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Lesson 3: The Man Who Caused God To Repent (Exodus 32:7-14, 30-35; 33:1-6, 12-17)

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When you think of the word “repent,” you think of a sinner turning from sin back to God. But today I want us to look at a man whose prayer was so powerful that he caused God to repent. The King James Version translates God’s response to Moses’ prayer (Exod. 32:14), “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” The NIV translates it, “The Lord relented”; the NASB puts it, “The Lord changed His mind.” But any way you put it, there must be something to learn about prayer from a man whose prayer had such a powerful effect on God.

There is a great difference, of course, between man’s repentance and God’s repentance. Man’s repentance involves turning from sin to God. But when the Bible speaks of God repenting, there is no thought of sin. Neither is there any hint of vacillation, as if God wavers in His purpose or changes His plans in response to man’s doings. God is unchanging or immutable. His purpose has been fixed from eternity and He will establish it (Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11). He does not change His mind as man does (1 Sam. 15:29).

So how do we explain the many Old Testament references to God repenting? (Most OT references to repentance refer to God, not to man.) When Scripture speaks of God repenting, it is viewing God from man’s viewpoint (called, “anthropomorphism”). From man’s viewpoint it seems as if God is changing His mind, although from God’s viewpoint, He never changes His mind and His purpose is always carried out. We refer to the sun setting, but that is only from our limited viewpoint. The actual truth is, the sun did not move; the earth revolved. But we speak from our viewpoint.

I want to answer the question, What kind of person does it take to get God, from our viewpoint, to “change His mind” in response to that person’s prayers? How can we move God through our prayers? We will examine four qualities in Moses’ life:

To move God in prayer, we must desire to see God’s person exalted, God’s promises enacted, God’s people established, and God’s presence experienced.

1. To move God in prayer, we must desire to see God’s person exalted (32:7-12).

The background to this story is the infamous incident with the golden calf. Shortly after their exodus from Egypt, Moses had left the people and had gone up on the mountain to meet alone with God. When he didn’t return quickly, the people persuaded Aaron to make this golden calf and they fell into pagan revelry in worshiping this idol. God told Moses what was going on and said, “Let Me alone ... that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation” (32:10). In response, Moses prays on behalf of the people, basing his prayer, in part, on God’s reputation with the Egyptians. Moses wasn’t after a people called by his name, but he was concerned for God’s name. He wanted God’s person to be exalted.

The Lord Jesus taught this as the first requirement of prayer, when He instructed us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name” (Matt. 6:9). “Hallowed” means to be regarded as holy. Our main aim in our prayers should be that God would be exalted above all else.

Why would God offer to destroy this people and raise up a new nation out of Moses? I believe God did it as a test, to prove Moses’ character as the leader of the nation and the mediator of the covenant of the law. If Moses had a desire for personal glory, he very logically could have reasoned along with God’s proposal: “I’m a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God could destroy these disobedient people and raise up a new nation under me without negating His promise to the patriarchs.” And according to Deuteronomy 9:14, God even offered to make a mightier and greater nation out of Moses. So Moses could have reasoned that it would be better to allow God to do this thing. But Moses did not say, “Okay, God, if that’s what you want to do, here I am.” Moses sought God’s glory, not his own.

Note that God said, “Your people, whom you brought up ...” (32:7). This reflects that God didn’t stand with His people in their sin. But also, it was a test for Moses. He could have said, “Yes, I did do a good job in bringing up my people, didn’t I?”

But Moses knew that these people weren’t his and he hadn’t delivered them; God had. So he prayed, “Your people whom You have brought out ...” (32:11). Moses didn’t take any of the credit, but argued with God that these were His people whom He alone brought up from Egypt by His great power and mighty hand. Then (32:12) he further reflects his concern for God’s glory. If God abandoned Israel now, the Egyptians would have a good laugh and God would be dishonored. So he boldly asks God to “repent,” to change His mind. A basic lesson in prayer is that our focus always should be, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory” (Ps. 115:1).

Think about your prayers this past week and answer this question: How much did God’s glory motivate and direct your prayers? Rather than just asking for what you wanted, were you consumed with the burden that God’s person would be exalted, that His name would be hallowed, that His glory would be revealed? James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” With Paul, our aim should always be that Christ would be exalted through us, whether we live or die (Phil. 1:20). When God sees a heart that genuinely seeks His glory, He is moved to answer that person’s prayers.

2. To move God in prayer, we must desire to see God’s promises enacted (32:13).

Moses reminds God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob’s name of promise) and pleads with God to remember that promise. God must be true to His Word, and so we can lay hold of the things He has promised and expect Him to answer.

Of course, we need to be careful to interpret God’s promises in their context and in the full revelation of Scripture or we’ll fall into serious error. For example, those who take certain verses and argue that it is always God’s will to heal us if we have the faith, are misusing the promises of God, since many other Scriptures show that faithful Christians are not exempt from suffering and death.

