The children of Israel, after the death of Joseph, were taken into Egyptian bondage (Ex. 1:11) because “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). This new king proclaimed unto his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land” (Ex. 1:9-10). With this decree from Pharaoh, the Israelites were put under bondage and even had their first born sons murdered.
Years later, in Mount Horeb, God appeared unto Moses in a flaming bush and chose him to be the deliverer of His people. The Lord said, “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows” (Ex. 3:7). God had chosen Moses to lead Israel into the promise land which had been pledged to their father Abraham.
God, giving Moses instruction concerning the task at hand, says, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Ex. 4:21). God said that He would harden the heart of Pharaoh! How was this done!? Was this even fair!? This statement of the Almighty has caused many to struggle through the centuries. In other passages, it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15; 9:34) and that his heart was hardened, not mentioning the one involved (Ex. 9:35).
How can it be said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and that Pharaoh hardened his own heart? The answer is found when we consider the hearts of men. God’s word is like the sun, and some men have hearts of clay, while others have hearts of butter. When God’s word shines into the heart of clay, it becomes harder, as was the case with Pharaoh. When God word shines into the heart of butter, it softens into obedience, as was the case with Moses.
As clay is hardened by the sun in the physical world, so is the heart of clay hardened by the word of God in the spiritual realm. As butter is softened by the sun in the physical world, so is the heart of butter softened by the word of God. God’s word hardened the heart of Pharaoh because he had a heart of clay. God did not force a hardened heart upon Pharaoh, but his reaction to God’s word hardened his heart.
In the New Testament we see the same type of result. On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter preached a soul stirring sermon, and the Bible says, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). When these souls heard the word of God, their hearts were softened and asked what they could do to rid their lives of sin.
On another occasion Peter was preaching to another group of people who reacted totally different. Luke records, “When they heard this, [Peter’s sermon] they were furious and plotted to kill them” (Acts 5:33). Those to whom Peter preached on this occasion had hearts of clay, and their hearts were hardened when they heard the word of God. When Stephen preached to his audience in Acts 7, they responded much like those to whom Peter preached in Acts 5. In Acts 7:54, we have recorded the people’s response to Stephen’s sermon, “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.” They were outraged at Stephen’s sermon.
God’s word is like the sun. The question we should ask ourselves is: Do we have a heart of clay or a heart of butter?