God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate His Glory among Egypt and Israel and the earth so that the people would know He is God. But Pharaoh wasn’t chosen as a tragic casualty so that his people would see God’s power; there is more to the story.
The Biblical account in Exodus 3-15 shows us that Pharaoh wasn’t pursuing to know the Hebrew God, and in fact was consumed with his own gods and his own ways. In other words, he was already hardening his own heart to God, God just allowed for this to happen more quickly. We also see that God has full knowledge of Pharaoh’s thoughts and intentions, and is making a good and righteous judgment by hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
This is a pretty long account, so I’m going to highlight just a few areas; I’d encourage those who are interested in this story to read and dialog with God about it more thoroughly.
- Ex 3: 19: God is giving Moses instructions on how to present his case to Pharaoh and says He knows that king of Egypt will not permit the Hebrews to leave except under compulsion (or ‘unless a mighty hand compels him’).
- Ex 7:3: God will harden Pharaoh’s heart that He may put on a bigger show–that He may multiply the signs and wonders in the land.
- Ex 7:22: Pharaoh’s heart is hardened because he sees that his own magicians can do the same ‘magic’ as the Lord–he doesn’t care to know God, but to have power, and he isn’t impressed by God’s power so long as his magicians can imitate it. If he were to seek the Lord, it would be for the wrong intentions: to have more power and control.
- Ex 8:15: here Pharaoh hardens his own heart and it is clear his desire was for relief from the plague rather than an awe at the power of God.
- Ex 8:18-19: even when his magicians cannot imitate God’s power and admit to Pharaoh that “This is the finger of God” he does not listen. He really doesn’t want to know God.
- Ex 9:16: God could have just killed Egypt to free the Jews. He went about freeing them in this creative way so that His power and name would be proclaimed in ALL the earth. He may have picked the Jews, but He’s always wanted everyone to know of Him and be His people.
- Ex 9:34: at some moments Pharaoh hardens his own heart…
- Ex 11:9-10: other times, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, giving Him the chance to do even more miracles.
God is very much about free will (letting us make our own choices). As a result, He will help us get wherever we want to go faster. If we earnestly desire Him, we will find Him. If we want to engage our own desires and run our own lives, He will let us do that too–in some cases speeding up the process of hardening our hearts so that the ‘smashing of the clay’ can be done sooner than later, or so that we can be a demonstration of His might.
So, when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it wasn’t a violation of Pharaoh’s will, but a hastening of the choice Pharaoh had already made. It also provided for Pharaoh to have a final season of mercy as God did extravagant signs and wonders right before his eyes–signs and wonders that also gave the Israelites confidence and awe in their God, and allowed for the name of the Lord to be known throughout the nations (Ex 15:1-3, Ex 15:14-16).