Was Pharaoh doomed from the start — predestined to have his mind set against God's will as his nation tumbled in ruins around him? Was it impossible for the hardhearted Pharaoh of the Exodus to have changed, even if he had wanted to?
And if Pharaoh didn't really have a chance, what about the Israelites? Was God playing games with them, too — tempting and trying them, but at the same time "hardening their hearts" and "stiffening their necks" so that they didn't really have any hope of succeeding?
If we let ourselves think so, we are missing one of the most important lessons of the Exodus. The Bible says such lessons have special significance for those who are, in this end time, standing on the threshold of the world tomorrow and God's Kingdom (I Cor. 10:11).
So let's examine the case of the Pharaoh who would not let Israel go.
A stubborn man We know from Pharaoh's treatment of the Israelites that he was a cruel and greedy man. He was obsessed with building cities and monuments, regardless of the human suffering it caused.
He was also an unusually stubborn man — a dictator, not used to listening to reason and advice.
God knew this. Before He sent His servant Moses to confront the Pharaoh, God warned Moses, "I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go" (Ex. 3:19). And sure enough, Pharaoh wouldn't.
At first, Moses asked Pharaoh for permission to hold a feast in the wilderness just three days distant. But Pharaoh's reaction was to increase the already overburdened slaves' workload until the slaves' tasks became impossible.
God then told Moses that He was going to deal with Pharaoh in such a way that this stubborn king, far from wanting to keep his slaves, would literally drive them out of his kingdom (Ex. 6:1). But it would not be easy. Pharaoh had smugly told Moses, "I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go" (Ex. 5:2).
So, in a series of devastating plagues, God revealed Himself to Pharaoh and showed Pharaoh what happened when He was disobeyed.
First the Nile River turned to blood. The fish in the river died. The water became unfit to drink. Then a horrendous plague of frogs came up from the river, infesting even Pharaoh's very palace.
Following each disaster, Pharaoh would summon Moses and ask that the plague be removed, promising to let Israel go. But as soon as relief came, he changed his mind (Ex. 8:15). Study this story carefully. In some cases the Bible says God hardened Pharaoh's heart, while elsewhere it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Does this mean that there were times when Pharaoh wanted to change his mind, but God would not let him?
Not at all. God doesn't tempt, tease or torture people like that.
Remember that Pharaoh was carnal, and that the carnal mind "is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). This stubborn, determined despot epitomized carnality. He had made it quite clear — had boasted, even — that he was not subject to the law of God, neither indeed would be!
God could have softened Pharaoh's heart suddenly and dramatically by intervening in his life, as He did with Saul on the road to Damascus. God had mercy on the man who later became the apostle Paul.
But He did not, at this time, decide to have mercy on Pharaoh. He was not ready to call the Egyptian ruler.
Stubborn Pharaoh was shocked when the Nile River, around which Egyptian worship centered, turned to blood! Is this unfair? No. God will eventually offer a chance for salvation to every human being, as He carries out His 7,000-year plan of salvation. But exactly when He chooses to begin working with an individual is something only God can decide — it is none of our business (Rom. 9:14-23).
The plagues continue But back to the story. We left Pharaoh knee-deep in dead frogs, and as unresilient as ever. Plagues of lice and then flies were next, infesting Egypt with insects (Ex. 8:16-24).
Up until this time, Pharaoh's magicians had been able to duplicate the miracles God performed through Moses. But they were at a loss to show Pharaoh that the lice were "just another of Moses' tricks." Even the corrupt and degenerate pagan priests had to admit that this was "the finger of God" (verse 19).
Temporarily driven to distraction, Pharaoh grudgingly conceded to Moses' demands. But again, as soon as the bugs were removed, he changed his mind.
God next infected the Egyptians' cattle with a contagious disease. The Egyptians reported to Pharaoh that this disease was only affecting their cattle — those belonging to the Israelites were completely immune (Ex. 9:7). Pharaoh was unimpressed — his heart was still hard.
Then God told Moses to scatter dust into the wind. As this dust touched living creatures, man or beast, they broke out in hideous and painful boils. Even those in Pharaoh's court were affected. But still Pharaoh would not give in (verse 12).
So God sent a terrible hailstorm to lash Egypt; the hail smashed trees, homes and crops and killed men or beasts caught in the open. Fire mixed with the hail turned areas of the once lush Nile Valley into smoking ruins.
