We’ve started a series on the journey of life, and I’m taking some lessons our of the Exodus. Today want to zero in on the hardening of the heart, as we see so clearly in Pharaoh.
WHAT IS A HARD HEART?
A hard heart is defined by Merriam Webster as “to stop having kind or friendly feelings for someone or caring about something.” Look around at our world today and you’ll see that peoples hearts are harder than ever. Even Christians seem to tolerate a hardening of hearts, and if they get hurt or upset, so instead of opening up to God when hurt, they harden up to minimise the pain. It’s a protective response.
In a physical sense, human hearts can calcify or become sclerosed, which means they become harder, less flexible and less able to pump blood and sustain life. Picture a rubber-band, initially stretchy but over time becoming hard and snapping instead of stretching.
Your heart in Scripture is the seat of soul, which is your mind, will and emotions. It’s the you that lives forever, and that’s why you need to guard it…
Proverbs 4:23 (ESV Strong’s)
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
Spiritually it is the same. Having a hard heart towards God means you toughen up, stop connecting to, listening to or obeying God. We can all of us experience a hardened heart.
HARDENING IS A PROCESS
Much like a hair care product, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen! The hardening of a heart is a process, one that feeds itself and gathers momentum, and if we are not careful we can all experience this. Paul’s describe unbelievers in this way
Ephesians 4:18-19 (ESV Strong’s)
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
When I first started playing the guitar my fingers hurt so badly! The pressure of my finger tips on the strings was immense, but as I persisted, I developed callouses and soon I couldn’t feel anything. Hardening is a process, and the more you do it, the less you feel.
Jesus describes this
Matthew 13:15 (ESV Strong’s)
For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
The Greek word for dull is pachyno, which means fattened, thickening and insensitive. A hard heart is insensitive to God. And we can all go there if we make wrong decisions and resist God in our lives. So let’s look at Pharaoh…
WHO’S HARDENING WHO?
So, the question is did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, or did Pharaoh? As I searched to understand who is hardening who here, I came upon an analogy that helped.
Think of God as an author. He writes a book with characters. The characters in the story makes decisions, but did they make the decision, or did the author? The answer is, both, isn’t it? The characters caught up in the plot make decisions that affect their lives, but the author is still guiding the overall plot and not forcing them to make the decisions. Paul talks of Pharaoh,
Romans 9:18 (ESV Strong’s)
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
So heart hardening is a process involving our free will decisions plus God’s sovereignty. It is fascinating to examine the hardening process in Pharaoh, because it gives us clues as to how human hearts in general can become hardened towards God.
GOD IS SOVEREIGN
Exodus 4:21 (ESV Strong’s)
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
And we could leave it at that general level and simply affirm and celebrate the truth that God is sovereign over the human heart. Exodus goes deeper describing hard hearts, but it is all under the banner of God’s sovereign will.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL OF HARDENING A HEART
In the Exodus account there are 10 plagues inflicted on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, starting with
Blood: Pharaoh’s heart “became hard” (7:22)
Frogs: Pharaoh “hardened his own heart” (8:15)
Gnats: Pharaoh’s heart “was hard” (8:19)
Flies: “Pharaoh hardened his own heart” (8:32)
Livestock die: Pharaoh’s heart “was hard” (9:7)
Boils: “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (9:12)
Hail: Pharaoh “hardened his own heart” (9:34)
Locusts: God announces that he has “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:1,10:20)
Darkness: God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (10:27)
Death of the firstborn: God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (11:10)
In the first 5 plagues, either Pharaoh is said to have hardened his heart (plagues 2 and 4), or the source of the hardening is ambiguous, (plagues 1,3 and 5). In plagues 6-10 something changes, we hear four times that God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so there is a change, a progression in the process.
THREE MEANINGS OF HARDENING
The are 3 distinct Hebrew words used for hardening.
1. QASHAH, k-shar
This means to stiffen, make hard or stubborn, and it is only used in Exodus 7:3, which is before the plagues actually begin.
