Changing God's Mind
In any discussion about God’s sovereign control over the events of our personal lives and over that “bigger picture” of world events, questions always arise. One of those is this one: “How about those times in Scripture where we are told that God repented, or changed His mind about something because of the requests of His people?”
That’s a good question. As I thought about it, and the implications that arise from it, the first story from Scripture that came to mind was an incident that took place between God and Moses. Exodus 32:1-14 is the context. Moses had spent a long time up on the mountain of God receiving the framework that would govern the nation that Israel would become. While he was away, the people grew restless and demanded that Aaron make them a god. Aaron complied. He made a golden calf. The people worshipped and then began a riotous celebration.
Here is the conversation between God and Moses.
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” ‘I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you a great nation.’ But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God, ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and I will be their inheritance forever.”’ Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
This episode in Israel’s journey is repeated in Deuteronomy 9, 10 as Moses gives the survivors from the wilderness a history lesson before he departs and they cross over into Canaan.
Given that we understand God to be all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) and present everywhere (omnipresent), we know that He was perfectly aware of what was going on in the camp and perfectly able to stop it before it even happened. But he didn’t. The lesson that Israel learned through the experience is the subject of a different post though why God allowed this horror to take place is important to both Israel and to its leader, Moses.
God interrupts the giving of His instructions with the announcement that the Hebrews waiting below have broken faith with Him. Notice that He immediately repudiates Israel by describing them as Moses’ people, “your people, whom you brought out of Egypt.” God describes what they have done and then says, “…leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” God had every right to do exactly that, no explanation needed.
But then God adds, “Then I will make you a great nation.”
Now, if you don’t see the big flashing red light that signals “THIS IS A TEST,” you should. Moses has already had endless trouble with these people. The Almighty knows there is much more to come and that the journey to the Promised Land is going to a whole lot longer that anyone expects. He knows His man. He knows that pride had gotten Moses into trouble in Egypt. Moses has learned humility in the wilderness looking after his father-in-law’s sheep. But that didn’t mean that pride wouldn’t raise its ugly head again. It was unleashed later in a moment of anger when Moses struck the rock and proclaimed “Listen, you rebels, must WE bring you water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20). Here in Exodus 32 that tendency to pride is tested again.
The Lord did not have to offer to turn Moses' house in a great nation after He destroyed those who now rebelled against Him. It was a test. Moses has had to deal with these difficult people. This was a perfect opportunity to get rid of them and start fresh. But God knew His man. He knew how Moses would respond. However Moses needed to know himself, to face and overcome any temptation to pride, to confirm his own commitment to these rebellious souls with whom he would share this long and arduous journey.
This was a perfect teaching moment for Moses. It was a perfect moment for him to make a choice: intercede for a people who deserved judgment, or take this opportunity to shed himself of a challenging task and build his own house.
Moses responds as God knew he would.
Moses’ arguments, valid as they were, weren’t what “changed God’s mind.” Had God forgotten the covenant He had made with Abraham? Was He unaware of what the neighbouring nations might think if He destroyed Israel before it even got to be the nation of Israel? Did God have a moment when He said: “You’re right, Moses, I hadn’t thought of that!” Of course not.
The King James Version of the Bible uses the word “repented” while the New International uses the word “relented” in describing what God did. Their meaning in the original language highlights for us the role of intercession because the idea here, and in other places where God is said to have “repented,” is that of having compassion, of showing mercy, or extending grace where it is not deserved. It wasn’t that God went “oops, I shouldn’t have gotten so carried away” as though He had made a mistake, but that He chose to hold back the punishment justly deserved in this case and show mercy. Moses became that man described in Ezekiel 22:30, “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so that I would not destroy it.”
God will not “repent” or “relent” every time we intercede on behalf of a situation or a person. He told the prophet Jeremiah not to bother to pray on behalf of the people of Jerusalem because the time for mercy was past (Jeremiah 14:11, 12). Judgment was inevitable though mercy would follow after it. He is sovereign and knows what is right and good to do in every situation. But He does invite us to ask, and then to trust Him.