Faced with this holocaust, even Pharaoh was daunted. "I have sinned this time," he admitted. "Intreat the Lord (for it is enough) that there be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer" (Ex. 9:27-28).
Moses didn't believe Pharaoh (verses 29-30), and he was right. As soon as the skies cleared and the worst of the trial was over, Pharaoh's heart was once again hardened (verses 34-35).
Moses went back to the vain king. If Pharaoh refused to humble himself, locusts would swarm in to eat what was left of the battered country's crops (Ex. 10:3-6).
Egypt's leaders and politicians were appalled. Didn't the king know that Egypt was already in ruins? What was he trying to do? But Pharaoh was like some world leaders today, who would rather see their nations collapse than give up their power and fanatical ideas.
Once Moses asked God to remove the locusts, Pharaoh was as unbending as ever. Even several days of thick, blinding dust storms didn't move him. In fact, at the end of this plague, Pharaoh broke off negotiations. He told Moses to get out and not come back (verses 27-28).
Moses left, but not before warning of one last, terrible plague — the death of all of Egypt's firstborn. You know the rest of the story. With his once proud and powerful nation shattered and hundreds of thousands of his people dead, Pharaoh ordered the Israelites out.
But even as they were leaving, he again thought better of it. He pursued the Israelites until, finally, his army was drowned in the Red Sea.
Pharaoh never gave in! He would not be subject to the instructions of God. God tolerated this incredibly obstinate man for several weeks, because God had decided to use him as an example (Ex. 9:16). The carnal mind is hostile to God. Pharaoh's behavior showed just how hostile the carnal mind can be, given the opportunity.
But a carnal, hostile, unbelieving mind was not the exclusive proclivity of Pharaoh. Ancient Israel proved just as hostile and hardhearted toward God and His ways as Pharaoh had been. The Red Sea had scarcely closed behind them before they began their complaining.
The next 40 years were a continuing story of bad attitudes, faithlessness, disobedience, stubbornness, rebellion, idolatry, grumbling, murmuring and discontent. Like Pharaoh, Israel never really learned the lesson.
Remember: In dealing with these ancient people, Israelite and Egyptian, God was not offering spiritual salvation. He was using them to write a lesson, so that those who have been offered spiritual salvation can understand and heed.
Holy Spirit needed These experiences show that a human mind, without God's Holy Spirit, cannot learn spiritual lessons — cannot have a constructive and positive relationship with God and do His will. Romans 8:8 makes this clear: "So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."
Without the help of the Holy Spirit, Pharaoh could not overcome his self-will and obstinancy — even though his nation was being destroyed. Without the Holy Spirit, ancient Israel could not show faith and confidence in God. By nature, the Israelites were a stubborn, self-willed, stiff-necked people who wanted their own way. Their human nature prevailed to the end.
What we should remember, three and a half millennia later, is that we can be just the same. Human nature hasn't changed. There is a potential Pharaoh or ancient Israelite inside all of us.
Paul warned in Hebrews 3:7-8, "To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness."
Unlike those people, we, if we are truly converted, do not have to have "hard hearts." God has given us access to the Holy Spirit, which can soften our hearts.
We can learn spiritual lessons. When God corrects us, it can make a permanent difference. We can meet trials and obstacles with faith. We don't have to keep on making the same mistakes over and over again, as they did. With the Holy Spirit, we can grow. Instead of resisting God's law, we can keep it.
But we can only behave this way if we use the Holy Spirit. If we lose it or neglect it, our hearts begin to harden again — they become, once more, potentially as hard as Pharaoh's. But if we use God's Spirit, we can change.
Two stood out The stories of the Exodus and of Israel in the wilderness do not include many examples of good attitudes. They are a rather dismal record of resistance, lack of vision and rebellion.
But two people stand out: Joshua and Caleb. Their good example should also be studied and remembered by those on whom the end of this world has come.
About 18 months after leaving Egypt, Israel was ready to enter the promised land. God had by then given the Israelites ample evidence that with His help, no problem was insurmountable.
Before the multitude of Israelites invaded the promised land, Moses sent Joshua, Caleb and 10 others on a reconnaissance. After 40 days they returned, most with negative reports.
