Why God Hardens Hearts
Text– Ex. 6:28-7:13
…So the Lord said to Moses: “See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My 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 out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.” …
How do you change people?
Do people ever actually change?
When you ask these questions in earnest, you are immediately confronted with the reality that “change” is a mysterious thing that we have little to no control over. We can rarely change ourselves! It’s foolish to think you can “learn” about people, “predict” how they are going to be, and then manager or steer them in the appropriate direction. People aren’t programs. They aren’t statistics.
No, you can’t change people. Only God changes people. That means that we are all at His mercy. Only He can change us, and only He can change others. You’d better learn that lesson now. It will save you a lifetime of frustration and disappointment.
Moses had to learn this lesson too. You see, God told Moses to go speak to Pharaoh, even though Pharaoh is not going to listen. God goes so far as to say, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and “Pharaoh will not heed you.” But Moses still has to go, and Moses still has to do his job. Why? What’s the point? Why does God work this way?
We’ll try to answer those questions. God, in His mysterious sovereignty, wills for us to faithfully speak His word, even when He also wills for people not to listen and not to accept it. This has been his plan all along, and, somehow, He does it in order to save people. This is beyond us, but it is how the Bible says it works. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart precisely so He can stretch out His mighty hand. God hardens hearts to show the power of salvation and to cause us to see and know the full nature of His grace.
Moses Talks to God Again
This morning we’ve picked up the story in the end of Exodus 6. But this isn’t where we left things last week. So let’s quickly recap. In Exodus 3 and 4, Moses is on Mt. Horeb, at the site of the burning bush, talking to the Lord. In chapter 5 then, Moses goes back to Egypt for the first time in 40 years. He meets with Pharaoh and asks to be able to lead Israel into the Wilderness to worship God. Pharaoh says “No way!” and punishes Israel by making their work even harder. This makes the people of Israel really hate Moses—Please stop helping us!—and so Moses retreats back to the Lord in chapter 5 verse 22, which is somewhere away from Egypt, possibly all the way back in Midian.
The rest of chapter 5 and most of chapter 6 shows Moses talking with the Lord again, and it sure seems like Moses is complaining and trying to get out of the job. He basically says, “But God, this isn’t working!” So God again has to answer Moses. That’s where our text picks up.
Moses said before the Lord, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh heed me?”
So the Lord said to Moses: “See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My 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 out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.” (Ex. 6:28-7:5)
What an answer! Now what’s going on there?
God tells Moses that He will “harden Pharaoh’s heart,” even as He multiplies signs and wonders. He promises Moses that Pharaoh “will not heed,” and He says to go anyway because this will be the way that God can bring His judgment—and His judgment is how He will bring His salvation.
Showdown with the Magicians
After all of this, Moses does go back to Egypt. He takes Aaron with him. This time Pharaoh asks for a miracle, and so they give him one. “Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent” (Ex. 7:10). The staff turns into a serpent—and this is totally real. God has given them this power.
Now, does this work? Does this persuade Pharaoh to change his mind and do the right thing?
No. The miracle, on its own, does not do the trick, and in fact, Pharaoh has a surprise in store for Moses and Aaron. He has a group of court magicians, and they can do the very same trick:
But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. (Ex. 7:11-12)
Would you look at that? Pharaoh’s men have power too. There is no reason to doubt that this really happened. It doesn’t just say that they made their sticks to look like snakes. This wasn’t a trick of the eye. No, they had powers. The ancient world was strange. These men were actually a variety of priests, and they were surely interacting with demonic spirits through their worship of idols. What we are seeing here is not simply a showdown between Aaron and Pharaoh’s sorcerers, but a showdown of the gods. The true God, Yahweh, is doing battle against the gods of Egypt. And indeed, Aaron’s serpent defeats the Egyptian serpents. “Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods” (vs. 12b). The true God wins.
Well then, there you have it. Moses and Aaron’s snake defeated Pharaoh’s snakes. Surely Pharaoh will listen now. Surely he will change and do the right thing?
Ah, but no. No he doesn’t. The text says, “And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the Lord had said” (Ex. 7:13). How about that? The miracle didn’t work. Pharaoh didn’t listen. Does that mean that Moses was right all along?
No. It means that God was right after all. “Pharaoh’s heart grew hard… as the Lord had said.”
God Hardens Hearts and God Changes Hearts
The reason that Pharaoh wasn’t sufficiently impressed by Moses and Aaron’s miracle was because his heart was hardened. God had promised this would happen. In Ex. 4, God said this, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Ex. 4:21). And then again, in chapter 6, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart… Pharaoh will not heed you” (Ex. 6:3-4). There is a very real sense in which Pharaoh was never going to listen to Moses ever. It just wasn’t happening.
