Does God Change His Mind?
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995): 387-99
Does God Change His Mind?
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Most Christian theologians have affirmed that God is immutable. In support of this doctrine they often have cited several Old Testament passages, including Numbers 23:19 (’God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent’), 1 Samuel 15:29 (ÒAnd also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind’), and Psalm 110:4 (ÒThe Lord has sworn and will not change His mind’). In all these cases Òrepent’ or Òchange His mind’ translates a Niphal or Hithpael form of the verbal root
A Semantic Analysis of <jn
In the Niphal and Hithpael stems
Toward a Solution: Decrees and Announcements
In the Old Testament not all statements of intention are the same. Some are decrees or oaths that are unconditional and bind the speaker to a stated course of action. Others, which may be labeled announcements, retain a conditional element and do not necessarily bind the speaker to a stated course of action.
Two passages in Genesis illustrate this distinction at a secular (nontheological) level. In Genesis 25:32-33 conniving Jacob, desirous of Esau’s birthright and very much aware of his exhausted brother’s vulnerability, made Esau swear an oath, rather than relying on his brother’s rhetorical question. The rhetorical question is equivalent to an announcement. It indicates Esau’s intention to trade his birthright for some stew, but it might be retracted later if he or someone else argued that the deal was made under duress. Jacob wanted the transferral to be unconditional and binding, so he made Esau swear an oath. In Genesis 47:28-30 Jacob, on his deathbed in Egypt, expressed concern that his body be buried in Canaan. Though Joseph indicated his intention to carry out his father’s wishes (ÒI will do as you have said,’ v. 30), Jacob forced him to swear an oath, formally ratifying and guaranteeing the fulfillment of the promise (v. 31; cf. 50:5-6).
One can discern this distinction between a decree and an announcement at the divine (theological) level. A divine decree (or oath) is an unconditional declaration. Because it is certain to come to pass, the response of the recipient cannot alter it, though, as will be seen, the exact timing of its fulfillment can be conditional. An announcement is a conditional statement of divine intention which may or may not be realized, depending on the response of the recipient or someone else whose interests it affects.
Divine decrees are usually clearly marked as such. Something in the statement itself or in the immediate context indicates its unconditional status. For example in Genesis 22:16-18 God swore by His own being that He would bless Abraham. Later references to this promise call it an Òoath’ and regard it as an unconditional gift (Gen. 26:3; Ps. 105:9-10). In Genesis 15:18-21 God guaranteed Abram and his descendants future possession of the land of Canaan. This declaration is formalized by an accompanying ritual (vv. 9-17), in which the use of the qatal form yT!t^n` (v. 18) rather than the yiqtol /T@a# (12:7; cf. 13:15, 17) further indicates that the deed to the land was actually being transferred to Abram. God’s promise to David is also called an oath and is characterized as eternal and unalterable (Ps. 89:3-4, 33-37).Conditional statements of divine intention are often clearly marked as well. For example in Jeremiah 26:4-6 the Lord announced, ÒIf [<A!] form The FONT His as announced or He what to not the for that in cases these In announcements. such from does and can God decrees. are intention of statements God’s However, mind change will a if then conditional implicitly explicitly informal formal divine with all be is this an but one 3:9). Jon. 2:14; Joel might so other many
Passages In Which Decrees Are In View
Much to the Moabite king Balak’s chagrin, God would not allow Balaam to curse Israel, but instead prompted this hireling prophet to bless His covenant people. Balaam prefaced the second of his oracles with these words: ÒGod 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 it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; when He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it’ (Num. 23:19-20). The oracle as such speaks of God’s presence with His people (v. 21) and their invincibility through His power (vv. 22-24). Several factors point to the unconditional nature of this oracle. The oracle is designated a divine blessing and cannot be altered. Balaam recognized the blessing’s unalterable character and acknowledged his inability to thwart it through sorcery or divination. This blessing, a prediction of Israel’s success, is an extension of the Lord™D5’s unconditional promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan (cf. Gen. 15:16; 17:8; 22:17), and thus it shares the binding quality of that promise. (God’s oath to Abraham is called a Òblessing’ in Gen. 28:4.) The introduction, in which Balaam affirmed that God would not change His mind or lie, formally marks the blessing as a decree. Both
1 Samuel 15:29
When Saul failed to destroy the Amalekites, Samuel rebuked him for his rebellion and declared that the Lord had rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:23). Saul pled for forgiveness, but Samuel repeated the Lord’s decision (vv. 24-26). Samuel then added these words: ÒThe Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to your neighbor who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind’ (vv. 28-29).
