Pharaoh’s heart was hard. Like the hands of a laborer that have become calloused and unfeeling, his heart had been hardened by pride and unbelief.
Throughout this section of Scripture that fact is repeated over and over again. Some verses say that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and other verses say that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Here is how I understand that: each time Pharaoh resisted the Lord, he distanced himself a little farther from the conviction of His presence. Each time Pharaoh turned away from the light of God’s truth, he plunged a little deeper into darkness. Each time he turned a cold shoulder to the Lord, the heat of God’s holiness burned a little hotter. And as the old saying goes, the same fire that melts the wax will harden the clay. It all depends on the substance.
I can’t fully explain why God says in verse 1 that He hardened the man’s heart, but I know this: it was Pharaoh’s own choice to “refuse to humble” himself before the Lord (v.3). If he had, the Bible teaches that humbling oneself before the Lord results in being lifted up to be closer to Him (James 4:10). And if you draw near to God, He will draw near to you (James 4:8). While it was Pharaoh’s choice not to do that, his choice perfectly fit God’s plan to punish Egypt while freeing His people.
Think of how different the story could have been if Pharaoh would have opened his heart. But he resisted again, and the locusts swarmed in to eat what the hail didn’t destroy. Pharaoh pretended to repent (v.16-17) and refused to let the Israelites go.
With Egypt in ruins, God sent a ninth plague: He turned out the lights. It was pitch dark for three days, so dark it could be felt (v.21). God removed the light just as He was about to remove His patience. Pharaoh had sinned away his last chance to respond to God’s mercy. Moses knew how true his words were in verse 28.
I hear a warning here, and it is not just for Pharaoh. The warning is for me to keep my heart tender and open to the Lord. If I don’t stay humble and responsive to Him, I could end up on the outside of God’s blessing and protection…and I don’t want to be there. Ever.