Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?

In the book of Exodus, there is a moment where Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel and God relents from pouring out His wrath on them because of their idolatry (Exodus 32:1-14). It is a tense moment. This part of the narrative is supposed to be a tragic scene in Israel’s history. This is a “Fall of man” moment for the new Adam, Israel. While Moses is still on the mountain top, the people build a golden calf. Moses is talking with God while the people are making idols. The moment is supposed to be tragic because opportunities that have not existed since Eden are being thrown out the window by the people’s rampant and nonchalant idolatry. The people are disregarding what they have just heard themselves from God with their own ears. Once the people are found out, God is blind with rage and wants to destroy them like he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah once in the past. Why does he not destroy the people? The answer the narrative gives us is Moses’ prayers (vv. 11-14). What do we do with this type of moment in Scripture? The question is, “Can our prayers change God’s mind or alter His plan?” In looking at this story, it would appear that we can, but there are many things to consider here.

I think the narrative is highlighting some admirable qualities in Moses and Yahweh. Look at Moses’ care for his own people. Look at Yahweh’s love and faithfulness to his covenant in not destroying the people and listening to Moses. The great difficulty is putting a nonmaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, wrathful, wise Redeemer, Creator God within a text written by men to be read by men. How do you describe his interactions with people without appealing to the language of the people? How do you describe the ineffable? Well, Scripture uses our language. Scripture is analogical, anthropomorphic, & accommodating. Scripture is analogical in the sense that there is a similarity between the word & referent when it describes something. It’s not the actual object being described. An example of this is saying the LORD is my Rock. God is not an actual rock…or a shepherd…or a mighty fortress. Scripture is anthropomorphic when it ascribes a human or animal attributes (physical & maybe psychological) to God. God does not have fingers (Exo. 31:18), feathers (Psa. 17:8), or eyes (Num. 12:8). It would not be out of the character of Scripture to think the Bible would use such literary tools when talking about God’s knowledge, emotions, or power. Lastly, Scripture is accommodating when it speaks. Describing a transcendent being to finite creatures requires using the language, culture, & capacity that the creature can understand. R. Scott Clark said “In the nature of divine-human relations, God must accommodate himself to his creatures. He has natural, intuitive knowledge & free knowledge & all omniscient. He couldn’t begin to communicate that to us, as it really is, without destroying us, any more than a parent can explain the mysteries of procreation or divorce to a 3 year old without destroying him.” Taking anything said about God in a wooden, literal fashion without taking into consideration the whole of Scripture & it’s view of God & sound hermeneutics doesn’t seem wise. I think when Scripture speaks about God changing his mind, not knowing certain things, or being very human-like, it’s speaking analogically, accommodatingly, & anthropomorphically. God is described as being blind with rage towards his people. He is up on the mountain with Moses while the Israelites are metaphorically returning to Egypt in their heart and actions. The intent, though it says certain things, is to highlight the people’s sins, Moses’ faith, and Yahweh’s commitments to his chosen vessel, Moses. Be faithful like Moses. Narrative shows you its theology. It does not tell you it’s theology.

A good friend of mine has also pointed out that the narrative is describing things from man’s point of view as opposed to God’s point of view. They are from a human point of view. Exo. 33:12 says, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth.”  From the Egyptians perspective (human perspective) it would be an evil intent from God, to kill the Israelites.  But in reality there is nothing evil about it because it would display God’s righteous justice against sin for worshiping the golden calf. God is completely unstained from sin when he judges people for their sin. God has every right to punish people for their sin by virtue of him being the Creator and judge. He not only has the right, but because of who he is, justice is required. As John Piper said, “Since God is just, he does not sweep these crimes under the rug of the universe. He feels a holy wrath against them. They deserve to be punished, and he has made this clear: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). There is a holy curse hanging over all sin. Not to punish would be unjust. The demeaning of God would be endorsed. A lie would reign at the core of reality. Therefore, God says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26).”Another example of a human point of view is found in verse 14. It says, “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” From whose point of view would it be a disaster? From Moses’ or God’s? Would it be a disaster for God to punish them? Could he not fulfill his promises made to Abraham via Moses (and his wife) or through another people? This would seem to be from a man’s point of view.

Now the issue of prayer is very difficult to describe because it intersects what Scripture says about sovereignty, volition, responsibility, omnipotence, ect. . Personally, I think God works through, in, with, and by us to bring about aspects of his sovereign, decretive will (I’d rather not take the time to write out all the theological, biblical, and philosophical support for such a view of sovereignty). Prayer then becomes a means through which his ultimate plan is being worked out. So, simultaneously, we pray for certain things he ultimately wants us to pray for bringing about his sovereign plan and purpose within the world. The narrative has God realizing what was going on (maybe learning), threatening to destroy his people, and then him responding in time to Moses’ prayers thus not destroying the people. It would seem there is a narratival purpose for describing God in those ways. I think the chief end of prayer is communion, not courting heaven for your desires (even though that is a goal). Prayer is about coming into God’s presence communicating to him and him communicating back as you are being transformed into the image of Christ. The fact that God gives you bread and a fish instead of a stone and snake is grace. It is an additive to the goodness of prayer. Not its end goal. Prayer gets us ready for eternity, communion and community with a triune God. The point of the narrative is not to give a apologetic or philosophical treatise on the issue of sovereignty and prayer. The point is “be like Moses.” People always need someone faithful to stand in on their behalf. The prayers of a righteous man are helpful and powerful. Be constant and faithful in your intercessions for people even when they don’t deserve grace.

This post is obviously not as exhaustive as it could be but represents some of my thoughts concerning the issue. Special thanks to David Harrison for pointing out some things to me within the narrative.

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