Lessons can be learned, not only from those who are held out in the Bible as examples of faith and good works, but also from those who were not. On one occasion Jesus said, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32), a woman who infamously “looked back” on Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned into a pillar of salt. She is held up not as an example of faith and obedience, but she is set forth as a warning to those who would be otherwise. Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, is another such example (II Pet. 2:15). Pharaoh is another.
The word Pharaoh, which means “great house,” was the title of the ruler of Egypt. Throughout the Bible, there are over ten different Pharaoh’s mentioned. The Pharaoh with which this study is interested is the Pharaoh of the Exodus, which was probably Thuthmose III, who would have been ruling in 1446 B.C. when the Exodus took place. If this is the Pharaoh, then we can look on his mummified face, for it is still extant. We can look in the face of the man who opposed Moses and God.
When Moses had received a commission from God to demand the release of His people from Egyptian bondage, Pharaoh responded, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). Pharaoh’s attitude toward God is not unlike the attitude which many manifest today. They do not retain God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28). God is not in their thoughts (Psalm 10:4). But Pharaoh would learn just Who God was and is.
Through a series of ten, horrific plagues, the Lord God of Israel would strike fear into the hearts of Egypt’s population, confound their magicians and humble their defiant king and bring him to his knees. These plagues were designed to strike at the very core of Egypt’s pantheon of gods, including the Pharaoh, himself. They were designed to show that neither Egypt’s gods, nor Pharaoh, who viewed himself as a god, could stand against the LORD God of Israel. A great cry went up in Egypt when the Lord smote the firstborn of Egypt, both man and beast, and there was not a house where there was not one dead (Ex. 12:30; Psalm 135:8). Pharaoh was powerless to stop it.
God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3,13). Yet, in reality, it is the Pharaoh, himself, that hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34) when he rejected the Lord’s commands and His warnings through the plagues. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Like Nebuchadnezzar, it was hardened through pride (Dan. 5:20). It was hardened when he harkened not unto God or inclined his ear to God’s word (Jer. 7:26). While Moses said God would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 14:17), Samuel tells us it was the Egyptians and Pharaoh who hardened their own hearts (I Sam. 6:6).
While the Bible tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it does not tell us the means by which He did this. Often, when God is said to have done a thing, the agency is not immediately mentioned. God said “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth” (Gen. 6:7,13). But the agency through which this was accomplished was the waters of the Flood (Gen. 6:17). Abraham is said to have pursued and brought back Lot and all the goods that were taken with him (Gen. 14:16). But who doubts that his servants carried out much of the work (Gen. 14:15)? Jesus “made and baptized more disciples than John” (John 4:1), though Jesus, Himself, never personally baptized anyone (John 4:2). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart through the instrumentality of circumstances and His word (cf. e.g. Ex. 7:2; 8:15,19,32, etc).
God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of demonstrating His sovereign power and proclaiming His name throughout all the earth (Ex. 9:16). Paul quoted this verse to show that God, like a potter over the clay, can do with it whatsoever He wishes (Rom. 9:17-21). Nothing in this suggests that God chose one and rejected the other with regard to salvation. Nothing in this suggests that Pharaoh could not have changed. Indeed, God calls upon Pharaoh to repent (Ex. 10:3). God knew and foreknew the character of the men involved and used them to glorify His name.
Today, we are solemnly warned not to harden our own hearts. “Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb. 3:15; 4:7). Jesus asks this question: “Have ye your heart yet hardened?” (Mark 8:17).
Eric L. Padgett