And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel…
I. NOTICE THE EMPHASIS WITH WHICH THIS FACT IS STATED. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart is mentioned, not in one place only, but in many. If it were mentioned in one place only, it might be in some doubtful way, such as would excuse us for passing it over without much examination. But being mentioned so many times, we dare not leave it on one side as something, to lie in necessary obscurity, meanwhile consoling ourselves that the obscurity is unimportant. The statement meets us in the very midst of the way of Jehovah's judgments on Pharaoh, and we must meet it in return with a resolution to understand it as far as believers in Jehovah may be able to do. Notice, then, exactly, how often the statement is repeated. Jehovah says to Moses, or ever he leaves Midian, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart that he shall not let the people go" (Exodus 4:21). Again, just as Jehovah's dealings with Pharaoh were beginning, he says: "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:3). After the rod was changed to a serpent his heart was still hardened (Exodus 7:13). Nor was there yet any change after the waters were turned to blood (Exodus 7:22). He yielded a little when the frogs came, but as soon as they vanished and there was respite, he hardened his heart once more (Exodus 8:15). When the magicians confessed the finger of God in the gnats, his heart remained the same (Exodus 8:19). The flies were taken away, and "he hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go" (Exodus 8:32). In Exodus 9:12 we have an express statement that the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh. After the visitation of the hail there seems to have been a complete surrender; but as soon as it ceases the hardening returns (Exodus 9:35); and so the references continue down to the end (Exodus 10:1, 20, 27; Exodus 11:10; Exodus 14:4, 8, 17). Making these references, we are led to notice also the variety of expressions used. Sometimes it is simply said that Pharaoh's heart was hardened, sometimes that Pharaoh hardened it, sometimes that God hardened it; and once or twice the expression rises to the emphasis of the first person, and Jehovah himself says "I will harden Pharaoh's heart."
II. NOTICE THE CONSEQUENT OBLIGATION TO MAKE DEVOUT AND REVERENT INQUIRY INTO THIS MATTER. - There is no way to escape from the feeling that Jehovah did actually harden Pharaoh's heart. We must treat the hardening of his heart as a great fact just as Moses did the burning bush; not doubting at all that it did happen, but rather asking how and why it happened. We must turn aside and see this great sign, why Jehovah exercised such a fearful power over Pharaoh that the end of it was the destruction of his host in the waters of the Red Sea. It is a commonplace of speech to say that the expression here is one of the most difficult in all the Scriptures. It is also a commonplace of action to shake the head with what is meant for pious submission to an impenetrable mystery. But what if this be only an indolent and most censurable avoidance of earnest thought on the ways of God towards men? No one will pretend that the mystery of this expression is penetrable to all its depths; but so far as it is penetrable we are bound to explore. How are we really to know that a thing is unfathomable, until we make an attempt to fathom it? A devout Israelite, although excluded from the Holy of Holies, did not make that a reason for neglecting the temple altogether. Our duty then is to inquire what this hardening of the heart may be, in what sense it is reconcilable with the goodness and righteousness of God. One reason why this statement is put so prominently forward in one of the most prominent narratives of Scripture, and therefore one of the most prominent in all history, may be this, that we should be kept from wrong conclusions on man's agency as a responsible being; conclusions dishonouring to God and perilous to ourselves. Is it not a great deal gained if only this narrative sets people thinking, so as to deliver them from the snares of fatalism?
III. Whatever View we take of this statement must evidently be IN THE LIGHT OF ALL WE ARE PERMITTED TO KNOW CONCERNING THE CHARACTER OF JEHOVAH. In considering all difficult statements as to the Divine dealings, we must start with certain postulates as to the Divine character. Before we can say that God does a thing we must know that the thing done is not out Of harmony with the rest of his ascertained doings. There may be plenty of evidence as to the thing done, when there is very little evidence as to the doer. That the streams of Egypt were actually turned to blood was a thing that could be certified by the senses of every one who inspected those streams. But that God wrought this strange work could only be made sure by asking, first, what evidence there was of God's presence, and next, what consistency there was with his acknowledged dealings. It is only too plain that Pharaoh's heart was hardened, that he became ever more settled in his resolution to keep hold of Israel as long as he could. But when we are told that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, then we must at once bring to mind all that we have heard of God in the Scriptures. We must take back into our inspection of those distant times all we know of his character whom Jesus revealed; for the loving Father of our Saviour is the same with the great Jehovah. The same holy personality is at work in the God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life, as in the God who hardened Pharaoh's heart. We must not tolerate any conception of the hardening which contradicts the Divine character. Any view of this expression which does not harmonise with the revelation of God in the New Testament is therefore condemned. There is certainly no word in the Old Testament that more needs to be looked at in the light of the New than this. We must then dismiss from our minds any sort of notion that in hardening Pharaoh's heart, God dulled his moral sensibilities and made him proud, indifferent to pity and justice and the fulfilment of promises. God cannot put even the germs of these feelings into any human heart; much less can he increase them to such portentous magnitude as they attained in Pharaoh. We must start with the conviction and keep to it, that what God does is right, and that it is right not because he does it, but that he does it because it is right. It is not open for us first to fix our own interpretation of what may be meant by hardening the heart, and then call it an outrage on moral sense to say that God should do this. What if we have blundered in our interpretation?