Exodus 7:3 (ESV Strong’s)
But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt,
How many of us have resisted God and stiffened our hearts. Like when someone punches you in the stomach, but you stiffen or harden your abs to resist the force.
2. CHAZAQ, shaz-ack
This word means “to strengthen, prevail, harden, become strong, firm, or resolute.” It shows up 12 times throughout the Exodus account, sometimes in the ambiguous sense, and sometimes God actively doing it. It seems to indicate a strengthening in whatever direction you’re already going.
So while ambiguous as to who is doing it, it implies that it is simply a strengthening of the state of the heart Pharaoh already had.
3. KABED, ka-bed
This 3rd form of hardening means “to make heavy” or “to deaden.” Both Pharaoh and God are said to deaden Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart is described as heavy in 7:14, and then beginning in 8:15, Pharaoh makes his heart heavy, or he deadens his heart. This really implies the end product of the progression, which is a heart that is totally deadened towards God.
So here’s how it unfolds.
AT SOME POINT PHARAOH CROSSES A LINE
God promises that he will strengthen and stiffen Pharaoh’s heart. During the initial plagues, we’re told that Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened. Pharaoh is a wicked tyrant, so initially all that happens is that God simply strengthens Pharaoh in the direction he’s already going. He lets him do what he wants to do. He doesn’t have to turn Pharaoh’s heart; he just has to let the water take the course that’s before it.
Proverbs 21:1 (ESV Strong’s)
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
God us like that with us at times… His punishment if you like is to actually let us do what we want y ok do, even though He knows that ultimately it will destroy us!
Next, in 7:14 it literally says “Pharaoh’s heart was heavy/dead.” It’s a rock, stone. Then as we move past the second plague (frogs), we’re told that Pharaoh deadened his heart (8:15). He dug in. He doubled down. And for the first six plagues, we jump back and forth between Pharaoh deadening his own heart, and God strengthening Pharaoh’s heart [to do what it’s already doing].
Then in chapter 10, as the eighth plague approaches, we’re told for the first time that God deadened Pharaoh’s heart. And from then on, there’s no ambiguity. From chapter 10 through to 14 we see God is strengthening Pharaoh’s heart in the direction that indicates God had deadened Pharaoh’s heart. Why is this significant? Well, just before plague 7 (the first in the final cycle of three plagues), God tells Pharaoh:
Exodus 9:14-17 (ESV Strong’s)
For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself (Heb lit: your own heart), and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.
In other words, at this point, we’ve crossed a line. The plagues have escalated to the point that, even if Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge God and love Him, you would think that to save himself the pain, he would relent. God desires at this point to bring the full weight of his judgment on the Egyptians, so he deadens Pharaoh’s heart to the point that Pharaoh won’t turn, even out of self-preservation.
In fact, after the seventh plague, Pharaoh’s servants urge him to do that. “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the men go. Don’t you get that Egypt is ruined?” (10:7). Pharaoh tries to negotiate with Moses and God, but Moses insists on full obedience, but so Pharaoh, because his heart has now been fully deadened, says, “No!” (10:11) and finally drives Moses and Aaron from his presence.
SUMMARY OF THE SLIDE INTO HARDENING YOUR HEART
So to summarise, at the beginning, Pharaoh is a sinner. He’s a rebel. He’s determined, unrepentant and does not honour God.
God sends plagues that initially inconvenience him, but he stubbornly refuses to budge, because and he and God strengthen his heart to do what it’s already wanting to do. But as time goes on, and as Pharaoh is strengthened in his rebellion, he begins to deaden his own heart towards God.
At some point he eventually he crosses a line so that God brings the full weight of his judgment down on Pharaoh; the plagues come on Pharaoh’s heart, causing pain to him personally, and now God himself actively deadens Pharaoh’s heart so that he is completely blinded to the situation and persists in the insanity of disobedience, which ultimately leads to his utter ruin at the Red Sea.
