Between the instruction and construction of Tabernacle, there is a sudden, sharp blast of cold air. Harmony turns to discord, rest to disturbance, preparedness to devastation, and the future with God becomes a highly uncertain matter. The Israelites make a golden calf and bow down to it and rise up in a drunken orgy.
Like the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, this account tells of the fall of Israel. The people have taken the future into their own hands and compromised their LOYALTY to Yahweh through the construction of an idol. Israel’s own history parallels the experience of all mankind.
Chapter 32 of Exodus is a tragedy as far as the Israelites are concerned, and yet it is here we see one of the greatest teachings and revelations concerning our God. Here is one of the most insightful illustrations of prayer in the Bible for it tells us how to GET GOD TO REPENT!
The word of these chapters 32-34 is, finally, a hopeful one, as they move from sin and judgment to restoration. Their overall flow is largely determined by an ongoing dialogue between Moses and God. The role of the mediator-intercessor is seen to be key to preserving the apostate community from annihilation, but finally the future of Israel is seen to rest solely in God, who is gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love.
But the impatient, idolatrous and immoral Israelites have put God’s steadfast-loving-kindness to the test and it too seems to have crumpled. From the top of Mt. Sinai, jealousy and red hot anger enthrall God as He appraises those who have been disloyal. Exodus 32:9—
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.
STIFF-NECKED indicates that Israel’s sin is deliberate! They know God and His Commandments, but have rejected both!
STIFF-NECKED is a metaphor taken from such creatures as will not submit their necks or tolerate the yoke or bridle to be put upon them, but draw back and slip away. God uses this metaphor to describe a people that go on their own way upon a run, and will not turn their necks to Him that calls them—so disobedient and irreclaimable are these people.
STIFF-NECKED PEOPLE are obstinate, self-willed, stubborn, resolute in their own ways, and will not be reclaimed, inflexible and not subjected to the yoke of the divine law and love. They are people who want to do it their way, instead of God’s way!
Zechariah 7:11-12 offers a vivid picture of stiff-neckedness—
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry.
Stephen declares to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:51—
You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
STIFF-NECKED is an issue of the HEART. Deuteronomy 10:16 offers the cure—
Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.
CIRCUMCISE YOUR HEARTS is a metaphor for REPENTANCE—a complete reversal of one’s attitude and values, a turning toward God and away from self.
Loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength is having a circumcised heart. The paradox is that people do not have the power to circumcise their own hearts—it is the work of God according to Deuteronomy 30:6—
The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
God demands it. Yet, circumcision of the heart is an operation performed by the Holy Spirit. It is yielding to His knife—allowing the Spirit of God to remove the heart of stone. Ezekiel 36:25-27 tells how God circumcises the heart under the New Covenant—
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Circumcision of heart was, from the beginning, the end, design, and fulfilment of the whole law.
A stiff-necked people will neither bow down to nor glorify God as God. Instead, they bow down to a golden calf—idols—gods of their own making that will not place any demands upon their life.
Want to make God angry at you? Substitute something else for Him! Reject and disobey His commandments! The LORD is a jealous God and His emotions can be set ablaze. Look 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.”
NOW LEAVE ME ALONE is a key phrase for interpreting this passage. For such. a word to make sense, one must assume that, while God has decided to execute wrath, the decision has not reached an irretrievable point; the will of God is not set on the matter. Moses could conceivably contribute something to the divine deliberation that might result in a future for Israel other than wrath.
Actually, NOW LEAVE ALONE, is an open door inviting Moses to intercede on behalf of the people. This is a test. Does Moses really love this people? God has told Moses, “they are YOUR people—they are your responsibility! Now what’s Moses going to do about it?
Taking the test a step further God says, “Moses, I will use you like I used Abraham, and make of you a great nation and I will still be able to make good my covenant with Abraham.”
Remarkably, Moses does not accede to God’s request, he does not leave God alone. He passes the test with flying colors. He is faithful to his heavenly calling and appointment as Israel’s mediator foreshadowing our Lord Jesus according to Hebrews 3:1-2—
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house.
Instead of leaving God alone, Moses responds with one of the greatest prayers of Scripture. Exodus 32:11—
But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “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?
