by John Reisinger
"Mr. Reisinger, what about the passages in the Bible where God is said to repent and change His mind?"
We will look at Exodus 32:1-14 as a sample of the passages that seem to disprove nearly everything I have said so far concerning prayer. Exodus 32:14 clearly states that God changed His mind. What does the verse really mean?
Chapters 32 through 34 of Exodus are a parenthesis. These chapters record an incident that happened while Moses was receiving the Tablets of Stone on Mt. Sinai. Let us first make sure we understand what happened before we look at it in detail. I would suggest the following outline for Exodus 32:1-14:
I. vss. 1-6 The Sin - A Study in Unbelief.
v. 1. "And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him."
Unbelief is very impatient. It lives by sight and not by faith-better to have a golden calf that can be seen than an invisible God that is apprehended only by faith.
v. 2. "And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me."
Aaron knew better and was probably either trying to stall for time or hoping the Israelites would think twice before parting with their personal gold. His stall tactic did not work. He underestimated the Israelite's zeal for idolatry.
v. 3. "And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron."
Unbelief is persistent in its self-will. It does not consider the personal cost as long as it gets its own way.
v. 4. "And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt."
Unbelief is forgetful of past blessings and only concerned with "now."
v. 5. "And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD."
Unbelief can hide under the pious pretense of honoring God.
v. 6. "And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play."
Unbelief is deceitful and can actually treat licentious behavior as worship to God.
II. vss. 7-10 God's Just Anger Against Their Sin.
v. 7. "And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves:"
God appears to totally disown His covenant people.
v. 8. "They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt."
The Lord expresses His amazement at the "quickness" of their rebellion. This is a good study that parallels your life and mine.
v. 9. "And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people."
They were "stiffnecked" from persistent rebellion. This expression shows the head held high in contempt and pride for such a long period that it becomes impossible to bow the head.
v. 10. "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation."
God appears ready to destroy the whole nation for their sin and start a new nation with Moses.
The above verses must be read in conjunction with Ex 24:6-8 where both the people and the Book of the Covenant were sprinkled in blood. Israel has just become God's special covenant nation. God had no choice but to be angry since He cannot excuse sin without atonement. God could, and should, justly punish us every single time we sin. The only reason He doesn't is because we have a mediator who stands in God's presence for us. However, He must actually mediate or we would perish. Even God's sovereign purposes and plans must be literally carried out in a way consistent with His own holy character. We must always remember that we are not forgiven by an act of love or even by an act of sovereign power. God's amazing love does not have the ability or authority to forgive any sin unless the penalty of that sin has been paid in strict justice by a true atonement. Likewise, the almighty sovereign power of God cannot forgive a single sin unless there is an acceptable Intercessor pleading the case. W e are forgiven, and kept forgiven, only because One stands between us and God's wrath and continually intercedes for us on the grounds of the new covenant established in His atoning work. The sovereign electing purposes of God could not be fulfilled without both the death of Christ and His constant intercession. In the same manner, God's purpose to bring the Israelites safely into the land of Canaan cannot excuse their sin of idolatry. God must deal with that sin righteously. Moses must intercede or Israel will perish. It is that simple.
III. vss. 11-14 Moses' Intercession and God's Repentance.
(11) And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? (12) Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. (13) Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swearest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever. (14) And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. Ex 32:11-14.
How are we to understand these words? What options do we have as we seek to honestly interpret the statement that "the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do . . ." Is God actually capable of committing evil? Is Moses telling us that God is capricious and changes His mind? Does He harbor sinful thoughts? Are we to believe that Moses proved, in this particular instance, that he was more powerful, gracious and righteous than God Himself? If we take these words at their face value, apart from their context and the rest of Scripture, then that is all it can mean. We must then believe that if Moses had not been there to persuade God to "repent," then God would have destroyed Israel and made a fool of Himself. He would have frustrated His own purposes and broken the covenant that He made with Abraham. If such is really the case, we ought to worship Moses instead of God.
It is clear that the "obvious surface" meaning of these words cannot be true. God would then be a sinner like us and Moses would be greater than God because he could keep his cool and control his anger better than God. There has to be a better way to approach these verses than that.
