When considering those who had a tremendous impact on the Old Testament narrative, it is not always the people who find redemption, but many times it is those who are destined for destruction that are still used by God for His purposes. We have already studied Satan who fits this description, and today we will study Pharaoh.
Help Turns to Fear, Turns to Enslavement
There were many who had the office of Pharaoh over the generations of Egypt, but a few found themselves serving a particular and special part of God’s plan.
At first, Egypt was mostly helpful to the physical descendants of Abraham by providing food and shelter for Jacob and his sons during a famine in the ancient world (Genesis 46:1–47:12). Yet Egypt’s role of helper would not endure, as the ancient Egyptian empire would become one of Israel’s greatest foes.
Consequently, Pharaoh oppressed Israel with slavery in an attempt to slow the nation’s growth (Exodus 1:11). Yet as has often happened in world history, the persecution of the Lord’s people had the exact opposite effect, for the more the Israelites were oppressed, “the more they multiplied” (vv. 12–14).
Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel did not take God by surprise (Genesis 15:12–16), and so we should understand that the trials we encounter do not take Him by surprise, either. The blessings of the Lord upon us may provoke others to jealousy and even to a kind of persecution. But as He did with Egypt (Exodus 14:4), God will use such trouble to bring Himself glory. Even the most minor trials we face are opportunities for our Creator to be glorified.
God’s Two-fold Purpose for Pharaoh
- God raised Pharaoh up so that God’s divine power and name would be put on display in all the earth.
God would raise up Pharaoh and Egypt in order to fulfill His eternal purposes. Moreover, God’s purpose for the life of Pharaoh and his interaction with God’s people is clearly stated in Exodus 9:16:
Exodus 9:16 “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.”
We often love to relegate Pharaoh to simply the position of an evil ruler over an evil land that, in the end, God brought to justice with His deliverance of His people in the Passover, through the Red Sea, and by bringing the destruction of Pharaoh’s first born sons and his army in the Red Sea. But the truth is God was doing far more than delivering His people and condemning Egypt. The fact that God raised up Pharaoh for His purposes is what makes Pharaoh’s testimony so important. It is God who raised him up and hardened his heart for a very important purpose. What was that purpose?
Again, look at Exodus 9:16: “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.”
God raised Pharaoh up in order to show His power so that His name may be proclaimed in all the earth. How did God show His power via Pharaoh? The plagues and the Red Sea. These events are still talked about and celebrated to this day. The Passover, which was directly connected to the tenth plague was a central part of Israel’s testimony for the next 1400 years. The sovereign work of God at the Red Sea is one of the most reflected-on events for the rest of the Old Testament narrative.
- God raised Pharaoh up to put His sovereignty on display.
God’s second purpose for the life of Pharaoh and his interaction with God’s people is clearly stated by Paul in Romans 9:14-18:
Romans 9:14-18 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
Paul is bringing a great clarity to a longtime-misunderstood perception of God—that He is the one who ultimately chooses whom He will, and also that He is not culpable, or guilty, for the sin that those who are guilty commit.
Paul is saying there is NO injustice on God’s part, but that it is His sovereign, free choice to choose whom He will for His holy purposes. In verses 14-18, Paul talks about the freedom of God in mercy (He has mercy on whomever He wills) and the freedom of God in hardening (He hardens whomever He wills). To make this big, important clarity about God’s free, sovereign choice, he uses Pharaoh as an important example.
The testimony of the exodus from Egypt repeatedly affirms that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. God says, “I will harden his heart” (Exodus 4:21); “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3); “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 9:12); “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 10:20, repeated in 10:27 and again in 11:10); “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 14:4); and “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Exodus 14:8).
It is sometimes objected that Scripture also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34) and that God’s act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was only in response to the initial rebellion and hardness of heart that Pharaoh, himself, exhibited of his own free will. But it should be noted that God’s promises that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3) come long before Scripture tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (we read of this for the first time in Exodus 8:15).
Now, this brings up a common question: “How is God not guilty of sin or evil if He is sovereignly ruling in this way?” Funny you ask, because that is what Paul addresses next in Romans 9:
Romans 9:19-23 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?
The simple truth is God is over all things and wills to raise up and use wicked people like Pharaoh to put on display His sovereign power. This is good and right for God to do because He is God, and everything He does is holy and right—not because we think it is, but because God is the one who did it.
