites were his slaves and they worked hard to help build and maintain his kingdom.

Moses goes to Pharaoh and by faith and the power of God, he confirms that God is with him by using signs and wonders. These signs and wonders were used to confirm Moses’ message to Pharaoh, to let His people go, Exodus 7:1-7. The last plague of Egypt was when the firstborn of every animal and human died, but none of the Israelites died, Exodus 11:4.

It wasn’t until Pharaoh’s firstborn son died, did he decide to let God’s people go, Exodus 12:31. But even when he allowed them to go, his pride and arrogance led him to change his mind and so he went after them. We don’t know if Pharaoh himself died but many Egyptians died in the process, Exodus 14:28 / Exodus 15:19.

God Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart

Now remember that all this hardening of the heart business was done during the ten plagues, but there’s an important point which is often overlooked. God said that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart ten times throughout the Book of Exodus, Exodus 4:21 / Exodus 7:3 / Exodus 9:12 / Exodus 10:1 / Exodus 10:20 / Exodus 10:27 / Exodus 11:10 / Exodus 14:4 / Exodus 14:8 / Exodus 14:17.

Pharaoh Hardened His Own Heart

Now what is often overlooked is that Pharaoh himself is said to have hardened his own heart ten times throughout Exodus, Exodus 7:13 / Exodus 7:14 / Exodus 7:22 / Exodus 8:15 / Exodus 8:19 / Exodus 8:32 / Exodus 9:7 / Exodus 9:34 / Exodus 9:35 / Exodus 13:15.

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is something which God told Moses He would have to do because God knew Pharaoh wouldn’t let His people go straight away, Exodus 4:21, but it’s clear after reading the above Scriptures that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was done by both God and Pharaoh himself.

What we see in all those Scriptures, is Pharaoh hardened his own heart during the first five plagues. Pharaoh hardened his own heart because he wouldn’t listen to Moses and Aaron, he wouldn’t let God’s people go but God didn’t harden his heart until the sixth plague came, Exodus 9:12.

God gave him the opportunity to exercise his own free will five times, God called Pharaoh to humble himself and acknowledge that God is his authority but Pharaoh chose to harden his own heart against the will of God, 1 Samuel 6:6.

Did Pharaoh Have A Choice?

When we read Romans 9:14-18, we find Paul answering a question that someone in Rome may have been asking. ‘What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!’ Romans 9:14

Is there injustice on God’s part, when He accepts and rejects people in this way, i.e. Jacob and Esau?

Paul says, ‘Not at all’ or ‘perish the thought! Paul says don’t even think that for one minute.

‘For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.’ Romans 9:15

Remember that God has absolute sovereignty, He Himself says, ‘I will have mercy on whoever I choose.’ The A.V. says, ‘him that runneth,’ he’s obviously using the illustration of the foot race but it’s not a matter of the prize going to the one who wins the race. Your version may say, ‘it depends not on a man’s will, or exertion’, i.e., on his effort, but upon God’s mercy.

It was not an unjust selection that God had made if God selected Isaac and Jacob because they were the best instruments to work out His plans. It would not be out of harmony for God to reject the Jews because of unbelief and accept the Gentiles for their belief.

Paul quotes what God said to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,’ Exodus 33:19.

This brings us back to the truth that it’s God who determines the basis on which His mercy and compassion are offered to men.

Notice that the pronoun ‘I’ is emphasised, God alone has the right to choose regarding the ones on whom He will have mercy and compassion, no one can keep God from showing mercy and compassion to whom He wills. The Jews said that God’s mercy should be to the Jews only, however, God thought differently, Luke 1:50 / Acts 10:34-35.

‘It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.’ Romans 9:16

Here we read about the origin of mercy, mercy wasn’t bestowed because man originally wished or desired it. God is the original fountain of it. ‘It does not depend on human desire or effort’ means it didn’t result from any strenuous or intense effort on the part of man, but from God’s own decision to bestow it.

‘For Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Romans 9:17

Here Paul quotes the case of God’s dealing with Pharaoh, and we need to listen very carefully to what Paul says here because if we are not careful we might get the wrong idea. God said that He had raised up Pharaoh, in order to display His power through the Egyptian ruler. Notice, ‘to display His power’.

He did not say that He raised up Pharaoh to ‘destroy’ him, or to ‘drown him in the Red Sea’, but, through His dealings with Pharaoh, to let the nations around see how powerful Israel’s God was. Now, just how God’s intention should be accomplished, depended on Pharaoh himself and on the way he responded to God’s command through Moses.

It was within the sphere of Pharaoh’s choice either to submit to the will of God whom Moses represented or to take the course which, in fact, he did take, to resist God’s will and face the consequences. Either way, either by Pharaoh’s immediate and voluntary submission to God’s demand or by being compelled to let the people go, when the children of Israel marched out of Egypt, the world would know the power of God.