This was not the first time Saul had heard a rebuke from the prophet Samuel at Gilgal. Earlier, impatient Saul had refused to wait for Samuel’s arrival and had offered up a sacrifice. When Samuel finally arrived on the scene, he accused Saul of foolish disobedience and told him he had forfeited a golden opportunity. Samuel declared, ÒYou have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you’ (1 Sam. 13:13-14).
This rebuke sounds quite final and unconditional, but, as already suggested, the tone of a statement can sometimes be misleading. Perhaps Samuel’s rebuke was designed as a warning to bring Saul to his senses and motivate him to obedience. After all, God had not yet revealed who the new appointee was, let alone formally anointed him. As Samuel departed from Gilgal (v. 15), it is not certain if his words constituted a decree or an implicitly conditional announcement. Was the fate of Saul (or his dynasty) sealed, or was there still a chance God might relent?
No matter how one initially answers that question, Saul’s subsequent behavior, as recorded in 1 Samuel 14-15, makes it clear that he was on thin ice. He did nothing that would motivate Yahweh to change His mind about the earlier prophecy; in fact his folly and disobedience cause one to anticipate the worst. When Samuel went to confront him at Gilgal a second time, any earlier ambiguity was removed. Samuel’s rejection of Saul’s plea for forgiveness shows that this second rebuke is in fact a decree, as does the temporal marker
In this passage Yahweh swore an oath that the Davidic king would occupy a special royal-priestly status, much like that of Melchizedek, the ancient king of Salem. The declaration that God will not change His mind, or retract His statement, clearly pertains to the specific pronouncement that follows and, together with the reference to an oath, marks the statement as a decree.
Jeremiah 4:28; Ezekiel 24:14; Zechariah 8:14
Jeremiah and Ezekiel attach to a judgment speech a statement about God’s refusal to change, thus marking the prophecy as an unalterable decree. In Jeremiah 4:28 the words hN`M#m! bWva*-aOw+, Ònor will I turn from it,’ accompany yT!m=j^n] aOw+, Òand I will not change My mind’ (regarding what I have spoken). The former statement is used of God’s oath to David in Psalm 132:11: ÒThe Lord has sworn to David, a truth from which He will not turn back.’ In Ezekiel 24:14 the Lord declared that He was no longer open for negotiation; the announced judgment would then come to pass (yt!yc!u*w+ ha*B*). Zechariah 8:14, which recalls that God judged the preexilic generation just as He had planned without retracting His decision (yT!m=j*n] aOw+), alludes back to the divine decision recorded in Jeremiah 4:28 and Ezekiel 24:14.
In each case God’s refusal to retract a statement refers directly or applies indirectly to a specific decree identified in the context--His blessing of Israel in accord with the Abrahamic Covenant (Num. 23:19), His rejection of disobedient Saul (1 Sam. 15:29), His oath to make the Davidic king a royal-priest (Ps. 110:4), and His decision to judge Judah (Jer. 4:28; Ezek. 24:14; cf. Zech. 8:14). Each passage has clear contextual indicators that the declaration is unconditional. The statement that God will not change His mind, made in tandem with a synonymous expression, formally marks the divine proclamation as a decree.
Passages in Which announcements are in view
Exodus 32:12, 14; Amos 7:3, 6
When God saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, He angrily announced to Moses His intention to destroy the people and raise up a new nation through Moses. ÒNow then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation’ (Exod. 32:10). The form of the statement (imperative + jussive + cohortative + cohortative) indicates that it is not a decree, but an expression of God’s frustration with His people. The implication is that Moses, if he did not leave God alone, might be able to persuade Him to change His mind. In fact this is exactly what happened (vv. 11-14). Moses appealed to God’s reputation (ÒWhat will the Egyptians think?’), asked Him to relent (<J@N`H!) The FONT His as announced planned had He to not the for that cases In from and can God of God’s However, it. change decree, a be this but Amos Him course mind. stated did action decree two because on was After judgment would (vv. (v. spare declared Lord unconditional prophet both simply case Israel only decreed time.
Jeremiah 15:6; 18:8, 10; 26:3, 13, 19
As already noted, God came to the point where He decreed through Jeremiah that judgment would fall on Judah (Jer. 4:28). However, He issued this decree only after many warnings.
