a question of hardening

And the Lord told Moses, “When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go.”         Exodus 4:21


Exodus 4 contains several issues that we might find difficult to deal with. Things that God says and does that may leave us feeling very uncomfortable. The first of which is found in Exodus 4:21. God seems to simply be saying, “I will decide for Pharaoh, he will not accept.”


Depending on your theological standing on the sovereignty of God this statement may either just be passed over without a second thought, or it may give you a deep desire to just ignore it and move on as fast as possible. But I think in the interest of true understanding of God and his Word we need to ask the question(s):


Did God make Pharaoh reject him so that he could use Pharaoh as a reason to display his power? Did God decide for Pharaoh if he would receive or reject the message of Moses—God’s message?


Now, please understand that I don’t wish to insight some sort of giant theological debate about free will versus God’s sovereignty with this post (when did that become an either/or issue anyway). And I have no intention of telling anyone how to come out on this. I simply wish to raise the question that this text begs us to ask and share some information I believe to be essential to coming to an understanding. And mostly I hope to nudge you into thinking more about God, who he is, and how he interacts with us. I guess I’m just here to stir the pot for you a little…in a good way of course.


So again, the question really is, what does it mean when God says, I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…”


Does God simply choose for us how we will respond to his calling, his message in our lives? It seems, at first reading that this is what he is doing with Pharaoh. Is that indeed the case, and if so, is that the way God works with everyone? Or is he only doing that with Pharaoh, or with select others?


Do see the dilemma that this can quickly become? How we see these verses in Exodus 4 has vast implications for how we see God, the gospel of Jesus, and our own role in the world.


Let me also say that if God chose to arbitrarily harden some hearts and soften some others and allow some to choose and others not to chose he certainly could do this. And I know that there are many within the Christian community who believe he does do this. I respect that position although in the interest of full disclosure I don’t believe it is what the whole of Scripture reveals about God and his offer of salvation. If you do, that is fine and I’m not trying to debate that here or convince you of something different here. What I do want to do is look honestly at the text we find ourselves with today: Exodus 4. We’ve been working our way through Exodus this month so we need to at least address what’s going on here.


Here is my brief finding and then I will simply wait to read your comments, thoughts or responses just to see your take on what is happening here.


At first read, as I said, this appears to be God unashamedly announcing that this gig is fixed. Pharaoh will be dis-allowed to make any choice other than the hardened, unbending, rebellious to God choice. But remembering that neither God, Moses nor Pharaoh originally spoke English (shock to us self-centered Americans!) and that the Bible was also not originally written in English (double scandal!!) is essential.


If we go back to the original Hebrew the word used for “hardened” is chazaq. While this word can be translated as “hardened” it has a broader meaning as well. So a good question to ask might be: how is this word chazaq used in the rest of the Old Testament?


This should give us some context for how the Biblical writers might have understood this word. Here are four examples. The words in all caps are the words translated from the original chazaq word. 


Once again the Israelites did evil in the Lord ‘s sight, and the Lord GAVE King Eglon of Moab CONTROL over Israel because of their evil.       Judges 3:12


Then Samson prayed to the Lord , “Sovereign Lord , remember me again. O God, please STRENGTHEN me just one more time.    Judges 16:28


Instead, your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will lead the people into the land. ENCOURAGE him, for he will lead Israel as they take possession of it.       Deuteronomy 1:38


Instead, commission Joshua and ENCOURAGE AND STRENGTHEN him, for he will lead the people across the Jordan. He will give them all the land you now see before you as their possession. Deuteronomy 3:28


So for some reason the Bible translators who made the transition from Hebrew to English for us used the word “harden” in Exodus (it is done again several times in Exodus 7) but in other places such as Deuteronomy (same original author) and in Judges the word is translated as something more along the lines of encouraging or strengthening what is already there.


