One of the first articles I ever wrote was an attempt to answer this question: "In Exodus 32, did Moses change God's mind"? This morning we took on a similar question in our Tough Questions series. My answer today is about the same as it was in 2007:
Malachi 3:6 states, "For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob are no consumed." (ESV). Numbers 23:19 "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he shouild change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?" These verses make clear that God does not change His mind. Psalm 33:11, 102:25-27; and Hebrews 6:17-18 speak of God’s unchangeable purposes.
So what do we make of Exodus 32 (or even Isaiah 38:1-6 or Jonah 3:4, 10)?
While God was giving Moses the 10 Commandments the people of Israel began getting a little restless, so they did what we all do--make our own gods. In verse 10, God meets the Israelites with anger. He is ready to consume every one of them save for Moses. Then Moses prays, focusing on the honor of God’s name, appeals to God’s faithfulness, and pleads with God to continue considering Israel as His people. In verse 14 we read, “And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people”.
When we read this we understand the word “relented” (KJV’s ‘repented’, NASB’s ‘changed his mind’, or NLT ‘withdrew his threat’) literally. Yet it is actually what we theologians call an anthropopathism. Which is a big word that simply means “giving God human emotions. From our perspective it appears that God ‘relents’ or ‘changes his mind’, but from God’s perspective He is appropriately dealing with changes in human behavior.
If men turn away from sin and repent God will forgive. There is little difference between God’s ‘changing’ in Exodus 32 and His ‘changing’ when a sinner turns and repents. Scripture states that one apart from Christ is “God’s enemy” and has “the wrath of God upon him”. Yet, as soon as a person “repents and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ” he is saved from the wrath to come. God’s view of a person is no longer that of enemy but of a friend. It is similar in this situation: Moses repents (as the representative head of the people), God responds to Moses’ repentance and forgives or ‘relents’.
So does God change His mind? Absolutely not. God is forever unchanging in His character and in His purposes. Yet as Wayne Grudem comments, "God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations".
That does not make God unchanging it merely makes Him living.
The real question is this, "Did Moses change God's mind (so as to catch God by surprise) or was Moses' intercessory prayer all a part of God's will and purpose to show His grace?"
Scripture clearly shows that God’s character does not change. He has the same settled disposition towards sin. When Moses prayed He did not change God’s mind. To hold to a doctrine which says, "Moses changed God's mind" is contrary to what God says in Scripture. He is unswerving in His character and purposes. Moses did not change the course of history, nor catch God off-guard by praying for the Israelites, just as the death of Christ was ordained from the foundation of world, so Moses' prayer was forever in God's plan.
Therefore, this unchanging God is mighty to save! If we had a changing God then our hope would be lost. If He can change in His affections for me (meaning: constantly in response to me--so as to say "I changed God's mind") then He can do so positively or negatively. What confidence do we have then in our salvation as well as in the God of our salvation?
Take heart, as God said in Malachi 3:6, his unchanging character and purpose is so that we are not consumed. If he could change then we would be consumed. Be comforted in the fact that God's purpose is set and He is able to save us to the uttermost. The blood of Christ is still sufficient and ALWAYS will be.