“We must not think that God does a thing because it’s good and right, but rather the thing is good and right because God does it.” —William Perkins
As we see in the text, God is ultimately the one hardening Pharaoh’s heart, but it is important to see that He does this in such a way that He upholds Pharaoh’s ability to make willing, responsible choices that have real, eternal consequences for which Pharaoh is held accountable.
Theologian Wayne Grudem says, “Exactly how God combines his providential control with our willing and significant choices, Scripture does not explain to us. But rather than deny one aspect or the other (simply because we cannot explain how both can be true), we should accept both in order to be faithful to the teaching of all of Scripture.”
Now, there are a few very important takeaways regarding this truth about God’s sovereign reign over all things including wicked men like Pharaoh.
- We must understand that, although God did raise up evil men like Pharaoh who did evil things that brought about great judgment on many people, it is very clear that Scripture does not show God as directly doing anything evil; rather, He brings about evil deeds through the willing actions of moral creatures.
Scripture never blames God for evil. Neither should we!
So, planes fly into the World Trade Center, Isis beheads Christians, or someone cheats you out of money, you don’t say, “God, you did this. This is your fault.” You don’t blame God for evil. He is not guilty of any sin. These things are the result of sin, of man’s selfish heart, and of the curse on mankind.
What you can, and should, say is, “God is at work in these things.”
You say, “God is on the throne and not thwarted or surprised.”
You say, “God has us in His grip.”
Why do you say these things? Because they are true! Because they are beautiful and are needed reminders that when great evil is at work, death is at work, or injustice is a work, God is at work in His sovereignty in an even greater way.
When evil comes into our lives to trouble us, the doctrine of divine providence should give us a great assurance that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We can also realize that God is glorified even in the punishment of evil. Scripture tells us that “the Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4).
We do not blame God for evil or sin or temptations.
James warns us not to blame God for the evil we do when he says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14).
We can never blame God for temptation or think that He will approve of us if we give in to it. We are to resist evil and always blame ourselves or others who tempt us, but we must never blame God. If we were to say that God Himself does evil, we would have to conclude that He is not a good and righteous God, and therefore that He is not really God at all.
- Scripture never excuses human beings for the wrong they do.
Many passages in Scripture affirm this. One is found in Isaiah: “These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations; I also will choose affliction for them, and bring their fears upon them; because, when I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my eyes, and chose that in which I did not delight” (Isaiah 66:3-4).
The blame for evil is always on the responsible creature—whether man or demon—who does it, and the creature who does evil is always worthy of punishment. Scripture consistently affirms that God is righteous and just to punish us for our sins.
- Scripture consistently teaches that we never have a right to do evil, and that we should persistently oppose it in ourselves and in the world.
We are to pray, “Deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13), and if we see anyone wandering from the truth and doing wrong, we should attempt to bring him back. Scripture says, “If any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
We should never desire evil to be done. Even entertaining sinful desires in our minds is to allow them to “wage war” against our souls (1 Peter 2:11) and thereby to do us spiritual harm. In thinking about God using evil or evil people to fulfill his purposes, we should remember that there are things that are right for God to do but wrong for us to do. Augustine said, “There is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God … For through the bad wills of evil men God fulfills what he righteously wills.”
Now, we see why Paul chose to quote Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:17 rather than one of the verses that relate directly to hardening. Instead, he quotes a verse that shows the purpose of why God exercised His freedom in hardening as well as mercy: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’”
He chose a verse that expressed the very purpose that relates implicitly to the righteousness of God and the hope of the world; namely, God’s commitment to uphold and display the honor of His name: “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
In other words, God’s freedom in extending mercy and hardening is at the heart of God’s glory and God’s name. This is what it means to be God—to be ultimately free and unconstrained from powers outside Himself. Treasuring and displaying this glory and this name is right—it is the meaning of “right.”
So, when you think of Pharaoh, do not simply think of a wicked ruler that was defeated in the end. Think of God’s sovereign hand in Pharaoh’s life to accomplish God’s purposes of displaying His power and making His name holy among all the nations.
Wow! God is worthy of our awe and our praise. He is to be trusted no matter how crazy hard our circumstances are. His promises are to be trusted, as He will fulfill them and endure His people to glory. This is good news to our souls!
By His grace and for His glory,
Soldiers for Jesus MC