If you follow professional cycling at all, with the most famous race being the Tour de France, you know that the cycling world has been scandalized in recent years by so many of the cyclists taking performance enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong having to forfeit all seven of his Tour de France championships is the most famous case, but actually, this is not new. Cyclists taking performance enhancing drugs has been documented for more than 100 years, but it has only been since 1965 that this practice was made illegal.
In more recent years, the testing has become much more accurate and literally hundreds of cyclists have been caught and penalized. All of this highlights an interesting human characteristic. The stricter laws, improved testing methods, and more severe penalties for the guilty have led some cyclists to conclude it is not worth cheating by taking performance enhancing drugs. So they either never start taking drugs, or they quit if they were taking them.
For other cyclists, it has the opposite effect. The fact that testing methods have improved has only made them more determined to find ways to beat the system and keep taking the drugs to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors. So with the help of some compromised physicians and lab workers, they have been able to use different ways of disguising their drug use so it is less likely to be detected. So these cyclists already have made up their minds to cheat, and the laws and testing methods that motivate some cyclists to stay clean for fear of being caught, in the case of these other cyclists, it just pushes them further down the road they had already chosen and they keep cheating.
The cheating cyclists could say that by imposing these stricter laws and better testing methods, the officials of the cycling world made them become more determined and more deceptive in their cheating. But in reality, the stricter laws and more sophisticated testing only revealed what was already in the hearts of these cyclists.
This example will be helpful for us today as we consider the actions of the Egyptian Pharaoh in response to the plagues sent by God. The Pharaoh was, of course, the leader of Egypt, the strongest and most advanced nation of that day. That could easily lead to a sense of pride. On top of that, he was viewed by others as well as himself as being divine. He was a cut above everyone else. Put all that together and you end up with a person who is not likely to listen to others. For he is the one who gives the orders and the role of everyone else is to obey.
That rather arrogant view of himself was a long-developed pattern that the Pharaoh during the time of Moses would not and could not break out of. He was stubbornly set in his prideful ways. He would not listen and he would not change.
In our study of the Book of Exodus we come today to chapters 7-11. We won’t read all of that but only some selected passages. You are probably at least somewhat familiar with it anyway. This is the account of the ten plagues that God sent upon Egypt to force Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free.
But there is much more for us to learn from these chapters than simply the incredible power God granted Moses to bring about these rather astounding plagues. This passage instructs us regarding the nature and purposes of God, and also gives insight as to how we should best respond to God. So let’s first look at what took place more than 3,000 years ago, and then we’ll consider how this applies to our lives today.
Beginning with the second verse of chapter seven, God said to Moses, “You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.”
God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that even when faced with horrendous plagues, he would not listen to Moses and Aaron. He would not let the Israelites go free. Of course, we know that God is God and thus can do as He pleases in order to bring about His will. Yet there is something about hardening Pharaoh’s heart that just doesn’t seem fair. What chance did Pharaoh have? None. There was no way he could respond positively to the request of Moses and Aaron to let the Israelites go free for God had hardened his heart. What are we to make of that?
Well, we have to admit that it’s a difficult question to deal with but it must be pointed out that while it says several times in these chapters that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it also says a number of times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. For instance, in Exod. 8:32, after the plague of flies, it says, “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” After the plague of hail, 9:34 records, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again. He and his officials hardened their hearts.” From the beginning Pharaoh had this on-going pattern of hardening his own heart against God and God’s purposes.
In fact, we see this before Moses and Aaron ever arrived in Egypt. When Moses was still tending sheep in the desert and God spoke to him from the burning bush, telling Moses to return to Egypt and say to Pharaoh he was to let the Israelites go, God said in 3:19-20: “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.”
