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Sermon on the Mount
2. Moses' Intercession for Israel (Exodus 32:9-14)
Audio Version (31:13)
"Moses Praying" (1922) by J.H. Hartley (illustrator), in James Bailie, The Bible Story: a connected narrative retold from Holy Scripture (A & C Black Ltd., London, 1923). Larger image.
Exodus 32:9-14(larger context 32:1-14)
This passage is the first of two occasions where Moses intercedes for sinful Israel before an angry God who is ready to wipe them out -- and succeeds in appealing for mercy for them. We'll be focusing on Exodus 32:1-10, but will allude to Numbers 14:11-24 where Israel's unbelief at entering the Promised Land also turns to rebellion.
I'm taking Moses' intercession out of chronological order in our study of prayer -- before Abraham's intercession, that is -- because the truths this passage teaches are so utterly radical and vital to a foundational understanding of prayer. The real issue at stake here is: Can prayer change God's mind? Or does prayer affect only us who pray?
Setting the Scene
Moses has been on Mt Sinai with God for forty days and nights receiving from God the terms of the Covenant and overview of the Tabernacle, setting up for Israel the Kingdom under God as King. Finally, the finger of God inscribes the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets.
But while Moses is there before God, the people on the sands below have become impatient. They demand that Aaron make visible gods like they're used to. From their gold earrings Aaron fashions a gold calf. In spite of Aaron's feeble efforts to try to turn this into a festival to Yahweh, the people worship the golden calf idol, sacrifice to it, and claim that the idol brought them out of Egypt -- utter blasphemy. Where we pick up the story, God is utterly disgusted and filled with anger -- very righteous anger to be sure! He says:
"'I have seen these people,' the LORD said to Moses, 'and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.'" (Exodus 32:9-10)
"Stiff-necked" is a reference to a mule or ox which would resist the lead rope and refuse to let its master lead it. Instead it would sitffen its neck against the reins.
Embarrassment at an Angry God
The people have utterly rebelled against God by substituting idols and attributing God's salvation to them. This is treason against the Monarch. This is rebellion.
God is angry -- "wroth," you might say. Cole calls this "a deliberate 'anthropopathism,' [anthropos mankind + pathos feelings, passion] describing God's feelings in human terms, as being more comprehensible to us."1"Now, now....," some people might chide God. "You shouldn't be angry. Anger is an emotion that can get you in trouble, God. Cool down. Be calm and serene." Yeah, right! Is that the way you act when you are challenged? Of course not! God gave us the emotion of anger so that we might act in the face of unrighteousness and challenge rather than remain passive. It is a defense mechanism that we need for survival.
God's anger at sin can't be understood apart from his own holiness, his separateness from sin, his nature utterly opposed to injustice, sin, and human degradation. Our sins offend God's very character. The Bible contains hundreds of statements of God's anger at sin. We, too, are told, "Let those who love the LORD hate evil" (Psalm 97:10a).
If you can't accept an angry God, then you won't be able to understand him. If God's anger at sin offends you, then you have placed yourself above God as his judge, with no understanding of God's holiness or his mercy. Is God's anger merely an anthropomorphism, a solely human attribute projected upon God? I don't think so. That's too easy a dismissal of a characteristic of God which is enmeshed in our entire revelation of him and his character.
God's Judgment on Israel (32:10)
God tells Moses that he will destroy the nation of Israel, and reconstruct the nation from Moses' own offspring. Since Moses himself is a direct descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God's promises to the patriarchs would be fulfilled. God had destroyed mankind once and restarted it with Noah and his descendents (Genesis 6-8); Moses has every reason to believe that God is quite serious.
Q1. Read Exodus 32:1-14. What had the people done that was so bad? How can a loving God be angry? Is God's sentence to destroy Israel and raise up a new nation through Moses justified?
