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Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?

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Exodus 32 showcases an intriguing encounter between Moses and God. The people of God rebelled against their Redeemer, the One who brought them out of Egypt, and so God was set to pour out His wrath on them. Moses interceded on behalf of the people, and God relented from what He said He would do. This poses a trying question: Does prayer change God’s mind? 

To answer this question, David Platt explains four truths that Moses knows in Exodus 32: 

1. The Perfections of God are Unchanging.
Perfections refer to the unchanging attributes of God. God is perfectly holy (Is. 6:3). He is perfectly loving (1 John 4:16). He is perfectly just (Deut. 32:4). We can go on and on. He is perfectly omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, self-existent, and self-sufficient. Malachi 3:6 tells us that God does not change. God does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17). He is the same “yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). From “everlasting to everlasting” He is God (Psalm 90). The perfections of God are unchanging. Moses knows this. In his prayer, Moses acknowledges God’s attributes. He acknowledges God’s wrath while appealing to God’s love, he acknowledges God’s might while appealing to God’s mercy, and he acknowledges God’s glory while pleading for God’s goodness. 

2. The Purposes of God are Unchanging
Moses appeals to God’s unchanging purposes. He recounts to God the purpose for which the Israelites were brought out of Egypt. He tells God this is for His glory. Moses relays to God what we see all throughout God’s Word. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). “…My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose … I have spoken, and will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11). The purposes of God are unchanging. 

3. The Promises of God are Unchanging
How about Exodus 32:13 for boldness in Moses? He says “remember” to God. He says remember to the Omniscient God who knows everything. Moses has the appalling audacity to say to God, “Maybe You need to remember something.” Remember Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Moses points to the patriarchs and says to God, “You promised that You would give their family the land into which You are leading them. You cannot go back on Your Word.” Moses knows Numbers 23:19 and Psalm 89:34: 

“God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19) 

“I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips.” (Psalm 89:34)    

Pause here for a moment and think about this. In this passage that sparks a lot of questions about what changes in God, Moses actually bases his entire prayer on that which never changes in God. This brings us to verse 14, which tells us that God relented from the disaster He spoke of bringing on His people. What does this mean? Amidst all that is unchanging in God, it certainly seems like something changed here.

That leads to the fourth truth we need to know. 

4. The Plans of God are Unfolding
I want to be clear. This doesn’t mean God’s plan is changing, as if God was surprised by the prayer of Moses. God’s plan is just as settled here as it is anywhere in history. We have this story for a reason. This story shows us how God’s plan unfolds. This story shows us how God judges people in their sin.  

The people of Israel had seriously sinned against God, and they deserved death and condemnation. God judges people in their sin, but God provides a mediator for their sins. Moses stands before God on the people’s behalf and before the people on God’s behalf. God set it up this way. God commanded Moses to go down to the people. If God were going to crush His people, why would He send Moses down to the people?  

God was planning to spare His people through the mediation of Moses. The reality of exodus 32 is crystal clear: God will demonstrate His judgment against the people unless someone steps in and mediates on their behalf 

All of this squares with the unchanging perfections of God. He is holy and just. At the same time, He is loving and merciful. How is God true to His unchanging perfections and His unchanging promises while fulfilling His unchanging purposes? He does it through an unfolding plan. Moses, as he prays, is not changing God’s plan; as he prays, Moses is fulfilling God’s plan. 

We see this in other places in Scripture. God sent Jonah to the Ninevites to tell them that they would be destroyed for their sin. So, yes, God judges sin. And, yes, God relents from sending a disaster when people receive His word and repent. Like Exodus 32, God judges sin and provides a mediator that leads to salvation. However, we do not ultimately look to Jonah to figure this out. We look to Jesus.

In our sin, you and I stand under the judgment of a holy God. The just and right payment for our sin is death. Praise be to God, in His unfolding plan, He has provided a mediator. God sent Jesus down to us because we are corrupt idolaters, and unless someone stands in the gap for us, we would all experience God’s judgment. Jesus comes down, stands in the gap as a substitute for sinners, and by the plan of God, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, God relents of His wrath against us.

In the words of 1 Timothy 2:5, For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

–This excerpt was adapted from Secret Church 19, “Prayer, Fasting, and the Pursuit of God” (pp. 24–27 in the SC 19 Study Guide).

David Platt serves as pastor at McLean Bible Church in Washington, D.C. He is the founder and president of Radical. He is the author of several books, including Radical, Radical Together, Follow Me, and Counter Culture.
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