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R edeem er Bible Church

Unreserved Accountability to Christ. Undeserved Acceptance from Christ.

The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

Exodus 7:8-10:29

Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century American theologian, has said,
“Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.”1 He has said that the doctrine of
God’s absolute sovereignty was something that had “very often appeared exceeding
pleasant, bright and sweet.”2

Now for many of us, we feel the same way. The sovereignty of God gives us
great comfort. We rejoice at the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:28, when he
says that “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who
love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Though we are often
perplexed by the difficulties and apparent uncertainties of life, one thing we know: we
know that God causes all things to work together for good to us who love him.

And we sing the lyrics of William Cowper (1731-1800):

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

We believe that behind a frowning providence he does hide a smiling face. In

this way, this doctrine is “exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet.” It is something that we
love to ascribe to God.

Yet having said that, I’m not sure we quite understand what Edwards means
when he says that absolute sovereignty is what he loves to ascribe to God. He finds the
Bible’s teaching of God’s absolute sovereignty to be “exceeding pleasant, bring and
sweet.” In other words, Edwards rejoiced in the fact that God’s sovereignty is not
limited in any sphere, that it is not restricted in any way, that it is unconditional.

Quoted in Iain H Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth,
1987), 103.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


That which brought him joy is summed up in the language of the Westminster
Confession: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own
will freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby [is
not] the author of sin.”3 Edwards loved to ascribe to God that the Lord “by the most
wise and holy counsel of his own will freely, and unchangeably ordains whatsoever
comes to pass.” And by whatsoever is meant whatsoever. Edwards loved the truth that
everything that happens, happens because God has willed it to happen. And he
understood this everything to include everything. Thus it includes bad things. This is
why the Confession goes on to say that though God ordains whatsoever comes to pass,
he is not thereby the author of sin.

To love to ascribe to God absolute sovereignty something much more profound

than “God takes care of me in my difficulties”; or that “God will make something good
out of the bad things that have happened.” It is saying, “God has willed everything that
has happened, everything that is happening, and everything that will happen. And I
love it!”

Perhaps this is difficult for some of you to hear. Perhaps you are thinking that
this claim cannot be true. Perhaps it even makes you angry to hear it said. I do not
doubt any of this. Even the people living in the 18th century had difficulty with the
doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty. Listen again to Edwards: “The sovereignty of
God is the stumbling block on which thousands fall and perish.” 4 It seems safe to say
that this difficulty persists to the present day.

Few pulpits even address the absolute sovereignty of God. Oh, they may speak
of the sovereignty of God in some relative sense, but not of the absolute sovereignty of
God, that he has decreed from eternity past everything that would ever take place. And
they certainly do not reckon properly with the clear example of this set forth in the text
for this morning’s meditation.

While Exodus 7:8-10:29 is rife with theological emphases, with theological and
practical lessons for us, we begin our study with one: God is absolutely sovereign.

His Sovereignty Rules over All

Let us begin with 9:15-16. Here, the Lord tells Pharaoh that his continuation in
kingly office is solely the product of the Lord’s sovereign action: For if by now I had put
forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then
have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you
to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name
through all the earth.

It is plain that the Lord could have utterly destroyed Pharaoh and his nation. To
this point in the narrative they have experienced God’s judgment in the form of blood,
frogs, gnats, swarms of insects or flies, pestilence on their livestock, and painful boils on

WCF 3.1-2.
Jonathan Edwards quoted at

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


man and beast. God has clearly demonstrated his capacity to cut off Egypt from the
face of the earth. But, says the Lord, I have allowed you to remain.

Now behind the phrase I have allowed you to remain is one Hebrew word that
means “to maintain” (as opposed to overthrow). In 1 Kings 15:4 it is translated
“establish.” The NASB’s rendering is a bit weak. The NIV and ESV translate it in a way
that’s more fitting: “For this purpose (or reason [NIV]) I have raised you up.” The idea is
that the Lord is responsible for the establishment and continuance of Pharaoh’s

In other words, the Lord is saying that the only reason Pharaoh isn’t dead is
because the Lord has raised him up for the Lord’s sovereign purpose: in order to
show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. God
has complete control over Pharaoh’s existence. Pharaoh’s life is in Yahweh’s hands.

Earlier in Exodus you will remember that Pharaoh speaks derisively of Yahweh
saying, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know
the LORD” (5:2). Now Pharaoh is learning that God’s sovereignty extends to the king of
Egypt. Pharaoh continues to reign at the Lord’s pleasure.

In fact, every ruler rules at the Lord’s pleasure. In Daniel 4, while

Nebuchadnezzar is busy congratulating himself for (in his mind) having been solely
responsible for establishing Babylon to his own glory,

...a voice came from heaven, saying, “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is

declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, 32and you will be driven away
from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will
be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you
until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and
bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Daniel 4:31-32, italics added).

