Did God Hardening Pharaoh Damn Him? Well No! Romans 9:17–18

As mentioned in my previous article on Jacob and Esau (Rom 9:10–13), Calvinists use Romans chapters 9­–11 as the undeniable evidence of Calvinistic soteriology, defending both unconditional election and reprobation. Regarding chapter 9, B.B. Warfield says, “It is safe to say that language cannot be chosen better adapted to teach Predestination at its height.”[1] As I demonstrated, while the passage regarding Jacob and Esau does show God’s sovereignty, it has nothing to do with salvific election and reprobation, Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election. The same is true with regard to Pharaoh.

Romans 9:17–18 says regarding Pharaoh, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” First, note verse 17 says that God raised him up to demonstrate His power in our time and space continuum, not to damn him for eternity. The reason for God raising him is specifically stated to be so that God’s name could be proclaimed “throughout the whole earth”. This is an act of love and evangelism, not the act of an eternal decree to damn someone. God showed his power over the one who seemed the most powerful to all because he loves people and is not willing that any would perish (2 Pet 3:9), and this in the same way that Christ spoke repeatedly and lucidly about hell and judgment (Mark 9:42–48).

The message was do not worship Pharaoh who cannot save you but worship Jehovah who is mighty to save. God used Pharaoh to prove to Israel that he was the Lord who delivered them (Exodus. 6:6–7, 10:1–2, 13:14–16) and show Pharaoh that he was the only God (Exodus. 9:14). He demonstrated to the Egyptians that he was Lord (Exodus. 7:5, 14:4, 18), and he used Pharaoh to make his name declared throughout the whole earth (Exodus. 9:16). This was in no way an act of eternal damnation but rather an act of compassionate evangelization. It demonstrated God’s sovereignty by overpowering the “sovereign” Pharaoh; the news of which spread to pagans in distant places (Joshua 2:9–10; 9:9), and the redemptive power of God has been celebrated ever since by Jews in the Passover as a testimony to their posterity and the world.

Regarding this, Calvinist Berkouwer says, “It is clear that Paul does not want to direct our attention to the individual fate of Pharaoh, but that he speaks of him in order to show his place in the history of salvation, and it is certainly not permissible—as Calvin did—to draw conclusions here regarding the ‘example’ of stubbornness because of God’s eternal decree, and regarding the rejection of the wicked.”[2] Even if—which point I do not concede—as Herman Hoeksema contends, “Pharaoh was sovereignly hated from eternity,”[3] that does not prove God damns billions of people in eternity past with no chance of repentance, any more than Christ’s choice of Judas, who was a devil (John 6:70), proves that everyone whom Christ chooses is a devil or that Judas had no choice. To know that Christ is sending the devil to the bottomless pit does not tell us what happens to the other angels or people—we learn that from prescriptive and specific descriptive statements of Scripture concerning each of those groups.

Notice in Romans 9:18 that God is sovereign, whether over Pharaoh or anyone else, and blessing is from mercy. God hardened Israel’s heart (Isaiah 63:17), but that did not equal eternal damnation for them; he attributes his hardening of their hearts as judgment because they had hardened their own hearts (Isaiah 29:13–14; Matt 13:12–15). God, as God, can use his vessels in the way he sees fit, but again, this has nothing to do with the salvation of Pharaoh—not here or elsewhere in the Old Testament. Exodus 3:19 says, “But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion.” This seems to attribute the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to something God foreknew. This may very well be why God determined to harden Pharaoh, but even if God chose to harden his heart, the passage does not speak to how Pharaoh’s eternal state was determined, much less to anyone else’s.

Foreknowing is not synonymous with forcing, nor is God’s certitude synonymous with causality. The limitation of the hardness is in not letting Israel go; it says nothing about his eternal destiny. Exodus shows us what God knew before the fact. “And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.’ But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1–2).

