And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had spoken unto Moses. (Exodus 9:12)
This is one of the most misunderstood passages of Scripture in the debate between those who support a libertarian freedom view of man (Arminian) and those who hold a compatibilist view of man (Calvinist). In discussion on this passage (and I’m speaking in generalities), some Arminians tend to have a hard time explaining this verse. Calvinists tend to double down on this verse, wrongly, and think that it means God compelled Pharaoh to do that which he would have otherwise not done, violating his will and forcing him to do evil.
I want to suggest a ceasefire on this verse. Why? Because this verse, considered by itself, is not a “case closed” argument for either side. I tend to think one interpretation better explains it and will offer that toward the end. But today we will look at different ways of interpreting this verse.
An Arminian Interpretation
Looking at the word commonly translated as “hardened”, we find that the underlying Hebrew word is “chazaq.” This word can also mean assist, fortify, or encourage. We find examples of this Deuteronomy 1:38 (“encourage him: for he shall cause Israel to inherit it”) or Ezra 1:6 (“they that were about them strengthened their hands”).
Thus, the passage doesn’t point to God violating the will of Pharaoh but Pharaoh making a choice and God assisting and encouraging him in that choice. Thus, Pharaoh was choosing to do evil and God was not violating his will. For more, see this blog entry at Wesleyan Arminian.
A Calvinist Interpretation
There is significant agreement with the above. Indeed, as Reformed Christians, we let Scripture interpret Scripture. With that in mind, we need not go far to see that a pattern was already developing with Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative. In chapters 7 and 8, we see that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (7:22,8:19,8:32). As the plagues continue, we see this phrasing change to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Examples include 9:12, 10:20, and 10:27.
Thus, the Calvinist agrees that Pharaoh did what his heart desired. And as he did, God further plunged him into his sin. Again, letting Scripture interpret Scripture, we see a Romans 1 situation in the heart of Pharaoh. God “gave them up” (1:24) to their desires, desires they had because of their sinfulness. God’s response is to increase the judgment upon them.
That is what I think is happening in Pharaoh’s heart. Being a sinful man, he chose to oppress the Hebrew people. As his obstinance against them increased, God judged Pharaoh and made repentance impossible for him. It is not as if, however, Pharaoh would have done differently if God hadn’t judged him. God knew he never would. And God’s judgment is just. I think this better fits the tenor of Scripture overall. What was happenin was not God moving his heart in a cooperative fashion. God was judging the sinfulness of Pharaoh. A sinfulness for which Pharaoh was responsible and which God had forseen.
Matthew Henry comments on this verse succinctly:
Willful hardness is commonly punished with judicial hardness. If men shut their eyes against the light, it is just with God to close their eyes. Let us dread this as the sorest judgment a man can be under on this side of hell.