Vote for Pharaoh
**Editor's Note: This post first appeared in September 2012. I have edited it to reflect the 2016 election. May God be glorified as we consider this issue.** I once preached a lesson in an attempt to answer the question: “Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” Throughout the Exodus narrative, Moses alternately claims that God hardened the king’s heart vs. Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exod. 4:21; 7:3, 13, 22; 8:15, 32; 9:12, 34; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 13:15; 14:4, 8, 17).
Growing up, we're taught in church that a person is a free moral agent, meaning you and I are free to make our own decisions. God does not force us to do right or wrong. We have the freedom of choice when it comes to our personal decisions, and somewhere along the line, we all make the decision to sin and rebel against the will of God (Rom. 3:23).
The Exodus narrative is thus problematic; it seems inconceivable that God would intentionally harden a person’s heart so that they would sin. The text seems clear that the plagues levied on Egypt were punishment for Pharaoh’s hardened heart. But if God was responsible for the heart-hardening, then why did he punish Pharaoh for it?
In short, I do not believe God overrode Pharaoh’s free will, but allowed his “buttons” to be “pushed” so that God’s will would be accomplished. But this post is not so much about who hardened Pharaoh's heart. Rather, in studying for that lesson, I discovered a very telling statement in Exod. 14:4 where God says to Moses at the Red Sea, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.”
The book of Proverbs makes the astounding claim that “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). Like some of you, I used to believe that free moral agency meant that we choose between good and evil, and consequently the Lord and his church/kingdom/will proceed or regress. But as I have reflected on certain biblical passages over the last several months, I have been led to conclude that God uses both good and evil, good choices and poor ones, to accomplish his will. In other words, God’s will always moves forward. It’s up to us whether we want to be on the winning side.
This principle is especially meaningful in this election year. I reject the notion that one candidate will further God’s purposes more than the other. I do so because I believe that God’s purposes will be achieved irrespective of just who is in the White House. Whether one is hostile to godliness and the gospel or not, it does not matter. The heart of our next president will be like water in the hand of God, and the Lord's purposes will prevail (Prov. 19:21).
What are God’s purposes? God desires that we grow in godliness and spiritual maturity (1 Thess. 4:3). Can that process take place regardless of who is elected president this November? Yes.
God desires that all come to a knowledge of the truth and know his son Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (1 Tim. 2:4; John 17:3). Can that process take place regardless of who is elected president this November? Yes.
God ultimately desires that his name be glorified (1 Pet. 4:11). Salvation and sanctification are but a means to an end, and that end is the exaltation of the Holy One of Israel. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psa. 23:3). “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!” (Psa 79:9).
Can God’s name be glorified regardless of who is elected president this November?
Innumerable angelic hosts just chorused with “Yes!”
This unassailable biblical truth is providing great comfort to me. I have a bad habit of tracking elections too closely: I worry over polls and projections as if I have the ability to sway them. Like you, I am concerned about the moral and spiritual health of this country. Like you, I wonder if the America I bequeath to my children and grandchildren will be as great as the one I was born into.
But the dirty little secret of patriotism is that love of country can be as much an idol as anything else. Our citizenship, Paul says, is in heaven (Phil. 3:20); Christians are members of a kingdom that will stand long after America has dissolved (Dan. 2:44). And more than wanting to see certain individuals in positions of power, we should desire to see God’s name glorified to the ends of the earth. As frail children of dust, it seems to us that the ideal situation is for there to be a godly leader in the White House, and godly representatives in the House and Senate. It seems that way, but maybe God knows that great blessing comes through great persecution (Matt. 5:10-12). Maybe God knows that great hostility to his church produces more fervent praise (2 Cor. 1:8-11).
Maybe our preferences in politicians are more selfish in nature than we care to admit.
I’m sure that, to Moses, it seemed like the ideal situation was for Pharaoh to acquiesce to the request to let Israel go. It seemed ideal to avoid bloodshed, death, and piles of stinky frog carcasses. How could it be in God’s plan to harden the king’s heart and generate additional hardship for his people?
God knew that the plagues would prove him superior to the gods of Egypt, and his name would be glorified (Exod. 7:5). God knew that striking down Egypt’s firstborn would be memorialized for centuries in the Passover (cf. Psalm 136, a psalm often recited at Passover), and his name would be glorified. God knew that crushing pharaoh’s army in the sea would leave Israel awestruck, and his name would be glorified (Exod. 15:1-18).
Too often, we expect God to do what’s best for us, but what’s best for us is for God to do what’s best for him.
I conclude, therefore, that it is not beneficial to threaten to move to Canada if so-and-so is elected, or say similarly ridiculous things, or to speak disparagingly of Caesar just because we do not like his positions on moral issues. It is one thing to call on our leaders to make more godly decisions. It is another to disparage them personally and say cruel things about their families. Let me be clear: Christians have an obligation to vote according to our biblical convictions, not according to our race, our socio-economic status, our membership in any secular organization, or any other factor. We are also called to be salt and light in a morally stagnant, morally-dark society. Nothing I say in this post should be taken as license to stick our collective heads in the sand and turn a blind eye to the moral and spiritual decay in this country. But just as God raised up Pharaoh for God’s own glory, raised up Saul for God’s own glory, raised up Nebuchadnezzar for God’s own glory, raised up Cyrus for God’s own glory, and Darius, and Herod, and Pilate, and Nero, and countless others, so also he raises up presidents for God’s own glory.
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed… He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury… (Psa. 2:2-5)
And consider the hard-learned testimony of an empire-builder:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Dan. 4:34-35)
This November, we are tasked with choosing a president between 1.) a man who is an unapologetic adulterer and is on record as saying he has never considered it necessary to ask God for forgiveness, and 2.) a woman who has proven hostile to the unborn, hostile to God’s definition of marriage, and hostile to religious freedom. As I see them, neither of these choices is ideal. But God will use either to gain glory for himself, just as he did with Pharaoh.
And when one of these two individuals is sworn in as our next president in January, I will tell myself that it is what is best for me, because God only allows what is best for himself.
Father, thank you for the blessing of living in a country such as the U.S. But may our patriotism never outshine our love for and allegiance to you. Father, we want to see your name glorified and your will accomplished and help us to see that the resident of the White House can no more deter that than a pebble can dam a raging river. Do whatever you deem best to bring great glory to yourself. And please be patient with your people when we wonder if you really know what you’re doing. Remember that we are dust and grant us, in your mercy, an eternal perspective. In Jesus’ name.