In case you didn’t read Numbers 14 before reading this (if you haven’t been doing that in this series, why?), the TL;DR is that when the spies returned from spying on the land of Canaan just as the Lord had commanded (Numbers 13), the people of Israel refused to take the land as Caleb and Joshua encouraged them to trust in the Lord to do so (14:1-10). This made God so angry that He said He would send a pestilence upon them and disinherit them and basically start over with Moses (v. 12). But then Moses intercedes for them. He wants to defend God’s honour. “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for You brought up this people in Your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land… Now if You kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that He swore to give to them that He has killed them in the wilderness'” (vv. 13-14a, 15-16). Because of Moses’ intercession, God relents, “I have pardoned, according to your word” (v. 20). So, the question is: Did Moses change God’s mind?
The quick answer is no. The reason why this is a problematic question is that it brings into question God’s sovereignty and immutability. If a mere human being can change Almighty God’s mind, can we trust Him to be consistent with His promise? It seems as if He wasn’t going to be consistent with His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, it appears as if Moses changes God’s mind in vv. 13-20. Moses implores the Lord to relent from His anger, and God does exactly that (v. 20). So, certainly Moses changed God’s mind, right? Not exactly.
Moses “reminds” God of who He is (vv. 17-19), which he only knows because the Lord first revealed this about Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. Because this is whom God Himself says He is, this means He cannot change from this. Therefore, by God relenting from His anger, He was simply staying true to His character rather than Moses changing His mind. Perhaps, then, God was testing him. He’s been known to do this, after all, such as when He tested Abraham to sacrifice his only son only to “change His mind” just before Abraham followed through (Genesis 22).
At the same time, however, God does execute His justice. Among these merciful traits about God, Moses also reminds us God “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). Although He relented from the pestilence and disinheriting them, God still visits their iniquity upon them when He curses them to wander in the desert for 40 years; their own children would suffer on account of their faithlessness (v. 33), and, therefore, their fathers’ iniquity. God also killed all the spies of the land who brought the bad, dishonest report by plague, except for Caleb and Joshua (vv. 36-38). So, God didn’t exactly change His mind.
Then the people make matters worse when they rise early in the morning to fight the Amalekites and Canaanites in the attempt to make up for their sins, but Moses warns them the Lord is not with them since they rejected Him; but they go anyway and end up getting defeated (vv. 39-45). So, God did not change His mind, but He was merciful. His anger still kindled against the Israelites, yet He also remained merciful toward them by allowing their children to see the Promised Land their parents had rejected.
God’s mercy is true for you today as well. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). Like addicts, we relapse into sin again and again. Yet God’s love and mercy toward you depends not on your ability to be faithful. Rather, it depends on Christ’s faithfulness, who “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This is how God’s justice works, and it is far different than human justice.
The evidence stands against you. You are guilty of every sin beyond a reasonable doubt. In a human court, justice would convict you guilty of everything in thought, word, and deed, both done and undone. Yet in God’s court, Christ offered Himself to suffer the punishment you deserve in your place, and God saw it just to give the Innocent One the guilty death you deserve and to give you the full acquittal Christ deserves.
Theology Terms Used
- Immutability: the orthodox teaching that God’s character and being are unchanging.