Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson VII

How Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened

Read Selections from Exodus VIII., IX., X.,
or give brief statement of the plagues.

§ 1. God's Sternness and God's Love

W HICH of these two does the Gospel teach most to us, God's sternness or His love? Which of these two do the Plagues of Egypt most teach? Is there no love shown in them? What! not even to Israelites? In thinking of sternness to Egyptians, remember it was to deliver the poor Israelites—that their cruel oppressors had to be forced  to let them go.

Some think God ought to be too loving to hurt Pharaoh. Suppose a shepherd so loving to wolves that he let them eat his sheep, or a judge so loving to thieves that he let them rob the honest. Would that be right? So you see there must be sternness in God's love. You remember our Lord's awful sternness to those who would lead astray His little ones. What does He threaten? (St. Matt. xviii. 6). So God had to be stern for Israel's sake. Any other reason for sternness? For sake of Egypt and Pharaoh. God had to think of their good, too, and be stern, as a father must with disobedient children.

Should a father be very loving to his children? But if he be a mere weak, good-natured, indulgent father, who never punishes—who would do anything rather than let his children cry—would that be good? Why not? So with God—He cares greatly that His children should be happy. But something else He cares much more for? Yes, that they should be good. He will spare them no pain, if pain be necessary for that—just as He spared Himself no pain for it on the day of Calvary.

How long did God's punishments on obstinate Egypt last? Only so long as they were obstinate.  Every time Pharaoh repented and promised to obey what happened? (ch.  viii. 8, 28, 29; ix. 27, etc.). And then when God withdrew punishment, what did Pharaoh do? So more punishment came. If Pharaoh had repented and kept his word, do you think God would have kept on hurting him? He knew in his conscience that what God ordered about the slaves was right—and I think if he had obeyed God and conscience, God would have forgiven him and helped him to be a good, noble king. And so I don't think it at all hard or unfair that the heavy punishments should come.

So I want you to believe greatly in the sternness of God. I trust you will believe in God's love to the very utmost. You can't believe that too much. But you must not believe that He is a mere soft-hearted God, of boundless, easy good-nature, no matter how people behave. People must not take liberties with God or with His everlasting laws of right and wrong. There is boundless love and forgiveness for those who want to repent and be good, but there is boundless punishment for those who do not want to repent and be good. Boundless punishment, i.e. so long as  they do not want to repent and be good. Do you think that is contradictory to God's love? All obstinately godless people are injuring God's world, their wrong words and deeds are injuring and hurting and leading astray God's poor strugglers, and so in love God must be stern.

§ 2. How God Hardens Hearts

But though we can believe that God must sometimes be stern, there is another thing said that we find very hard to believe. What? (ch.  xi. 10). Can we believe that God would harden a man's heart to make him sinful, and then punish him for hardness of heart? Why cannot we believe that? Because our conscience, which is given to us by God, shrinks from such a thing. It seems to us unfair, and God in our conscience is always declaring to us that no one must be treated unfairly. Right must be done to every man, to Pharaoh as well as to the Israelites. You are quite right, therefore, in feeling puzzled at the statement that God hardened Pharaoh's heart.

But how can we explain it? It is not easy. We find the hardening mentioned twenty times. Ten times it is said that God did it, and ten times it is said that Pharaoh himself did it. This sets us thinking. What would you gather from it? Surely, that there are two sides to this hardening, and that Pharaoh himself must be at least in some measure responsible for it. Let us try to understand this.

First tell me what Pharaoh had within himself that should help him to obey God in being merciful to the Israelites? His conscience. And you remember I told you of the religious teaching in Egypt that should help his conscience. This teaching told of One Just and Merciful God, supreme over all, and of the duty of men to be righteous and merciful. Here is an old Egyptian prayer that I did not tell you of before:—

"O grant that I may come to Thee.

I have not sinned—I have not borne false witness.

I have given bread to the hungry.

I have given water to the thirsty.

I have given apparel to the naked.

