Did God Control Pharaoh’s Heart and Mind?
When and how did pharaoh get a hardened heart? Study these lessons from the king of stubbornness to avoid falling prey to pharaoh’s curse.

Is God playing games with human beings? Many people believe so. What about you? Do you think God is treating you unfairly?

In the PCOG.org article, “The Passover Must Be Killed” (March, 23, 2013), I described Pharaoh as being “obstinate as granite.” In response, a reader asked, “Didn’t God work within Pharaoh to make his heart hardened?” This is an interesting and thought-provoking question.

Did God alter Pharaoh’s thinking and emotions to cause the king to act the way he did? Does God ever control human beings’ thinking to suit His own purposes?

Most people are confused about why God acts the way He does. Yet Pharaoh’s history with God at the time of the Exodus teaches us a simple, yet important and inspiring lesson. Unfortunately, most people—even professing Christians—believe that God was unfair to Pharaoh and even to Israel at times.

Snapshot Of The Plagues

Bible scholars and skeptics, dubious about scriptural history, take a hasty look at the events recorded in Exodus chapters 1 through 14. Confident of their own opinion, most presume things that put God in a bad light. You should deeply study this history for yourself. Here are some highlights.

“Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exodus 1:8-9). To prevent Israel from rising up against him, Pharaoh enslaved the children of Israel, forcing them to build his treasure cities Pithom and Raamses. He made their lives bitter. At one point, he even attempted to destroy all of their newborn male children (verses 15-22). However, God was well aware of the trials of the children of Israel. He set out to rescue them from slavery.

God sent Moses, the general-turned-sheepherder, to demand that Pharaoh set Israel free (Exodus 4:21-23). Pharaoh stubbornly refused to give up the several million of his most talented but cheap labor force (Exodus 5:2). In fact, Pharaoh made the Israelites’ work more difficult by refusing to give them straw to make bricks (verse 7). Finding themselves trapped in more abject slavery, the Israelites became easily agitated, annoyed and even bitter against their God-sent deliverer, Moses (verse 21). All the while, God was working out a plan.

God insisted that Moses needle Pharaoh 10 times until Israel was totally free of Egypt. God told Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,” yet He promised that Pharaoh would let Israel go (Exodus 7:3; 6:1). Each time Moses met with Pharaoh, the often-rude king resisted him. As a result, God directed Moses to afflict Pharaoh and the Egyptians with ever worsening plagues.

In the first plague, Egypt’s rivers and ponds—their whole water supply—turned to blood for seven days. Pharaoh was not impressed (Exodus 7:22-23).

Next, God marshaled millions of frogs to invade the land and the Egyptians’ houses (Exodus 8:2). Frogs croaked, jumped and made themselves a great nuisance everywhere. Still no exodus.

God increased the pressure. All the people became infested with lice (verse 16)—but the Israelites made more bricks. Then, billions of flies flew everywhere and into every thing (verse 21)—yet the Israelites continued to wake up in Egypt. God got tough and Pharaoh remained relentless.

Egypt Destroyed

The plagues continued: The Egyptians’ cattle died (Exodus 9:3); the people fell sick with excruciating boils (verse 10); hail and fire pummeled Egyptian crops and livestock (verses 23, 25); whatever the hail and fire did not consume was devoured by locusts (Exodus 10:4-5); then darkness covered the land, it could be felt (verse 21). Pharaoh continued to buck God and Moses. In fact, Pharaoh grew so sick and tired of Moses, he told him he did not want to see him anymore (verse 28). Even with his nation in shambles, Pharaoh refused to give in (verse 27).

Pharaoh’s rejection of Moses did not stop God. He sent one final plague—the terrifying and horrific death of all Egyptian firstborn males of man and beast—at midnight on Passover, Abib 14 (Exodus 12:29-30). Every Egyptian was touched by loss. Mournful crying and wailing was heard throughout the nation. As God promised Moses, Pharaoh and the Egyptians drove the Israelites out of Egypt on the 15th of Abib (verse 33). However, the history doesn’t end there.

Even though God unleashed catastrophic, nation-destroying and personally painful plagues, causing king and country immense suffering, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened with each supernatural act of God. Even after the death of his firstborn son, the king grew insidiously defiant.

Learning that Israel was camped and essentially trapped by the Red Sea, he led his army of skilled soldiers to pursue them. This time though, Pharaoh’s arrogance led to his own demise. He had learned nothing from the plagues God sent upon him.