Also, we need to remember that just because God has promised something does not mean that He has promised to do it the instant we ask. Moses did not live to see the fulfillment of this promise about the Israelites inheriting the land of Canaan. God’s promises will be fulfilled and so we can and should pray accordingly. But they may not be fulfilled in our lifetime. And, like Moses, we may have to expend much time and energy in working toward the fulfillment of God’s promises. Just because we pray doesn’t mean that we are free to sit back effortlessly and watch God do it. He usually involves our extended labor in the process.

In the 19th century, God raised up a man named George Muller who was concerned for God’s glory. He thought, “People don’t believe that God is the living and true God who answers prayer. I’d like my life to give evidence of the reality of God.” As he looked around Bristol, England, where he lived, he saw a number of orphaned children. He realized from Scripture that God has a special concern for orphans.

At that point, Muller could have just prayed, “God bless all the orphans in Bristol and meet their needs.” But he went much further than that. As he waited on God in prayer, he purposed that, in dependence upon God alone, he would establish an orphanage to care for these dear children. By making his own needs and the needs of the children known only to God in prayer, he would, by published reports after the fact, demonstrate to the world that God is faithful and that He answers the prayers of His children for His own glory. For over 60 years Muller saw God do just that. In reading his life you see that God will answer when His children pray that His promises would be enacted so that His person might be exalted.

3. To move God in prayer, we must desire to see God’s people established (32:30-33).

Exodus 32:14 seems to be a summary explaining the events that are described in more detail in the rest of chapters 32 and 33. When Moses prayed in 32:11-13, he knew that the people had sinned by making this golden calf and worshiping it, since God had told him (32:8). But he didn’t yet grasp the extent of their sin. Then Moses and Joshua went down into the camp and saw the idolatry and revelry. Moses exploded in righteous anger. He smashed the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, took the calf, burned it, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. Then he confronted Aaron and called whoever was for the Lord to come over to him. He commanded those who came over to go out and execute those who had not come over, even if it meant killing their brother, friend, or neighbor. Three thousand (perhaps the leaders of the idolatrous rebellion) died.

Then Moses said to the people (32:30), “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the Lord, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Then he returned to the Lord and prayed: “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” (Exod. 32:31-32).

Much could be said, but I limit myself to two observations. First, if we’re going to move God in prayer to establish His people for His own glory,

A. We cannot and must not gloss over sin.

Moses first heard about the condition of the people from God. But when he saw it with his own eyes, he was so appalled and enraged that he ordered this execution squad to go out and kill even their own friends and relatives! Then he mentions, both to the people and to God, their great sin (32:30, 31). He did not paper over things or shrug it off. He confronted their sin and confessed it in prayer to God. Moses probably wasn’t the most popular man in Israel after he took such a hard line against sin! Those whose loved ones were executed probably accused him of being a cruel man. But he knew that for God’s person to be exalted, God’s promises enacted, and God’s people established, they could not tolerate idolatry in their midst.

Because Moses had been in God’s presence on the mountain, the sin of the people jarred him. Aaron, however, was not in God’s presence, and so the demand of the people to make the golden calf seemed reasonable to him. He excuses his own responsibility for it by telling Moses that he just threw the gold into the fire, and out came this calf (32:24)! But the truth was, he had deliberately fashioned the calf with an engraving tool (32:4)!

The point is, if we want to see God’s perspective on our own sin and on the sins of the American church, we must spend much time alone in His presence with His Word. Otherwise, like Aaron, we will blend in with the worldliness that surrounds us. We will hear of Christians who squander their money on pleasure, but who give a pittance to the Lord’s work, and conclude that it is possible, after all, to serve both God and mammon. We will hear of Christians who watch the filth on TV and in movies and defend them by saying, “We don’t want to be legalistic by suggesting that Christians can’t watch what the world watches!” Pretty soon there isn’t much observable difference between the church and the world.

True revival often begins with God’s people recognizing and confessing their sin as a result of the preaching of God’s Word. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “Never has there been a revival but that some of the people, especially at the beginning, have had such visions of the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of sin, that they have scarcely known what to do with themselves” (Revival [Crossway Books], p. 157; see also, pp. 41, 101, 231).

In revival, God’s Spirit convicts Christians of the coldness of their hearts toward God and they renew their first love for Him. Husbands and wives recognize how selfish and unloving they have been toward each other, and ask forgiveness. Parents confess their sinful anger toward their children. Church members go to those toward whom they have had bad attitudes and seek reconciliation. To see God’s people established, we must pray that they would own up to their appalling sinfulness and worldliness, so that true revival might come.

Second, if we’re going to move God in prayer to establish His people for His own glory,

B. We must have a tender heart for sinners.

After he saw the appalling sinfulness of these people, it would have been easy for Moses to say, “Forget it! You lousy sinners can party in the wilderness until you rot! I’m out of here!” It’s easy to get disgusted with people and their sin.

But instead, Moses was so burdened for these people that he prayed a theologically incorrect prayer, that if God wouldn’t forgive their sin, He should blot Moses out of His book! He either means he would rather die if God won’t forgive this people, or that he would rather be eternally condemned! Paul, in a similar vein, exclaimed that he could wish that he were cut off from Christ if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:3).