God had just told Moses, “Go down, because YOUR people, whom YOU brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.” God was so angry with them that He disowned the Israelites. But Moses would have none of it! He turns the tables on the LORD, “why should your anger burn against YOUR PEOPLE, WHOM YOU BROUGHT OUT OF EGYPT.”
This is not pious trifle! Some people talk to God like He is dead! Moses talks back to God—frankly and honestly! I’ll paraphrase what Moses said—
LORD, I think You made a mistake. I do not recall bringing any people out of Egypt. And they are not MY people; they are YOUR people. You brought them out of Egypt and You did it with a mighty hand. I could not bring them out. You have made a mistake, LORD.
Can you imagine talking to God like that? Moses did! He boldly exercises his privilege as Israel’s intercessor. This is what Hebrews 4:16 is talking about—
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence/boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
He confidently and boldly takes prayer a step further!
Not only have you make a mistake, LORD, but you haven’t thought this thing through. Your angry and upset! Stop and think!
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’?
In other words—
You’ll be mocked by the Egyptians if you destroy the Israelites at this place.” They are Your people and You promised to bring them into the land—Your reputation—You Name and Glory are at stake, LORD! Are you a good God or an evil God?
A recurrent theme throughout the Exodus Experience has been that God has acted on Israel’s behalf in order that the Egyptians and others might know that He is Yahweh. What would they now think, if God destroyed them? God’s name is in jeopardy.
Certainly, Moses understands God to be One who will take into account facts of reason and logic in making decisions and considering options. So having set the record straight and having put the matter into proper perspective, Moses offers his bold petition. Verse 12b—
Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.
TURN and RELENT are Hebrew imperatives. Moses is not making mere requests, these are commands. He expects God to heed them. When is the last time you gave God an order? If you’re tempted to do so, I strongly suggest you follow Moses’ pattern.
The Hebrew word translated RELENT is Mxn (nacham). It denotes REPENT or COMFORT. In Psalm 23, Mxn is translated: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” All meanings of this word connote an inner mental or emotional attitude. Remember we are created in the image and likeness of God—and like us, God has emotions.
Thirty eight times the KJV translates Mxn as REPENT and the majority of these instances refer to God’s repentance, not man’s. Unlike man, who under the conviction of sin feels genuine remorse and sorrow, God is free from sin. Yet, He has these emotions according to passages like Genesis 6:6—
The LORD was grieved [repented] that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.
Over and over again the OT states that God REPENTS of judgments that He had planned. For instance, 1 Chronicles 21:15 reports—
And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and was grieved [repented] because of the calamity and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.”
Jeremiah 18:7-10 is a key passage to understanding God REPENTING. There the LORD says—
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 of its evil, then I will relent [repent] 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 the good I had intended to do for it.
Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s heart and conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment. The problem Moses faces is that the people haven’t repented—they’re still sinning! So he adds some additional punch to his request. Exodus 32:13—
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 for ever.'”
If it’s possible, Moses has cornered God!
Remember what You have revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Israel concerning Your will on earth LORD.
God you have personally sworn that this people would be multiplied, not killed off and they would inherit the land.
Not only had God made these promises to Abraham, but also to Isaac and Israel, who is Jacob. This presents a major problem for God. He could fulfill the promises made to Abraham in Moses. But Jacob had blessed his twelve sons before his death and predicted that the Everlasting King of Peace would come through his son Judah according to Genesis 49:10-11—
You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
Moses is a descendant of Jacob’s son LEVI, not JUDAH! If God starts all with Moses, there is no tribe of Judah for Christ to come through! Prophecy fails! God’s Word is worthless!
Moses’ prayer does change the heart of God. Why? First, it is a matter of God being true to Himself. It is not just Abraham, but also it is Isaac and Israel who have received the promises also. God cannot go back to square one and start over with Moses!
Second, Moses prayer changes God’s heart because it is praying the way we should pray! Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount—
This, then, is how you should pray: “`Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
That’s exactly the way Moses prayed: “LORD, Your Name, Your Kingdom, Your Will are mud if you destroy the Israelites here and now! Therefore, TURN and REPENT!”
