Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

When studying Exodus, we may ask: “Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?” Read what Martin Luther said about this difficult question in the post below.

Moses Doesn’t Ask

Moses keeps writing that Pharaoh did not listen to him, etc., as God had spoken, and what happens after this passage is just as God told him beforehand. Moses says that it came to pass exactly as He had said and promised. ... One question is followed by another, and when [reason] comes in it thinks: “If God is doing the hardening, then who else can be blamed?” But those are frivolous spirits. ... 

I say this so that you beware and do not fly too high with your questions, but instead humble yourself and learn to recognize Christ; and so that everyone looks after his vocation and the things God has entrusted to him, instead of bothering with these questions. You have not been enjoined to search into such things. You still have not taken off your shoes [cf. Exod. 3:5]. You come too soon, neglect what you should know, and show no regard for what you should know and ask. Moses does not ask God here or worry about why God will harden Pharaoh; therefore, he does not dispute with God here.

Showing His Power in Pharaoh

Likewise, it is not without cause that God wants to harden [Pharaoh], because God wants to perform many miracles when Moses leads the children of Israel out [of Egypt]. In chapter 9 it says, “I will harden you to show My power in you and so that My glory and honor are made known to the world” [cf. Exod. 9:16]. Their purpose here is so that death, the devil, and the enraged rulers elevate God’s glory. If the raging rulers would not clamor as they do, and if death and sins would not burden the conscience as they do, but instead would go in peace, then the power of faith and the divine Word would not be acknowledged by anyone. However, since the devil and the rulers clamor, faith shines, the divine Word comforts me and gives me courage, and the conscience perceives that the divine Word has power and might. As can be seen from the holy martyrs, as well as from the virgins St. Agnes and St. Agatha, if the world and the devil would not oppose Christians so forcefully, then a poor heart, flesh and blood, would never have the courage and boldness to defy and scorn the raging rulers, the devil, and death.

Defining Hardened

“Hardened” does not simply mean, as we say, “damnable.” Rather, if they are rulers, they [also] trust in their power, in their country and people, and take courage as if they would devour God. This arrogance, security, and boldness is called “hardening the heart” or “becoming stiff-necked.” God allows a little band of Christians to enter, which they intend quickly to suppress. The Egyptians think: “What are Moses and Aaron compared to us? We will devour them in our porridge; they are just a small band.” Thus they boast as if they were almighty; their arrogance swells within them so that they are as puffed up as a sack of hops. This great arrogance is what it means to be stiff-necked; this comes not merely from wealth and riches but is also the inward arrogance in which they think: “Come on! We’ll devour them or utterly destroy them.” [God declares:] “They [the rulers] will have a great following, and nothing will stand between you and the adversaries except God’s Word. On your side there will be poverty, and on their side riches; on your side weakness, and on theirs power and strength. And they will fall upon you with all their pretentiousness, yet they will fail. Through that I want to show the power of My divine Word in the midst of persecution, in the midst of death, in sin, and in the devil’s wrath.”

Thinking Through This Question

One should start by saying, “I will start from the very bottom and acknowledge God’s grace and His Word.” And when we go into God’s Word, it must be comforting and sweet, just as this [text] here was Moses’ greatest hope and confidence, and he can take no greater courage than when God hardens Pharaoh. Someone else would not have drawn comfort [from this]. Moses had to proclaim God’s Word, which would cost him life and limb, and he had to lead the people out, which would cost him his honor. Now, it is a great work, on which a person ought not decide for himself, but this support does what is best: God will accomplish it.

Luther preaches on difficult passages in Exodus during this volume of Luther’s Works.

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This blog post is adapted from Luther’s Works, vol. 62, Sermons on Exodus Chapters 1–20, pp. 112–115, copyright © 2022. Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. Brackets in original.

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