Exodus 32:14—Does God change His mind?
Problem: While Moses was upon the mountain receiving the Law from God, the people were at the foot of the mountain worshiping the golden calf which they had constructed (32:4–6). When God instructed Moses to go down to them, He told Moses that He would “consume them” and make a great nation from Moses (32:10). When Moses heard this, he pleaded with God to turn from His anger. Verse 14 states, “So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.” This implies that God changed His mind. However, in 1 Samuel 15:29 God says that “He is not a man, that He should relent,” and in Malachi 3:6 God says, “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” Also, in Hebrews, God demonstrated the “immutability of His counsel” (Heb. 6:17) by swearing an oath. Does God change His mind or doesn’t He?
Solution: It must be emphatically maintained that God does not change (cf. Mal. 3:6; James 1:17). He neither changes His mind, His will, nor His nature. There are several arguments that demonstrate the immutability of God. We will consider three.
First, anything that changes does so in some chronological order. There must be a point before the change and a point after the change. Anything that experiences a before and an after exists in time, because the essence of time is seen in the chronological progress from before to after. However, God is eternal and outside time (John 17:5; 2 Tim. 1:9). Therefore, there cannot be in God a series of before’s and after’s. But, if God cannot be in a series of before’s and after’s, then God cannot change, because change necessarily involves before and after.
Second, anything that changes must change for better or for worse, for a change that makes no difference is not a change. Either something that is needed is gained that was previously absent, which is a change for the better, or something that is needed is lost that was previously possessed, which is a change for the worse. But, if God is perfect He does not need anything, therefore He cannot change for the better, and if God were to lose something He would not be perfect, therefore He cannot change for the worse. Therefore, God cannot change.
Third, if anyone were to change his mind, it must be because new information has come to light that was not previously known, or the circumstances have changed that require a different kind of attitude or action. Now, if God changed His mind, it cannot be because He has learned some bit of information that He did not previously know, for God is omniscient—He knows all (Ps. 147:5). Therefore, it must be because the circumstances have changed that require a different attitude or action. But, if the circumstances have changed, it is not necessarily the case that God has changed His mind. It may simply be the case that, since the circumstances have changed, God’s relationship to the new circumstances are different because they have changed, not God.
When Israel was at the foot of the mountain engaged in idol worship, God told Moses that His anger was burning against them and He was prepared to destroy them in judgment. However, when Moses interceded for them, the circumstances were changed. God’s attitude toward sin is always anger, and His attitude toward those who call to Him is always an attitude of mercy. Before Moses prayed for Israel, they were under God’s judgment. By Moses’ intercession for the people of Israel, he brought them under God’s mercy. God did not change. Rather, the circumstances changed. The language used in this passage is called anthropomorphic, or man-centered, language. It is similar to someone moving from one place to another and saying, “Now the house is on my right,” “Now the house is on my left.” Neither of these statements is meant to imply that the house has moved. Rather, it is language from a human perspective to describe that I have changed my position in relation to the house. When Moses said that God relented, it was a figurative way of describing that Moses’ intercession successfully changed the relationship of the people to God. He brought the nation under the mercy of God’s grace, and out from under the judgment of God. God does not change, neither His mind, His will, nor His nature.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.