Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the most powerful empire of the world in his day. He decided who would live and who would die. He decided who would be wealthy and who would be poor. He decided who would be free and who would be enslaved. It is no wonder that not only was he worshipped as a god, but he even thought of himself as a god.
Enters Moses, the self-proclaimed leader of the lowly slave race of Jews, claiming that there is some unseen God who demands obedience. Pharaoh quickly and cruelly laughs him out of the palace while cracking down even harder on the enslaved Jewish nation.
Moses together with his brother Aaron become the agents of the famed Ten Plagues. Before each series of plagues Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Jewish nation go serve their God. Pharaoh consistently either declines to let them go, or reneges on his promise to let them go after a plague has passed.
Pharaoh is unwilling to bend to the attack of the plagues to the point of ludicrousness and national oblivion. His stubbornness would seem almost comical if it weren’t so devastating. The Chidushei HaRim on Exodus 10:2 states (as do a number of other commentators) that after a certain point of Pharaoh hardening his own heart against the Jewish people and not letting them go, that eventually God steps in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart as well to give Pharaoh the strength to continue to resist the onslaught of the plagues. A normal human being, even one as narcissistic and self-adoring as Pharaoh, unaided, would eventually succumb and give in to the divinely ordained plagues and free the Jewish people. God wanted Pharaoh to have the strength to continue to resist until all the plagues had been unleashed.
The Chidushei HaRim adds that God had another reason for giving Pharaoh additional power to withstand the devastation of the plagues. God wanted to show the Jews and the world that there is no power, there is no force, there is no situation that God can’t save the Jewish people from. Even the most powerful man of the most powerful empire, with divinely reinforced stubbornness is as nothing for God to affect salvation when and how He chooses.
May we realize that power is so often just a façade, a temporary mirage.