God makes some people very difficult to deal with. "And the Lord said to Moses, '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'" (Exodus 4:21). It was not mere happenstance that this Pharaoh was particularly hardheaded, nor was he merely reacting to circumstance. God caused him to be intractable. God did a similar thing to Ezekiel before Israel:
Behold, I have made your face strong against their faces, and your forehead strong against their foreheads. Like adamant stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not be afraid of them, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:8-9)
If God will do this for one of His servants, a prophet, why can He not do it to Pharaoh, who, though an enemy of His people, is also serving God's purpose?
Exodus says Pharaoh hardened his heart nineteen times, and of that total, ten say God hardened Pharaoh's heart and nine that Pharaoh hardened it. This shows a balance. Undoubtedly, Pharaoh had a proclivity toward stubbornness, but God helped him along whenever necessary.
This suggests that on occasion God will disregard free moral agency to suit the purpose He is working out. If life and our destiny to be in the Kingdom of God is all a matter of free moral agency, then free moral agency is supreme God, not the Creator God. But it is true, the Potter has power over the clay to do with it as He pleases (Romans 9:21). Ultimately, God's power of choice trumps man's.
This is further underscored on other occasions revealed in the Exodus events. The sovereign God's power, when combined with Pharaoh's God-aided stubbornness, produced a calamity of monumental proportions for Egypt and glory for the eternal God. God says in Exodus 7:3-5:
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
He was producing yet more because He makes a similar statement in Exodus 14:4, as Israel was about to be confronted with crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh's army not far behind: "'Then I will harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.' And they did so."
Where was the Egyptians' free moral agency throughout this entire affair? The Egyptians who died—in many cases, violent deaths during the destruction of Egypt's power—had little or no choice in the matter. In addition, they came to comprehend God's power only for a brief period of time, which did them no good and brought Him precious little honor. He may have received honor in the form of terror, and little or none in the form of grateful appreciation, admiration, and obedience from them. God, however, has a longer-range view: The time is coming when they will remember and give true honor to Him in thankfulness.
John W. Ritenbaugh
God's Sovereignty and the Church's Condition (Part Two)
The Bible uses a large variety of metaphors, imagery, similes, types, parables, allegories, and analogies as teaching tools. They are used either to hide or cloud a meaning from outsiders, or sometimes to make them clear—so that God's people understand either way. Here, in Exodus 4:21, Israel is shown as a cohesive body—as a single, human son. In other places, Israel is portrayed as a virginal woman, married to God, and in yet other places, as a harlot who is still legally married but who, in reality, has left the marriage and pursued lovers.
In like manner, the church is typified as a body (of which Christ is the Head) and the firstborn of God. In another analogy, the church is portrayed as the firstfruits—not a body, but an assembly of individuals harvested as a crop. In another place, it is pictured as a loaf of bread that has leaven in it. The New Testament contains many other symbols for the church.
John W. Ritenbaugh
New Covenant Priesthood (Part 1)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Exodus 4:21: