Study By Charles Fisher
When I first heard the teaching that God lived in time, and changed His mind, I objected. I objected on the grounds that God never changes, that the doctrine of immutability would not allow that. However, as I studied the Bible under the teaching of Dean Harvey (I am an alumnus of his Virginia church), I let the Bible show me where my understanding of the doctrine of Immutability was incorrect.
As is no surprise, whenever I discuss the concept of God changing His mind, a dispute will arise about whether or not God actually meant it every time He said that He "repented," or not. Like me, others argue that God is immutable, unchanging, and that He can't change His mind because God already knows the entire future. A verse that is often cited was Balaam's oracle in Num. 23:19, which says:
And yet, when I show a verse (actually 36 of them) where God repents, (changes His mind), in the Old Testament, they deny that this is what happened. I have recently heard one popular bible teacher say that God repents to show that God can't repent.
Instead, they make a big deal about anthropomorphic language, saying that when the Bible says "God changed His mind," it didn't really mean that God changed His mind. They argue that God is using human words to explain something we can't understand because we are human and cannot comprehend with our limited minds what actually happened. I, on the other hand, deny this, calling this appeal to "anthropomorphic language" a theological punt, a giving-up in order of saving a treasured, but flawed, doctrine.
Yes, there is anthropomorphic language used in the Bible, the use of human attributes to describe God. For example, there are references to God's hands, to His eyes, arms, even feathers (does that mean that the Bible uses aviomorphic language?), but these refer to "body parts." God is a spirit, and does not have hands, arms, and eyes, in the human sense.
But when the Bible speaks of God repenting, changing His mind, it is not speaking about body parts, but the choice of a free moral agent, God. We must accept the idea that the moral choice of God "repenting" has been expressed accurately in the Bible, or we are faced with the dilemma of saying that no moral choice of God is expressed accurately. No one would be able to say, then that the Bible does not mean that God loves the world, but that this is merely anthropomorphic language, as well.
But what about Num. 23:19? How do I explain the apparent denial of God's immutability? In this matter, where scripture talks about God changing His mind, (Immutability) God's unchangingness, is, I believe, a red herring. Instead, God has given us direct knowledge about Him changing His mind, repenting.
GOD'S "REPENTANCE" PRINCIPLE
I believe the first thing we have to look for, in scripture, when studying any topic, is a direct statement from God about that topic. Not an inference, not a doctrine based on an inference, but a direct statement from God. In this matter, does God say He never changes His mind, or does He say He does change His mind? Fortunately, God gives us a direct statement about whether or not He repents, about changing His mind. This is in Jer. 18:7 and 10. Here God tells Jeremiah:
Here is God giving Jeremiah His basic workings, His method of doing things. This statement by God gives us His pronouncements as to whether or not He does change His mind, and on what basis. And it is in keeping with this principle in the character of God that the prophets made their appeals to the nations of Israel and Judah to return to God.
In Jeremiah 26, the prophet shows God pleading with Judah to turn from their evil ways and obey Him. If they do, God will "repent" of the judgment that He is to send them.
Joel makes the same plea, in Joel 2:13-14:
It is this willingness to "repent," to change His mind, that Jonah feared. God's willingness to change His mind and forgive those who turn to Him was exactly why Jonah ran away. Jonah 4:2:
It was because of this facet of God's character that Moses was able to intercede on behalf of disobedient Israel. Ex 32:12:
And in the Song of Moses, his intercession is given, again (Psa. 90:13):
A good test of any teaching is to see if the Bible shows God acting in accordance with the teaching. Does the Bible show God "repenting?" You be the judge: In direct answer to Moses' prayer:
In the time of the judges, here is a summary of God's dealing with Israel (Judges 2:18);
When David sinned by conducting a census, and God began to strike the kingdom (II Sam 24:16):
The psalmist accounts for God's working in the history of Israel:
Another psalm, recounting God's working in the history of Israel:
Jeremiah reminds Judah of God's dealings during the time of Hezekiah (Jer. 26:19):
After the fall of Judah, Jeremiah has received a word from God for those left behind (Jer 42:10):
Hosea tells of God's emotional ties to Israel, and how He desires to repent (Hos. 11:8):
And Amos tells Israel about how God twice changed His mind and didn't bring a pronounced judgment upon them. He tells them that they may not be so lucky again. Amos 7: 3, 6
Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Thomas Nelson, 1985), on p. 202, says that here are times when God says that someone has gone too far for Him to repent, and God "had no choice but to implement His judgment." There are five such verses in the Old Testament:
1. Jer. 4:28 For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it.
2. Jer. 15:6 Thou hast forsaken me, saith the LORD, thou art gone backward: therefore will I stretch out my hand against thee, and destroy thee; I am weary with repenting.
3. Ezek. 24:14 I the LORD have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent; according to thy ways, and according to thy doings, shall they judge thee, saith the Lord GOD.
