After the Israelites responded to God’s faithfulness in delivering them from Egypt by making a golden statue to worship and having an all-night orgy around it (not a good response), God confronted Moses on Mt. Sinai and told him that God’s wrath would “burn hot against them and consume them” (Exodus 32:10).
“But Moses implored the LORD his God and said…‘Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.”’”
And then, the most amazing verse:
“And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people”
(Exodus 32:11-14 ESV).
What is going on here? Does Moses’ prayer convince God to change his mind by reminding God of something he had said, something that he had apparently forgotten about? Was God just having an off day? Had he forgotten to do his quiet time that morning?
Did Moses really change God’s mind?
Let me make it even more confusing for you: Moses, the same author who recorded this story, says clearly in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.”
What should we do with this? Engineers and accountants and other type-A people (like myself) will struggle with this, but God is too big to contain in neat, tidy formulas. We should approach these issues not as contradictions to be resolved but as three truths to be held in tension:
1. God’s purposes are unchanging.
Verses like Numbers 23:19 are clear: God is not a man. He never learns anything new. He doesn’t wise up with experience or change his mind.
The prophet Isaiah concurs: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning…saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
And the apostle Paul: “In him we have…been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
Moses, Isaiah and Paul are three of the most significant authors of Scripture, and they all say the same thing. So, it seems clear that God’s purposes are unchanging, but, like I said, we have to hold this in tension with another truth.
2. God’s plans are unfolding.
The text of Exodus says that God changed his course of action based on Moses’ prayer. And here’s the irony of the story: God is the one who tells Moses to go down and see the situation (v. 7). Moses didn’t know the people had corrupted themselves. God showed this to him.
Furthermore, the very thing that Moses uses to “change God’s mind” is God’s own promise. (And God, of course, hadn’t forgotten his promises.)
Do you see what’s happening? God had put Moses into a situation so that he would see the problem God already knew about, remember God’s promises, and petition God to change his course of action. Moses’ prayer itself is a result of God’s plan.
God wants Moses to ask this, so he sovereignly puts him in a situation where he will ask for it.