This isn’t the only place we see dynamic in the Bible. Isaiah is told precisely the same thing. God said to him:
Go, and tell this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed. (Is. 6:9-10)
Isaiah was literally told, “Go make your audience unable to listen.” That was his job. Interestingly, Jesus quotes this very section to His disciples when they ask Him why He uses parables:
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled.” (Matt. 13:10-14)
Then he quotes the section from Isaiah I just read. Jesus’ parables had the same effect. They closed the ears of those whose hearts were hardened.
So this is something that happens all throughout the Bible. God sends messengers who proclaim His word. There are two kinds of people in the audience, those who have ears to hear and those who don’t. Those who don’t have ears are the ones whose hearts have been hardened. They will not hear the message. They cannot.
Jesus says this explicitly in John 6. “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). The Father must cause people to receive Jesus. They cannot do so on their own. John 1 puts it this way:
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)
The only people who ever receive Jesus are those who have been born of God. The hearts are not hardened because their hearts have been changed. They have been born again.
Until this happens, nothing else will help them. People don’t change. People can’t change. You can’t change people. Only God can.
Moses can’t change Pharaoh. Only God can. And God has chosen, in His sovereignty, to harden Pharaoh. The same thing happens in parts of the New Testament. And the same thing happens today. The natural question is, “Why?”
Some of you will say, “But that’s not fair.” Pharaoh never had a chance. But think about this a little bit deeper. What is fair? Fair is to give everyone what they are owed. And what are we owed? “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). And we are all sinners. So if we really want “fair,” then we should all receive the same thing, death.
Pharaoh actually got fair. He got what he deserved, pure and simple, without any manipulation of the scales of justice. More than that, Pharaoh got what Pharaoh wanted. He got his heart’s desire. His heart was hard, and it was because of his heart that he would not repent. You see, what happened was that God decided not to turn Pharaoh into something else—something new—but to just push further into who he was, who he wanted to be. God made Pharaoh more Pharaoh-like. He turned Pharaoh over to his sinful thoughts and desires.
Have you ever had the experience or known the experience of dealing with someone with a serious addiction? What do you have to do to get them to fully confront that addiction and get help? They’ve proven that they cannot do it on their own. You have to stage an intervention. Sometimes this actually involves tricking the person or physically preventing them from escaping. You have to pressure them and almost force them to enter into a facility or a program which will begin to change their desires.
That’s kind of what has to happen to us spiritually. We need divine intervention. We have free will already. It’s just that our wills are sinful and broken. We always want bad things. So God has to change our wills. He has to change our hearts and give us a new heart. That’s the only way we will ever want Him.
And in His mysterious providence, He changes some by giving them a new heart, but He passes over others or pushes them further in line with what they want. He gives them over to their hard hearts and allows them to continue to will bad things.
Why does God do it this way?
As it turns out, God explains Himself in our text. He tells us why. “Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My 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” (Ex. 7:4-5). God did this so that He could execute His just judgment on Egypt, so that He could save His people, and so that even the Egyptians would know His power and His lordship. That is what the sovereignty of God is all about—judgment, salvation, and the God’s glory.
This should be a comforting message, but some people struggle with it. It gives them some doubts their own salvation. So let’s say a few more things by way of conclusion. First, the issue is not that God rejects anyone when they try to come to Him. That’s an impossibility out of the gates. He accepts all who come to Him. There is no chance of being rejected by God if you are seeking Him. Jesus says, “the one who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). James says, “draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). This is clear.
The real question is this—what would have to happen in order for you to ever want to come to Him in the first place? Who will ever come to Jesus? Who will draw near to God? It is only the man whose heart has been cleansed, whose eyes have been opened, and whose ears can hear. It is only those who God first draws to Himself.
To those with hard hearts, they gnash at this message and rush further into their sin. But for those of us who are touched by God’s grace, it drives us to our knees. It shows us God’s mighty power. He is entirely in control—of all that comes to pass.
Secondly, it should humble us as we think of how anyone at all is saved. They are saved by God’s gracious choice. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Even your own faith was first given to you from God. We did not earn it. We do not deserve it. We should be humble and give thanks for it.
Thirdly, this message frees us up to be faithful in the work God gives us. Just as He tasked Moses with an impossible job, He tasks us with the same. Be faithful to Him. Do your duty. Tell others the gospel of Christ.
How will this work? How will anyone listen? How will anyone change?
Only by the grace of God.
Let us pray.