Why does the author use this back-and-forth technique in describing Pharaoh’s heart? It’s all part of the brilliant diagnosis of the human condition in this story, which is about the mysterious nature of human evil. God called Pharaoh to humble himself and acknowledge that God is his authority and that he cannot redefine good and evil on Egyptian terms. Pharaoh’s response (see Ex 5:1-2) is to balk at the God of Israel. After this, God gives Pharaoh five opportunities to repent and humble himself, and five times he hardens his heart. The author wants us to see that even the most heinous and absurd forms of human evil are not a true threat to God’s purposes. He can steer even this kind of evil toward his plan to bless all humanity through Abraham’s family.
Ultimately, whether it was God or Pharaoh, at the end of ten plagues, Pharaoh wants the Israelites gone. After losing his own son, Pharaoh releases the Israelites. Not surprisingly though, Pharaoh has yet another change of heart, and goes back on his decision to let the Israelites go (Ex 14:5). Pharaoh musters his army, and we’re told that God “hardens his heart” (Ex 14:8). We know how this story ends. The evil turn of Pharaoh’s heart turns back on himself, resulting in an empire-wide catastrophe.
The Romans 9 Response
Romans 9 is the lengthiest reference Paul makes to Exodus in the New Testament. Many point to this chapter to say that God was ultimately behind the evil of Pharoah from the beginning. Romans 9:18 says, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.” Paul sees in Pharaoh’s hard heart, a pattern that was again at work in his own day, namely the rejection of Jesus the Messiah by many of his own, Jewish, people. In this passage, Paul is not offering a commentary on the complicated theme of Pharaoh’s hard heart, nor is he claiming that God alone was responsible. He is summarizing the main point of the Exodus story’s diagnosis of Pharaoh’s evil (God’s purpose to bless cannot be thwarted by heinous human evil), and applying it to an apparent tragedy in his own day. Jesus’ execution was actually part of God’s plan to bring blessing to all the nations. It is Paul’s exploration of God’s justice and mercy. The fact that God can steer evil towards his purposes does not mean he engineered it. Pharaoh is responsible for his own evil, just as Joseph’s brothers were. However, there is no force of human evil that can resist God’s purpose to bring salvation and blessing to all nations.
What did this mean for Pharaoh, and what does this mean to me?
When human evil goes unchecked, bad things happen, and bad people can sometimes turn into monsters. The author of Exodus is showing us that Pharaoh was responsible for the evil in his heart, and at a clear point in the story (after plague 5), he crossed a point of no return. At this point, God re-purposes this “vessel” (as Paul puts it in Romans 9) for his own good purposes. The point of the story is not to tell us that God engineers evil, rather, it is a cautionary warning to you, the reader, saying, “Don’t be like Pharaoh!” Strange things happen in the human heart and mind when we let the evil urges of our broken nature go unchecked. God will always graciously offer us chances to turn back (would you have given Pharaoh so many chances?!), but sometimes a person can cement themselves in a destructive path and reach a point of no return. God can and sometimes will allow our evil to destroy us. BUT, the good news is, if that last sentence kind of freaks you out, you’re not Pharaoh! The fact that you’re asking the sobering question, means that your heart is soft, and wants to do the right thing. As we progress through the rest of the biblical narrative, you’ll see this theme of the hard vs. soft heart develop more. For now, let’s ponder the mysterious justice and mercy of God, who wants to save us from ourselves.