The Lord Who Relents – Exodus 32:7-14

by Roger McCay
29 September 2019
Sermon Passage: Exodus 32:7-14
Link to Audio Version

The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, provide us a picture of God’s character and the nature of his dealings with mankind. Repeatedly, the Lord’s character is revealed as consistent and unchanging. He is a God of perfect justice. Yet, he is also a God of perfect mercy and grace. There is a tension in this.

We see this tension starkly portrayed, along with its resolution, in Exodus 32:1-14. Indeed, this passage is critical to our biblical studies. J. Clinton McCann, in an article on this passage, states its importance. He writes:

Exodus 32:1-14, along with the larger narrative which it introduces (Exod. 32-34), is fundamental for understanding the Book of Exodus, the Pentateuch, the entire Old Testament, and indeed, the New Testament and the whole history of God’s dealing with humanity.[1]

“Fundamental for understanding … God’s dealing with humanity.” The clear testimony of the Scriptures is that mankind is fallen, guilty, and exposed before God—justly deserving his wrath. Yet, despite our sinfulness, God extends mercy to his people.

Exodus 32:7-14 comes immediately on the heels of the terrible sin of the Israelites—God’s chosen people—when they made and worshipped the golden-calf. Only a short time before the golden-calf incident, when, God himself had addressed the people from the mountain, giving them the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19-20), the people had even agreed to all that God commanded of them, affirming his covenant with them in chapter 24:7. Yet, here they were, just a short time later in Chapter 32, deliberately violating the first three commandments, and doing so in raucous celebration.

They rejected the living and true God, as he had revealed himself, replacing him with their own idea of what God should be—violating the first commandment. They had a graven image crafted specifically for their worship—a golden calf—and its image was shaped to fit their idea of what God should be. They then worshiped and sacrificed to it—violating the second commandment along with the first. They even went so far as ascribing the very holy name of the Lord, along with the works that the Lord himself had accomplished, to this golden-calf—violating the third commandment.

The Lord’s words in vv. 7-9 describes the nature of their sin in his eyes. Verses 7-9:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.

Because of their sin, their quickly abandoning the way the Lord had commanded them to follow, the Lord distances himself from the people, signified by his reference of them to Moses as being “your people” rather than “his people.”

Such distancing makes perfect sense, as the people had rejected the Lord for a golden-calf. In their rejection, they abandoned the Lord’s way, violating the Covenant. The Lord describes their condition as being “corrupted,” perverted. They had evilly twisted away from the righteousness path against their master. Hence, this rebellion merits them the description of being a “stiff-necked” people. You may remember Stephen, in his final speech, using this term when we studied Acts 7 a few weeks ago. The term is one used for an animal that will not obey the reins to go the direction its master wants it to go, but keeps its neck stiff in order to follow its own way. So it was with them.

Now, it’s really easy to beat the Israelites up over their sin when we study this passage here in Ex. 32. And sure, they were way out of line—no question. But, we mustn’t be too hasty to point the finger in condemnation, for many fingers point right back at us. Every single one of us here today has violated God’s commands. This is the universal lot of man. Romans 3:10-12: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Even Christians, disciples of Christ, God’s chosen people who have entered into the covenant with the Lord, and those grafted onto the tree of true Israel (Rom. 11), we stray from the path of righteousness, each of us going our own way into sin. It is a constant struggle to stay faithful following after Christ. McCann states how for us, in solidarity with the Israelites in the desert, “Calf-making is a persistent temptation. We, no less than Israel, are constantly attempting to have God on our terms rather than God’s terms.”[2]

A believer’s struggle against sin is a constant one. Paul describes it in telling of his own struggle in Romans 7:21-23:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Like the Israelites before us, we sin, my brothers and sisters. For this we deserve God’s wrath. We truly do. We deserve hell. “For the wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23

But … God does not abandon his people to hell. Consider Exodus 32:10: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” The Israelites blatant violation of the Covenant (the Covenant which they had readily agreed to) … well, here the Lord clearly states that this violation justly deserved his wrath. Yet, the Lord’s statement in v. 10 is not a final decree as to Israel’s fate. It was an announcement as to what they deserved and how God would proceed if something did not happen.

What might that something be? We find this something in the statement “Now, therefore, let me alone.” It is generally agreed that, in God’s statement to Moses here, he left the door open for mediation. In other words, if Moses were to continue to discuss the issue with God, and not leave him alone, God’s judgment and wrath upon the people might not be so harsh. Such is consistent with Moses’ role for the people of God. He alone was chosen as a mediator between the people of God and God at this point in history. The Lord was working according to this paradigm (that of a mediator) in the revelation of the Law, as the people couldn’t handle direct communication from God. Now, in Ex. 32, in dealing with the sin of the people once they had broken the Law, the Lord continues to utilize a mediator—an intercessor. Hence, in v. 7, the Lord sent Moses down the mountain for that very purpose (intercession) where, upon seeing the sins of the people, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down.’”

In v. 10, we see that the Lord leads Moses a bit. He reminds him of the very promises upon which his mediation is founded—the promise of God to Abraham. God had made a promise to Abraham, as Moses recorded in Genesis 12:2: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Moses took the hint. He recognized his responsibility as mediator. He humbly rejected taking upon himself the promise given to Abraham. And he pleaded for the sake of the people of Israel—pleaded for mercy. He pleaded for God to relent.