‘But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Exodus 9:16

In Exodus 9:16, God is speaking, and so, ‘for Scriptures says’ in Romans 9:17, is the same God who says, ‘for this very purpose, that I may show My power in you’. Each time Pharaoh refused to let Israel go, the power of God was more clearly demonstrated in another plague.

Everyone, including foreign nations, began to hear of God and the mighty power He demonstrated in delivering Israel, Joshua 2:10 / Joshua 9:9. The time had come for God to show mercy on Israel and Pharaoh could not stop Him.

‘Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.’ Romans 9:18

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by demanding something Pharaoh didn’t want to do. God didn’t harden his heart separate from his will but used his evil disposition to carry out His plans. God shows favour to whom He wills, just as He favoured Isaac, Jacob and Moses. He rejects those whom He wills just as He did Ishmael, Esau and Pharaoh. The means by which He shows mercy or rejection must be learned in other passages.

How Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

We know that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but maybe we should also ask the question, how did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Adam Clarke in his commentary has the following useful thought.

‘God does not work this hardness of heart in man; but it may be said to harden him whom refuses to soften, to blind him whom refuses to enlighten, and to repel him whom refuses to call.’ It is but just and right that He should withhold those graces which were repeatedly offered, and which the sinner had despised and rejected.’

Other Examples Of God Working On People’s Hearts

In John 16, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, who would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, John 16:8. In John 17, Jesus spoke of having given the apostles the word they would preach to the world, John 17:8 / John 17:18.

Jesus also spoke of all who would believe in Him through the apostles’ words, John 17:20. In Acts 2, the apostles preached the Gospel, that message given to them by the Holy Spirit, Acts 2:4.

Peter’s Audience On Pentecost

‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Acts 2:36-37

We see here that it was the preaching of the Word of God as the means by which men were convicted in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Stephen’s Jewish Audience

‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!’ Acts 7:51

Stephen accused his Jewish audience of being stiff-necked and resisting the Holy Spirit, but the question is, were they in a literal battle against the Holy Spirit, or were they resisting the words of Stephen given by the Holy Spirit?


‘One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. THE LORD OPENED HER HEART to respond to Paul’s message.’ Acts 16:14

Did the Lord operate directly on Lydia’s heart, or did He indirectly use some other means?

Notice that it was the Spirit-given Word of God that was preached that convicted the Jews at Pentecost, and as it was the Spirit-given Word of God that was preached that Stephen’s audience resisted, it was the Spirit-given Word of God that Paul preached that opened Lydia’s heart and the hearts of those women with her.

It appears that the Spirit-given Word softens some people while it hardens others. It was the message and signs of God given through Moses that hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Knowing all things, God knew that Pharaoh’s stubborn heart would not be persuaded. And so, He could speak of hardening Pharaoh’s heart when in truth, it was the Word and signs given through Moses that caused Pharaoh to further harden his own heart.


After considering the above texts, let’s see how this ties together with Pharaoh.

‘Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I HAVE HARDENED HIS HEART AND THE HEARTS OF HIS OFFICIALS so that I may perform these signs of mine among them.’ Exodus 10:1

Here we read that the Lord claimed to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart as well as the hearts of Pharaoh’s servants.

‘So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’ Exodus 10:3

Here we read that Pharaoh is condemned for refusing to humble himself, which obviously implies he possessed free will.

‘Pharaoh’s officials said to him, ‘How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?’ Exodus 10:7

Notice here that Pharaoh’s servants were pleading with Pharaoh to let Israel go. In other words, the prospect of more plagues softened the hearts of Pharaoh’s servants while hardening the heart of their king. This tells us that both Pharaoh and his officials possessed free will but acted in opposite ways in the same situation.


Pharaoh’s part in hardening his own heart was an active part, he chose not to obey the will of God. God’s part was simply to empower Pharaoh to exercise that choice. This is evident from the fact that Pharaoh was held fully responsible for his hardness and punished for it. God didn’t overrule Pharaoh’s power of choice; Pharaoh actively hardened his own heart and God allowed him to do so.

‘The same sun that melts wax also hardens clay’

That old saying, ‘the same sun that melts wax also hardens clay’ is very applicable to this study. Through the Gospel, God hardens the hearts of some and melts the hearts of others.

Those who accept the offer and obey its requirements are saved, selected and favoured. Those who reject it are lost, hardened and rejected. The same idea is shown in God sending powerful delusions to those who refuse to love the truth, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.

The writer of Hebrews warns believers today not to harden their hearts when they hear the voice of God in His Word, Hebrews 3:8 / Hebrews 3:13 / Hebrews 3:15.

‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ Hebrews 4:7