When I was in seminary, we had a chapel speaker named Matt Prince who was a nephew of Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Seminary. Matt was gifted as an evangelist, and he had a heart of compassion for sinners. He told us how he longed to see his neighbor come to faith in Christ. One day as he was agonizing in prayer for that neighbor, the thought struck him, “What if he is not one of the elect?” Matt said that he prayed, “Lord, if he isn’t one of Your elect, then You put him on the list!” That was not a theologically correct prayer, but I think that God looked beyond the wrong theology to the heart. Jesus had compassion on sinners and so should we.

God gently corrects Moses by saying that He will righteously judge all who have sinned, which He does (32:33, 35). But the Lord looks beyond Moses’ words to his heart, and graciously promises restoration by saying, “But go now, lead the people where I told you” (32:34). Thus while Moses stood firmly against the people’s sin, he had such deep concern for them that he was willing to sacrifice himself so that they be established. As such, he is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His body on the cross.

While we may never achieve that degree of love, God is looking for those who would sacrifice themselves by standing in the gap in prayer so that His people would be established as a source of praise to His name. We must hate sin with a holy hatred, as Moses did. But we must also love sinners with the love of Christ, who did not spare Himself for us.

Thus, to move God in prayer, we must desire to see His person exalted, His promises enacted, and His people established.

4. To move God in prayer, we must desire to see God’s presence experienced (33:1-6, 12-17).

God told Moses to go and lead the people (32:34), but that an angel would go with them, not the Lord Himself. God explained that if He went up in their midst, He would destroy them because of their sin (33: 3, 5). You would think that God’s promise to send His angel and to drive out the inhabitants of the land and give the land to Israel would have satisfied Moses. But he was not satisfied. So he sought the Lord until He promised that His presence would go with them (33:12-17). For Moses, the blessings of the land were nothing if God Himself were not with him.

One of the reasons our prayers often fall flat is that we are satisfied with God’s blessings apart from the ever-deepening personal experience of the very presence of God Himself. Lloyd-Jones applies it this way (ibid., p. 159):

Christian people, I am not asking you whether you are living a good life. I am not asking you whether you read your Bible, or whether you pray. I am not asking whether you are active in Church work, or some other form of Christian activity. What I am asking you is this—do you know God? Is he with you?

With Moses, do we say, “That’s not enough. Let me know Your ways that I may know You” (33:13)? He goes on to dare to ask God to show him His glory (33:18). Moses, what more could you want? You’re the man who saw God in the burning bush! You saw God do miracles in Egypt! You saw Him part the Red Sea! You went up on the quaking mountain, into the thunder and lightning and thick cloud, where you met personally with God for 40 days, so that your very face shone with the reflected glory of God! Isn’t that enough, Moses? No, Moses replies, I want to experience the glory of His presence in a deeper way.

Are you satisfied with where you’re at with the Lord? Of course, in one sense we should be satisfied with the Lord and His salvation. But we also ought to have a holy dissatisfaction that spurs us on to know Him more fully than we already do. Without that, you’ll never know God’s presence as Moses did.

The church today is so caught up with methods and techniques. On the personal level, people flock to the latest seminars or go to support groups or buy the latest self-help books to try to find relief from their problems. On the church level, successful pastors put on seminars on how to increase the size of your church. But what we need, both individually and corporately, more than anything else, is a vital, ongoing, deepening experience of the presence of the living God. To be effective in prayer, we’ve got to desire to know God Himself.


I have often prayed, not as fervently or faithfully as I ought, but I’ve prayed that God would do a work here that would be humanly inexplicable, so that people would know that the living God has been in our midst. I’m asking each of you to join me in praying that God’s person would be exalted, that His promises would be enacted, that His people would be established, and that His presence would be experienced in this, His church.

A moving of God’s Spirit in revival always begins first among the people of God. They recognize their lukewarmness of heart. They begin to see the awful sinfulness of sin and are moved to repentance. They begin to seek God’s glory and to experience His presence in a vital, fresh way. From the church, the wave spreads outward. People in the community hear what God is doing. They come, at first out of curiosity, to see what is happening. They come under the preaching of the gospel and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. They turn from their sin, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and are converted.

When people ask, “How did you do it? What methods did you use? Can you teach us the techniques so we can take them back and plug them into our church?” we reply, “We didn’t do it. The living God is responsible for what you see.”

Will you join me in such prayer, to see if we, like Moses, can move God to repent, that He might pour out His blessing on His church?

Discussion Questions

  1. Agree/disagree: The church today is too heavily focused on people’s needs instead of on God’s glory.
  2. How can we know which biblical promises apply to us?
  3. Why does revival usually begin with God’s people becoming increasingly aware of their own sinfulness?
  4. Is God’s presence a fact to take by faith or something to sense experientially? How do you get it if you don’t have it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Prayer, Worship (Personal)

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