This is something that Nebuchadnezzar finally learned:

But at the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward
heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised
and honored Him who lives forever; For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35All the inhabitants of
the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host
of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, “What have You done?”5

But perhaps Jehoshaphat summed it up best when he said, “O LORD, the God of
our fathers, are You not God in the heavens? And are You not ruler over all the
kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in Your hand so that no one can stand
against You” (2 Chronicles 20:6).

For similar teaching see Isaiah 40:15-23.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


Here in Exodus 9:16, the Lord makes it clear to Pharaoh that he, the Lord, is the
ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations, which, of course, includes the Egyptian
nation. The Lord is the one who established this Pharaoh’s rule in the first place. The
Lord is the one who has preserved the Pharaoh’s life to this point in the account. And
neither Pharaoh nor any king is able to stand against the sovereign of the universe. As
the psalmist says, “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His
sovereignty rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).

The Extent of His Sovereignty

Clearly, then, God’s sovereignty rules over the king of Egypt. But, we may ask,
to what extent? After all, this Pharaoh and his predecessor have done some pretty
despicable things to the Hebrew people throughout their tenure. The first Pharaoh
mentioned in Exodus was the first to afflict the people with all kinds of hard labor (1:11,
13-14). When this policy failed, he called on the Hebrew midwives to kill the infant sons
born to their kinsmen (1:16). And when, by the ingenuity of the midwives, this attempt
failed as well, he resorted to calling on his own people to drown every Hebrew baby boy

Once the present Pharaoh came to power, the policy of Israeli slavery did not
subside. And when Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to let God’s people go,
Pharaoh responded by making life even more miserable for the sons of Israel, by
compelling them to make the same number of bricks but without having straw at their
disposal. And when they failed to make the quota, the foremen of Israel were beaten

If the voice from heaven was right, if “the Most High is ruler over the realm of
mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (and he certainly is), then we must
conclude in this case that the Lord wished to bestow sovereignty to two wicked despots,
bent on cruelly oppressing the Lord’s own people. On the face of it, this sounds absurd.

Perhaps the answer to this question is that we understand God’s sovereignty all
wrong. Perhaps the Lord establishes the throne of a particular ruler and then leaves
him to his own will. Thus though the Lord is ultimately responsible for the establishment
of a given monarch’s dominion, he is not ultimately responsible for how that rule is
carried out. Perhaps the Lord sets up the king and sits back to wait and see how he (or
she) will behave. If he behaves well, the Lord leaves him to his own devices. If he
behaves badly, the Lord devises a scheme whereby he will punish him for his unjust
exercise of the sovereignty that the Lord has bestowed.

The Source of Pharaoh’s Hard-Heartedness

In order to examine this thesis, it will be helpful for us to take a closer look at the
various descriptions of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness.

1. In 7:13, at the conclusion of what we could call the prelude to the plagues, when
the rod of God becomes a snake that swallows up the conjured serpents of
Egypt’s magicians, notice what the Scripture says, Pharaoh's heart was
hardened, and he did not listen to them.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


2. Then, before the first plague, God declares Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness. Look
at 7:14: Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh's heart is stubborn; he
refuses to let the people go.”

3. Now drop down to 7:22-23 and notice Pharaoh’s response to the first plague:
But the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts; and
Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them….Then
Pharaoh turned and went into his house with no concern even for this.
Though the waters of the Nile had been adversely affected by the plague of
blood, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

And verse 23 says that he turned and went into his house with no concern
for this. Literally the text says that he did not put it in his heart. The ESV, NIV,
and NRSV translate it “take it to heart.” The idea is that his heart was not at all
affected by what God had done to Egypt’s main source of water.

4. Even after Pharaoh called upon Moses and Aaron to intercede for him with the
Lord to remove the frogs from the land, and even after the Lord relented by
removing them, 8:15 says that when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he
hardened his heart and did not listen to them.

This is the first time in this portion of Exodus that the Bible says that Pharaoh
hardened his heart. He made himself stubborn. In the previous passages, the
texts simply assert Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness: they simply say that his heart
was hardened, with no apparent explanation for its condition. And when the
Lord declared Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness, he merely says, Pharaoh’s heart is
stubborn; again without explanation.

5. Now look down to 8:19: Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the
finger of God.’ But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to
them. This time the magicians were unable to bring forth gnats with their
secret arts, which they understand to be of great moment. This, however, is not
enough to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go: Pharaoh’s heart was
hardened, and he did not listen to them.

6. Pharaoh’s response to the next plague seems to offer a glimmer of hope. Notice
8:28: Pharaoh said, “I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the LORD
your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away. Make
supplication for me.” Pharaoh appears to capitulate to the Lord’s demand. He
says that he will let the people of Israel go.