Tragic words, indeed, but this was Pharaoh’s choice. God gave general revelation so that man might know that there is someone bigger than Pharaoh, and Pharaoh rejected that revelation. Therefore, God predicted that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 3:19, 4:21, 7:3). God tells us why he hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 7:3. “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt”  (italics added). Consequently, it was not to eternally damn him. God is said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart in five places (Exodus 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 14:8), and Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart in three places (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34–35). His heart is just said to be hardened without mentioning who hardened it in four places (Exodus 7:13–14, 7:22, 8:19, 9:7).

God raised Pharaoh up and hardened Pharaoh to put his power on display in delivering Israel, thereby demonstrating he was the true sovereign; this was done in part for evangelism, and Pharaoh hardened his heart. Pharaoh’s hardening was always about what he would do with Israel rather than being about Pharaoh’s salvation. If the salvation of Pharaoh is under consideration, and Pharaoh was eternally predestined to hell (unconditional election), what is God doing hardening his heart in time? John Murray, a five-point Calvinist, says, “The hardening, it should be remembered, is of a judicial character. It presupposes ill desert, and, in the case of Pharaoh, particularly the ill-desert of his self-hardening.”[4]

Similarly, Leon Morris says, “Let us notice first that neither here nor anywhere else is God said to harden anyone who had not first hardened himself. We must bear in mind that, while God is repeatedly said to have hardened Pharaoh (Exod. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8 . . . it is also true that Pharaoh is repeatedly said to have hardened himself (Exod. 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35)….God’s hardening follows on what Pharaoh himself did. His hardening always presupposes sin and is always part of the punishment of sin….God does not harden people who do not go astray first (cf. Jas. 1:13).”[5]

Now, let me say a word about the nature of libertarian free will. As stated, it can be cogently argued that God permitted Pharaoh to harden his own heart against God’s plan for letting Israel go and God used that free choice, one which according to libertarian moral freedom he did not have to make, to accomplish his plan to demonstrate his power. However, even if God did override Pharaoh’s freedom and cause him to be hardened, that is something God can do anytime he desires since he alone is the sovereign. Libertarian freedom is a force, but like every other force created by God, it is under his sovereignty. If that is what God did, it only tells us that God overrode his freedom to carry out his salvation plan. It does not mean Pharaoh lost his libertarian freedom, nor does it tell us anything about his eternal state. Consequently, libertarian freedom allows for either state of affairs, but Calvinism with its compatibilism does not; it only allows for Pharaoh being determined by God, compatible style.

Therefore, God is sovereign and uses some for honor and others for dishonor. However, this passage is not about God’s offer of salvation or reprobation as taught by some Calvinists, nor Pharaoh’s eternal state (Ex. 15:14–16; Josh. 2:10–11; 9:9; 1 Sam. 4:8). Rather, it is evangelistic in that God demonstrated he was the true sovereign and deliverer, as previously demonstrated. God cared about all who were there. (See my book, Does God Love All or Some? chapter 31, where I further develop the evangelistic nature of this event regarding Pharaoh.)

Rom 9:18 says, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” The mercy of God rather than the merit of man, the flesh, is what determines whom God will use and how he will use him (vs. 15). I would add, it is also true that God’s mercy and grace are the essential and determining factors for what constitutes God’s salvation plan and the offer of salvation to man rather than the flesh of man, but the context here is in regard to God’s sovereignty over how he chooses to use someone. Added to mercy in vs. 18 is that “He hardens whom He desires”, which can be easily seen to refer specifically to Pharaoh in vs. 17. It also clearly, as stated in vs. 17, is not to set forth Pharaoh’s eternal destiny, but rather, God’s execution of his redemptive plan. This event demonstrates to the world that God is sovereign and not any man, whether he be a king or a Pharaoh. True salvation, deliverance, is found in only Jehovah God.

 

[1] Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola, FL, Vance Publications, 1999 ed.), 319.
[2] Berkouwer, Divine Election, 212–13, quoted in Vance, The Other Side, 326.
[3] Herman Hoeksema, God’s Eternal Good Pleasure, ed. and rev. by Homer C. Hoeksema (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1979), 46, quoted in Vance, The Other Side, 326.
[4] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959, 1965), 29, quoted in Vance, The Other Side, 327.
[5] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 361.