Notice that God did not say He had already hardened Pharaoh’s heart which is why he wouldn’t let the Israelites go. Rather God said, “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him.” In other words, God knew from the beginning what the condition of Pharaoh’s heart was – that it was hard and resistant. In fact, that is at least partly why God, in His sovereignty, raised up this particular Pharaoh at this time, as we’ll see shortly. But God hardening Pharaoh’s heart was simply God reinforcing what already was the state of Pharaoh’s heart. God did not make Pharaoh respond in a way that Pharaoh did not want to or was inconsistent with his nature. Pharaoh acted exactly in line with his desires.
Perhaps an illustration can help us understand how God could harden someone’s heart and yet that person was still responsible for hardening their own heart. You can take two different substances, wax and clay, and put them in a place where the rays of the sun shine on them. The same rays of the sun will soften the wax but harden the clay. The difference is not in the rays of the sun. The sun does not shine more brightly or intensely on one than the other. The same action of the sun softens one but hardens the other.
You can say that the sun hardens the clay, and in one sense that’s true. But the reason it hardens the clay really has to do with the nature of the clay itself. The reason the sun hardens the clay while softening the wax lies in the materials or substances themselves. One responds to the heat of the sun by becoming soft while the other responds to that same heat by becoming hard.
Perhaps that’s a helpful way of understanding the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The plagues were meant to demonstrate that the God of Moses was the true God and thus Pharaoh needed to listen to Him. Some of the Egyptians who were trapped in their worship of false gods – the sun, the Nile river, and countless others – heard the message. The plagues, these acts of God softened their hearts. For it says in Exod. 12:38 that when the Israelites finally were set free and left Egypt, many others went with them. Many of the Egyptians saw the power of the true God and cast their lot with Him. They joined the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. These acts of God softened their hearts.
Even the magicians of Pharaoh, who could do some pretty amazing tricks themselves, finally got the point. After just the third plague, the plague of gnats, it states in Exod 8:19, “The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said.”Notice it doesn’t say that God hardened his heart, but that Pharaoh’s heart was hard. That was his nature. His heart was so hard he wouldn’t even listen to his own magicians.
Scripture says God hardened his heart, and like with the clay in the sunlight, in one sense that is true. Each new plague God sent had the effect of hardening Pharaoh’s heart and he became more resistant. But the reason has to do with the nature of Pharaoh’s heart, which was already set against God. These same acts of God could have softened Pharaoh’s heart as they softened the hearts of other Egyptians if Pharaoh was open to that. But instead, Pharaoh resisted all the more. Pharaoh was set in his ways, and could not embrace new ways of thinking, responding, and behaving.
It’s like the example I gave of the professional cyclists. The new rules and more effective testing methods were meant to change the attitudes and behavior of the cyclists. For some, it led them not to use performance enhancing drugs. You could say it softened their hearts. But these same rules and testing methods led other cyclists to be even more determined to cheat and find ways to get away with it. You could say it hardened their hearts. But the rules and the tests are the same for all the cyclists. The response of the cyclists is really determined by the nature of their own hearts, not by the authorities instituting the rules and testing.
The plagues softened the hearts of some of the Egyptians, but the same plagues hardened Pharaoh’s heart, for it was already hard and set in its ways. God in His sovereignty raised up this particular Pharaoh because God knew the condition of his heart, that each plague He sent would further harden Pharaoh’s heart and make him resist all the more. Then God used the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish His purpose.
For God’s purpose in sending the plagues upon Egypt was threefold. First of all, obviously God acted to set the Israelites free from their slavery and take them into the Promised Land. But more was involved than that.
The second aspect of God’s purpose was that the plagues were an act of judgment upon Egypt. In 7:4 God described the plagues as being “mighty acts of judgment.” For remember, the Egyptians had made the Israelites their slaves, which was wrong, cruel, and evil. We live in an age when many people prefer to focus only on the love of God and disregard the judgment of God. But pure and holy love must react against what is cruel and evil. And so part of the reason for the plagues was to judge Egypt for how they mistreated the Israelites.