So Moses prays for the removal of the swarms of insects (probably biting flies)
and the Lord hears Moses’ prayer. He removes all the flies from Pharaoh, from
his servants, and from his people; and not one remains. Nevertheless, we learn
in 8:32 that Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the
people go.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


This hardening is particularly striking in that he is not responding simply to God’s

judgment against Egypt, but God’s judgment for Israel. Look up to 8:21-22: For
if you do not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of insects on you
and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the
houses of the Egyptians will be full of swarms of insects, and also the
ground on which they dwell. But on that day I will set apart the land of
Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of insects will be
there, in order that you may know that I, the LORD, am in the midst of the
land. Nevertheless, Pharaoh did not learn that the Lord who was inflicting such
pain upon him and his people was also with Israel. Pharaoh hardened his heart.

7. Next, the Lord sends blight upon Egypt’s livestock, while he simultaneously
protects Israel’s; 9:7 records his response: Pharaoh sent, and behold, there
was not even one of the livestock of Israel dead. But the heart of Pharaoh
was hardened, and he did not let the people go. This time he sends an envoy
to see what had happened in the land of Goshen, and he finds out that not even
one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was
hardened, and he did not let the people go.

By now we as readers should begin wondering how Pharaoh could be so

stubborn. As Calvin has said, “[T]here was no bound to [Pharaoh’s] rebellion under
such a series of punishments, by which even an iron heart should have been
corrected.”6 How could Pharaoh be so recalcitrant, so obdurate, so obstinate—and any
other word you can think of for “stubborn”?!

8. Perhaps Pharaoh’s response to boils breaking out with sores on man and beast
will help us understand. Notice 9:12: And the LORD hardened Pharaoh's
heart, and he did not listen to them. This the first time in the plague sequence
where it is explicitly stated that the Lord was the agent in Pharaoh’s hardening.
And I say “explicitly” here because God’s agency has really been implicit all

Look back to 7:13—notice that it says that Pharaoh’s hardening happened as the
Lord had said. And you will also find that phrase in connection with Pharaoh’s
hardening at 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, and now here in 9:12 with a bit of an expansion: just as
the Lord had spoken to Moses. And this expanded phrase reappears at 9:35
following the plague of hail. Of course, the question we have to ask is, When did the
Lord say that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened?

Do you remember Moses’ conversation with the Lord at the beginning of Chapter
7? Let’s turn there to refresh our memories. Read 7:1-4: Then the LORD said to
Moses, "See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your
prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall
speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will
harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land
of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt

John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996 reprint), 2.1.175.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by
great judgments.”

In verse 3, after telling what Moses would do and what Aaron would do, he tells
what he will do. And he emphasizes his action by using the emphatic first-person
pronoun, I.7 “You will speak my word to Aaron. Aaron will speak your word to Pharaoh.
And I, I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.”

And this remark in 7:3, recalls the first time the Lord tells Moses that he would be
hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Turn back to 4:21: The LORD said to Moses, “When you
go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I
have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the
people go.”

God tells Moses that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let
the people go. The reason given for the hardening here in 4:21, at least, is so that
Pharaoh will not let the people go. God’s intention is to keep the people in Egypt until
the full measure of his wonders has been accomplished. Then, as we learn in 7:4, it will
be that the Lord will bring out his people from under Egyptian oppression.

So when we read that even after Pharaoh confesses that the Lord is the
righteous one while he and his people are the wicked ones (9:28)—when we read in
9:33-34 that even after the rain and thunder and lightening and unprecedented hail
ceased—when we read that he sinned again and hardened his heart even after
losing his flax and barley—when we read that his heart was hardened, we are not
surprised. For according to verse 35, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, just as the
Lord had spoken through Moses. Everything is proceeding according to God’s
sovereign plan. Though Pharaoh asked, “Who is the Lord that I should obey…?” now
he is being made to comply with the divine will.

And just in case we forget who is ultimately responsible for Pharaoh’s hardening,
10:1, 10:20, and 10:27 remind us that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s
heart was hard in spite of the destruction caused by locusts and in spite of plague of
darkness, the Lord’s decisive blow to the powerful sun god, Re, from whom Egyptian
kings were thought to be descended. Pharaoh’s heart was hard because God made it
that way.