Yes, most of the spies reported, Canaan was a good land, Rowing with milk and honey. But, they continued, you should just see the obstacles! Hostile tribes, fortified cities — and if all that wasn't bad enough, there were giants in the land! Better forget it and go back to Egypt (Num. 13:27-29).
Then Caleb spoke up. Sure, there were problems, he admitted, but hadn't they learned that with God's help, all obstacles could be overcome? So, he urged, they should go on in faith and do what God had told them they must, "for we are well able to overcome it" (verse 30).
But the bad attitudes prevailed. So God sentenced these faithless people to 40 years of homeless wandering, once again to teach a lesson. And of the multitude that came out of Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter the promised land.
What was it about Joshua and Caleb that set them apart? Read Numbers 14:24: "But my servant Caleb, because he had another spirit with him, and hath followed me fully, him will I bring into the land."
Caleb and his friend Joshua had learned some lessons. They approached the difficulties of overcoming and doing God's Work in a positive, "can-do" attitude. They were allowed to lead Israel into Canaan 40 years later.
Notice that many years later Caleb still showed his positive attitude toward doing what God expected:
Joshua led the children of Israel into the promised land. God told Israel that if they trusted Him, they would be successful in driving out the Canaanites from their strongholds. But the Israelites did not totally trust God, and many pockets of Canaanite resistance remained. One of these was Mt. Hebron, where the Anakim (giants) had fortified cities.
Most of the Israelites gave up hope of taking the mountain. But not Caleb. Though he was 85 years old, he went to see Joshua.
"I am as strong this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me," Caleb reminded Joshua (Josh. 14:11). "Now therefore give me this mountain, whereof the Lord spake in that day; for thou heardest in that day how the Anakims were there, and that the cities were great and fenced: if so be the Lord will be with me, then I shall be able to drive them out, as the Lord said" (verse 12).
And drive them out Caleb did. "Hebron therefore became the inheritance of Caleb... because that he wholly followed the Lord God of Israel" (verse 14).
The example of Joshua and Caleb shows that God will reward a positive attitude. When God works through people, He expects them to have a yielded, constructive approach to the things that must be done — whether it be driving out Canaanites, overcoming personal sins or reaching this world with the Gospel.
A positive approach All these experiences were just a type of far greater events that will soon come to pass. The Israelites' entrance into the promised land was a type of our entering the Kingdom of God. The overcoming of the Canaanite tribes typifies our need to overcome this world and our human nature.
In addition, the Israelites' physical "rest" in the promised land of Canaan was only a type (Heb. 4). It is the millennial rest, pictured by the Sabbath, that we must focus on. Only God's Kingdom can truly bring rest to this miserable world.
A rest from what? Not from work — Christ is coming back to earth to get things done. The Kingdom of God on earth will be a rest from vanity, selfishness, greed, negativism, failure and frustration.
Those who work closest with Christ in His government must set an example of humble, cheerful, agreeable cooperation. As the Family of God sets about the colossal job of rebuilding the world after 6,000 years of misrule, we will have to take a positive, constructive, can-do approach to the things God wants done. There can be no place for disobedient, selfish, negative, hardhearted defeatists.
No wonder, then, that God wants us to thoroughly understand the hardheartedness of Pharaoh and the ancient Israelites. Only then can we be sure that we don't fall "after the same example of unbelief' and disqualify ourselves from entering God's Kingdom (Heb. 4:11).
Pharaoh will have a chance One day, long in the future, Pharaoh will be resurrected, along with millions of others. The books of the Bible will be opened to his understanding (Rev. 20:12).
He may read, with growing consternation, the story of his resistance and hostility to the will of God — the God he now must meet for judgment. He will learn what it feels like to stand before a throne of power, needing royal favor and mercy. Perhaps he will be expecting the worst.
But things will be different then — it will be Pharaoh's eternal life that is at stake. He will learn that this God whom he once despised holds no grudges and has no spirit of revenge.
Jesus Christ may review, once again, Pharaoh's awful record of rebellion. Then, in a voice of authority, but tempered with compassion and mercy, He may tell the now sobered and fearful ex-king: "I want to remove your sins as far as the east is from the west. If you will now repent, I will give you the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will soften that hard heart of yours. Pharaoh, will you surrender?"
And this time, Pharaoh probably will!