Elements of Moses' Intercession (32:11-13)
Moses' intercession is a clear example of someone who has taken God's interests into his heart as his own. Even though in a way Moses' own family would benefit from God's proposal as the New Patriarchs, Moses appeals to God, boldly interceding for the people of Israel, pleading for mercy rather than condemnation upon them. And in the end God relents and responds positively to Moses' prayer. We'll consider the theological implications of this shortly. But first I want to analyze Moses' argument before God. Since the prayers in Exodus 32 and Numbers 14 are similar, I'm showing them in parallel so you can see the similarities.
Appeal that the people of Israel are God's own people
"O LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?" (32:11)
Appeal to God's name and reputation
"Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'"? (32:12a)
Appeal to God's reputation
"Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. 14And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, O LORD, are with these people and that you, O LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. 15If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16'The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath; so he slaughtered them in the desert.' (14:13-16)
"Turn (šub) from your fierce anger; relent (nācham) and do not bring disaster on your people. (32:12b)
Appeal to God's promises to the patriarchs
"Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'" (32:13)
Appeal to God's character of mercy
"Now may the LORD's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.' In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people... (14:17-19a)
Appeal to God's precedent
"... Just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.(14:19b)
When I read Moses' intercession it makes me think of a Prime Minister appealing to the King to alter his decree so that it is in keeping with the concerns of foreign relations, previous treaties, the King's character, and previous decrees. Notice the basis of Moses' appeals:
- Because the Israelites are God's own people
- Because of God's reputation among the heathen
- Because of God's promises
- Because of God's character
- Because of God's consistent mercy.
As we study the great prayers of the Bible, we begin to see a pattern where intercessors state their case before God based on his promises, character, righteousness, and precedents. When we learn to pray this way, we begin to learn to pray according to the will of God rather than contrary to it. When we support our prayers with appeals to scripture, we align ourselves with God's will. Part of learning to pray is praying scripture back to God.
Q2. What aspects of Moses' prayer of intercession should we emulate in our own prayers? Upon what logical grounds does Moses offer this bold appeal to God? What do you think it means to "pray the promises of God"? How does knowing the Bible help you get your prayers answered? How does this help our prayers be within God's will?
Moses' bold prayer and God's positive response raise all sorts of questions about the nature of prayer. What is it? Why is it? What prayers will God answer?
Can Prayer Affect the Outcome of God's Actions?
You'll find a number of writers that seem to imply that prayer doesn't change God, it changes us. While, no doubt, the process of prayer does change us, nevertheless Exodus 32 clearly indicates that Moses' prayer changed God's proposed actions. If this is true -- then prayer is powerful, since by prayer we can appeal to and induce God to do something he otherwise would not have done. That's the basic premise that underlies a prayer of petition or intercession.
Predestination and Prayer
Some branches of Christianity have a strong deterministic bent. "Que sera, sera, What will be, will be." There is no changing it. God has both foreknown and determined all things from all eternity. Everything is fixed. It is now all playing out as some kind of cosmic automated chess game where the pieces move as they are programmed and each move is a foregone conclusion. I may be overplaying this to make a point, but it does represent one approach to prayer.
If it is true that our prayers can cause a change in the outcome that God brings to pass, how does this relate to predestination? Let me simplify an impossibly complex subject for a moment, realizing that not all will agree with my definitions. (Theologians have argued about these unknowable things for many centuries.)2
Predestination. The belief that God foreordains, predestines, or predetermines whatsoever shall happen in history. That is, God causes to come to pass everything that happens. (Some would deny that God wills sinful actions.)
Foreknowledge. The belief that God knows about everything that will take place before it happens (thus presupposing that the end of all things is fixed).
Free will. The belief that human beings are given a real freedom to make choices, free of compulsion, if not free of influence.
Most Christians I know say they believe in foreknowledge -- the very nature of prophecy requires foreknowledge. But I've heard many Christians say somewhat proudly that they don't believe in predestination, though the Bible clearly teaches it as well (for example: Proverbs 16:4; Acts 1:7; 2:23; 4:28; Romans 8:29-30; 9:11; Ephesians 1:4-5, 9-11; 3:11; 1 Peter 1:2, 20). Most Christians, especially Americans, believe in free will; it would be undemocratic not to believe in it.