But the judgment of God is never simply punishment. It always is intended to lead to repentance, healing and restoration. And that leads to the third element of God’s purpose in sending the plagues. For while the Israelites were the chosen people of God, they were not the only people God cared about. God chose the Israelites to work through in a special and unique way, but God cares about and loves all people and wants all people to enter into relationship with Him. God so loved the world He gave His only Son. So God said in Exod. 7:4-5, before the first plague, “Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment (plagues) I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”
The third aspect of God’s purpose in sending the plagues upon Egypt was to convince the Egyptians that He is the true God. Yes, God judged the Egyptians, but God hadn’t written them off. God desired to turn the hearts of the Egyptians away from their false gods and to Him, the true God. For the Israelites were not the only slaves in Egypt at that time. The Egyptians were slaves also. They were enslaved to their misguided beliefs in a multitude of false gods and the way of life demanded by these false gods. God wanted to deliver them out of their bondage to false gods just as God wanted to deliver the Israelites out of their bondage to the Egyptian taskmasters.
How could sending these plagues set the Egyptians free from their false beliefs? Obviously, they would see the power of the true God through these plagues, a power Pharaoh’s magicians could not match. But it’s also important to note the nature of these plagues. For they were not simply random acts of judgment. God was not up in heaven, and in the spur of the moment deciding, “Oh, I think I’ll try a plague of locusts. Or maybe a plague of frogs would be fun.”
No, there was a purpose in the specific nature of each of the plagues, a purpose intended to soften their hearts and enable the Egyptians to recognize that the God of the Israelites is the true God. For instance, the first plague involved turning the Nile River, which Egypt depended on for its survival, into blood. Now, even conservative scholars differ in opinion on this. Some believe the river was turned literally into blood. Others say that the Nile appeared to be blood for it turned blood red in color. What would cause that? Native to that area was a red-colored algae. Perhaps God caused that algae to suddenly increase to the extent that the river became blood red in color. All that algae would then both release toxins and suck up all the oxygen from the water causing the fish to die. And so because of all the algae and dead fish the water became so foul that it was undrinkable. You can form your own conclusion about that.
Either way, why a plague like that? It wasn’t just God displaying His power. Rather the polytheistic Egyptians believed the Nile River itself was a god. Before the river was a source of life for the Egyptians, providing them with water to drink and fish to eat. Now it was a source of death. This plague was intended to show Pharaoh and the Egyptians that the God of the Israelites had power over their revered god of the Nile River.
The second plague was an invasion of frogs. There were always frogs along the Nile River, but now there was an explosion in their birth rate. Thousands and thousands of frogs came up from the river and filled their homes, their beds, their food supplies, and so on. Why frogs? Because the Egyptians had a frog god named Heket. Again, God was showing His power over their supposed gods.
The ninth plague was a plague of darkness. For three days the land of Egypt was covered in darkness. What was the point of this? Well, one of the main Egyptian gods was Ra, the sun god. Furthermore, it was believed that the Pharaoh was the embodiment of this god. So again, God was showing the Egyptians that their so-called gods were powerless before him. And specifically, this was a message to Pharaoh that he had met his match.
Similar parallels can be seen with the other plagues, for God not only used the plagues to judge the Egyptians but also to expose the emptiness of their gods and religious system.
All of these acts could have softened Pharaoh’s heart as happened to at least some of the Egyptian people. That they only hardened Pharaoh’s heart all the more, until finally Pharaoh broke beneath the power of God after the last plague, shows just how set in his ways and beliefs and pride Pharaoh was.
Yet God used the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish His purpose. For if Pharaoh would have said when Moses and Aaron first came to him, “Sure, you can take the Israelites out of Egypt,” the Egyptians would probably have wondered why. Why did the Pharaoh, this mighty leader who claimed to be divine, give in to this 80-year old shepherd just in from the desert? And they probably would have been angry because they lost this large and free labor force. Now they would have to do the hard work that the Israelite slaves had been doing for them.
