Exodus 4:21—If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, how can Pharaoh be held responsible?
Problem: The Bible quotes God as saying, “I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart, so that he will not let the people go.” But if God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh cannot be held morally responsible for his actions, since he did not do it of his own free will, but out of constraint (cf. 2 Cor. 9:7; 1 Peter 5:2).
Solution: God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart contrary to Pharaoh’s own free choice. The Scripture makes it very clear that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It declares that Pharaoh’s heart “grew hard” (Ex. 7:13), that Pharaoh “hardened his heart” (Ex. 8:15), and that “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard” the more God worked on it (Ex. 8:19). Again, when God sent the plague of the flies, “Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also” (Ex. 8:32). This same or like phrase is repeated over and over (cf. Ex. 9:7, 34–35). In fact, with the exception of God’s prediction of what would happen (Ex. 4:21), the fact is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first (Ex. 7:13; 8:15, 8:32, etc.), and then God hardened it later (cf. Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27).
Furthermore, the sense in which God hardened his heart is similar to the way the sun hardens clay and also melts wax. If Pharaoh had been receptive to God’s warnings, his heart would not have been hardened by God. But when God gave Pharaoh a reprieve from the plagues, he took advantage of the situation. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not heed them [Moses and Aaron], as the Lord had said” (Ex. 8:15).
The question can be summarized as follows: does God harden hearts?
(See also discussion under Rom. 9:17.)
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.