I have given a boat to the shipwrecked.

Therefore let it be said to me,

Come in Peace."

So you see that Pharaoh's conscience and his religious teaching would show him that cruelty was wrong and that he ought to be merciful to the poor slaves. But when the voice of Conscience said, "You ought," what did Pharaoh reply? "I will not." Did that ever happen in your life? Did you ever refuse to do what Conscience told you? Do you know what happens then? The heart each time gets a little bit hardened, and if you go on for a long time it will get very much hardened. This is the law of Conscience which I want you to learn:—

"Every time the voice of Conscience is obeyed it becomes clearer and more distinct next time. Every time it is disobeyed it becomes duller and lower next time and the heart grows harder."

Repeat that again. That is the law of Conscience in all men. Who made that law? Who made Conscience to harden the heart like that after disobedience? God. That is the punishment He has set for disobedience. So you see in one sense it is God who thus punishes us by this hardening. So you might say, "God does it." Yet the man does it himself. Suppose a farmer sows his field with seed of thistles. Thistles come and spoil the field. Who made them grow in that field? God did; for it is He who gave the seed life and power of growth, and gave air and moisture and sunshine to it. But is God to blame for having thistles in the field?

Now try and tell me in your own words how Pharaoh hardened his heart and yet it might be said God did it. Yes. Now, is that true of you and me too? Do you know it frightens one to think of that awful law of Conscience? I want you to remember it always and be frightened at it. It is an awful law of God. Does God, then, say, "There is My law of hardening, and I don't care whether you harden your heart or not"? Oh, no! God is greatly sorrowful if our hearts get hardened. God has done everything He could to make them get soft instead of hard. Remember warning in Venite,  "To-day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts." God's messages of good are always coming to us, and must be either hardening or softening us.

§ 3. How God Softens Hearts

What do you think God does to soften hearts? Once I read a strange old story of a king in some ancient land whose dominions were greatly disturbed by the committing of a certain crime. At last he made a law that the next man brought before him and found guilty would be punished with the loss of his eyesight. So one day, seated on his judgment seat, he heard the tramp of soldiers, and a disguised prisoner was brought in before him bound. He had committed this crime; there was no doubt about it. Nothing to do but give judgment. But as the old king rose in his place, the prisoner raised his head and the king saw it was his own young son, whom he dearly loved. What was he to do? There came the great temptation to break the law and let his boy free. But he was a good and righteous king, so he could not do that.

There was a long, awful pause, and then quietly and solemnly the old man arose and came down from his place and stretched himself on the iron bed where the criminals were tortured. The executioner stood by with the red-hot iron to deprive the prisoner of his sight. "Put it on my eyes instead!" said the old king. They were all horrified, but they dared not disobey. The red-hot iron passed across his face, and when he rose up stone-blind, the prisoner and the whole court stood silent as death. And then he turned to his son. "My boy, you are free now," he said, "your punishment has been borne. You will be a better man in the future." Don't you think that if anything in the whole world could touch that young man's heart, that would? I do not say that this is exactly what God has done for us, but it is very like it. When and where did He do it? That is God's way of softening our hearts. Now will you try and explain to me again what God does (against His will) to harden men's hearts, and what He does (with His will) to soften them?

So you see you must keep the two sides of God's character together—the sternness and the love—if you would understand Him. He who punished Egypt so terribly is He who came to seek and save that which was lost. He who sent death on the firstborn children of Egypt is He who took the little children in His arms and blessed them. He who overthrew the power of the mighty Pharaoh is He who was "led as a lamb to the slaughter" to save poor sinners from their doom.

Questions for Lesson VII

Name some of the ten plagues.

Was it cruel of God to send them?

Would God have continued them if the Egyptians had repented?

How do you know?

Does God do anything like this now to people? Explain.

We read that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Would it be fair of God to harden a man's heart and then punish him for that hard heart?

Here is a very difficult question: the Bible says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart and also that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Could you explain?

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