Pharaoh was stubborn, and sometimes at the most inopportune times. Scripture tells us he hardened his heart in the face of God’s awesome power and judgment (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34). Bruised and battered, he refused to allow Israel to worship God in the wilderness. Occasionally, God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart:
Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son, and of your grandson, how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and how I performed My signs among them; that you may know that I am the LORD’” (Exodus 10:1-2; cf. 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8).
At other times, Pharaoh’s heart “was hardened” (Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35), perhaps by God or by Pharaoh.
This raises the question: How can God judge Pharaoh when, in several instances, He prevented him from obeying His command? Further, God exalted Pharaoh to the throne in order to display His power and proclaim His name through Pharaoh’s destruction (Romans 9:17). Did God, then, do moral evil to display His glory? Worse, was Pharaoh condemned for that which God is responsible, a perversion of justice? Or, as the hypothetical detractor proposes, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” (Romans 9:19).
God responds by an appeal to His sovereignty as our creator: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:20-21). God rules His universe and can do what He wants. Who are we to say otherwise? For some, this settles the matter. Indeed, knowing our humble place before an infinite and sovereign God forms the proper starting point for approaching every theological difficulty.
Yet, the questions run deeper. An arbitrary or evil power, indeed, an infinite one, constitutes a horrific thing. God’s rule must be holy, for He can never be the direct or indirect author of moral evil: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Thy throne” (Psalm 89:14). “His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13). He does create calamity or “natural evil” as part of the curse on a fallen world, “forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these” (Isaiah 45:6-7). But God never creates moral evil.
Moreover, believers love God first and foremost for the beauty of His perfections, each made beautiful by holiness. The mere appeal to God’s sovereignty neglects this critical point and risks impugning God as the author of wickedness, or implies that He does moral evil to accomplish good as if the end justifies the means. Unholiness renders God no better than the evil He hates and condemns, contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture, and destroys the beauty and excellence that is the supreme object of our love. And like His sovereignty, God’s moral purity comforts us in our experience of great suffering and wickedness. A sovereign but evil God provides little solace.
God created us and has “a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use.” (Romans 9:21). At the same time, all people are guilty of sin (chapters 1-3, 5:12). Indeed, “There is none righteous, not even one” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23). Thus, “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” were taken and molded from a lump of fallen clay (Romans 9:22). So, when God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15), He extends mercy to the guilty.
Pharaoh, then, was wicked from the womb to the throne (Psalm 51:5). And even if he had let the people go from a desire to save his skin and his kingdom, without a true love and reverence for God he would still be guilty of sin. Thus, having postponed His judgment to make a display of it, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to prevent his escape from a well-deserved punishment. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).
In the end, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God,” where we should leave them, while we hold fast to “the things revealed” (Deuteronomy 29:29). And God has clearly revealed that He remains holy, just, and sovereign, despite our inability to solve every theological mystery. Indeed, Christ suffered infinite wrath on the cross because God cannot save a single soul without satisfying the requirements of His perfect justice. Thus, when we reach the limits of our understanding before an infinite God, we bow in humble faith and love before His holy throne. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
Unless noted otherwise, Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, 1995. Used by permission.
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