Pharaoh’s Heart

Hard-heartedness is not just a present-day problem. An ancient Egyptian Pharoah once displayed a hard heart. In fact, he's famous for it.
man sitting on sofa

CVC Elder Kyle Gustafson

Have you ever wondered why some leaders seem to make bad decision after bad decision? Why some people are so very stubborn?  Have you ever wondered why some people just don’t seem to connect the dots between the reality of the difficulties they’re facing and the possibility that God is seeking to get their attention? 

These are all symptoms of hearts that are hard. 

Hard-heartedness is not just a present-day problem. An ancient Egyptian Pharoah once displayed a hard heart. In fact, he’s famous for it. His story is found in the Old Testament book of Exodus, and the hardness of his heart is one of the major story lines throughout Exodus. Several times, the Scriptures tell us that God himself hardened Pharoah’s heart. 

These passages about Pharoah’s hard heart raise profound and challenging questions about God’s role in human choice, free will, and divine justice. Did God cause Pharoah to do evil? Did God prevent Pharoah from making his own decisions? Did God block Pharoah from repenting and believing God? To help us better understand the heart and character of God, we need to dig into this complex concept and seek to better understand the theme as it appears throughout Exodus and beyond. And, as we consider the dangers he faced because of the hardening of his heart, we can learn some truths for our lives today.  

Firstly, when we approach difficult passages in Scripture, it is always wise for us to remind ourselves of the character of God. We don’t read or interpret Scripture in a vacuum but in context with the whole of the Bible. God doesn’t change based on what section of Scripture we are reading, so the things that we know to be true about God in other parts of the Bible are going to be true in challenging passages as well! For the sake of this topic, I want to draw your attention to three important characteristics of God:

  • God is good (Exodus 34:6, Psalm 23:6, Psalm 107:8-9, Psalm 145:5-7, Mark 10:8)
  • God is just (Deuteronomy 32:4, Psalm 9:7-8, Psalm 89:14, Isaiah 5:16)
  • God knows the human heart (Jeremiah 17:10, 1 Samuel 16:7, 1 Chronicles 28:9)

More specifically, we also see that God knows Pharoah’s heart. In Exodus 3:19 he tells Moses “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.” It is important to note that this passage precedes any mention of Pharoah’s heart being hardened. Instead, Pharoah’s refusal to let Israel go is simply a fact that is already known by God! Therefore, whatever is happening to Pharoah’s heart in these passages must be good, and just, and is already known by God.

In these passages, the original language (Hebrew) uses three different words, all of which get translated in English to “hard heart.” Each of these words has a slightly different meaning and connotation, something that is easy for us to miss in our English Bibles. Additionally, Exodus sometimes tells us that God hardened Pharoah’s heart while other times telling us that Pharoah hardened his own heart! To add more confusion, sometimes it simply says “Pharoah’s heart was hardened” without any clarification for who is doing the hardening. Here is a quick rundown of those three words and how we see them used in Exodus.

Hard (qsh) (7:3, 13:15)

  • Once God does it to Pharoah’s heart (7:3)
  • Once Pharoah does it to his own heart (13:15)

Heavy (kbd) (7:14, 8:15, 8:32, 9:7, 9:34, 10:1)

  • Five times Pharoah does it to his own heart
  • Once God does it to Pharoah’s heart (10:1)

Strong/Make Firm (hzq) (4:21, 7:13, 7:22, 8:19, 9:12, 9:35, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17)

  • Four times it is unclear who is causing Pharaoh’s heart to become strong (7:13, 7:22, 8:19, 9:35)
  • All other times it is God strengthening Pharoah’s heart

In ancient Egyptian culture, a “heavy heart” has very specific overlap with personal guilt. After death, a heart was supposedly weighed against a feather and if the heart was lighter the person was innocent. Therefore, when a heart is made “heavy,” it is quite literally adding “guilt” onto the person. So, when the narrator uses this version of “hard” they are also conveying to an ancient audience Pharoah’s personal guilt. It is no surprise that most of the time, Pharaoh makes his own heart “heavy” by his actions and decisions!

Strengthened, on the other hand, can carry either positive or negative connotations. Strengthening someone’s hand may indicate increasing their influence. Strengthening a person would indicate providing them support. To strengthen someone’s will would be to give them courage.  To strengthen their heart would be to make them resolute or stubborn. Desmond Alexander, and Old Testament scholar, describes it this way: 

“The strengthening of Pharaoh’s heart is not about making him act contrary to his own will. Rather, it is the reverse; it is about giving him the boldness or courage to do what he most desires… Whereas the various signs point to YHWH’s true identity and implicitly indicate how Pharaoh should respond, Pharaoh consistently refuses to recognize YHWH’s authority. This is, from beginning to end, his choice. Ironically, YHWH actually helps Pharaoh fulfil his desire to remain in control of the Israelites. When God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart, he merely strengthens the king’s resolve to do what he has already chosen to do.”

This is what is happening with Pharoah! He is an evil man. He is prideful, and stubborn, and he feels like he is completely in control. He does not know God and (as far as he is concerned) does not need God. At the core, God is saying to Pharoah “If that is what you really desire, then I will allow you to have it!”

What isn’t happening: God isn’t taking away the free will or agency of Pharoah. Rather, when God “hardens Pharoah’s heart” he simply lets Pharoah continue to do what Pharoah has already chosen to do. 

Unfortunately, Pharoah’s hard heart ultimately cost him his son, his army, and eventually his life. His desire for control and his unwillingness to respond to God resulted in personal guilt and the consequences for his sins. God didn’t cause this, Pharoah did. 

As we reflect on the story of Pharoah may we be people who fear even a hint of the hardness of heart that Pharaoh displayed. May we instead run to the one who exchanges a heart of stone for a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26). May we engage the LORD with prayer and petition for those we love to have soft hearts towards him. And let us pray that we as individuals (and as a church community) would have repentant and surrendered hearts to His will so that the world would know the LORD is God.