IV. A right view of this statement must evidently also be taken IN THE LIGHT OF ALL THAT WE KNOW BY AN APPEAL TO HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS. As no word God has ever spoken can contradict the facts of external nature, so neither can it contradict the facts of man's consciousness within. That which is true, independently of the teaching of Scripture, does not become less true, nor does it become false when Scripture begins to speak. Man is a free agent; he acts as one; he resents being treated otherwise by his fellow men. He is degraded and impoverished just in proportion as he sinks to a mere machine. His own decision is required every day, and he finds that wise decisions lead to profit, and foolish ones to loss. The law treats him as a free agent. Nay, more; what can be clearer than that God treated Pharaoh as a free agent? The plain statement that God hardened his heart is not more frequent than the equally plain statement that God demanded from him the liberation of Israel. If the one word is to be taken as simple verity, so is the other. If when God hardened Pharaoh's heart, he really did something in his nature; then also when he asked Pharaoh to liberate Israel, he asked something which he was at liberty to grant or refuse. Moses does not mock us with a mere trick of rhetoric in saying that God hardened Pharaoh's heart; neither did God mock Pharaoh with a useless appeal when he said, "Let my People go." Pharaoh knew well in his heart that it only needed his resolution and the whole of Israel could march forth at very short notice. He himself would have been amazed to hear that God had hardened his heart. True as it was, he would have denied it most strenuously and indignantly; and he would have denied it with justice, if it had been taken to mean the destruction of his own free agency.
V. We may now Perhaps consider the ground sufficiently cleared for a positive conjecture as to what is meant by God hardening Pharaoh's heart. It means, we take it, THAT HE WORKED A MIRACULOUS CHANGE IN ONE OF PHARAOH'S NATURAL FACULTIES. There are certain things in every human being we do not hold that being responsible for, e.g., sex, features, temperament, acuteness and activity in senses and intellect. Some persons have good vision, others poor, others are altogether blind. In a similar way, some are naturally of a tenacious, determined will. Whatever they have set their mind upon, they hold to, with bull-dog grip. Others again are easily swayed about. Now clearly just as there are natural differences in sight, or hearing, or intellect, so there must be natural differences in this will-faculty. A man may have it very strong; he may be one who if he sets high and worthy aims before him, will be called resolute, inflexible, tenacious, indomitable, loyal to conscience; whereas if his aims be low, selfish and entirely without ground in reason, he will be called obstinate, stubborn, self-willed in the fullest sense of that word; and is it not plain that God may take this power of volition, this will-energy, and do with it, as we know that Jesus in many of his miracles did with defective or absent faculties? To the blind, Jesus gave vision, and he who could thus call a non-existent faculty into existence, evidently could increase a faculty actually existing to any degree such as man might be able to possess. And was it not something of this kind that God did in hardening Pharaoh's heart? The term has come to have a dreadful meaning to us in connexion with Pharaoh, simply because of Pharaoh's career. But the very miracle which God wrought in Pharaoh's heart would have had good results, if only Pharaoh had been a different sort of man. Suppose the instance of a blind man who gets sight from Jesus. He goes into life again with a recovered faculty: and that life, with respect to its opportunities, is vastly larger than it was before. How will he use these opportunities? He may use them selfishly, and Christ's own blessing will thus become a curse; or he may use them as Christ would have him use them, to become his efficient and grateful servant. There is a moral certainty that some who had faith enough in Jesus to have impaired natural faculties put right were yet destitute of that faith which went on to spiritual salvation and spiritual service. It was one thing to believe in Christ for a temporal gain, quite another to believe in him for a spiritual one; and the one faith while meant to lead on to the other, would not always have that effect. It is but a fond imagination to suppose that it would. So Pharaoh, if he had been a humane, compassionate and righteous man, a king with a true king's feelings for his own people, would, through the very process of hardening his heart, have become a more efficient ruler. This is the way God helps men who are struggling with temptation, struggling towards truth and light, towards conquest over appetite, violent temper, evil habits. God does for them and in them exactly what he did in Pharaoh. What he did in Pharaoh happened to hasten him in the way where he was already disposed to go. If Pharaoh had been a blind man as well as a bad one, no one would have had any perplexity as to God's dealings in restoring his sight and giving it the greatest perfection sight can attain. If Pharaoh had used that restored vision for bad, cruel purposes, he would have been blamed, and not Jehovah, and exactly the same remark applies if we change the name of the faculty. God strengthens the faculty of will, but Pharaoh is responsible for a right use of the strengthened faculty as much as he was for the use of the weaker faculty before. God dealt with a part of his nature where he had no power to resist any more than a blind man would have power to resist, if God were to restore vision to him. It was not against the hardening that Pharaoh struggled, but against the delivering. The hardening worked in a way he was not conscious of, but the delivering was by an appeal to him, and that appeal he was by no means disposed to entertain. It was not an awakened conscience that compelled him to his successive yieldings; these were but as the partial taming of a wild beast. Paul said, "When I would do good, evil is present with me;" but Pharaoh was steadily disposed to do evil. His cry would rather have been, "When I think to get my own way, one of those terrible plagues comes in to relax my resolutions and confuse my plans."
VI. A certain amount of weight must also be allowed for PHARAOH'S TYPICAL POSITION AND CHARACTER. We must distinguish between what he was typically and what he was personally. Far be it from us to diminish his guilt or attempt to whitewash his memory. Doubtless he was a bad man, and a very bad man; but for typical purposes it was needful to represent him as not having one redeeming feature. His name is not linked even with one virtue amid a thousand crimes. He had to be set before the whole world and all ages as the enemy of God's people. He is the type of a permanent adversary far greater than himself. And just as the people of God, typically considered, appeared very much better than they actually were, so Pharaoh, typically considered, is described so as to appear worse. (e.g. in Numbers 23:21, it is said, "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel.") We do no, Show all God's dealings with Pharaoh. They are hidden beneath the waters of the Red Sea, and it is no duty of ours to pass judgment on the defeated and baffled opponent. God calls us to the more practical business of going on with the livings struggling people. - Y.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.