With his nostrils flared and his heart filled with hate, he led the charge of his skilled charioteers down the path and between the high walls of water of the God-split Red Sea. When the whole Egyptian army was situated between the watery walls, God took off their chariot wheels and commanded Moses to lift his rod to allow the waters to crash back to their proper place (Exodus 14:25-26). Pharaoh and his entire army drowned in the sea. Israel was set free and Pharaoh ended up dead. Tragic? Not really. There is much more we must learn from this history.

King Of Stubbornness

“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come,” Paul taught (1 Corinthians 10:11). God recorded this history of Pharaoh and the Israelites to teach us a vital point about true spirituality.

God knew Pharaoh very well. Before God even came into contact with him through his confrontations with Moses and Aaron, He knew that he was a greedy and cruel man. Pharaoh made the Israelites’ lives “bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field” (Exodus 1:14). Pharaoh cruelly spent other people’s lives to build great cities as tributes to himself.

He held bitter hatred for his slaves. Pharaoh cruelly murdered the Israelites’ infant sons, which would have eventually produced a disproportionately female population of slaves, forcing Israelite women to do hard labor (verse 22). There was no love in this king for the people who had made him look good. God knew what Moses was up against. He plainly discussed the matter with him. “And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand,” He told His chosen servant (Exodus 3:19).

Pharaoh was the king of stubbornness.

At the outset, when Moses first delivered God’s message to the man, he responded, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Pharaoh had no intention of listening to Moses or God. He made it clear that he would not let Israel go.

Pharaoh was known to readily change his mind to suit his own purpose. Following each catastrophe, Pharaoh called for Moses and asked that the current plague be taken away, promising to let Israel go. However, once the plague ended, he changed his mind (Exodus 8:15). The man was fickle and loved to play mind games.

Lesson Of Carnality

You must study this history carefully. In some cases, the Bible does state that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. However, in several other places, it clearly states that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. For example, after God provided relief from the plague of flies, Moses states, “And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go” (Exodus 8:32). A similar hardening of his own heart is found in Exodus 9:34. Does this mean that there may have been times that Pharaoh wanted to change his mind, but God wouldn’t let him? Absolutely not!

God is perfect love (1 John 4:8, 16). God never tempts, tortures or plays mind games with people. However, God did use Pharaoh—He took full advantage of his stubborn, self-centered and selfish mind—to teach us a lesson about our own carnal nature. In fact, when we come to fully understand Israel’s history during this time period, we will recognize that He used ancient Israel to teach us the same lesson.

Realize that Pharaoh represents the classic case of a set-in-concrete, carnal mind. “[T]he carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,” Paul wrote in Romans 8:7. This is a great truth modern Christians fail to recognize. This verse describes the major spiritual problem of every human being.

Pharaoh—the stubborn, obstinate-as-granite, self-willed despot—epitomized human carnality. He made it clear to Moses at their first encounter that he was not and never would be subject to God, His will or His law. And he was proud of his arrogance. Yet, it is God’s will that we embrace and obey His law, codified in the Ten Commandments. Although God does not force any human being to obey Him, there are always consequences we must suffer when we ignore and tramp all over God’s law.

It is true that God can introduce thoughts and ideas into human minds. King Cyrus of Persia is a perfect example of God doing just that (Ezra 1:1-4). Yet, Cyrus had to decide to act on what God put in his mind to do. God never forces any human being to do His will. He never takes control of human beings’ hearts and minds.

Then how should we understand scriptures such as: “And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land”? (Exodus 11:10). It is actually very simple.

Since the carnal mind cannot be made subject to His law—which means being in subjection to God—then God must grant all human beings repentance (Acts 11:18; Romans 2:4). God must call us to Christ (John 6:44). This is something that no human being can do without God’s direct intervention. We cannot “give our hearts to the Lord” on our own. This is a widely taught religious falsehood.

Not Yet Called

God could have disarmed Pharaoh’s heart in a spectacular way by intervening in his life, as He did with Saul on the way to Damascus. God showed Saul incredible mercy by knocking him down as he rushed to continue persecuting the Church (Acts 9:1-6). However, God chose not to do something similar with the wily king of Egypt.

God was not ready to call Pharaoh. Was this unfair of God? Paul asked the Romans the same question. “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Romans 9:14). Most professing Christians do not know that God has a 7,000-year master plan to offer salvation to every human being who has ever lived.

