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Pharaoh’s Repentance

the opportunity he had to repent

And Pharaoh said,
“Who is YHWH,
that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?
I do not know YHWH,
nor will I let Israel go.”

Exodus 5:2

In the last post, we noted that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a strengthening process which enabled him to act in a way that was consistent with his denial of YHWH, but did not prevent him from acknowledging YHWH as God. In this post, we want to further explore whether Pharaoh could have repented of his denial that YHWH was God, even while God was hardening him.

Pharaoh’s Objections

To start, let’s take another look at Pharaoh’s initial response to God’s command. In it, he expressed two distinct areas of opposition against the God of Israel.

And Pharaoh said, “(1) Who is YHWH, (2) that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? (1) I do not know YHWH, (2) nor will I let Israel go.” Exodus 5:2

Pharaoh’s two-sentence initial response contained two objections that were repeated in each sentence. His first objection was that YHWH was not his God. His second was that he would not release the Israelites. 

In his first objection, Pharaoh denied that the God of Israel (YHWH) was a god to whom he should submit. In his view, YHWH was a god of the Israelites, not a god of the Egyptians. As an Egyptian, he held that he had no obligation to pay any heed to any Israelite god. 

Pharaoh also rejected God’s call to release the Israelites. As ruler over Egypt, he had authority over the people of the land. The Israelites were his slaves, and he objected to releasing them from serving him.

These two areas that Pharaoh stood against God were distinct, but not unrelated. His first point of contention (YHWH was not his God) logically led to the second (he would not obey YHWH). So the first led to the second, but his second objection also motivated him to maintain the first. His desire to keep the people gave him an ulterior motive behind denying that YHWH was God because he would be obliged to obey YHWH if He was God.

Although his objections were related, it’s important to see the distinction between them in order to make sense of what God was doing with Pharaoh. Being separate objections, it was possible for Pharaoh to hold fast regarding one while complying with the other. For example, Pharaoh obeyed God (second objection) after the tenth plague while still denying that YHWH was God over him (first objection). As another example, Moses did it the other way around. He acknowledged YHWH as God, yet objected to delivering God’s command to Pharaoh. So, although the two objections are closely related and linked, they are independent of each other. Thus, being hardened in one area wouldn’t necessarily prevent Pharaoh from operating freely in the other area. 

As we noted in an earlier post, when Scripture told of God hardening Pharaoh, it specifically said the result was that Pharaoh did not release the people. It did not say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and so Pharaoh refused to fear God. Thus, God did not prevent Pharaoh from acknowledging Him as God over him. Evidently, Pharaoh could operate freely in the area of the fear of YHWH.

Call to Repent

In fact, God called on Pharaoh to repent from his pride against God, which correlated to his first objection. It was during the seventh plague that Pharaoh appeared to falter in his stand against God and seemed to briefly acknowledge YHWH’s authority.

And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “I have sinned this time. The LORD is righteous, and my people and I are wicked. Exodus 9:27

As a side note, notice how Pharaoh was able to see and acknowledge his responsibility to obey YHWH, and even to somewhat repent. The hardening he previously experienced did not prevent him from recognizing and acknowledging YHWH’s authority. But, as Moses noted, he did not fully convert to the fear of YHWH.

But as for you and your servants, I know that you will not yet fear the LORD God.” Exodus 9:30

In fact, Pharaoh’s fear of YHWH’s power lasted only as long as the storm did.

And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hard [H2388]; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the LORD had spoken by Moses. Exodus 9:34-35 

When the storm ceased, Pharaoh hardened his heart. Based on the sentence structure and the flow of context, his hardening in this verse was regarding his fear of YHWH. It says he strengthened himself, and then separately adds that ‘neither would he let the children of Israel go.’ Thus, the strengthening must have been regarding his first objection, which was resisting submission to YHWH as God.

Despite his denial of YHWH, it still made no sense for him to keep the Israelites, given the demonstration of power he had just experienced. But he went against all good sense and kept the Israelites due to God’s working in his heart. 

Now the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened [H3513] his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I may show these signs of Mine before him,” Exodus 10:1

H3513 has to do with making a person dull regarding God’s word. Pharaoh, in his heart, did not want to release the children of Israel. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart enabled him to do what he wanted to do, which resulted in Pharaoh making the inane decision to disobey God and keep the people. God’s working made Pharaoh dense regarding his situation. 

The verses that follow then make clear that God was not preventing him from converting.

So Moses and Aaron came in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the LORD God of the Hebrews: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me. Or else, if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory. Exodus 10:3-4

This was a call from God upon Pharaoh to humble himself. It can only mean that God desired for Pharaoh to humble himself. To say that God was preventing Pharaoh from humbling himself while making a call to repent is to call God a liar. 

In my opinion, God’s call is the clearest evidence that His work of hardening did not prevent Pharaoh from humbling himself and acknowledging that YHWH was his God.

Way of Escape

Before God brought the final plague, He provided a way of escape for everyone, including Pharaoh. God instructed Moses to announce publicly the coming judgment at least two weeks before it arrived and also publicly instruct the Israelites on how to escape the judgment. The instruction was not secret, so Pharaoh undoubtedly knew about the blood on the doorposts. Pharaoh could have applied the blood and escaped the judgment of death. Thus, God provided Pharaoh an opportunity for repentance right up until He executed the judgment.  

Surely God’s work of hardening did not contradict His provision for a way of escape from the judgment!

Summary

Pharaoh stood against God in two different areas: the fear of God, and obeying God’s commands. We have looked at three pieces of evidence that God did not harden Pharaoh against acknowledging Him as God. 

  • Scripture only indicates that God hardened Pharaoh in the area of releasing the people, not in the area of fearing God. 
  • God called Pharaoh to turn from exalting himself against God. 
  • God provided a way of escape from the judgment. 

God hardened Pharaoh in his desire to keep the people, but did not harden Pharaoh regarding his desire to defy YHWH’s claim of authority over him. Thus, Pharaoh could have repented of his pride and defiance. Indeed, God called him to repentance.

The next post looks at how God was just in His working with Pharaoh.


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