Have you ever mixed cement at home? You put the powdery mix in a bucket, pour in some water to make mud and stir it up. When you stop stirring, it slowly hardens. Whether you're setting a tether-ball pole or a fence post, or fixing a sidewalk, when you stop stirring, the cement mud hardens into concrete. This is why cement mixers constantly turn over and over, to keep it from hardening. What does this have to do with the Bible? This process is very similar to the process the Hebrew slaves used when making bricks and it is critical to understanding the story found in the text of Exodus 6:28 to 12:42 and Exodus 14:
One of the most difficult and misinterpreted incidents in Scripture occurs in this passage from Exodus and centers around Pharoah's hard headedness and hard heartedness in refusing to let God's people go. Let's start by understanding the context of this story. It is 1440 B.C. and if you are a Hebrew slave, your job is to make bricks. You make bricks by stirring up a mud mixture together with straw. The first time Moses and Aaron went to Pharoah to ask him to allow God's people go, so they could worship Him in the wilderness, he took away their straw, making it impossible to make bricks and then all of his men yelled at them for not getting the work done and accused them of being lazy. Sometimes a bad boss doesn't know what an appropriate amount of work is, but this was different. This was deliberate. Pharoah forced the people to fail and then blamed them for it. Pharoah is a cruel, power hungry sociopath who has no morals or conscience. The people then began gathering stubble, the chaff left over from harvest instead of straw.
I. Pharoah's Choice
When Moses and Aaron went back to deliver God's command to let His people go, Pharoah consorted with all sorts of sorcerors. Exodus 7:13 reports: And Pharaoh's heart grew hard, and he did not heed them. Then the 1st plague happened and he consorted with magicians and enchanters and yet again, Pharaoh's heart grew hard, and he did not heed them. Verse 23 reports that his heart, his emotions, were not affected at all. God sent 3 more plagues and 3 more times Pharoah hardened his own heart, verse 8:32 reports Pharoah hardened his heart again... He participated in witchcraft, consulting with Satan's priests, opening himself up to demonic influence and corruption and hardened his heart toward God. He made a clear choice.
II. Clear As Mud
Now, we get to the hard part. After the 6th plague, verse 9:12 reports, The Lord hardened the heart of Pharoah. I have come across people who teach this as if God supernaturally reached down from heaven, took away Pharoah's free will, forced him to do evil, used him like a puppet and then punished him for it. This is utterly and completely ridiculous. Would God really order Pharoah to let His people go and then force him NOT to let them go? Of course not. This is exactly the type of unjust action Pharoah committed against God's people, but God is not like that. Psalm 89:14 says "Righteousness and Justice are the foundation of Your throne." God does not act unjustly. Here's the rest of the story:
The term "hardened" would have been clearly and easily understood by the original audience of this story. Pharoah's heart was like MUD. Every single Hebrew alive in that day upon hearing the word "hardened," would have IMMEDIATELY thought about the process of making bricks, which is what their days consisted of. This is precisely the reference that was intended for the original audience. They would have understood that if God "hardened," Pharoah's heart, it meant that he STOPPED STIRRING it and allowed it to turn hard. Pharoah had resisted God's words and His commands to the point that he no longer had a conscience and no longer heard God's voice. He was entirely responsible and accountable for his own actions and decisions.
III. The Brick Oven
But there is even more to this story. Five more times, Pharoah's heart is hardened in response to a plague and this action is attributed to God. This is Pharoah's fiery trial. This summer I was fortunate to see "Moses" at the Sight and Sound Theater in Branson. I had never really thought about the brick making process before, but large brick ovens were a prominent feature of the set. When the bricks were baked in the oven, they became permanently and irrevocably hardened. These mud bricks were hardened and the chaff that had been mixed in became a permanent part of them. Chaff is used in the Bible as a metaphor for unbelievers who will ultimately be destroyed in unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:17) Pharoah's trial foreshadows the ultimate judgement. He could not pass his trial because his heart was full of chaff, full of evil. God's efforts to reach him only caused him to become harder and harder the more he resisted. Each time God applied the fire of judgement, Pharoah proved himself unworthy, refused to repent and became even more set in his ways, more hardened.
This should remind us of some other boys, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace and came out unscathed. Many places in Scripture refer to believers as being refined through the fire. The term fire is used metaphorically in the Old Testament to refer to trials (Psalm 66:10-12, Zechariah 13:9). It is also used in the New Testament to refer to the Holy Spirit who refines us (Matthew 3:11) and it refers to a literal fire that only the righteous will pass through (Isaiah 43:2, 2 Peter 3:10). Here is the simple application for today. When believers go through a fiery trial, we come out more like Jesus. God takes us through them and is with us every step of the way. Jesus has already been tested for us, we are pure because of Him. But Satan will often test us to try to break us. When this happens, we are honored and trusted to share in the sufferings of Christ. We can either allow our trials to harden us in our wrong ways, or we can allow God to build our faith through them. We are meant to become like silver or gold that has been melted by the fire to have the impurities removed and can be molded into something beautiful. It's all about the softening.
IV. The Choice
Pharoah wasn't the only one on trial. Moses went through a trial also, yet he came out with a special relationship with God and a face shining radiantly. Israel, as a nation was going through a fiery trial. Deuteronomy 4:20 records But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt to be the people of His inheritance, as you are today. The sojourn in Egypt was a refining process for Israel. We have it easy compared to them. The major part of our refining comes directly through the Holy Spirit's counsel and renewing work in our lives. Jesus can fix a broken, hardened heart, but it all begins by making a choice. John 16:8 tells us that the Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgement. He stirs our hearts, calling us into a restored relationship with God. The question is, will you listen? Hebrews 3:15 calls us to the choice. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart as in the rebellion. The choice is simple. Will you harden your heart to God? Or will you open your heart to Him?