How do you fit together predestination and free will? Frankly, I don't fully know, though I know that the Bible affirms both God's sovereignty and our responsibility to act righteously.
The reason I even bring up the subject of predestination is because our passage raises serious problems to Christians who believe that everything set, fixed, immutable, predetermined -- signed, sealed, and delivered.
For example C.F. Keil writes that "God puts the fate of the nation into the hand of Moses, that he may remember his mediatorial office and show himself worthy of his calling." Then he asks what would have happened if Moses' had failed the test. He concludes:
"The possibility of such a thing, however, is altogether an abstract thought: the case supposed could not possibly have occurred, since God knows the hearts of His servants, and foresees what they will do, though, notwithstanding His omniscience, He gives to human freedom room enough for self-determination, that He may test the fidelity of His servants. No human speculation, however, can fully explain the conflict between divine providence and human freedom."3
Keil is acknowledging that Moses' prayer changed God's action, but then seems compelled to hedge Moses' prayer around with predestination so that it couldn't have been any other way.
I know we really don't understand predestination, no matter how much we might argue for or against it. But what we must understand is that Moses' prayer -- and your prayers -- can affect God's action.
When it comes to you and your prayers, you must act as if everything is not predetermined. You must believe that your prayers can change God's mind and action. If you don't, you won't be able to pray like Moses or Abraham or Elijah, but only a passive, "Thy will be done." Certainly, Jesus prayed that prayer, but only after wrestling in prayer with his Father. Our problem is that we are unwilling to wrestle in prayer as did Moses. We don't believe in the power of prayer, so we pray wimpy prayers.
Many centuries after Moses, James tells us: "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (KJV, James 5:16b) or "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (NIV). Either we believe it and will act on it, or we are passive and unbelieving in our prayers.
Q3. How can a wrong understanding of determinism and predestination keep us from the kind of gutsy prayer that Moses prayed? What do you call a belief that our prayers make no difference to God's response?
Inviting Intercession (32:10)
The real question here is how does God want us to pray?
Look carefully at Exodus 32:10: "Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." It's almost as if the LORD is inviting Moses to intercede for the nation, as if he were to say, "If you do not let me alone (i.e., intercede), then I will destroy them...." God could have shut the door as he did in Deuteronomy 3:26 when Moses requests permission to enter the promised land, but God doesn't.4
Again and again in the Bible we see men and women of God wrestling in prayer with God until they receive the answer they seek. By their examples littering the pages of the Book, I conclude that God wants us to pray with the same faith, fervency, and fortitude.
Repenting or Relenting (32:14)
But besides predestination, theologians have trouble with prayer and the Doctrine of Immutability, that is, that God is unchanging in nature, desire, and purpose. Since our passage insists that prayer somehow changes God's mind, we may balk at believing this. Key to our understanding of prayer is verse 14:
"Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened." (Exodus 32:14)
The word translated "relented" (NIV), "repented" (KJV), and "changed his mind" (NRSV) is the Hebrew verb nācham, "be sorry, repeat, regret, be comforted, comfort." In the majority of cases, this verb refers to God's repentance, not man's. When man's repentance is in view, the Hebrew verb shub is mainly used.5
Man repents from sin towards God; God is free from sin. So when God repents or relents it is a decision to change his action without any notion of wrongdoing or sin. While some verses that use nācham seem to indicate God's changing his mind on an arbitrary basis, in many places it is clear that the change is due to changed circumstances. A. J. Heschel has said, "No word is God's final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man's conduct brings about a change in God's judgment."6See for example 1 Samuel 15:29 with 1 Samuel 15:11. The classic passage is in the analogy of the potter and the clay, where the LORD explains to Jeremiah:
"If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents (shub) of its evil, then I will relent (nācham) and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider (nācham) the good I had intended to do for it." (Jeremiah 18:7-10)
God's character, holiness, and purpose do not change. Cole observes, "In the Bible, it is clear that God's promises and warnings are always conditional on man's response," as in Ezekiel 33:13-16.7One of those responses is prayer and intercession.