Moses has effectively reminded God that Israel is His people, whose destruction would frustrate both His glory and the glory of the Exodus as well as constitute a breach of His covenant promises to the patriarchs. Therefore, we should not be surprised by God’s immediate and direct response in Exodus 32:14—
Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Moses has effectively exercised his divinely appointed role as mediator. Throughout the Exodus experiences, Moses is portrayed as the covenant mediator who initiates the meeting with the LORD, mediates the covenant stipulations, leads in the inauguration of the covenant on behalf of the people, receives the priestly legislation, and intercedes on behalf of the people.
Moses pictures as covenant mediator the continuing role of prophet, priest and king in Israel as well as foreshadows Christ our Mediator. The principles of mediation are always inherent in the vocation of religious leadership.
Moses has brought to bear three factors on the situation: his will, his energy, and his insight. These factors make the situation different from what it had been moment earlier.
God is open to what Moses has to say and takes Moses contribution with utmost seriousness, honoring it as an important ingredient for shaping the future. Human prayer is honored by God and has the capacity to change future directions for God, people, and world. God may well adjust modes and directions (though not ultimate goals) in view of our prayers.
Are your prayers shaping the future?
It is important to note that God is One who is open to change. It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable—His steadfastness has to do with His love; His faithfulness has to do with His promises; His will is for the salvation of all. God will always act, even make changes, in order to be true to these unchangeable ways to accomplish these unchangeable goals.
However, He has not forgiven the Israelite apostates or moved away from all forms of judgment. He only has relented from destroying them!
It’s worthwhile to reexamine HOW MOSES GOT GOD TO REPENT. First of all, we recognize that Moses is right with God—he is a righteous man and James 5:16 says—
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
The prophet Amos was a righteous man who stood for social justice in Israel and he twice was able to get the LORD to CHANGE and TURN from the disaster He planned. The prophet records in Amos 7:1-6—
This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!” So the LORD relented. “This will not happen,” the LORD said.
This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: The Sovereign LORD was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!” So the LORD relented. “This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.
God repented of the disaster He planned not because His nature or character had changed but in order to honor (even if only temporarily and partially) the fervent prayer of His righteous servant.
Second, Moses was responsible for the nation. God effectively had turned them over to him, calling them, YOUR PEOPLE. And Moses the mediator gives them back to God, saying YOUR PEOPLE.
Third, Moses appeals to the LORD, reminding Him of His special covenant relationship with His people, which He manifested in the Exodus. Then, Moses appeals to God’s need to keep His Name holy and trustworthy.
Finally, Moses refers to the great patriarchal promises.
As Moses championed Yahweh’s character and causes, God REPENTS and TURNS from the disaster He had threatened.
What we learn here about God is that He can be persuaded to change His mind, His emotions, and His actions if His reputation and plans are championed in prayer. God, however, never changes in His basic integrity or character. The grounds of Yahweh’s repenting or relenting are threefold in Scripture:
1. Intercession that champions God reputation and promises—what Moses did here.
2. Repentance of people—like the Ninevites did at the preaching of Jonah.
3. Compassion—as God had when the people groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them in days of the judges.
Moses could not plead the repentance of the people for they are still apostates, wallowing in idolatry and immorality.
He was wise enough not to attempt to call upon Yahweh for compassion for Yahweh had said, NOW LEAVE ME ALONE SO THAT MY ANGER MAY BURN AGAINST THEM AND THAT I MAY DESTROY THEM! — there’s no room for compassion in those words!
Moses could not find in Israel’s conduct or character any plea or ground to ask for God to turn from His burning anger. His only recourse is INTERCESSION based on preserving God’s glory and faithfulness.
Therefore, Moses bound his request up in God Himself. Moses exercised wisdom because he feared the LORD and understood Him. I am convinced the more we know and understand God, the more effective we can pray.
Certainly, if we center our prayers on God’s glory, kingdom, and will, we’ll be far more successful when we pray for people who are stiff-necked!
It’s very possible the LORD is angry with someone you love! That person refuses to repent. God doesn’t intend to show compassion to them. Your only recourse is intercessory prayer! To pray the way Moses prayed!
If ever there was an occasion when it seemed impossible that prayer should be heard it was this, but the prayer of Moses rose above all difficulties because it called upon the glory and faithfulness of God.
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, you have the privilege and responsibility to boldly and confidently pray like Moses prayed!