Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Exodus 7:3-4 says, “3But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, 4Pharaoh will not listen to you.”
This verse seems to imply that God first hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then punishes Pharaoh for having a hard heart.
Understanding such statements in the context in which they occur and in light of the whole of Scriptural teaching is important.
First, the language being used allows for this active statement of hardening to carry the meaning of allowing or giving permission. This would mean that God allowed Pharaoh to harden his heart.
Dave Miller and Kyle Butt in an article on ApologticsPress.org explain it this way:
In his copious work on biblical figures of speech, E.W. Bullinger listed several ways that the Hebrew and Greek languages used verbs to mean something other than their strict, literal usage. He listed several verses that show that the languages “used active verbs to express the agent’s design or attempt to do anything, even though the thing was not actually done” (1898, p. 821). To illustrate, in discussing the Israelites, Deuteronomy 28:68 states: “Ye shall be sold (i.e., put up for sale) unto your enemies…and no man shall buy you.” The translators of the New King James Version recognized the idiom and rendered the verse, “you shall be offered for sale.” The text clearly indicated that they would not be sold, because there would be no buyer, yet the Hebrew active verb for “sold” was used. In the New Testament, a clear example of this type of usage is found in 1 John 1:10, which states, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him [God—KB/DM] a liar.” No one can make God a liar, but the attempt to deny sin is the equivalent of attempting to make God a liar, which is rendered with an active verb as if it actually happened. Verbs, therefore, can have idiomatic usages that may convey something other than a strict, literal meaning.
With that in mind, Bullinger’s fourth list of idiomatic verbs deals with active verbs that “were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do” (p. 823, emp. in orig.). To illustrate, in commenting on Exodus 4:21, Bullinger stated: “‘I will harden his heart (i.e., I will permit or suffer his heart to be hardened), that he shall not let the people go.’ So in all the passages which speak of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. As is clear from the common use of the same Idiom in the following passages” (1968, p. 823). He then listed Jeremiah 4:10, “‘Lord God, surely thou hast greatly deceived this people’: i.e., thou hast suffered this People to be greatly deceived, by the false prophets….’” Ezekiel 14:9 is also given as an example of this type of usage: “‘If the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet’: i.e., I have permitted him to deceive himself.” James MacKnight, in a lengthy section on biblical idioms, agrees with Bullinger’s assessment that in Hebrew active verbs can express permission and not direct action. This explanation unquestionably clarifies the question of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that God would permit or allow Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened.[i]
In keeping with this idiomatic usage of verbs, other passages of Scripture indicate that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. For example, 1 Samuel 6:6 says, “Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?” (ESV)
Since God is the Almighty, He can prevent evil, and He can force us to do what He wants. However, Scripture is clear that He does not. God pleads with His people. In 1 Samuel 6:6, He is pleading with His people not to do as the Egyptians did in hardening their hearts. God does this because He has created us in His image, which also means that we are free moral agents. To be in God’s image means we are responsible for our choices, and God allows or permits us to go our own way even if that results in our destruction.
In fact, the hardening of the human heart is a natural process that takes place when a person repeatedly rejects God’s grace. Hebrews 3:15 warns us, “Remember what it says: ‘Today when you hear his voice, don't harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.’" (NLT) Romans 9:22 tells us that God “endures with great patience” those on whom his anger is destined to fall. We, as humans, tend to think that God will not judge because He is merciful and slow to anger. However, 2 Peter 3:9 puts this misconception to rest when it says:
The Lord isn't really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. (NLT)