In the OT there are some places where it would seem that God is not being very fair. One such example would be when it says in Exodus that God "hardened Pharaoh’s heart." It SEEMS as though it is saying that God is forcing Pharaoh to do Evil, but that is of course not the case.
Tthere are several resources that bring to light the meaning of these verses. One is Tim Gray's study on Exodus, and the other is Jeff Cavin's Great Adventure series.
What do these Bible studies reveal?
They really show that at every opportunity, God is giving his grace to Pharaoh to make the right decision. But each of us has experienced what Pharaoh was going through, not necessarily with 1 Million souls on the line, but with smaller choices. Before each of us is two choices, the right thing to do and the wrong, and sometimes with great effort choose the wrong. But by the very fact that we saw the choice and there was a struggle inside of us proves that God was giving us his grace to make the right decision. God continues to give us now the grace to repent, and hopefully we do, but we can still reject his grace once again and do what we want, for whatever reason.
So sometimes we accept God’s grace and sometimes we reject God’s grace.
The point can be wrapped up in a phrase. “The Sun’s light melts wax and hardens clay”
The Sun’s light is always the same, but it depends on the recipient.
Pharaoh’s heart was like clay.
So getting into the phrase “to harden his heart” what does that mean exactly”
Well the Hebrew literally means that his heart was made heavy, that it was weighed down.
Now this doesn’t mean much to us today, but it meant a lot to the Egyptians, yes Egyptians.
The Egyptians believed that the heart was where the emotions ruled from and that it represented the purity of a person. They also believed that when the person died, Anubis (one of their gods) would take the persons heart and weight it. On one side of the scale would be the persons heart and on the other side would be a feather. If the persons heart weighed more than a feather it meant that the person was a sinner and the person would experience a terrible death in the afterlife. If it weighed less than a feather, it meant that the person gained eternal life.
So when the Bible talks about Pharaoh’s heart getting hardened, it is really saying that it is being made heavy and that he is being judged as a sinner, unworthy of eternal life.
Something else is that when you read the text carefully, sometimes it says that The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but other times it says that Pharaoh hardens his own heart.
NAS Exodus 8:15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.
Besides God gave Pharaoh 9 chances to turn away from those false gods and turn toward the true God. I would say that God was being very merciful to the Egyptians and Pharaoh.
What are some other ways to answer the objection that God is cruel because he hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
There are two more ways from a linguistic point of view.
From what I understand about the Hebrew language, there are idioms where the Subject isn’t the cause of the action, but gives permission for the action to take place. Here are some examples:
Jeremiah 4:10, “ ‘Lord God, surely thou hast greatly deceived this people’
– Now God hadn’t deceived the people, but had permitted false prophets to spread lies.
Ezekiel 14:9: “ ‘If the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet’
– Now the Lord isn’t deceiving anyone or he wouldn’t be God, reason tells us that. What was happening was that God was permitting them to be deceived.
The same is true for Pharaoh. God wasn’t hardening Pharaoh’s heart, but was permitting it be to hardened.
Finally another great answer to these charges is Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept. (From Wikipedia)
An example in English would be - The White House supported a certain Bill. It isn’t the White House, it is the president who is supporting the Bill, but because there is a close association between the two. To say one is to imply the other.
So now to the Bible: The Book of Kings says many times that a certain Kings “walked in the way of Jeroboam…who had made Israel sin” Now Jeroboam didn’t force anyone to sin, but rather his poor example was one that people choose to follow into sin.
Another example is where it says in Acts chapter 1 that Judas bought a field with the money he received from betraying Jesus.
But it actually wasn’t he that bought the field remember Matthew 27 says that he returned the money and that those leaders bought that field. But they bought it with his money, that is why Acts 1 says that HE bought it.
So Back to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
God gave Pharaoh a Message, and the hearing of that message was instrument through which Pharaoh chose to harden his heart.
But if God had not given the message, his heart would not have been hardened.
So can we say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, yes the Bible says that.
Can we say that the Message hardened Pharaoh heart, yes, because of the reaction of Pharaoh to the message.
And we can say that Moses and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because they are the channel and the Source of that message.