Exodus 32:9-14 and Exodus 33

(Reading List Theme 1.9)

There is so much on these chapters, if I was to preach on it, I could probably take a month and find something new and relevant to say each week. I think the two key issues here are, 1) Is it possible to change God’s mind? And 2) What does this tell us about how to be in relationship with God? Instead of doing one long post, I decided to split it up. First, an intellectual post, second, a more personal post.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO CHANGE GOD’S MIND?

Moses was the leader of the people of Israel before they had ever settled in a land of their own – they were just wandering in the desert. Just after leaving Egypt as slaves, Moses was up on a mountain having a time of intimacy and revelation from God, and he received the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, Israel was making a golden calf to worship, because Moses had been gone so long, and they felt they ought to take matters in to their own hands. God was about ready to give up on Israel, but Moses wasn’t ready, so he “changed God’s mind.”

The Concept of “Changing God’s Mind” is a tricky one. Some churches say God does not change, and other theology says God is always changing. This is a bit different than how I normally blog, but I think it is helpful on this topic to do a little study and look at additional verses that talk about this, which can help us to both trust God to move through our prayers, and also trust that His character remains steady. The Bible says…

GOD DOES NOT “RELENT”

     Numbers 23:19 – God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind (relent). Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

     1 Samuel 15:27-29 – Samuel said to Saul… “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind (relent).”

     Jeremiah 15:1,6 – Then the LORD said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel stood before Me, My mind would not be favorable… You have forsaken Me …Therefore I will stretch out My hand against you and destroy you; I am weary of relenting!”

GOD “RELENTS”

     Exodus 32:14 – So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.

     Joel 2:13 – So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm.

     Jonah 4:2 – So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “… I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.”

WHAT’S THE WORD?

The English word for “to repent/relent” is the Hebrew word (the original language) naham.  The definition of naham is: be sorry, repent, regret, be comforted, comfort.

The origin of the root seems to reflect the idea of “breathing deeply,” hence the physical display of one’s feelings, usually sorrow, compassion, or comfort. Naham apparently means “to repent” about 40 times and “to comfort” about 65 times in the Old Testament.  Scholars connect the word to a change of the heart or disposition, a change of mind, a change of purpose, or an emphasis upon the change of one’s conduct.

The majority of these instances refer to God’s repentance, not man’s. The word most often used to show man’s repentance is shub, meaning “to turn” (from sin to God). Unlike man, who under the conviction of sin feels genuine remorse and sorrow, God is free from sin. Yet the Scriptures inform us that God repents: “… It repented the Lord that he had made man …” (Gen. 6:6); “And the Lord repented [NASB, “changed his mind”] of the evil which he thought to do unto his people” (Exod. 32:14, KJV).

Sometimes the Lord “repented” of the discipline He had planned to carry out concerning His people (Jer. 18:8, Jer. 18:10, Joel 2:13). On the surface, such language seems inconsistent, even contradictory, with other passages which affirm God’s immutability (or unchanging-ness): “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind” (Psa 110:4; also 1 Sam 15:29). When naham is used of God, however, the expression is anthropopathic. That ridiculously big word just means that the writer chose to describe with human feelings something that is not human, in order to help us understand or relate to the subject. Because it is poetic expression, is lessens the tension of statement.

God changed (chose not to punish) when man changed to repent and make the right choices, but God does not change His attitude toward evil when man continues on the wrong course. As God changed His actions, He always remained faithful to His own righteousness. Jeremiah 18:7-10 is a great example of how prophecy is often conditional, based on how we respond to it. If God promises blessing, but we are evil – no blessing. If he promises punishment, but we repent, then he will relent in punishing. This doesn’t mean God is wishy-washy. It means he is responsive.

In some situations, God grows weary of “repenting” (Jer. 15:6), suggesting there might be a point beyond which God will discipline, no matter our response. An example of such a case is in Samuel’s word to Israel’s first king, Saul, when God took the kingdom and gave it to David instead (1Sam. 15:29).

WHEN DOES GOD RELENT?

God usually changed His mind and “repented” of His actions because of man’s intercession and repentance of his evil deeds. Moses pleaded with God as the intercessor for Israel (Exod. 32:12 & 14; also Jonah 3:10). While this showed a change of plan we know that God remained faithful to His absolutes of righteousness in His relation to and with man. Other passages refer to a change (or lack of it) in man’s attitude. When man did not “repent” of his wickedness, he chose rebellion (Jer. 8:6).

Naham may also mean “to comfort” in hard times (Ezek. 14:23), or after sin has resulted in pain (2 Sam. 12:24), which probably refers to repentance of what happened. The word is used in the human sense of “comfort” in Job 21:34, but it is God who comforts his people (Psa 71:21; Psa 86:17; Psa 119:82; Isa 12:1; Isa 49:13; Isa 52:9) and has compassion (comfort) for Israel (Hos 11:8).

WHAT IT MEANS TO ME…

While we can trust God that His essential nature and attributes will not change, we can also trust that one of His attributes is responsiveness to humanity. If He “changes His mind” or “repents” it is not because He realizes He has done something wrong – it is because our repentance (turning from sin) and prayerful, humble intercession has invited His mercy to be shown to us, instead of the judgment our sin truly deserves. However, there are some cases in the Bible where we see that man’s repentance (1 Sam 15) or intercession (Jeremiah 15) are not enough to reverse the direction the Lord has determined, because of the gravity or longevity of sin that has taken place. Therefore, we can “come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), as Moses did in Exodus 32, but we should constantly be mindful of God’s commands, so we do not fall into sin and judgment.

When it comes to our own prayers, we should remember that God is responsive, and that  repentance in our own lives, or intercession for someone who is not yet repentant, can definitely have a huge impact on how God moves in our lives! Also, especially when we pray for someone who has turned away from God for a long time, remember how full of grace God is, and that discipline from God (sometimes, bad circumstances) don’t always mean that God has given up, it can mean that he is working on shaping the heart.

For more on how this responsiveness played out for Israel, and why God responds as he does, see my next post.

(Notes formed in part from selections in Vines Expository Dictionary & The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament)

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