Early in Jehoiakim’s reign God told Jeremiah to proclaim His word in the temple courtyard in hopes that the people would repent. He declared, ÒPerhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do’ (Jer. 26:3). When the people threatened to kill Jeremiah, the prophet again urged them to repent and once more promised them that God would retract His announcement of judgment (v. 13). Some of the elders stepped forward and reminded the people that God had retracted such an announcement in the days of Hezekiah, who had heard Micah 5’s words (cf. Mic. 3:12) and repented (Jer. 26:17-19).
The principle underlying Jeremiah’s message and the elders’ advice is that God will change His mind concerning a stated course of action depending on the response He receives. This principle is articulated clearly in Jeremiah 18:7-10. Here the Lord explained that a nation may avert His threatened judgment if it repents when confronted with its sin. In such cases He will Òrelent’ and not inflict the announced disaster (v. 8). On the other hand, if a nation to whom God intended to show His favor sins, He may Òreconsider’ (yT!=m=j^n], v. 10) and withhold His blessing.
Since Judah did not respond to Jeremiah’s call for repentance (cf. 18:12), the Lord decided to judge His people, declaring that prophetic intercession, even by such advocates as Moses and Samuel, would not alter His course (15:1-5). He was weary of relenting (<J@N`H! The FONT not the in and of will must this statement by decree judgment would postpone have no decision.
The locust plague experienced by Joel’s generation was a harbinger of an even more devastating judgment. The Lord Himself was leading an awesome locustlike army toward Judah, but perhaps judgment could still be averted. After all, the Lord Himself was calling His people to repentance (Joel 2:12) and, as Joel reminded his audience, He characteristically relented from sending announced judgments on His covenant people throughout their history (v. 13). Though one could never be certain if the Lord had not been explicit, Joel urged the people to respond appropriately and encouraged them with these words: ÒWho knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing.’ The people apparently took heed to Joel’s advice, for subsequent verses state that the Lord did indeed take pity on His people (v. 18) and promised to restore what the locusts had devoured (vv. 19-26). This important passage again illustrates that God is able and willing to retract announcements of judgment.
Furthermore verse 13 indicates in creedal style that God characteristically relents from sending announced judgment. This willingness to change His mind is linked with other divine attributes, such as His grace, compassion, patience, and love. The creed has its roots in Exodus 34:6-7, where, following God’s merciful treatment of Israel after the golden calf incident, the Lord described Himself as follows: ÒThe Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.’ God’s willingness to change His mind concerning judgment is not mentioned in these verses, but the inclusion of this theme in later verses is certainly justifiable in light of Exodus 32:14, for God’s decision to relent stands in the background of the creedal statement recorded in Exodus 34.
Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2
Though JonahÕs announcement of judgment on Nineveh sounded unconditional, it was accompanied by no formal indication that it was a decree (3:4). For this reason the king of Nineveh responded appropriately in hopes that judgment might be averted (v. 9). Like Joel he said, ÒWho knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?’ When God saw the Ninevites’ sincerity, He did indeed change His mind concerning the announced calamity (v. 10), much to Jonah’s dismay. In fact Jonah had anticipated this development, and that is why he ran away in the first place. With words almost identical to those of Joel 2:13, he observed that God is Òa gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness; and one who relents concerning calamity’ (4:2).
The texts analyzed in this section clearly show that God can and often does retract announcements. Two of the passages even regard this willingness to change His mind as one of His most fundamental attributes. In every case where such a change is envisioned or reported, God had not yet decreed a course of action or an outcome. Instead He chose to wait patiently, hoping His warnings might bring people to their senses and make judgment unnecessary.
Does God change His mind? It all depends. If He has decreed a certain course of action or outcome, then He will not retract a statement or relent from a declared course of action. Verses stating or illustrating this truth must not be overextended, however. Statements about God not changing His mind serve to mark specific declarations as decrees. They should not be used as proof texts of God’s immutability, nor should they be applied generally to every divine forward-looking statement. If God has not decreed a course of action, then He may very well retract an announcement of blessing or judgment. In these cases the human response to His announcement determines what He will do. Passages declaring that God typically changes His mind as an expression of His love and mercy demonstrate that statements describing God as relenting should not be dismissed as anthropomorphic. At the same time such passages should not be overextended. God can and often does decree a course of action.
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