So whether the text simply says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or that
Pharaoh hardened his heart, we can know that we are meant to understand that
hardening to have come about by the prior action of God according to the word he gave
to Moses. I love what one commentator says,

[T]he clear implication…is that Yahweh is in every case the prime mover
in the matter. We are told as much in anticipation of the [plagues] sequence, in
the prologue that begins it, and in the dramatic victory that concludes it, the final
triumph over Pharaoh and Egypt at the sea. Every might act must be read within

This contrast is clear in the Hebrew with the writer’s use of the second person pronoun in v 2.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


such a bracketing, and so every stubborn reversal of promise by Pharaoh, like

every reversal of the welfare of his country, must be recognized to be the work of

Like Channels of Water

Earlier we set forth the possibility that even though the Most High bestows
sovereignty on whomever he wishes, the Lord’s sovereignty only goes so far as
establishing the rule of the worlds kings. Perhaps, we said, the Lord is not ultimately
responsible for how that rule is carried out. On the basis of God’s activity in Pharaoh’s
life, it seems that such a suggestion is mistaken. Rather, God’s sovereignty extends
even to the heart of a king, every desire, every machination of Pharaoh was at God’s

Maybe, then, what we have here is a special case. Perhaps God’s sovereignty
does not normally extend to the very hearts of kings. Since God had planned to bring
about a mighty and miraculous deliverance for his people, he intervened to set the
stage for his performance. Since this is a formative event of singular importance in the
life of Israel, perhaps God is moving in an unusual way.

Though this explanation may sound appealing, the witness of the Scripture is
clear. God is always in control of all things in their every detail. “The LORD has
established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all” (Ps 103:19).

Prov 21:1 says that “the king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the
LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.” As a farmer channels the water where he
wants and regulates its flow, so does the Lord with the king. In the case of Pharaoh, the
Lord wished to turn his heart against the Lord’s own people, that he would oppress
them severely, that he would exacerbate their suffering, and that he would not
immediately let his people go.

This is not the only time in Scripture where the Lord is said to stir up a nation’s
heart against his own people. For various reasons, God moves on the hearts of rulers
of nations to stir them up to hostility against Israel.

As the people began to move into the Promised Land, they faced many armies in
battle. These nations were obviously hostile to Israel. Why? Because God made them
to be so.

Listen to the psalmist: “[The Lord] turned their heart to hate His people, To deal
craftily with His servants” (Psalm 105:25). Joshua says the same thing: “There was not
a city which made peace with the sons of Israel except the Hivites living in Gibeon; they
took them all in battle. For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in
battle” (Josh 11:19-20). And the Deuteronomist agrees, “But Sihon king of Heshbon
was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the LORD your God hardened his
spirit and made his heart obstinate” (Deuteronomy 2:30).

John I Durham, Exodus (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 123.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


Throughout the prophets, often in response to Israel’s wickedness, the Lord is

said to use Pagan kings as his tools for executing judgment on his own people.
Through Jeremiah, the Lord says,

“Because you have not obeyed My words, 9behold, I will send and take all the
families of the north…and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My
servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and
against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make
them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation” (Jeremiah 25:8-9).

And in Isaiah 10, the word of the Lord says that even though Assyria did not
“plan so in its heart,” the Lord used Assyria to come against his people, “to capture
booty and to seize plunder, And to trample them down like mud in the streets,” even
though it did “not so intend” (Isaiah 10:6-7). From Isaiah we also read, ‘Thus says the
Lord, “The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating
calamity; I am the LORD who does all these”’ (Isaiah 45:7). And addressing the same
theme the prophet Amos asks, “If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people
tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” (Amos 3:6).

No, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not some special event. God’s
sovereignty rules over all. It is absolute.

The Apostle Paul, reflecting on the teaching of Exodus 9:16, says this in Rom
9:17-18: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED
He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”

God’s sovereignty is absolute: he has mercy on whom he desires and he

hardens whom he desires. And then, in verse 21 Paul asks, “Or does not the potter
have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use
and another for common use?” His answer is an unequivocal “yes.” The Lord is the
potter. He has the right and wisdom to do whatever he pleases, with whomever he
pleases, for whatever reason pleases him. “Our God is in the heavens; He does
whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).

Are you beginning to feel the weight of his sovereignty? Are you beginning to
see how unsearchable are his ways, how unfathomable is his wisdom?

I want to impress upon you that what you have heard this morning is nothing less
than what the Bible teaches (and we have left so much out). Listen then to the words of

Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how
bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural
proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put
forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would
never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. For our wisdom ought to

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn


be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and without

reservation, whatever is taught in Holy Scripture.9

And better, with David (and Jonathan Edwards) let us worship the Lord for his
absolute sovereignty:
Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the
victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth;
Yours is the dominion, O LORD, and You exalt Yourself as head over all. 12Both
riches and honor come from You, and You rule over all, and in Your hand is
power and might; and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen
everyone. 13Now therefore, our God, we thank You, and praise Your glorious
name (1 Chronicles 29:11-13).

Redeemer Bible Church

16205 Highway 7
Minnetonka, MN 55345
Office: 952.935.2425
Fax: 952.938.8299

Institutes 1.18.4.

Exod 7:8-10:29: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart © 2004 by R W Glenn

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