Before the people of Israel even received the Ten Commandments that tell them how to live as God’s holy people, they had already violated the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” by fashioning a false god in the image of a golden calf and worshipping it as the god that brought them out of the land of Egypt. God, of course, is well aware of this. In His anger, He tells Moses, “Let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them, and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (v. 10).
This might trouble us. We might think, “What right does God have to kill these people?” He has every right. He created them, He made them into a great nation just as He promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He even multiplied them even more despite their slavery (1:20-21), He sent ten miraculous plagues upon their Egyptian oppressors, and He rescued them from slavery in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night and miraculously led them on dry land across the Red Sea. After God fulfils His promise to their forefathers, after these miraculous events, and after bringing them to the mountain where they would worship Him just as He promised (3:12), the people of Israel have the audacity to erect a false idol and worship it as the god that did all these things. As their Creator and Redeemer, God has every right to destroy them.
But Moses does the unexpected. He intercedes for Israel. He tells God that if He destroys Israel, the Egyptians will think God is evil because He brought them out of their land just to kill them. He also beseeches God to remember the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob), and therefore to turn His burning anger away from them. As a result of Moses’ intercession, “the LORD relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on His people” (v. 14).
This might bring up questions concerning God’s immutability. It appears that God changes His mind here. Does this mean God is mutable—that a mere human being can change the mind of the all-powerful God? If such a human can change God’s mind, is He truly omnipotent? Or did God, in His foreknowledge, know this intercession would take place all along and therefore never planned on destroying Israel in the first place? Furthermore, if this is the case, perhaps in His foreknowledge He set this up to foreshadow Christ our mediator/intercessor before God (1 Timothy 2:5)? This latter explanation is the one most orthodox Christians take.
Fortunately, the Scriptures answer the question of His immutability for us, and it doesn’t take the position of any of the above views. It is obvious enough that God had pity on His people and thus relented from His disaster. But still, God did not change His mind, according to v. 34, “But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, My angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” God’s anger was tempered, but He did not entirely forgo His judgement. When did His judgement come upon them? As it turns out, very soon after. “Then the LORD sent a plague on the people because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made” (v. 35). Therefore, the question of God’s immutability is not in doubt.
God’s judgement still visited the people for their sin, yet He still had mercy on them. Certainly, the plague mustn’t have been pleasant, but when the alternative is annihilation, a plague is merciful in comparison. It is true, therefore, what God says of Himself a little later, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:6-7).
Moreover, what are we as Christians to make of this? The temptation is to focus on the Law of this passage rather than the Gospel and its Christological typology. One would be in error if one were to say, “Repent, and God will forgive you, but you still have to pay for your sin.” This would be close to the erroneous Catholic doctrine of penitence, where the penitent repents of their sin but still must pay “satisfactions” for the sin to be fully covered. For example, a penitent may repent of thievery to his priest, and the priest will “forgive” their sin while prescribing several Hail Mary’s to pray in addition to volunteering at a soup kitchen for several weeks to atone for their sin. The problem with this is that Christ has already atoned for their sins, totally and completely. All they need is to repent, and forgiveness is done. “It is finished,” Christ said.
Therefore, the correct view is to see Christ as our greater intercessor. As Moses himself confessed and prophesied, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to Him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15). The Book of Hebrews helps us understand this prophet to be Christ:
For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honour than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are His house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.Hebrews 3:3-6
Because Christ is our greater intercessor, His intercession is greater than that of Moses and, therefore, God’s relent for us is greater than His relent for Israel. To be sure, this does not mean that when one sins there won’t be temporal repercussions in some cases. If one commits a crime, for example, they must pay a fine or serve time in jail or prison. Even should he repent of a crime, he must pay the temporal repercussion for what he has done since we are citizens of human society, but there are no supernatural repercussions—like a plague—thanks to what Christ has done. That is, because Christ made the payment in full for the just punishment of our sins. Neither are temporal repercussions sufficient to pay the spiritual repercussions, such as satisfactions since Christ has already paid the price of our redemption in full.
Theology Terms Used
- Foreknowledge: “to know in advance. God’s omniscient (all-knowing) knowledge includes all times and places. He knows everything that will happen before it occurs.”
- Immutable: unchangeable; a vital attribute belonging to God.
- Omnipotent: all-powerful.
 Mueller, Called by the Gospel, 518; emphasis mine.