Free Will, Lessons from Pharaoh

“God created us with Free Will.” That is a very popular sentiment today. If you do an internet search on that phrase you will find hundreds of articles and comments from Seminary Professors with Ph. D’s to corner bloggers simply sharing their thoughts.

But if we go to God’s Word – and here I mean seriously examine the scriptures and let them shape your understanding – can we really conclude that in God’s dealing with us humans he works in such a way as to use all of his limitless power only to influence us externally, stopping short of moving inside and actually working inside of us, in our wills, to make certain choices? Or will we see God “violating our free will” (as some would say) and working his power in someone so that they do what he wills?

To answer this, let’s examine carefully what the Bible says about Pharaoh during the Exodus.

In Exodus 4:21 God speaks to Moses at the burning bush and gives him a command, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power.’” God then tells Moses exactly what He is going to do, “But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” The plan from the beginning is that God will harden the heart of Pharaoh.

Later in Exodus 7:2-4 God tells Moses “You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you…”

What is very clearly taught in these two passages is that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a key part of God’s plan. Also clearly taught is that Pharaoh’s hard heart, his stubbornness and obstinance was a direct result of God’s action inside his being. “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” means that God intends to use His omnipotent power and cause Pharaoh to be stubborn, cause Pharaoh to be obstinate.

Now, I am aware that after the the Second and Fourth Plagues the Bible says Pharaoh hardened his own heart:

– “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Ex 8:15).
– “But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go” (Ex 8:32)

But we cannot take those few verses and reinterpret what God clearly and repeatedly declares “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”, proclaiming it to be a sovereign act of God.

What was God’s Ultimate Purpose?
It is crucial that we identify what God’s ultimate purpose was. What exactly was he trying to accomplish? For those who champion Free Will it is unimaginable that God would be the primary cause of Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Therefore, the purpose of the plagues must have been to free his people, to get them out of Egypt. And in order to get his people out, God had to win a battle of two competing wills. Pharaoh and God were duking it out, so to speak, and with each punch from God, Pharaoh stubbornly refused to tap out. Each hit from God carried more and more force, until finally God used the ultimate finishing move, the Tenth Plague, killing “every firstborn in the land of Egypt…from the firstborn of Pharaoh…to the firstborn of the slave girl…and all the firstborn of the cattle.” (Ex 11:5). Those who cherish Free Will see the plagues as a necessary means to accomplish God’s main goal – to get his people out of Egypt.

But scripture indicates that God had a very different purpose in mind.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.’” (‭Exodus‬ ‭10‬:‭1-2‬)

Here God tells Moses his exact purpose, that He intends to bring great plagues, these signs of mine, so that the Jews will know that it was God who brought them out, that it was God who can be trusted, and that they would have a testimony of God’s great power, that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.

In fact, the whole passage seems to indicate that Pharaoh may have been inclined to let the Jews go. This would have been fantastic if it was God’s main purpose. But since God’s main desire was to display his power, if Pharaoh would have let the Jews leave that would have thwarted God’s overall plan. Think about it! God’s main purpose was not to get the Jews out, it was to display His mighty power. Imagine what would have happened had God not intervened and sovereignly caused Pharaoh to be stubborn? Moses says to Pharaoh “God says ‘Let my people go’” and Pharaoh replies “Well, okay, that’s fine with me, go ahead and go.” Where’s the glory in that? What is the testimony to be told to generation after generation? Where is God’s power on display, his glory to be held in awe?

Or perhaps another alternative? Perhaps Moses declares to Pharaoh “God says ‘Let my people go’” and Pharaoh replies “No way Moses! Your people aren’t going anywhere!” So Moses throws down his staff and it becomes a serpent, and Pharaoh replies “Whoa, that’s pretty impressive. Okay, you can go.” Can you imagine how the Jews would have viewed Moses, or how they might have worshipped the staff?

Therefore, since God’s ultimate purpose was to show his mighty power, before the very first plague where God turned the water into blood, He declared “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 7:3). Then Moses and Aaron cast their staffs to the ground and they became serpents, but “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said”. (Ex 7:13).

Next God sends Moses to Pharaoh, but tells him “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.” (Ex 7:14). Pharaoh’s heart remains hard because God made it so. Then after the water had turned to blood, “…Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Ex 7:22).

It is very important for us to see that at this point, Pharaoh may, of his own free will, decided to let God’s people go. But it was crucial to God’s overall plan that he did not. God’s plan was to demonstrate His great power and give his people a great testimony. So God ensured the proper outcome by hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

And it was not just Pharaoh who’s heart was hardened by God. Pslam 105:25 tells us that God hardened the hearts of all the Egyptians to create, by intentional design, the circumstances surrounding the Exodus. “He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.”

All this was done by God because His plan was to display his mighty power so that and the Jews would have a testimony to share with future generations:

“And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ (Ex 13:14-15)

We know the rest of the story: Ten Plagues and Pharaoh finally lets God’s people go. But after the Exodus God still had more planned! He had more glory and power He wanted to display. When the Jews were nearing the Red Sea, God told Moses “For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.” (Ex 14:3-4)

According to this passage Pharaoh may have not have been inclined to pursue the Jews. When speaking to Moses, God made it very clear that He was the cause of Pharaoh’s desire to pursue the Jews.

Let that sink in for a moment!

God himself was the cause of Pharaoh’s desire to pursue the Jews. That may seem hard to swallow at first, but the language God uses makes it difficult to come to any other conclusion. “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them…’ If God’s main purpose was simply to get the Jews out of Egypt then He could have let Pharaoh wallow in self-pity back in Egypt. But that was not God’s plan. We go on to read “the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people…And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel” (Ex 14:5, 8). So not only was God working in Pharaoh but was also working in the Egyptians as well.

God still had one last mighty act of working in the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. God declared that after the Jews had gone through the parted sea “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” (Ex 14:17-18)

Again from this passage it appears the Egyptians may not have been very eager to pursue the Jews through the sea. But God’s plan was not for them to turn back, His plan was to gain “glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen”. So God hardened the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, so that his Glory would be displayed. The Jews would behold the Glory of God, and the Egyptians would behold the Glory of God. God takes his Glory very seriously and we should as well.

What does this say about Free Will?
Exodus 4-14 shows us over and over again that God can and does “violate our free will”. He, through His sovereign, omnipotent power, made Pharaoh’s heart hard, stubborn and obstinate, and made the Egyptian people pursue the Jews through the sea to their own doom.

Exodus is not alone in scripture, we see the same truth in others passages as well. Deut 2:30 tells us “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.” WOW! Here we are clearly told that God God hardened his spirit, and that it was God who made his heart obstinate.

You may ask “Would God really work in someone’s so that they do what He wants, even if they weren’t inclined that way?” I pray that through the careful examination of the scriptures you will come to the point where you can say with delight “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps 115:3).

-KR