According to James 1:13, “Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one.” Skeptics may reply that God certainly does tempt people to do evil, and his actions during the Israelite's exodus from Egypt is proof of that.
Let My People Go!
In Exodus 3-4 God calls Moses from his life as a fugitive in Midian and tells him to return to Egypt in order to lead the Israelites to freedom. God assures Moses that he will give him help, including the support of his brother Aaron and a wooden staff capable of performing miraculous feats. This will show the Egyptians that the God of Israel means business. God then says in Exodus 4:21, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”
Wait a minute! God says he wants to free the people of Israel and now he is saying he will cause Pharaoh to not release them. What’s going on here? First, God does not merely want to relocate the Israelites. He wants to demonstrate to the Egyptians the power and reality of the God of Israel by delivering them with “his mighty hand.”
This will compel the Egyptians to let the Israelites go of their own will and maybe even cause them to repent in the process. In fact, in Exodus 12:38 we read of a “mixed multitude” who left with the Israelites during the Exodus. This group could have included Egyptians who were convinced that the God of Israel was the real God. But why did God cause Pharaoh to “harden his heart” and not let the people go?
Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?
Exodus 4:21 is the first time we read of how God will harden Pharaoh’s heart. In the next chapter Moses and Aaron make their demand to Pharaoh that he let the Israelites go worship in the desert. The Pharaoh not only curtly dismisses them, he demands the Israelites make bricks without straw as a punishment for their insolent request. All of this takes place without any hint of God prompting Pharaoh’s overreaction.
God then reminds Moses again in Exodus 7:3 that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. In Exodus 7:14 and 7:22 we read that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, although the text does not say by whom. Then, in Exodus 8:15, 8:32, and 9:34 it is revealed that Pharaoh hardened his own heart by “sinning yet again” and refusing to release the Israelites. Only as the plagues grew worse and Pharaoh became more stubborn does the text begin to say God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
When we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it is an easy mistake to assume that God did something to Pharaoh in order to cause Pharaoh’s heart to become stubborn and “hard.” But you can cause something to become hard just by leaving it alone, such as when bread is left out on the counter. It seems that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by removing what little presence of his grace that was in Pharaoh’s heart in the first place. Pharaoh had his chance to peacefully release the Israelites, but he ignored God’s warnings and hardened his heart. This description of events, as some commenters have noted, preserves God's sovereignty. God is not thwarted by Pharaoh's obstinacy but has providentially foreseen it and uses it for the good of his people.
As a consequence of Pharaoh’s own actions, God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to reach its maximum level of stubbornness, and Israel’s freedom was purchased at a heavy price for the Egyptians. This mirrors other times when God punishes sinners not through external punishment but by letting the awful consequences of their own bad lifestyles show them the error of their ways. God even did this with Israel after the Exodus. In Psalm 81:11-14 the author describes God saying, “How my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes.”
In conclusion, God will punish us by letting us engage in our foolish sins, but as soon as we desire to repent he will deliver us from our sins. God did the same thing for Pharaoh and allowed him to wallow in his foolish disobedience. God was not the primary cause of that disobedience and would have allowed Pharaoh to repent if Pharaoh had chosen to do that. Pharaoh’s failure to do that and not release the Israelite’s says more about his character than God’s.