Immutability and the Will of God
Victor Hamilton concludes, "The fact that the Old Testament affirms that God does repent, even over a fait accompli [accomplished fact] forces us to make room in our theology for the concepts of both the unchangeability of God and his changeability."8The doctrine of God's immutability does not restrict God's action. It means that God's character, desire, and purpose do not change.
When you carry a strong deterministic bent down to the minute by minute level, then God has an opinion about whether you brush your teeth at 9 pm rather than 10 pm. Or your brand of toothpaste. You should seek God's will about whether or not to wash your hands two times during an afternoon or three. I see this as way overdone.
I agree with the immutability of God, that his character, desire, and purpose do not change. But I see it as more dynamic and adjustable -- though strong predestinarians will doubtless disagree. If a rocket's destination is the moon, then the onboard computer is constantly making tiny corrections to ensure that the rocket ultimately gets to the moon, even though its trajectory might have varied a bit from the ideal plotted by astrophysicists at the Jet Propulsion Lab. A river may be broad, but there are definite banks which determine how widely it can flow. I see God's will as boundaries within which we are free to live and pray.
In Moses' case, both alternatives were within God's will: (A) destroying Israel and raising up a new nation through Moses, and (B) preserving and pardoning the nation while chastising it. Moses didn't ask God to do something that was clearly out of his will, but to select another choice which was entirely consistent with God's revealed will and character. In Moses' mind, Plan B was preferable to Plan A, and he argued eloquently before God for Plan B.
We are commanded in Hebrews: "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16)
Q4. How can prayer change God's mind without conflicting with the doctrine of the Immutability of God? Can God answer a prayer for something outside of the scope of his will?
Having the Family Business at Heart
Was God pleased with Moses? Oh, yes! Because Moses had learned to pray with God's kingdom at heart. Moses' prayer was guided by references to God's character, God's reputation, God's precedents, God's best interests. What a joy for God to hear that prayer! No wonder he answered Moses positively.
What is God doing in teaching us to pray? He is seeking raise a generation of sons and daughters who have in their heart the good of the family business -- that is, the Kingdom of God. When we learn to pray like Moses, we no longer seek our own good, but God's good, God's interests, God's kingdom. By prayer we grapple with the issues that affect the Kingdom here on earth. As we pray our minds are aligned with his will and our petitions and our intercessions are met with clear answers.
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So does prayer change God or change us? Both. As we learn to pray like Moses we learn to pray according to God's will. We are changed. But as we pray according to God's will, God is willing to change his actions to respond to our intercessions and petitions. We are after all his children and he is our Father. Jesus taught us:
"Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:9-11)
In prayer, our Father invites us to ask us what is on our hearts -- our changed hearts -- and he delights to answer us. Why pray? Because your prayers affect the way your Father, the Sovereign of the Universe, will conduct his affairs. Prayer is truly awesome!
Father, forgive me. So often I act as if prayer isn't really that important. Teach me in my heart of hearts the power of prayer that I might be used by you to influence my generation for Christ. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened." (Exodus 32:14)
Standard Abbreviations http://www.jesuswalk.com/abraham/refs.htm
- R. Alan Cole, Exodus (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 216.
- You'll find a recent and fair discussion of predestination, free will, Calvinism, and Arminianism in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994, ISBN 0310286700). Grudem takes a reformed position, though is sympathetic to several Arminian arguments. If you're looking for a single volume which discusses theology and doctrine in a clear manner, I recommend Grudem's Systematic Theology. You may not always agree with him, but you'll understand the issues more clearly.
- C.F. Keil, "The Second Book of Moses," in C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Eerdmans, reprinted 1976).
- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (The Old Testament Library; Westminster Press, 1974).
- Marvin R. Wilson, TWOT #1344.
- Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p. 194, cited in TWOT #1344.
- Cole, Exodus, p. 17. Also J.R. Soza, "Repentance," DOTP 684-687.
- Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Eerdmans, 1990), p. 275, commenting on God regretting creating mankind in Genesis 6:6.
In-depth Bible study books
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- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
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- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
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- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