The Bible often uses human expressions and applies human descriptions to God as a means of helping us as creatures to understand His dealings with us. The writers of Scripture will often write their observations of things as they appear to be. We do t he same thing. Each day the radio announcer gives the time when the sun will set and the time the sun will rise the next day. He knows, and so do his listeners, that the sun neither rises nor sets as it appears to move across the sky. The earth is doing the moving and it, not the sun, is going down and coming back up.
Before God's chosen sheep are brought safely into the fold, they, like all other men, are under God's wrath and subject to condemnation. That is what Paul meant in Eph 2:3 when he said, ". . . [we] were by nature the children of wrath, even as others." God's electing grace neither removed God's wrath from us nor did it save us from sin. It is true that election made certain that we would be saved and delivered from wrath, but purposing to make certain that will happen does not eliminate the necessity of it actually happening at a given point in time. God planned and purposed that Christ would die on the cross for our sins, but that fact in no way made it unnecessary for Christ to actually experience the real pains of death on the cross. When Christ died He was forsaken by the Father, and yet His Father never loved Him more than at that very moment. The same thing is true of God's sheep. Even when we were literally under wrath, because we were outside of Christ, we were also assured of salvation because we were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world. Both of these things are true at the same time.
It appeared that God radically changed His mind and attitude toward us when we were forgiven, but in reality it was we who changed and not God. The actual change that took place enabled us to receive and appreciate what had been true all along. We were like a man walking into the face of a strong wind. He pulls his coat over his face and bows his head as far as he can to protect himself from the biting wind. Without realizing it, he walks in a circle and soon feels the wind at his back. He says, "My, I'm glad the wind changed direction."
We looked into heaven and all we could see was the wrath of God. When we were brought to bow in repentance and faith before our Lord Jesus Christ, we saw and felt the love and grace of God. It appeared that God had changed His personality or attitude, when in reality we had been changed and had come under a different attribute in God's dealing with us. God was just as loving before we were saved as He is now, and He hates sin now just as much as before we were saved. Under His forgiveness, we look through different eyes and see a different aspect of God's character and purpose.
In Exodus 32; it surely appears that God changed His mind. In reality, He neither changed His covenant promises nor His immediate purposes. What He did was accomplish His sovereign purpose toward Israel by using Moses and his prayers as the necessary means to that end. It is foolish to ask, "But what if Moses had been unwilling to pray?" We are tempted o respond, "Then Israel would have indeed perished and God's purpose would have failed." That would indeed be the case if the "if" could ever be a possibility, but that "if" cannot be considered as a possibility. Our only reply to such a "what if" question must be, "That is a nonsense question because it supposes something that is absolutely impossible." When asked what would have happened if something that did happen had not in fact actually happened, we must reply, "But it did really happen!" A lady who was fighting against the truth of God's sovereign election once asked me, "What would have happened to you if you had not received Christ the night that you did?" I replied, "But I did!" I refused to speculate about the impossible. She got rather upset, but then most people who want to philosophize instead of deal with clear facts usually get upset when you refuse to go outside of Scripture and discuss a theology that is based only on human wisdom.
What I am saying is this: Before we were converted, we were guilty sinners under God's wrath while at the very same time we were the elect of God and included in His purposes of grace. When we came to a living faith in Christ, we experimentally came under grace and it seemed like God Himself had changed in His attitude toward us. In reality, we were the ones who changed. We came under a different apprehension of God's character.
Let us now try to unravel the text. First of all, let us get straight in our mind what happened in the incident in Exodus 32.
2. Israel had solemnly bound itself by oath and pain of death to keep that covenant (Ex 24:4-6).
3. While Moses was on the mount receiving the written copy of the covenant, the Israelites had openly and brazenly rejected God and were breaking the first commandment on the Tablets by making a golden calf to worship.
4. Under the clear terms of the covenant, God had no choice but to destroy them for their disobedience. Elect nation or not, grace cannot be given at the expense of justice (Psalm 85). Probably one of the worst parts of the whole sordid affair is their pretense of worship and prayer while practicing idolatry.
