In Exodus 32, God gets angry at the Israelites for making the golden calf. So angry, in fact, that he wants to wipe them off the face of the earth. We know he doesn’t do it, but verse 14 seems to say that God made a mistake because he “relented” (or “repented”) of the threat to kill his people. But what does this really mean? Does God really feel sorry for how he feels? Does God feel sorry for his actions, judgments, and thoughts on sin?
Here’s the story: The Israelites are tired of Moses being on Mount Sinai. So they decide to tell Aaron to make a statue so they can worship it. Aaron says, “Okay, give me your jewelry and we’ll see what happens.” God says to Moses, while still on the mountain, “Look at what your people are doing. They are worshiping an idol instead of me. My anger is burning. I’m going to kill them.” Moses pleads with the Lord, “Why are you angry? Don’t you remember your promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to multiply their offspring? Please relent of your anger!” Verse 14 says, “And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”
What really happened here? Did God really say he would do something and then essentially say, “Yeah, Moses, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that”? Does God repent? Does he feel bad for what he says, thinks, and feels?
Numbers 23:19 gives us the answer: “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. He has said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” The New American Standard Bible says it this way: “God is not a man…that he should repent.” Repentance means we change our mind. It means we change our path of direction. Numbers (which was written by Moses, the same person who wrote Exodus) plainly says that God does not repent. The Bible cannot contradict itself. If it could, it would not be the infallible word of God. So what can Exodus 32 mean?
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: God does not change. If God could change, there is no promise that he will not turn into an angry, demonic, crazy judge and throw all of his covenant people into hell. Hebrews 1:12 says that the world will change and pass away, “But you [God] are the same, and your years will have no end.” More than that, how could a mere man, Moses, change God’s mind? One theologian wrote, “Indeed, if man is capable of changing the mind of God, then it might be argued that man knows more about governing this world than God.”
So what did Moses do on Sinai that terrible day? Indeed, we can say that Moses was changed, not God. We can say that God used the awful situation of the golden calf to test Moses. How can we know this? Well, Moses prayed and he used God’s word in prayer. It says, “Moses implored the Lord” (v. 11). Moses remembers God’s deliverance of the Israelites in Egypt (v. 12). Moses begs the Lord to remember the promise of covenant with Israel (v. 13). God’s promises are good and true and perfect. They are unchangeable. If they weren’t, they would not have been promises in the first place. God had spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God knew his covenant to Israel since eternity past. His covenant was not going to end, and this flub-up by the Israelites was not going to change that. This awful moment in the history of Israel caused Moses to trust in the promises of God. It caused Moses to seek the face of the Lord and go before God and plead for his people. God tested Moses and, by the grace of God, Moses passed the test because he remembered and believed in God’s promises.
Let us remember God’s promises as well. Let us never think that God should sin and repent like a man. God tests us, yes, but he never makes mistakes. As we look to God’s promises, let us remember that every promise “finds their Yes in Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:20). We have a rock solid hope that God will never change, because we have Jesus, the perfect image of God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).