Free will: Did Pharaoh have a choice?

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Question or Topic

We read the following concerning Pharaoh – "And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to show in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth" (Exodus 9:16). We know that God also is said to have hardened his heart. How do we explain this process to others, based on our understanding of free will?


Exodus 9:16


The ways of providence are one of the most remarkable demonstrations that we have in the scriptures, concerning the power of God. God utilizes the voluntary actions of certain individuals to carry out his plan and purpose for the earth, without a violation of their own freedoms.

To understand this particular example, it is appropriate to add the information that we are given in the New Testament to our discussion:

Romans 9:17-18For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

There are two sides to this picture. One is related to those such as Pharaoh, who are hardened. On the other hand we have those who are blessed with mercy. Information concerning the hardening of individuals is somewhat limited, but we have an abundance of information on the administration of mercy. If we look at the principles that are established in the process of God being merciful, we may better understand the process of hardening.

God's Mercy

It is important to recognize that God's mercy is first of all his prerogative. He is under no obligation to extend mercy to any man, whatever his qualification may appear to be. "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy". It his choice and his will. It is this principle that has been greatly confused. We are told:

Ephesians 2:8-9For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:Not of works, lest any man should boast.

This seems plain enough, but like all scripture, it must not applied as stand alone verses, without consideration of other sections of the inspired word. It is assumed that since God alone may decide whom will receive his mercy, that even the greatest of sinners is as well qualified for this honor as the most faithful of individuals is. This is not what we learn from God's word.

The contrast is found in James 2:

James 2:20-22But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

The principle that is being taught, when we consider all of the evidence, is that we are saved by grace, through perfected faith. It is this proven faith that is one of the necessary steps along the road to God's mercy. "Without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).

Perfected faith and diligent seeking. These are a definite part of the process, as defined in God's Word. Perhaps the best evidence, concerning the conditions relating to the extension of God's mercy, is found in Psalm 103. We are all familiar with this beautiful chapter and is special message of mercy. Look again at some of the words with certain messages highlighted:

Psalm 103:10-13,17-18He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. ... But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.

We conclude then that God's mercy is his prerogative, but that there are steps that we can take to encourage his favor. We can perfect our faith, and seek him diligently. We can learn to respect him and keep his covenant, and we can remember his commandments to do them.


Now that we understand that God's mercy is not a completely random process, and that God chooses individuals who believe and are making an effort to please him for this honor, we have a better foundation for looking at the process of hardening.

Does it not follow that God will choose individuals who have rejected him to raise up for a demonstration of his power, such as Pharaoh? Those who do not believe and who are not seeking. Those who do not fear him, nor do they honor his covenant. Those who do not keep his commandments. These are the the ones who are likely to be hardened, and that of their own choice.

These individuals are exercising their own freedom of choice in this life. They have chosen not to serve God. They may be used to carry out some providential acts in the will of God, but only when it is necessary in the development of his plan. The work that they do is not dedicated to God, it is only work that is the product of their own evil intentions, carried out by their own will, and to their own glory. They are completely unaware that for this point in time, their actions are also consistent with God's will.

Babylon was an instrument in the hand of God, hardened against his people, so that God might judge them. Babylon carried out these judgments with great violence, exercising it's own will, destroying even beyond what God had decreed. Babylon was in turn judged. There is no honor in the presence of the Creator for doing our own evil, even if it may be a necessary evil.

Pharaoh allowed the tricks of his own magicians to help him justify his refusal to give glory to the power of God. He listened to those counselors that told him what he wanted to hear, even as Rehoboam preferred the advice of his younger friends, because it was more suited to his own will.

We are hardened only when we allow ourselves to be hardened. The Jews at the time of Christ allowed themselves to be hardened against his teaching. "For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them" (Matthew 13:15). Their hearts were turned to stone and they were the only ones who could be held accountable for their blindness.

We have been given the greatest of gifts, and that is our free will. We can either use that choice to seek God and his mercy, or we can allow ourselves to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. The choice is ours, and we will receive what we sow. Let us pray that we will have chosen to honor the instructions of His word, so that we may have good reason to hope for His mercy.