When Moses was delayed in coming down from the top of Mount Sinai, the impatient Israelites approached Aaron and demanded that he fashion a golden calf for them to worship. Moses’ weak-willed brother consented, and soon a large number of the Israelites bowed down to the idol. Their religious festival was marked by wild dancing and sexual immorality.
The Lord knew what was happening at the foot of the mountain and told Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves” (Exodus 32:7).* Then God added, “Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make you a great nation” (verse 10).
How peculiar that God would appear to so quickly disown the people He had just delivered out of Egypt. But stranger still is what happened next: “Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God and said, ‘Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?’ ” (verse 11). He then proceeded to ask God, “Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people” (verse 12).
Can a human being actually convince God to change His course of action? Do our prayers have the ability to change His mind? Isn’t God unchangeable, and if so, what do we make of Bible stories that suggest we can convince Him to act differently?
Does God change?
In the case of Moses, it certainly appears that God does sometimes change His mind at our request. Verse 14 states, “So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.” This is not the only instance in the Bible where a person pleads with God to change His plans. Twice more, Moses interceded on behalf of the children of Israel (Numbers 14:1–16; 16:1–50), and each time God reversed His plan of action.
Another example of God changing His mind is when Jonah cried out against Nineveh, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). But notice, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (verse 10).
On the other hand, the Bible describes God as One who does not change. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17, italics added). And in another place God says, “For I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). So if God does not change, how do we reconcile these verses with the story of Moses?
First, we must remember that human change is not the same thing as divine change. “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19). When God changes His mind, it isn’t because He made a mistake.
God’s divine attributes don’t change. He isn’t compassionate one day and cruel the next. Just as the law is eternal, which is a transcript of His character, so are God’s attributes. He told Israel, “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3).
We usually change because we are inconsistent. God changes because it is consistent with His conduct. That’s why, when you study His promises in the Bible, you will see that they are conditional. If Nineveh would repent, then God would relent. But if Nineveh spurned Jonah’s warning, then the wrath of heaven would be poured out. Fortunately, Nineveh bowed in humility, and God spared the city.
Abraham pleads with God
A third example of God changing His mind was during a conversation with Abraham. He told the patriarch that He was going to visit the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was concerned that there were righteous people in the city who might perish with the wicked, so he pleaded, “Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it?” (Genesis 18:24). God replied, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes” (verse 26).
But the pleading continued. The man chosen by God to be the father of a great nation once more humbly asked, “Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?” (verse 28), to which God replied, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.” The intercession went on. Abraham asked if God would destroy the city if there were 40, then 30, then 20, and then finally just 10 righteous people inside.
We wonder how a mere human being could dialogue so openly and very respectfully with God. Abraham’s example reveals to us the power of interceding on behalf of others. Our prayers can make a difference in the lives of those we love. Never underestimate your petitions for divine help. God hears our prayers. In the end, He could not find 10 righteous people in Sodom, so the city was destroyed. Yet God was willing to consider saving the city because of Abraham’s pleadings.
Too often we picture God as a cold-hearted, emotionless Judge. But the Bible tells us that God is our heavenly Father. When a child is disobedient and needs discipline to guide him or her in the right pathway, a good parent will consider the attitude of the child. Is there rebellious defiance or broken confession? Just as a son or daughter acknowledges wrong actions with tears, so may our prayers touch the heart of our heavenly Father, even when given for others.
Look again at Moses’ intercessory prayer on behalf of Israel when the people sinned by worshiping a golden calf. After pleading with God to not reject Israel, the Bible says God “repented” (Exodus 32:14, KJV). Other translations say the Lord “relented,” “changed his mind,” “reconsidered,” “felt sorry for the people,” and “thought twice” about His decision. These are human words that attempt to explain God’s great compassion for His people. He didn’t relent because He was indecisive or fickle. Moses’ prayer moved His heart.
Intercessory prayer changes God’s actions because it’s consistent with His sympathetic nature. He isn’t a pushover. There were still strong consequences toward those who were determined to rebel against God. Moses carried out some tough discipline for those who refused to repent and step onto God’s side.
There’s another instance in the Bible where God changed His mind. When Hezekiah was king of Judah, the prophet Isaiah delivered to him a sobering message. “In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live” ’ ” (2 Kings 20:1).
The prediction was clear. No options were presented. Yet, notice Hezekiah’s response after the prophet left: “Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying, ‘Remember now, O LORD, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly” (verses 2, 3).
Watch how quickly God responded. “And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying, ‘Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: ‘I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you’ ” ’ ” (verses 4, 5).
Did Hezekiah’s prayer change God’s mind? Before answering this question, it’s important to distinguish between God’s prediction and God’s purpose. He wasn’t seeking to destroy the king’s life. The message was actually an opportunity for Hezekiah to turn to God for help. His answered prayer demonstrates how God is merciful, not vengeful. When we earnestly ask our heavenly Father to answer our prayers, let us always remember He loves us and wants what is best for us.
Thy will be done
Sometimes our prayers are answered with a yes, and sometimes with a no. We cannot demand that God answer our prayers in just the way we would like. We must be submissive, even as Christ was in Gethsemane when He prayed, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Just after Hezekiah was healed, he blundered in his work as a king (2 Kings 20:12–19). Perhaps if he had prayed, “Thy will be done,” he would have died with a clean record.
Justin hoped his prayers would change God’s mind. He had fallen in love with what he thought was the perfect girl. It was love at first sight. He was head over heels in love and wanted to marry her. But his parents encouraged him to pray for God’s will to be done. When the relationship went sour, Justin was angry with God. Later, when he met another girl and got married, he looked back and realized that God had saved him from certain disaster by answering his prayer with a no. The track record of that first girl was all downhill. He was now glad that his prayer didn’t change God’s mind.
There is a time God always changes His mind: when we repent and turn from sin. The Bible tells us, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
We can be thankful that God changes His mind, for otherwise we would all be destined to eternal death. But such is not the case. The Bible is filled with promises of hope that God will save us if we change our minds.