Does your theology have categories by which to understand both God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and then Pharaoh’s subsequent self-hardening? It’s a good test-case for biblically understanding divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Here is a quick run-down of the key biblical data:

  • Three times Yahweh declares that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 14:4).
  • Six times Yahweh actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8).
  • Seven times the hardening is expressed as a divine passive with Yahweh as the implied subject, i.e., Pharaoh’s heart “was hardened” by Yahweh (Ex. 7:13; 7:14; 7:22; 8:19; 9:7; 9:35; 14:5).
  • And three times we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15; 8:32; 9:34).

Divine-hardening and self-hardening are interwoven, but the God’s action is primary and initiatory: the first five citations (in Exodus 4 and 7) all focus on God’s action; the important point of Pharaoh’s self-hardening only appears in the three verses of Exodus 8 and 9.

The Apostle Paul famously reflected on the theological implications of this in Romans 9, using it to demonstrate the power of God’s mercy over the human will. Note the inclusio (or literary envelope) in Romans 9:16-18, including his quote of Exodus 9:16 on God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh’s heart:

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

John Piper was teaching at Bethel College when he began working on these issues in the late 1970s. It resulted in a highly regarded book published in 1983, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23. Around the same time, Greg Beale, then at Gordon-College, was making the first attempt to provide contextual exegesis of every hardening passage in Exodus 4-14. The fruit of this is in his article: “An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4-14 and Romans 9,” Trinity Journal 5 (1984): 129-154.

In his essay Professor Beale asks four questions, and then after the detailed exegesis of these passages he offers his conclusions. I’ve reproduced below the questions, followed by the answers he provides.

(1) Who is the ultimate cause of Pharaoh’s hardening?

First, our study has shown that God was the ultimate cause of all of the hardening actions throughout Exod 4-14 so that at no time was Pharaoh’s volition independent of Yahweh’s influence when he hardened his heart. This may be especially significant since the hardening may be viewed as a polemic against the Egyptian idea of Pharaoh’s deity and the belief that Pharaoh’s heart was the all-controlling factor both in history and society.

(2) If the hardening is at all associated with God, is it an unconditional or conditional judgment with respect to Pharaoh’s sin?

[I]t is never stated in Exod 4-14 that Yahweh hardens Pharaoh in judgment because of any prior reason or condition residing in him. Rather, as stated in the exegetical conclusion, the only purpose or reason given for the hardening is that it would glorify Yahweh.  Therefore, the divine hardening of Pharaoh was unconditional. All that can be said is that Yahweh deemed it necessary to include Pharaoh’s disobedient refusal in the historical plan, which was to glorify himself. . . .

(3) When Paul refutes the idea that God is unjust [Rom. 9:14] in rejecting Esau rather than Jacob before they were born [Rom. 9:10-13], does he give an understandable explanation for this refutation (gar, [Rom. 9:17]), or does he merely refute the idea without offering any rationale in defense of God’s rejection?

Neither Moses nor Paul leaves room for the possibility that God was unjust or immoral in his dealings with Pharaoh or Pharaoh had a peccatum alienum [alien guilt].  Paul alludes to Exod 9:16 in affirming the justice of God:  “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” . . . Paul seems to be alluding to Exod 9:16 as a summary of the purpose of the hardening throughout Exod 4-14–that God’s name should be proclaimed “in all the world.”  If God had not repeatedly hardened Pharaoh, there would have been no drawn out series of plagues and there would have been no proclamation of God’s omnipotence. Thus, Paul sees hardening as the key to the proclamation of the divine name. That Paul understands Exod 9:16 in terms of hardening is clear from his summary of this allusion in Rom 9:18b (“he hardens whom he wills”).

(4) Does the hardening involve God’s dealing with certain individuals or nations only on the plane of history or does it have reference to a general principle concerning God’s eternal rejection of man from salvation?

. . . God’s hardening and rejection of Pharaoh (and the Egyptians) does not appear to be limited to divine dealings only on the temporal, historical level, but appears to have a continuity with a rejection from eternal salvation. This may be evident from the following considerations in Exodus:

(1) hardening of the heart probably has implications in the spiritual realm affecting Pharaoh’s eternal destiny, since in the OT leb (“heart”) refers very often to the inner, spiritual center of one’s relationship with God, as is also true of “heart” in the Egyptian literature;

(2) this is supported by observing that Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart is referred to as “sin against the Lord ” for which he needs “forgiveness” (10:16-17; cf. 9:34).  Therefore the hardening does not merely concern Pharaoh’s intellectual-volitional faculty, but also the spiritual center of his being, since he repeatedly disobeyed God’s command and deserves judgment.  This is significant in the Exodus account, since the Egyptians viewed Pharaoh as divine and sinless while living, and believed at death he was exempt from judgment but became the god (Osiris) presiding over judgment after his death. In addition to this, other terms in the immediate context of the Rom 9 hardening statement are used there and elsewhere in the pauline corpus with reference to the eternal destinies of people, so that it would appear likely that Paul has the same concerns in Rom 9:17 and that he likewise understood the Exodus hardening.  The context also points to a concern for eternal destinies in Rom 9, since Rom 8:29-39 refers to assurance of eternal salvation and Rom 10-11 focus on the problem of why national Israel is not in such a salvific condition.

Could Paul have expressed such grief about his hardened brethern and wished himself “accursed” on their behalf if issues of eternal destinies were not at stake? Therefore the hardening is not limited to unique historical situations, but is an expression of a gnomic principle of God’s eternal dealings.  The principle of such dealings is based on God’s unconditional nature, as Paul’s use of Exod 9:16 has shown.  That such a principle is in Paul’s mind is apparent from Rom 9:18, where he generalizes the individual OT examples of the divine dispensing of mercy and hardening; the former explains God’s dealings with the Israelite remnant and Gentiles, while the latter explains the present rejection of the majority of the Jewish nation.