18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.
21 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. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” – Exodus 4:18-23 ESV
Moses finally determines to accept the Lord’s commission and return to Egypt, but when he informs his father-in-law of his intentions, his words reflect a tone of pessimism.
“Let me go, so that I may return to my relatives in Egypt and see if they are still alive.” – Exodus 4:18 NLT
It almost sounds as if Moses is expecting the worst when he returns. But it is more likely that he is trying to appeal to the heart of Jethro. After all, his father-in-law is a family man and will understand if Moses simply wants to return to check on the well-being of his relatives. This appeal will also help to convince Jethro to allow his daughter and two grandsons to make the journey back with Moses.
Having gained Jethro’s permission, Moses made plans for the long journey home, but not before God informed him that it was safe to return.
“Go back to Egypt, because all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” – Exodus 4:19 NLT
Evidently, Moses still harbored reservations about going back to the place where he had murdered an Egyptian in cold blood. As far as he knew, the bounty on his head was still in effect and he would be arrested as soon as he set foot in Egypt. But God graciously informed him that the statute of limitations had expired because all those who sought him were dead. Moses could no longer use that as an excuse for delaying his return.
Before Moses loaded his wife and sons on a donkey, he received one final order from God that fully summarized his commission.
“When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control. But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go. You must say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord has said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn, and I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me,’ but since you have refused to let him go, I will surely kill your son, your firstborn!”’” – Exodus 4:21-23 NLT
Moses had his marching orders and they were far from encouraging. God basically told His servant that he would face stiff opposition. Pharaoh was not going to be like what Moses had to say. In fact, he was going to refuse any and all requests to let the people of Israel leave Egypt. And God let Moses know that Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance would be part of His sovereign plan for Israel’s deliverance. God was going to “harden his heart.” This phrase will be used repeatedly throughout the book of Exodus, in order to inform the reader that the entire narrative arc of the story has been authored by God. Though Pharaoh is a powerful figure, he is just another character in God’s divine drama of deliverance.
God is not suggesting that Pharaoh will be a helpless victim of His sovereign will. The king of Egypt will not be subjected to some kind of divine mind control that forces him to function in a robotic, trancelike state. Pharaoh will have full access to all of his mental faculties, and will willingly decide to oppose the will of God. On several occasions, it will become clear that Pharaoh is operating according to his own stubborn will.
But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 8:15 ESV
But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. – Exodus 8:32 ESV
In a sense, God is using the prideful and arrogant nature of Pharaoh to accomplish His will. God is not forcing Pharaoh to do anything. He is simply taking advantage of what He knows to be a weakness in the life of this godless, pagan king. By having Moses make the request for Israel’s release, God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart because He already knows the king will reject that request. God could soften Pharaoh’s heart and make him amenable to Moses’ overtures, but that would not provide the proper environment in which to demonstrate His power and authority to the people of Israel.
But it seems clear from the text that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses. – Exodus 9:12 ESV
But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go. – Exodus 10:20 ESV
But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. – Exodus 10:27 ESV
Yet, once again, this seems to be an indication that God is allowing Pharaoh to operate according to his own moral compass. Pharaoh was simply doing what he would normally and naturally do, without any interference from God. Without God’s assistance, Pharaoh would be incapable of responding any other way. In that sense, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by refusing to intervene. God could have provided Pharaoh with the capacity to behave in contrast to his normal, sinful disposition, but that would not have accomplished the plan for Israel’s release.
No man or woman can display heart-motivated behavior in keeping with God’s will without God’s help. In the book of Ezekiel, God informs His own chosen people that their ability to obey His laws and statutes will be impossible until He has given them the ability to do so. But one day, He will do just that.
“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.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV
The book of 1 Samuel recalls a scene in which the Philistines had stolen to Ark of the Covenant from Israel. This sacred object was integral to Israel’s worship of Yahweh because it contained the mercy seat, where God’s glory dwelt. To convince the Philistines to return the ark, God “terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.” (1 Samuel 5:6 ESV). In a panic, the people of Ashdod shipped the ark to the nearby city of Gath, “But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them” (1 Samuel 5:9 ESV).
Like a real-life game of hot potato, the Gathites sent the ark to another neighboring Philistine city. But when it arrived in Ekron, the same thing happened.
…there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven. – 1 Samuel 5:11-12 ESV
In a heightened state of panic, the Philistines sought the wisdom of their priests and diviners, hoping for a solution to their growing problem. Their advice was to send the ark back to Israel. Then they added this interesting word of warning.
“Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?” – 1 Samuel 6:6 ESV
The report of God’s long-past dealings with Pharaoh and the Egyptian people had become legendary. And these pagan priests warned their people not to follow their example. Because the God of the Israelites would eventually get His way.
In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul uses the story of Exodus as a lesson on God’s sovereign will. His main point is that God never operates unjustly. All that He does is good, righteous, and in order to accomplish His divine will. God can sovereignly choose to show mercy on whom He wills. It is not based on man’s merit or effort. And then Paul uses Pharaoh as an example.
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. – Romans 9:17-18 ESV
He actually borrows from the book of Exodus, quoting the words that Yahweh had Moses deliver to Pharaoh.
“…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.” – Exodus 9:15-16 ESV
This helps to explain what God told Moses just before he made the trip back to Egypt. The mission on which Moses was about to embark, was going to be difficult, but its outcome was set in stone. Pharaoh was going to be a tough negotiator, but God was well aware of that. He had planned on it. This particular Pharaoh was just the kind of man God needed on the throne of Egypt because he would prove to be just stubborn enough to reject all of Moses’ requests and God’s judgments. And while God could have destroyed the Egyptians in a heartbeat, He had chosen instead to use Pharaoh’s stubbornness as a means for showcasing His power and sovereignty to the people of Israel. After what appeared to be a 400-year absence, God was going to make Himself known to His chosen people in a powerful and irrefutable way.
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