The point at which God chooses to begin to work with an individual is something only He decides. “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy,” continued Paul (verses 15-16). How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Simply by not calling him and granting him repentance. “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” (verse 17). Do we see the wonderful way God used Pharaoh’s natural way of thinking for His own purpose? God uses Pharaoh to typify Satan, whose mind is diametrically opposed to God’s.

God simply allowed Pharaoh to be the victim of his own carnal thinking. Knowing the carnal mind well, God knew that Pharaoh could not submit to His commands. Hearing God’s command, Pharaoh’s carnal mind naturally resisted. As the commands kept coming, Pharaoh grew more hostile. Never do we see Pharaoh considering a real, lasting change of heart.

The only thing the ruler of Egypt could truly grasp at that time was the physical pain produced by God’s power displayed in the plagues. He resented the destruction of his empire brought on by the plagues and made empty promises to stop the hemorrhaging. God had to get extremely tough to get his full attention.

It wasn’t until the personally hard-hitting and emotionally crushing death of his firstborn son that Pharaoh let Israel go. However, he still made no attempt to change his mind or attitude. The untimely death of his son stopped the king in his tracks—for a time. Yet it didn’t take long for Pharaoh and his servants to turn their selfish hearts against Israel and hunt them down like defenseless sheep (Exodus 14:5-9).

Even after 10 plagues—10 direct, supernatural interventions by God—the king never made the slightest attempt to start obeying God. Should we look down on Pharaoh? No. He didn’t have the spiritual capacity to listen to or obey God.

It is very dangerous for human beings to question God’s motives. God knows what He is doing. “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and on whom he will he hardeneth” (Romans 9:18). We should never be guilty of finding fault with God. Study thoroughly verses 19-24.

Needed God’s Spirit

Through Pharaoh’s experiences, God teaches us that a carnal human mind without His Holy Spirit cannot have a right, loving and positive relationship with Him, or fulfill His will! “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God,” Paul wrote in his epistle to the brethren in Rome (Romans 8:8). Without the help of the Holy Spirit, Pharaoh could not overcome his stubborn, self-willed obstinacy. Even while his nation was being destroyed, he could not change.

Egypt’s ruler died fighting God while attempting to recapture the children of Israel. Yet there is great news for Pharaoh. He will come back to life in the second resurrection and have the incredible opportunity to learn from his own history (Revelation 20:11-12). God plans to call Pharaoh at the time best for him. This unruly king will have the opportunity to have his eyes opened and his heart softened, and to choose to live God’s wonderful way of life as outlined by the Ten Commandments.

When you study the history of Israel, you see the same lesson. God promised the children of Israel many physical blessings (Exodus 19:5-6), yet He never offered them His Holy Spirit, or spiritual salvation then. Even though they had to obey God to receive their promised wealth and power, the Bible shows their inability to obey. They too were victims of their own carnal minds. However, as with Pharaoh, there is great hope for Israel. Paul explains this great truth in Romans 11. Take the time to study this chapter thoroughly.

God Wants To Be Known

So why did God even bother with Pharaoh (or Israel for that matter) if He didn’t plan to call him (or them)? “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt,” God explained to Moses. “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).

These verses give the simple, yet wonderful reason. God acted the way He did with Pharaoh to reveal Himself to the Egyptians (and the Israelites).

In fact, God wants all human beings to know Him the way He truly is. God is a God of love, but His love is also law. God chooses to live by His own laws. It is God’s greatest desire to have every human being born into His Family and become just like Him (John 3:3-6; Matthew 5:48; 1 John 3:9).

The Ten Commandments represent that way of living—God’s way of expressing outgoing concern for others. They teach us how to properly love God and our fellow man. Sin is the absence of love (1 John 2:9-11; 3:4). When human beings show hatred to God or to each other, misery, oppression, unhappiness, war and national destruction are sure to follow.

God shows us, by His actions with Pharaoh, that He will never compromise with His law. When we sin, there are always evil consequences. Pharaoh has yet to fully learn this lesson. But you can learn it now. Remember, God will never force you to obey Him or follow His will. Yet He will do everything He can to help you along the way if you put forth real effort first!

Take heed to get your spiritual life in top shape—strive to obey God and to do His will. Never forget the fact that even truly converted Christians must continually overcome their own carnal minds, which are “obstinate as granite.” Without God’s Holy Spirit, all human beings are capable of acting just like Pharaoh. Those who truly have God’s Holy Spirit must harness and utilize that power to overcome their spiritually stubborn carnal minds.

When any converted individual sincerely aims to do this, God supplies them with the additional spiritual help needed through the power of His Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32). Let’s learn to not be obstinate like Pharaoh.