How can God “turn the heart of a king” to do sin (i.e., pharaoh) yet hold them accountable?
The question seems to draw from two portions of Scripture. The first reads: The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases (Prov. 21:1).
The second is Romans 9, beginning with verse 17: For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (18) Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (19) One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?”
Romans 9 gives a two-fold answer to this question. First, we are cautioned not to be arrogant in questioning God’s right to do as he pleases, just as a lump of clay has no right to challenge what the potter chooses to make of it (20).
Second, Romans 9:22-23 lumps humanity into two groups of people, those who are ‘objects of His wrath,’ and those who are ‘objects of His mercy.’ Those who are objects of God’s wrath have been “prepared for destruction” (22), whereas the objects of His mercy He has prepared in advance for glory. The question is, what does “prepared for destruction” mean?
Is God the one responsible for preparing the objects of His wrath for destruction? This is not what the Scripture actually says. In fact, the English translations accurately convey the Greek in pointing out that God is the one who prepares the objects of His mercy for glory, while the objects of His wrath are simply described as “prepared for destruction,” without naming God as the one responsible.
When verse 22 says that God “bore with great patience” the objects of His wrath, it reveals God’s desire to see those who are under condemnation to come to repentance. As Jesus told Nicodemus, the entire human race stands in condemnation (John3:18). We are all objects of God’s wrath, prepared for destruction by our own sinful nature. God’s love for us is so great, however, that He sent is own Son into this fallen world, “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The apostle Peter says the same thing:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).
Pharaoh was the object of God’s wrath because, like all of us, he was a sinful human being. He, like all of us, was prepared for destruction by his own sinful nature and sinful behavior. God chose to use him for the purpose of displaying His power and glorifying His Name throughout the earth (Rom. 9:17). All the while, God gave ample opportunity for Pharaoh to repent, rather than destroying him on the spot. God used Pharaoh’s lack of belief and repentance to harden his heart (Rom. 3:18), much like God covers an open wound with scar tissue that has no feeling.
God makes no man sin. But He will use man’s sinfulness for His own glory, and as an example to others of God’s patience in bringing many sons and daughters to glory.