Pushing Pharaoh’s Buttons

Some verses are just begging to be cross-stitched onto a pillow with baby lambs and rainbows. “The Lord is my shepherd…” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” But let’s be honest, Romans 9:16 – 20 will never make it onto your grandmother’s couch:

It is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen. Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?” No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” (NLT)

This passage seems to fly in the face of all of my previous posts, which promote the activity of a loving God that desires genuine relationships with free creatures. Despite the many passages that support my point of view, this one seems to obliterate it. Maybe I should just pretend it’s not there . . .

Okay, fine. It’s there. And while we’re at it, check out Mark 4:11 – 12:

Jesus replied, “You (his disciples) are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: ‘When they see what I do, they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say, they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me and be forgiven.’” (NLT)

Wait, doesn’t Jesus want people to be forgiven? Hasn’t he heard of the seeker sensitive movement? I thought Jesus used parables to make things easier for people, not harder.

A Definition:

What does it mean to harden hearts? In Hebrew, the word for heart, can also be translated as mind or will, having to do with motivations and desires. The verb “harden,” is often translated “to make stubborn.” So we’re basically saying that when God hardens hearts he is basically making people stubborn, shutting up their ears and stirring up negative, rebellious emotions and reactions.

What it can’t mean:

If we trust the witness of Scripture, we must accept that God is absolutely righteous, faithful and just. He is not turbulent and finicky like the gods of the ancient world. If we say that God can be whatever he wants to be, we do not understand the nature of holiness. God’s spirit is not fractured like man. He cannot say one thing and do another. When the author of Hebrews says that it is impossible for God to lie, he is not being disrespectful. He is stating a natural fact.

Therefore God cannot be unjust. Zeus can, but God can’t. Despite how it may sound in Romans 9 and Mark 4, God’s actions must be absolutely fair and right. Paul uses the same tone that a parent might use with a confused or rebellious child. Sometimes “because I said so” is the right answer, and it doesn’t mean that the parent is being inconsistent or unloving.

Just because we are the clay doesn’t mean that our Potter can crush us, mold us and manipulate us at will. Why? Because God claims to be benevolent, and he cannot lie.

We can’t say that God hides secrets and manipulates hearts because he wants certain people to be damned. No. God is not willing for any to perish. He urges his people to come and reason with him about their sins, to embrace his plan of redemption. He complains that they perish for lack of knowledge. Why say these things if he wants to see them burn?

What it might mean:

So how can I make these claims despite the clear evidence of Romans 9 or Mark 4?

First of all, just because God hardens hearts doesn’t mean that he turns people into puppets. Paul told fathers not to exasperate their children. If you’re married with kids, you know exactly what he’s talking about. Laurie and I know each other’s buttons. And we understand our kids. If we want to harden each other’s hearts, all we have to do is push the right buttons.

In the same way, we know that Pharaoh was already pre-disposed to resist any act of God in Egypt. We read about Pharaoh hardening his own heart against God when Moses came and started sending plagues and telling him to release his slave force. However, on the last three plagues, it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Let’s say that God just sent one of his servants into the throne room with a comment like, “Are you going to let this foreign shepherd get the best of you?” Couldn’t God make Pharaoh more stubborn without manipulating his soul in the slightest?

Think about the Jews of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were the teachers of Israel. Here comes Jesus, a charismatic prophet with miraculous power, teaching the people unorthodox theologies. Would Jesus really need to do a miracle in their hearts to make them reject everything he said or did? Couldn’t we say that just sending a prophet to an arrogant ruling class automatically qualifies as “hardening their hearts”?

Second, it’s important to notice the circumstances for these two specific periods of history:

The Passover, Exodus and events of Sinai essentially formed the defined the nation of Israel. What if things got a little rough for Pharaoh and he pulled the plug? Okay, that’s fine. Israel still gets to leave. But we lose the Passover, which is a huge teaser trailer for Christ. We lose the parting of the Red Sea, another sneak peak. And the nations that Israel will face in the wilderness and Canaan will have heard no rumors of this unique God and his treasured nation, setting up the Conquest. It’s not that God wanted to be famous in the earth to stroke his ego (Jesus claimed to be humble in heart), it’s that he wanted to be known. That’s different.

What about the Jews of the first century? Jesus compared the legalistic teachers of his time to blind men. This was an era of ignorance and arrogance. To throw Jesus in the mix is to harden hearts without even trying. Everything he did and said made them harder, until they finally nailed him to a cross.

What if they didn’t? What if Jesus spoke plainly and somehow their hearts were moved to repentance? God promises that if his people would soften their hearts and repent, he would save them. He cannot lie. So why not save them?

If you keep reading on in Romans, Paul explains that the hardening of the Jews led to the inclusion of the Gentiles. The people invited to the wedding refused to come, so the wedding party took in the vagrants and hobos from the streets. Paul goes on to say that, after the gospel is spread to all the Gentiles the Jews will grow jealous and return. Ultimately, the hardening of Jews in the first century leads to the salvation of the world.