IT’S TIME FOR A HEART CHECK
So what does this mean for us today?
Pharaoh is the poster child for a hard heart, but there are many instances in the Bible concerning hard hearts. Paul looks back on the Pharaoh incident in Romans 9, he also describes unbelievers as having hardened hearts in Ephesians 4:18. Jesus describes religious people as having hard, calloused hearts in Matthew 13, and the people of Israel are described as having hard hearts in Hebrews 3:8, Psalm 95 and other places.
How interesting that hardened hearts are often used to describe those who claim to love and serve the Lord. Just because we are believers doesn’t make us impervious to a hard heart, in fact the more religious and judgemental seem to be more prone to hardening their heart to the God they claim to serve!
GUARD YOUR HEART, DON’T BARGAIN FOR IT
The reality for all of us is that we must guard our hearts vigilantly. Any of us can suffer a hard heart, towards people who’ve hurt us and especially towards God. The same downward spiral affects us.
Someone hurts you, and you feel pain. Usually, the more you love that person the more pain you feel. Right at the start we could take our pain to the Lord,
Psalms 34:18 (ESV Strong’s)
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
Psalms 147:3 (ESV Strong’s)
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
But we don’t want to let it go! We take it to the Lord, but inside we feel wronged, unjustly treated, and we feel like we need to not let it go but fight for what we see is right. So to continue that, and protect ourselves from more pain, we harden our heart just a bit.
What we don’t realise is that as we harden our heart towards others who’ve hurt us, we also harden it towards the Lord. It’s a slow process, over some time, and like the frog in the pot of boiling water, we don’t feel it, we just fry.
If you allow pain, anger and bitterness space in your heart, you will harden your heart for your own protection. If you keep hardening, before long you will harden your heart towards God, and once you build up that crusty, calloused exterior, you will drift away from God, away from the church, away from your destiny!
Along the way, so many of us, like Pharaoh, think we can bargain with God. Look at what Pharaoh said…
He started off with outright, arrogant rejection…
Exodus 5:2 (ESV Strong’s)
But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.”
Next, he offered to let Israel sacrifice to their God in Egypt…
Exodus 8:25 (ESV Strong’s)
Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.”
Then it was, ok sacrifice, but don’t go too far…
Exodus 8:28 (ESV Strong’s)
So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away. Plead for me.”
Unable to bear the plagues (8th, locusts) , Pharaoh next tried this one…
Exodus 10:11 (ESV Strong’s)
No! Go, the men among you, and serve the Lord, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.
By the 9th plague he was desperate, but still not broken…
Exodus 10:24 (ESV Strong’s)
Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the Lord; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.”
Until finally God won, and Pharaoh lost, but he still remained stubbornly defiant because his heart was so hardened.
WE NEED TO SOFTEN OUR HARD HEART TOWARDS GOD
So we have seen that the hardening of the heart starts with us, but if we do not change the Lord allows our heart to grow more and more hardened. Hardening of the heart kills more people than hardening of the arteries!
It’s a gradual process, very subtle and extremely dangerous, and is accompanied by feeble attempts to bargain, which Pharaoh did with God, to try and relive the consequences without repenting.
If we’re honest, all of us do this from time to time, so we must be vigilant. But if you are finding your heart is growing harder towards the Lord, or someone else, I have some great news for you. Ezekiel tells the hard hearted of Israel,
Ezekiel 36:26-27 (ESV Strong’s)
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
The hurt, the bitterness, the hard heartedness can be broken right now. You need to make a decision to obey, to repent, to forgive whomever you feel has wronged you. We can start the softening of your heart right now.
Hosea 10:12 (ESV Strong’s)
Sow for yourselves righteousness;
reap steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground,
for it is the time to seek the Lord,
that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.
When you decide to seek the Lord, He promises that your heart will be softened towards Him, and towards others.
If you feel your heart has become hardened, even a little bit, I want to open the altar here at the front and have our team pray with you, and together we will believe for a softening of your heart.