One of the clearest examples of God acting sovereignly and freely is in His bringing Israel out of Egypt. God was very clear that His plan was to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that God could glorify Himself by visiting judgment on the Egyptians.
Just before God initiated the ten plagues, He sent Moses again to Pharaoh. He told Moses “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.” (Exodus 7:3-5)
God announced His plan to Moses: God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that God would have an opportunity to “multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt” and “lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring fort … the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments”. The result would be God’s glory: “the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD”.
Of course, God did not have to drag Pharaoh, kicking and screaming, into disobedience. We are all by nature children of wrath, we are all naturally enemies of God. Pharaoh was in rebellion against God, as are all unregenerate men. So in some senses it’s true that God didn’t so much harden Pharaoh’s heart as He let Pharaoh’s heart go its own naturally hard way. It’s also true that for the first few plagues the Bible says “Pharaoh hardened his heart” and not until the last few plagues does it say “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. These are valid points. But they are utterly irrelevant. God announced His plan from the beginning – He would harden Pharaoh’s heart for the express purpose of sending the plagues on Egypt. Whatever mechanism He might have used, God was clear about His plan and His motives, and openly acknowledged His role as the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
In fact, God says that He raised Pharaoh up for precisely this purpose. He wanted to smite the Egyptians and glorify Himself by delivering Israel. “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses. And the LORD said unto Moses, Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me. For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth. For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence; and thou shalt be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” (Exodus 9:12-16, emphasis added) And again, in Exodus 10:1-2 “And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him: And that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the LORD.”
God has no qualms about exercising His sovereignty over Pharaoh. He raised up and preserved Egypt so He could smite Egypt. God got more glory because He delivered Israel from Egypt, a powerful nation. He hardened Pharaoh so that He could perform signs and wonders to demonstrate that He is God alone.
Moses could have gone in and negotiated with Pharaoh. Pharaoh was afraid of the Israelites anyway. Maybe they could have worked out a deal. And then, Moses would get all the glory as a skillful politician.
What if Pharaoh had let the Israelites go after just a few plagues? Several of the first few plagues can be attributed to natural causes. At that point it would appear that Pharaoh was just superstitious and the Israelites were fortunate that a series of bizarre, but utterly natural, events happened and Pharaoh interpreted it as a divine message. Would God get all that much glory if Israel was delivered due to a bunch of frogs?
We see in Exodus 10:20, 10:27, and 11:9-10 that the Bible clearly states “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. It’s true that this follows several statements that “Pharaoh hardened his heart”, but this does not detract from the teachings about God’s sovereignty. We know that God always intended to harden Pharaoh’s heart. He said so from the very beginning of the story. Even if you want to say that God didn’t harden Pharaoh’s heart until Pharaoh had hardened his heart repeatedly, God still hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Saying that God gave Pharaoh a few chances first, does not strengthen the case against God’s sovereignty. He hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
God continually hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and send harsher and harsher plagues, until He gloriously delivered Israel by slaughtering the firstborn of each house of Israel. Little babies died that night, who had done nothing good or bad. And that was God’s plan all along. This is the God we serve.
But there’s more. After Israel left, God spoke to Moses again. “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baalzephon: before it shall ye encamp by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD. And they did so.” (Exodus 14:1-4). God comes to Moses and says, “Hey, pretend that you are lost. Watch what I do this time!”
Israel had already been delivered. If that was God’s only goal, it was accomplished. But that was not His goal. His goal was to glorify Himself. “I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD”. That is what God is concerned with – His glory. He is glorified in redeeming us, and He was glorified in delivering Israel. But He is also glorified in condemning some, just as He was glorified in killing the Egyptians in the sea.
Pharaoh heard that the Israelites appeared to be lost, and – just as God intended – he pursued them. “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel” (Exodus 14:8). Again, this was God’s plan and He caused Pharaoh to pursue Israel. He said that it was His plan, and the Bible explicitly credits Him with Pharaoh’s heart again being hardened.
Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that when the Egyptians chased Israel, at some point they would give up? For starters, there was the whole pillar of cloud and fire. That would certainly intimidate me. And then, when God parted the sea and “the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left” (Exodus 14:22) – wouldn’t you think even the boldest Egyptian would turn back?
Well, they probably would have. Except God hardened their hearts again and made them do something truly insane. “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen. ” (Exodus 14:17).
God’s plan was to get glory for Himself. Even 40 years later, Rahab told the Israelite spies that the Canaanites were terrified because they knew what God had done to Egypt (Joshua 1:8-11). He was glorified by delivering Israel, but He was not content to simply deliver Israel. He did it in such a way that brought Him great glory. This involved excercising sovereignty, particularly over Pharaoh, to give God the opportunity to punish Egypt.