11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land.They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘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.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.
– Numbers 14:11-20
“To change one’s mind,” in the New Testament means to repent. When the Bible speaks of my repenting or your repenting, it means that we are called to change our minds or our dispositions with respect to sin—that we are to turn away from evil. Repent is loaded with these kinds of connotations, and when we talk about God’s repenting, it somehow suggests that God has to turn away from doing something wicked. But that’s not what is always meant when the Bible uses this word.
Using a word like repentance with respect to God raises some problems for us. When the Bible describes God for us, it uses human terms, because the only language God has by which to speak to us about himself is our human language. The theological term for this is anthropomorphic language, which is the use of human forms and structures to describe God. When the Bible talks about God’s feet or the right arm of the Lord, we immediately see that as just a human way of speaking about God. But when we use more abstract terms like repent, then we get all befuddled about it.
There’s one sense in which it seems God is changing his mind, and there’s another sense in which the Bible says God never changes his mind because God is omniscient. He knows all things from the beginning, and he is immutable. He is unchanging. There’s no shadow of turning within him. He knows what Moses is going to say to him before Moses even opens his mouth to plead for these people. Then after Moses has actually said it, does God suddenly changes his mind? He doesn’t have any more information than he had a moment before. Nothing has changed as far as God’s knowledge or his appraisal of the situation.
What in Moses’ words and actions would possibly have provoked God to change his mind? I think that what we have here is the mystery of providence whereby God ordains not only the ends of things that come to pass but also the means. God sets forth principles in the Bible where he gives threats of judgment to motivate his people to repentance. Sometimes he spells out specifically, “But if you repent, I will not carry out the threat.” He doesn’t always add that qualifier, but it’s there. I think this is one of those instances. It was tacitly understood that God threatens judgment upon these people, but if somebody pleads for them in a priestly way, he will give grace rather than justice. I think that’s at the heart of that mystery.
Is God confused, stumbling through all the different options—Should I do this? Should I not do that? And does he decide upon one course of action and then think, Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all, and change his mind? Obviously God is omniscient; God is all wise. God is eternal in his perspective and in his full knowledge of everything. So we don’t change God’s mind. But prayer changes things. It changes us. And there are times in which God waits for us to ask for things because his plan is that we work with him in the glorious process of bringing his will to pass here on earth.
– R.C. Sproul,
Tough Questions with RC Sproul