But this would have been no testimony to the true God. It’s unlikely that any of the Egyptians would have turned from their false gods to the true God apart from seeing these mighty demonstrations of God’s power that were directly focused against the power of their supposed gods. Each plague God sent hardened Pharaoh’s heart further, leading then to another plague. With each plague, God was one-by-one knocking down all the Egyptian gods, and each plague showed the Egyptians that the God of Moses is the true God.
And, of course, the mighty displays of God’s power confirmed to the Israelites that God was acting through Moses to win their deliverance, so they could trust Him to lead them out.
God wanted to bless both the Israelites and the Egyptians with the knowledge of the true God so they could live in relationship with Him.
Well, is there anything for us in this account other than a greater understanding of God and His ways? I think there are several important lessons. First, this passage reminds us of the importance of monitoring and guarding our own hearts. As Prov. 4:23 challenges us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Our heart, which biblically is the center of who we are out of which flows our motives, our values, our behaviors, our decisions, our commitments, needs to be guarded because our very life depends on the condition of our heart.
That means we want to protect our heart from outside influences that may corrupt our heart and steer us away from God, and even harden it so it is no longer sensitive and yielded to God. Things like sin, poor use of our time, and relationships that lead us away from God over time will make us less responsive to God and His leading. At the same time we want to nurture our hearts with God’s word, prayer, and times of worship when we both focus on the greatness of God and surrender afresh to Him.
If our hearts our hard as was Pharaoh’s, we will be resistant and miss out on the good that God has for us. But if our hearts our tender and yielded to God, we will experience the joy of walking with God and being used of God.
Related to that, we need to be careful about the patterns we establish in our lives. All his life, Pharaoh would have been told that as the supreme ruler, as one who was divine, he decides what happens. So he had a long established pattern of expecting and getting his way. As we have seen with Pharaoh, such patterns can be hard to break.
So we need to be careful of the patterns we develop. These patterns can relate to any number of areas. How do we handle money? How do we treat others, including those who in some sense are at our mercy? What role does anger play in our lives? Have we established the pattern of dwelling on hurts others have done to us, thereby allowing bitterness and resentment to creep into our lives? Have we set some selfish or destructive patterns in our marriages, especially as the years go by? How do we respond to suffering and trials? Do we get bitter and angry, or do we see an opportunity to trust God in greater ways? Are we patient or impatient, humble or proud? Do we listen to others? The list goes on and on, including even things like what we do for entertainment or the thoughts we dwell on.
Such patterns are hard to break or alter once established. If we are set in some negative routines, changing to embrace something better is difficult and sometimes painful, for our hearts become hard. On the other hand, if we have established positive, wholesome, and Christ-like patterns for our lives, it’s much easier to continue in those ways.
So we need to be careful about what patterns we set and if we’ve already established some negative or destructive patterns we need to pray and ask God to help us break free from them now, for it will only be more difficult later. Besides that, if we continue in those negative patterns it will stifle our growth and limit our effectiveness for Christ.
Third, sometimes God will bring or allow something in our lives that is meant to correct us, to heal us, to move our hearts closer to God and conform our manner of living more closely to the good purposes God has for us. As with the Egyptians and the plagues, such circumstances can turn us closer to God or move us further away from God.
We probably all know people who because of a time of suffering or trial moved closer to God, and others who in similar circumstances have distanced themselves from God. Or it could be something good like gaining financial prosperity. For some, that moves them closer to God for they recognize His blessing upon them, and for others it pushes them away from God because they no longer sense a need for God.
Like the sun shining on wax and clay, these same experiences can either harden or soften us. How we respond really depends on us. The lesson of the Pharaoh for us is that we will be much better off if we allow the circumstances of life to move us closer to God.
God wants to bless our lives with good things, as was true for both the Israelites and the Egyptians, and even Pharaoh. If we are willing to humble ourselves before God and surrender to His will, if we will soften our hearts so we can learn the lessons He wants to teach us, then we will experience all the good things God want to bless us with. May that be true for each of us.