It is interesting to note that man is the only creature made with the capacity to apprehend and intelligently worship God. It is this ability that raises man, as created in the image of God, above the whole animal kingdom. When Adam fell that capacity was ruined, but not eliminated. Man still has all of his faculties, and he is still a religious creature. It is strange but true that man's basic God-given religious nature is the root of all of his idolatry. Notice how easy it is for the Israelites to transfer their religious fervor to a new object, and in doing so, in their stupidity, they sink lower than the animals. A.W. Pink has stated this well:
The religious element in man's nature was not eradicated by sin, but while every faculty of his mind and every instinct of his nature is debased and perverted, man's complete ruin and his greatest guilt are seen in the degradation of those same faculties, originally given as the means of worshiping God. The endowments which placed him above all other creatures, now sinks him beneath them. From Gleaning From Exodus, A.W. Pink, p 321
The second thing to note is found in Verse 7. In my mind, this is the key to the whole passage. Why does God say, "Let me alone" when Moses has not yet uttered a word? How can God say, "I will start all over and make you a great nation" when He has just delivered this people from Egypt because of an unconditional covenant He made with Abraham? When we look at the whole picture, we can see that God is actually telling Moses to act as an intercessor. God is literally saying, "Moses, if you let Me alone and do not intercede for these people, I have no choice but to destroy them." Sometimes we say, "Do not interfere with me in what I must do," when what we really mean is, "Please help me figure out a way to avoid this situation." Moses surely realized that he was all that stood between God and the Israelite's just destruction. However, God chose to speak to Moses in such a way that it also became a real test for Moses. Will Moses jump at the chance to become the "father of a new nation"? Will his ego swell at the thought of actually taking the place of the great Abraham himself? Or will Moses prove the grace of God is in his heart and plead with God to forgive the people? Of course, we know that God knew exactly what Moses would do. After all, it was God who put the grace in the heart of Moses in the first place. However, Moses must still intercede and he must do so willingly. And, by God's grace and sovereign power, Moses did both-and he did so only because God has so ordained it as the necessary means of fulfilling His purpose for Israel.
Moses is a picture of our blessed Lord. Here Moses is a type of the truth of John 17:2, 9. Moses, like our Lord, made himself one with his people, and this was by His own choice. Moses, like our faithful Saviour, loved his people in spite of their sin. Of course, we know that Moses was not consistent in his love for Israel. He got disgusted with them and wanted to turn his back on them on another occasion (Num 11:10-15). But our Lord is always consistent in His love. He loves His own "unto the end."
In his prayer, Moses (1) appealed to God's grace (v. 11). It was God's sovereign grace and power that brought Israel out of Egypt. Is that not our appeal when we sin today (I John 1:9)? He (2) appealed to God's glory (v. 12). Where would God's honor be in the sight of the heathen? Our Lord desired to be glorified so that He could glorify the Father (John 17:1). Moses (3) pleaded God's covenant made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our Saviour pleads the grounds of the "blood of the everlasting covenant" in the same manner. God's wrath against Israel was averted by that intercession. That prayer was essential and God ordained that prayer. He never intended to kill the Israelites. How do I know that? Look at another text:
I lay prostrate before the LORD those forty days and forty nights because the LORD had said he would destroy you. I prayed to the LORD and said, "O Sovereign LORD, do not destroy your people, your own inheritance that you redeemed by your great power and brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin. Otherwise, the country from which you brought us will say, `Because the LORD was no t able to take them into the land he had promised them, and because he hated them, he brought them out to put them to death in the desert.' But they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm. Dt 9:25-29.
Now I had stayed on the mountain forty days and nights, as I did the first time, and the LORD listened to me at this time also. It was not his will to destroy you. Dt 10:10
It is interesting to note the exact dialogue between Moses and God in Ex 32. In verse 7, God refers to Israel as "thy [Moses'] people," but in verse 11 Moses says, "They are Your [God's] people." They were God's people all along. God purposed to keep them and bring them into the promised land. For that to happen, Moses must pray in order to avert God's just judgment. God purposed to save and keep us, but for that to happen, Christ must come and die and make intercession for us. You and I are kept saved in answer to the prayer of Christ in exactly the same way Israel was kept from perishing by the intercession of Moses.
This explanation may not satisfy some people. I make no claim that this is the only possible way to understand the passage. However, one thing I know for sure: the verse cannot mean that God is a sinner who needs to repent, and therefore it cannot be teaching that God literally changed His mind. It appeared that God was ready to destroy His covenant people, but that would clearly contradict God's own oath and promise, and therefore such a view must be wrong. In this case, I can be positive concerning what the passage cannot possibly mean without being certain about what it does actually mean.