The first Bible’s mention of Pharaoh’s resistance was a prediction by God Himself, when He spoke with Moses in the wilderness: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him” (Exodus 3:19). Soon after that prediction, the Lord said to Moses, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). From the burning bush, God spoke of two reasons for Pharaoh’s resistance to Moses: the king’s own stubbornness and a supernatural hardening of the king’s heart after Pharaoh exercised his own defiance toward God.
In those ancient days, the Pharaoh was considered a god, and his every word was law. There was no one who could stand against Pharaoh, so the Lord used him to demonstrate His own superior power. The Lord’s plan to use plagues and miracles to free the nation of Israel was not conceived in reaction to Pharaoh’s rebellion. God is never reactive; He is always proactive. He had orchestrated the back-and-forth with Pharaoh and the exodus from the very beginning (see Isaiah 46:10). Four hundred years prior to the exodus, Joseph prophesied on his deathbed that God would lead His people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and he made his relatives promise to carry his bones with them when they went (Genesis 50:24–25).
Seen as a symbol of the world’s ungodly system, Egypt represents the enemies of the Lord (cf. Ezekiel 29:1–6). God used Pharaoh’s hardheartedness to showcase His own glory and to show the world His supremacy over all the kings of the earth (Psalm 2:10–11; Ezekiel 20:9; 36:22).
Exodus 5 begins with God’s representatives, Moses and Aaron, saying to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh’s first response indicates where his heart was and why it would take tragedy to humble him. In verse 2, he says, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters to withhold straw from the Hebrew slaves, forcing the children of Israel to gather straw for themselves while maintaining the same quota of bricks that they must make: “You shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words’” (Exodus 5:6–8).
In Exodus chapters 4–14, there are twenty references to Pharaoh’s resistance to Moses’ message. The cause attributed to the king’s hardness of heart is evenly split: ten times, the Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and ten times the Bible says that God hardened his heart. The balance suggests that Pharaoh was responsible for his own actions, and, at the same time, God was using Pharaoh’s rebellion to bring greater glory to Himself. Paul uses this account to emphasize the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men: “Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:17–18, quoting Exodus 9:16).
The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart was evident from the first, and God used that defiance to demonstrate the Lord’s power over him and over all the gods of Egypt. Because of the continuation of miraculous signs, many Egyptians witnessed the reality of Israel’s God. And because of the miracles they saw, many came to believe and joined Israel in leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:38). The supernatural hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in no way mitigates Pharaoh’s own culpability; rather, it demonstrates the grace and mercy of the Lord who does not desire anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).