God deals with his people’s sin through a mediator here in Exodus, but we also know that we, God’s people, also have a mediator today. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 states, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Like the Israelites in the desert, we desperately need a mediator. Otherwise, who will speak for us? In our sin, we have disqualified ourselves, and we deserve nothing but judgment and death. Seeing our sin, the Father said to the Son, “Go down.” So, Jesus came down. He took that task upon himself. And, now it is he, who is God, who mediates, interceding for the people of God to God. Romans 8: 33-34: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

Jesus’ own blood speaks on our behalf in his mediation. We receive mercy because of his atoning work, and the promise—the covenant—of God. So, trust in the Lord Jesus, our mediator, and you will receive mercy. Because God is merciful, we must rely upon his mediator.

Take a look at vv. 11-13.

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’

It is key to note that Moses did not appeal to any goodness that the Israelites somehow inherently possessed, nor to any trait of the Israelites whatsoever,  nor to any special favors that God might owe him or the Israelites, nor to anything along those lines. None of these things would have been a sound basis for mediation on behalf of the people’s sin.

So what was the basis for Moses’ appeal? In v. 11, Moses appeals to the Lord’s work by recalling the Lord’s bringing the people out of Egypt. It is as if he says, “You have done this great work, now why make it for naught?” Indeed, he reminds the Lord that this work was for the Lord’s people (“your people”).

Further, in v. 12, Moses suggests that the Egyptians might sully the Lord’s name by accusing him of evil intent, saying that the reason he took the Israelites out of Egypt was just to kill them all. Such was an appeal to the Lord’s glory, honor, and name. For that was not the Lord’s intent at all, but rather, the Lord’s actions were that of fulfilling his promise—the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the patriarchs of Israel).

Hence, Moses recalls and appeals to, in v. 13, the Lord’s own promise, which was given repeatedly in Genesis, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.” Therefore, Moses’ mediation, on behalf of the people, was based entirely upon the truth of the Lord’s own work, character, and promise. It had nothing to do with any merit of the people. Such is the paradigm.

Consistent with this paradigm, the basis for the Lord Jesus’ mediation on our behalf today is his own work, character, and promise—his truth. We are completely unable to bring anything to the table to somehow get us out of the problem our sin has put us. We are completely dependent upon him.

Jesus is the promised Messiah who came to save his people. He is the fulfillment of the entire redemptive plan God worked through all of history. As God incarnate (a man) Jesus lived a sinless life and then suffered on the Cross, as the perfect atonement for his people’s sins. He was resurrected after three days. He ascended into heaven. And he rules at the right hand of the Father over all the heavens and the earth. The promise of God is that all who believe in Jesus ( with all that entails), they will not perish in their sin, but will have eternal life in glory. His work, character, and promise—his truth. Jesus is the only way.

Cast away any notion that somehow the Lord will save you based on any merit you think you might have (be it heritage, works, whatever). Trust in the Lord and his work, and you will receive mercy, salvation from your sins. Trust on your own merit, and you remain in your sin. Because God is merciful, we must rely upon his truth.

Verse 14: “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”

It is a wonderful thing that our Lord is one who relents. Jonah knew this about the Lord, and this characteristic is why he didn’t want to go to the Ninevites, who were bitter enemies, in order to preach repentance—as Jonah put it in Jonah 4:2: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” We further see this attribute of relenting expressed in Joel 2:13-14; and Amos 7. The term “to relent,” as the word is used in those passages along with here in Exodus 32:14, has the sense of having compassion, to show mercy.

Simply, the Lord’s Word consistently reveals to us that, as John Frame has said, relenting is “part of his very nature as Lord.” [3] Indeed, “Relenting is a divine attribute.” [4] Hence, the living and true God is the Lord who relents, showing compassion and mercy. God’s relenting is a manifestation of the freedom of the divine will. It fits into his perfect plan that he put in motion from the beginning. And, it is an immutable aspect of his character.

Moses counted on it. Upon this truth, he mediated for his people. It is an undeserved mercy, founded upon the very truth of God himself.

So it is for us, we who trust in Jesus, who is the very embodiment of the truth, we who trust in Jesus for salvation, we who are God’s chosen people. God in his mercy, relents and keeps on relenting. He does not destroy us and condemn us to eternal damnation, a fate which we deserve due to our sin. Those for whom the mediator speaks, whose sins are forgiven in his blood, we find salvation. Yet, for those who do not believe, they remain under God’s wrath.

Trust in Jesus, receive the mercy of his grace, and be saved. Because God is merciful, we must rely upon his mercy.

Scriptures are full of mankind’s failure, and they reveal the tension of God’s justice and mercy. In our passage today we witness a paradigm of resolution for this tension. He sends a mediator to speak on behalf of his people, and he relents on the basis of his truth. For he is the Lord who relents. Trust in Jesus, our mediator; rely upon his truth, his mercy, and you will find salvation for your sins, in him. Because God is merciful, we must rely upon his grace.


[1] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “Exodus 32:1-14,” Interpretation 44, no. 3 (1990): 277-281.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Frame, No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2001), 164.

[4] Ibid., 165.