To me this does not mean that God just decides for Pharaoh that he will reject Moses—and ultimately God—but that he will simply handed Pharaoh over to the desires of his heart. God simply strengthened what was already going on in Pharaoh so as to use it for his own purposes. It reminds me much of the ideas presented in Romans 1 when God lets us go only so far and then just hands us over, essentially saying, “If that is what you want you can have all of it.”


I realize this is more of an academic approach to the Scriptures than we usually take and it’s not something I intend to do often, but sometimes it is needed for addressing some of the tougher questions.


Perhaps you agree with me on my take of what this means in Exodus 4 and perhaps you don’t. Either way, chances are high that you will think more about God today than you had intended. And you might even do some digging of your own. If that’s the case, then I’ve done what I intended!


I welcome your thoughts, questions and perspectives.



7 thoughts on “a question of hardening

  1. Well this is a difficult one to answer. We cannot always know why God does things, but the fact that the Lord works in mysterious ways is valid here. Let’s think of the alternatives and maybe we can try to understand why this was done.
    As you say God strengthened what was already there in Pharaoh, which ultimately leads to the death of his son and the release of the Israelites. God sometimes requires us to go through certain hardships in order for us to be able to understand various things.

    Now let’s for 1 minute pretend that God didn’t harden the pharaoh’s heart. What would have happened? Moses goes to pharaoh and shows him a miracle or two. Pharaoh says to Moses “ok pack your things and you and your people can go.” What happens next? Pharaoh chases after Moses as he did in the original scenario. Only this time, because he is not full of grief from the death of his son and because he has not been conditioned through hardships, he doesn’t wait. He sends his army before Moses has a chance to get to the red sea. The rest you can imagine yourselves.
    Of course this is just one scenario that I thought up on the spot. There could have been a thousand other outcomes if God had not hardening pharaoh’s heart. I believe God has a purpose with everything. We can’t understand it because we don’t know the alternative scenario. It’s one of those cases where we have to have faith in God’s actions.

    • Costas – good thoughts here. I think your acknowledgment of the fact that there is mystery to God’s actions and God himself is a huge part how we should veiw these types of things. SOmetimes I feel that in our attempt to explain God and in our age of wanting to understand everything we tend to reject God’s mystery in favor of a God we can explain. Sometimes his ways are just beyond us.

      Thnking of what could have happened had Pharaoh’s heart not been hardened was interesting. It’s easy to get caught up in what i didn’t like with how something did go and forget to consider how it might have gone worse if things had been different. We definitely must trust that gdo is doing best.

      thanks for your thoughts.

  2. This is an interesting passage that has intrigued me for a while now the only answer that I have found that is logical is your Romans 1 theory while keeping in mind rev3 where he says you are lukewarm neither hot nor cold. I believe that God uses the rightious and the unrightious all to work out his will and in this case made pharo choose now with me or against me. Then their is Paul who in the early church when the question arose answered in romans 9:unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,

    “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,

    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For the 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.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

    22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.” 22*23* are the best answer I believe we have. This may mean nothing to you but has given me an answer that I find logical thanks for the platform hope I havnt wasted your time but have helped and thanks for helping me pass the time

    • Good thoughts. I don’t understand all the ins and outs of why and how God does what he does, but I do believe you are right in stating that God works it all for his will. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and Scripture verses here. Hope you come to read and share again.

  3. I had pondered the same question once. MY OPINION is God had shown Pharaoh several times his power and requests but still Pharaoh rejected (Pharaohs free will)
    God THEN had hardened Pharaohs heart due to Pharaohs own hardened heart to begin with. Of course God knew what was to be all along and has mysteries humans cant even begin to comprehend

    • Thanks for your thoughts mariah. I understand exactly where you are coming from. Understanding God’s foreknowledge and our free will and God’s timing and what he does before or after we do what we do is all enough to make my head spin sometimes! But it definitely reminds me that God is GOD and he is greater by far than us. For that I am grateful.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing. I hope to read more comments from you in the future.

      peace to you.

  4. Pingback: who done it? « soul grit

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