It’s one of those thorny little questions that pop up from time to time. Exodus 32 narrates the story of Aaron and the Golden Calf. The whole incident is so insulting to the Most High God that he suggests he should wipe the Children of Israel off the face of the Earth. But Moses intervenes, imploring God to show mercy to these poor fools. And the King James Version of the Bible reports that God “repented” and spared the people. Thinking men and women read this account and wonder, “Why does a holy and righteous God need to repent? Did he sin? Didn’t he know better?”
The Bible teaches that the Heavenly Father is completely trustworthy and fully reliable. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ assures us that not one of God’s teachings can fall to the ground until they are all fulfilled. In Romans 3:4, Paul asserts that God must tell the truth, even if it makes all human beings out to be liars. But the Bible goes even farther than that. Both Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29 insist that God doesn’t lie; neither does he change his mind like human beings do.
This makes perfect sense to you and me. We tend to change our minds when circumstances change and surprise us, or when we learn more information about a decision we have made. But God never finds himself in this kind of situation. Being omniscient, he already knows everything; not only the past, but the future as well. Because this is true, it’s impossible for circumstances to surprise him. Likewise, it’s impossible for someone who knows everything to suddenly acquire more information. So when God makes a decision, it is not only true, but it is timeless as well. God’s promises will stand the test of time because he already has all the answers to that eternal quiz!
So how can God repent or change his mind, as indicated in Exodus 32 and on a couple of other occasions in the Old Testament, as well? The answer is more simple than you might imagine. The Hebrew word translated “repent” in this particular passage can be legitimately translated in a variety of ways. For example, in our own English language, the simple word “run” has many possible meanings. You can run a mile. Or you can run an advertisement in a publication. Or you can run an electrical wire from one room to another. What’s more, water can run from a faucet and refrigerators run on electricity. Whether the word denotes traveling, printing, wiring, operating or flowing depends on the context. Only in context can you know what the word finally means!
In the same way, the Hebrew word pronounced shaw-kham can mean to repent. But it can also mean to comfort yourself, to relent, or to change course. In Exodus 32:10, many translations explain that God thought about destroying the people, but after Moses intervened God relented. In other words, God took one course of action until Moses rose to assert his responsibility for these stubborn people. Upon hearing that, God relented and carried out Phase 2. His first action was not evil. And it was not a mistake, requiring that he should change his mind. Rather, God did one thing first and then performed another action second. To “repent” means to acknowledge a mistake or sin and change course. To “relent” simply means to stop. God often takes one action until he receives a desirable response, and then relents to initiate a second action.
Consider the Bible for example. We don’t have a New Testament because the Old Testament was wrong. God didn’t repent of the Old Covenant and launch a New Covenant with us. Rather, God used the Old Testament to bring the people of Israel to a particular point in their spiritual journey. Then when they were ready for the Messiah, he fulfilled the terms of the Old Covenant by sending Christ. Now we are living in a New Testament that was founded on the Old.
God doesn’t sin and he doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t lie, and he doesn’t need to change his mind.
Lift up the Cross!