4. Hos. 13:14 I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes.
5. Zech. 8:14 For thus saith the LORD of hosts; As I thought to punish you, when your fathers provoked me to wrath, saith the LORD of hosts, and I repented not:
Do these five verses negate the principle God gives in Jer. 18? No, they demonstrate the negative aspect of that principle. God said that if a nation turned from Him, He would "repent," change His mind about the blessings He planned to send, but bring judgment, instead.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CONTRADICTIONS?
I would say, first of all, what contradictions? I do not believe there to be any contradictions, and I do not believe we have to punt to any supposed "anthropological language." Yes, there are verses, to which some people appeal in order to support their flawed doctrine, that say God will not change His mind. But I believe that a thorough study of the Bible, an examination of the context of these verses, will completely demonstrate that there is not any contradiction between the principles that God described in Jeremiah 18. Instance #1 is Number 23:19.
This is the verse that is most often used to say that God is immutable and cannot change His mind.
Here is the verse:
And, yes, it does say that God is not a son of man that He should repent. But a close examination of the context of the verse will demonstrate that God is not contradicting Jeremiah 18, nor is He making a broad, general statement, as in Jeremiah. What is the historical context for this verse? Moses is leading Israel through Moab, and Balak tried to get Prophet-For-Hire Balaam to curse Israel for him. God pronounces this oracle through him:
Moses is leading Israel to Palestine, in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, over 400 years before. He promised the patriarchs in His covenant with them that their descendants would take possession of the land. And now, Balak is trying to get an oracle from God to change this. But God, speaking through Balaam, tells Balak that no divination (v.23) is going to change this. God has made a covenant with the nation of Israel, and He is going to fulfill it, now. His mind is made up and He is not going to change.
What we have is a specific promise being referred to, and it is a valid rule of scriptural interpretation that specific events do not take the place of God's general principles for dealing with mankind. This verse does not say that God never changes His mind. It merely says that God is not going to change His mind in this situation, His mind is made up, and no amount of pleading is going to change it.
Instance #2 is found in 1 Sam 15:29. In this situation, Saul has repeatedly disobeyed God, and God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. Samuel tells Saul this message and turns to go, but as he does so, Saul grabs at his cloak, tearing it and pleading for Samuel to appear with him before the nation, so that no one will know that Saul has been rejected. Samuel says:
Is Samuel, in this context, saying that, as a principle, God never changes His mind? No, because we have this in the same chapter:
So what is Samuel saying? That Saul's pleadings are no good, that his tears of repentance will not move God. God has decided beyond any changing of His mind that Saul is no longer king of Israel. Again, we have a specific word that does not override the general principle given in Jeremiah 18, God’s mind on this specific matter is settled.
Instance #3 is found in Psa. 89:34; where we read:
This one doesn't even say that God will not change His mind, but is often appealed to, as an attempt to demonstrate that God's Word once given, is unalterable. God says that He will not alter His covenant with David. This is a specific promise to a specific individual, and does not override the general statements God made in Jeremiah 18.
Instance #4 is found in Psa 110:4.
This one is EASY!!! To whom was this promise made?
This, again, is a specific promise, not a statement of general principle, so, again, this does not override God's statements in Jeremiah 18, rather it shows God keeps His promises.
Instance #5 is found in Exek. 24:14. In this final instance, Ezekiel is in Babylon, and on a specific date, receives a directive from God. He is to boil a pot of water with meat and bones in it in front of everyone as a visual parable that God is finally bringing judgment on Jerusalem. He tells Ezekiel that the king of Babylon, that very day, in Judah, laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.
In v. 14, Ezekiel writes:
God says He will not repent, that He will not change His mind. But is this a general statement, or specific decision? God is saying that the final judgment and fall of Jerusalem has come about, and that there is no turning back. He will not change His mind about this, but will allow Nebuchadnezar to destroy Jerusalem. Fini. The end. No reprieve. This is not a general statement that God will “never” change His mind, but a statement about a specific situation.
So, there you have it. I do not believe that there is a contradiction in the scriptures, and one need not resort to a weak punt to some supposed "anthropological language" to show that God meant what He said when He said that He changes His mind. Scripture makes a straight-forward statement, in Jeremiah 18, not couched in "anthropological language," that God does, indeed, change His mind. Scripture also demonstrates that God operates in accordance with this statement. Scripture does not have a contradicting principle to falsify this teaching. On its face, the teaching is valid, and not heretical, since it is in accord with scripture. I believe that I have demonstrated that God's declaration of His willingness to change His mind, and His actions in accordance with this principle are not in conflict with the statements where God said that He will not change His mind. Rather, in these five instances, God is acting in keeping with this principle, completing His plans and promises.
I believe that if one takes the time to read the scriptures I have given, in context, he/she will see the validity of the teaching.