God must be true to himself. He is just. He is love. He is good. But he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, pushing his buttons, so that he might set apart a nation to himself, a nation that he promised Abraham would be a blessing to all the other nations of the earth. Then he hardened the hearts of the first century Jews, pushing their buttons, so that they would nail Jesus to a cross, opening the door to the rest of the world.

This is not a habit. These are critical moments in history where God pushes buttons in certain arrogant men in order to initiate two spiritual kingdoms on the earth—the theocracy of Israel and the reign of Christ in his Church.

As a Gentile, I’m glad he did.

8 thoughts on “Pushing Pharaoh’s Buttons

  1. True for me too! Now it’s about obedience. Allowing Him to rule my life and be thankful for everything that comes my way. We were created to please God, not the other way around. Jesus lived (in His humanity) to please His Father. ( John 8:29) Hebrews 11:6 tells us ” the just shall live by faith . Faith in all its sheer simplicity is what releases divine activity into my life. Romans 1:17 ” The just shall live by faith”. Childlike faith that takes God precisely at His Word. Faith that simply says ” thank you Lord”

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  2. It may be worth further examining, as we try to reconcile the differences in many of these seemingly contradictory passages, the way that God deals with individuals, the way He deals with nations, and the way He deals with leaders of nations. Pharaoh is a key part of what would be THE saving event of the Old Testament and a major foreshadowing of the characteristics of a sacrificial messiah.

    Not to cheapen my own value to God or perception of it, but, can I personally expect to have the same relevance in the greater story? Would YHWH deal with any one of us as He dealt with Pharaoh? Are we being raised up for such purpose?

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    • I’m glad you brought this out. I wanted to touch on it in the post, but it was getting long. Maybe I’ll expound on a separate post because this is a critical issue for understanding Scripture.

      I think it is sometimes helpful to think of God as being in relationship with different things. God does not change in his nature, but his actions take a different tone when he is dealing with different things.

      For example, God is in relationship with his creation as a whole, and there are many acts that have to do with working toward the best possible humanity (the caretakers of the world), thus the flood, the destruction of certain cities and people groups, and other things that seem to contradict a God that claims to be loving and tells us not to murder. As you mentioned, this involves the leaders of people groups, who are often singled out and judged accordingly.

      Then we have God in relationship with his chosen people, his bride, a group of people that have a specific purpose and destiny in the world. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the prayer did not begin with “My Father,” but “Our Father.” The same terms we think may define individuals—elect, redeemed, sanctified—are applied to the nation of Israel, not individuals. People could come in and out of Israel, but the group itself was set apart for God. In the Church we tend to think individually about these terms because the group is not biological, but I think God still thinks of his people in Christ in a corporate sense.

      Yet he also deals with individuals. Jesus was completely taken by the old woman who put her last coins into the church coffer. He knew her. He knew her heart. He cared.

      I believe he works with people on an intimate and individual level, drawing them into a blessing of an interdependent community (the Church), for the ultimate redemption of the world (New heavens, new earth). Sometimes his actions are confusing unless we are aware of this layered reality.


  3. Cool post! Good job keeping it susinct! Personally, I’ve found the idea of universal salvation very helpful. It also allows time and space for God to play the “long game”, to harden some individual hearts for the greater good, but also return to those hearts later down the road. Thanks for tackling the tough questions!! Oh, and I had a classmate in college who embroidered pillows with the less cheery verses. One example was a scene of that woman in the OT who staked some general through the temple while he was sleeping. Imagine that on the settee in your parlor!


    • Sisera! The guy who got pegged. That’s always a good youth group story.

      We should talk about universal salvation sometime. I’ve read books on both sides of the issue, and find the subject fascinating. Maybe a blog post . . . assuming I want to step in that hornet’s nest. Ha!


  4. Wen we bite into the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we become critical of the way the world is being run. Are we fair weather believers or can we turn our face up into the rain? It rains on the just as well as the unjust.

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  5. A hard topic to delve into, John, and I appreciate you don’t shy away from the controversial theological gray areas. It’s hard to wrap our brains around this because we are so myopic in our perspective. Basically, the world revolves around us so to think for a second that there is a God who orders the history of man – personally and globally- around his perspective and for His purposes interferes with our own sense of self-actualization. Abraham Maslow would not appreciate this post. 🙂 I do think there is an intertwining of God’s knowledge of what is already in our hearts – in this case, Pharaoh’s predisposition against Israle – and his omniscience and he blends those together for his purposes, but it’s so terribly tricky to accurately dissect it.


    • Thanks Maria! More than anything, this is an exercise for me to challenge myself and see what feedback I can get to sharpen my view.

      I once spoke with an atheist that basically said that this topic (a loving God over a suffering world) was his main reason for staying away from faith. Many Christians today leave the faith for the same reason. I think Christians should develop a stronger stance on this. Or at least spend time thinking about it.

      Thanks for stopping by and throwing in your six cents.


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