Of Kings and Hearts
There stood Moses, with his elder brother at his side, after protesting to God his lack of abilities and qualifications as a leader, in the court of the most powerful monarch of his time. This pharaoh, seated on the throne before him, was considered a deity by his own people. His image was in reproduction all over his domain. And he was used to being revered—worshiped—as a god.
Moses, of course, had been brought up in the very halls of this royalty. By what some would have surely considered only a twist of fate, he had been adopted as an infant by the pharaoh’s daughter and, from the age of 12 to adulthood, lived in this life of privilege. At one time he had been considered to be the successor to the throne of Egypt.
But such was not the fortune of his own people, the Israelites, who had come to Egypt centuries before, during a famine, to be made welcome by the pharaoh of that time. Among them the story of Joseph, their ancestor who had arranged—by God’s grace—their salvation as a people, was legendary. But this pharaoh had no memory of Joseph. Or he may have chosen to have no memory of the way in which their ancestors’ God had saved the Egyptian people from suffering in a time of terrible drought.
Times had changed.
God’s people—the Israelites—were now considered to be enemies of the state. (In today’s parlance, there had been a change of administration.) Their apparent successes and empowerment were put down ruthlessly, and they were subjected to more than mere subtle oppression. It was outright slavery.
And this was what had brought Moses and his brother Aaron to the court of the pharaoh. He had come there with what the monarch must have thought an audacious request: “Let my people go!”
Actually, it was no humble request that Moses delivered to Pharaoh that day. It was a demand: “‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel: “Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness”’” (Ex. 5:1, NKJV).
This was met with the monarch’s utter contempt: “‘Is that so?’ retorted Pharaoh. ‘And who is the Lord? Why should I listen to him and let Israel go?’” (vs. 2, NLT).
In His omniscience, God knew that given Pharaoh’s concept of self, he would respond in this way. And this became the first step in God’s demonstration to Pharaoh—and to everyone else in Pharaoh’s world—just exactly who God was. It led through the terrible process of 10 plagues inflicted on the monarch and on his entire people.
Water turning to blood, frogs, lice, biting flies, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness—and then, ultimately, a “final blow to Egypt’s dynastic legacy. Pharaoh was the son of Re [a god], and his heir too would one day lead Egypt. The one who was groomed to be king was slain.”1
Up until this last precisely targeted pandemic, the pharaoh had arrogantly refused the command to free the Israelite people. Throughout the recurrent plagues, Scripture records, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10, NIV), and he had repeatedly dismissed God’s message through Moses and Aaron.
This expression, “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” has, through the times since, raised eyebrows of readers of Scripture. Can it be that God actually made the most powerful monarch of his time reject God’s own message to him? How does this square with the idea of the freedom of will that is at the very center of human anthropology as understood in Christianity?
Sometimes an unexpected expression such as this, as it occurs in Scripture, is better understood in surveying it in various translations. The English language, as it was written in the Elizabethan era, when the KJV was translated, has an archaic, Shakespearean, ring to it, making it sound at time quite ironic. But the other, more modern, translations of this second book of the Old Testament are quite consistent in their conformity with the expression “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” It truly reads as if God Himself is the active agent in this historical moment.
But as one among many similar-thinking commentators wrote: “‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ is ambiguous and misleading, for he himself did the hardening.”2
Ellen G. White, in several places in her written ministry, addressed this seemingly inappropriate description of human nature. From his own spiritual life, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened before he came into direct conflict with God’s intent to free the children of Israel.
“The statement in Holy Writ is that God hardened his heart, and at every repetition of light in the manifestation of God’s power the statement is repeated. Every time he refused to submit to God's will his heart became harder and less impressible by the Spirit of God. He [Pharaoh] sowed the seed of obstinacy, and God left it to vegetate.”3
And, elsewhere: “God did not send a supernatural power to harden the heart of the rebellious king, but as Pharaoh resisted the truth, the Holy Spirit was withdrawn, and he was left to the darkness and unbelief which he had chosen.”4
Comparison and contrast are made in many commentaries between the experience of Pharaoh in this encounter with God and the essence of Jesus’ parable millennia later of the sower and the seed. “There was no difference between the seed scattered in one kind of soil and that sown in the others, or yet in the manner in which it was sown. Everything depended upon the reception given the seed by each type of soil. In like manner, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was in no way an act of God, but rather a deliberate choice on his own part.”5
The soil, in fact, the state of the heart in which God’s direct message through the miraculous, figured in an entirely different way in the story of another monarch centuries later. When the Babylonian empire arose under the awesome leadership of Nebuchadnezzar, this king came to power with the same assumptions of his deity as that claimed by the Egyptian pharaohs before his time.
Again, drawn from the annals of the fallen fortunes of the same people of God, they found themselves in slave-like oppression, carried off from their home to serve a foreign culture. At one critical point in this difficult epoch, everyone in the kingdom of Babylon was commanded to return obeisance to Nebuchadnezzar over any other authority, human or divine.
The king ordered the creation of a 90-foot image of himself—in gold—to be set up and worshipped. At the appointed fanfare, all called together into assembly there were to bow to the image, indicating their recognition of Nebuchadnezzar as the supreme being.
And, as the epic story goes, three humble Israelites literally stood their ground, refusing to bow to this image. Enraged, Nebuchadnezzar ordered them executed—burned alive. It is difficult to imagine a more ghastly order.
Yet, though the king’s heart is not mentioned in the account of this event, it is plain that the soil of his belief was not as hard as that of the pharaoh so many centuries before. When the seed of the miraculous deliverance of the three worthies was demonstrated before this world monarch, he recognized his own personal subservience to the power that was obviously saving them.
“Final, eternal punishment is abandonment by God that results in destruction, but this abandonment is the result of the previous abandonment of God by the sinner. This explains why God may harden the heart of those who persistently rebel against Him but does not harden the heart of the faithful. This hardening is in fact the individual’s choice which is also attributed to God.”6
NOTES AND REFERENCES