Romans 9:17—How can Pharaoh be free if God hardened his heart?

Problem: God said to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth” (Rom. 9:17, nasb). In fulfillment of this, it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; cf. Ex. 7:3). But if God raised up Pharaoh and even hardened his heart to accomplish His divine purposes, then isn’t Pharaoh exempt from responsibility for his actions?

Solution: First, God in His omniscience foreknew exactly how Pharaoh would respond, and He used it to accomplish His purposes. God ordained the means of Pharaoh’s free but stubborn action as well as the end of Israel’s deliverance. In Exodus 3:19, God told Moses, “But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand.” Pharaoh rejected the request of Moses and only after ten plagues did Pharaoh finally let the people go.

Second, it is important to note that Pharaoh first hardened his own heart. When Moses initially approached Pharaoh concerning the release of the Israelites (Ex. 5:1), Pharaoh responded, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). The passage Paul quotes (in Rom. 9:17) is Exodus 9:16 which, in context, is the plague of the boils, the sixth plague. But Pharaoh hardened his own heart before God made this statement. Just because God raised up Pharaoh does not mean that Pharaoh is not responsible for his actions.

Third, God uses the unrighteousness of humans to show His glory. God still holds Pharaoh accountable, but in the process of his hardened heart God used Pharaoh to display His greatness and glory. God sometimes uses evil acts to bring about good results. The story of Joseph is a good example of this point. Joseph is sold by his brothers and later becomes a ruler in Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph saves many lives during a famine. When he later reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them, he says, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). God can use bad actions to bring about His glory (see also discussion on Ex. 4:21).

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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.