Does God Change His Mind?

Our Bible study small group has struggled with the sense that God changed His mind in various situations in the Old Testament.  Here is the way I have tried to resolve the issue:

DOES GOD CHANGE HIS MIND?

Exodus 32:14, in speaking of how God did not bring about disaster to the people of Israel says that He “changed His mind” (NAS).  The King James Version says He “repented,” while the NIV says He “relented.”
A similar situation is found in Isaiah 38 (parallel passage found in 2 Kings 20) where God announced through Isaiah that Hezekiah”‘s illness was fatal, but after the king prayed and wept God had Isaiah announce that he would live 15 years longer.
What happened?  Did God lie?   Did He change His mind?
I Samuel 15:29 says, “He who is the glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not a man, that He should change His mind” (NIV.)  This passage states that lying and changing one”‘s mind are two human characteristics that God does not have.
The Theological Word Book of the Old Testament (Harris, Archer, Waltke) says that the word found in Exodus 32:14 and I Samuel 15:29 that is variously translated as repent, change mind, or relent is the Hebrew word naham.  It is translated in the KJV most of its 38 times of occurrence as “repent.” Most of these refer to God, not to man (shub is used of man”‘s repentance, defined as turning from sin to God.)
“Unlike man, who under the conviction of sin feels genuine
remorse and sorrow, God is free from sin.  Yet the Scriptures
inform us that God repents (Genesis 6:6-7; Exodus 32:14; Judges
2:18; 1 Samuel 15:11, et. al.); ie, He relents or changes His
dealings with men according to His sovereign purposes.  On the
surface, such language seems inconsistent, if not contradictory
with such passages which confirm God”‘s immutability …. : “The
Lord has sworn and will not change His mind (Psalm 110:4).  When
naham is used of God, however, the expression is anthropopathic
and there is not ultimate tension.  From man’s limited, earthly,
finite perspective it only appears that God”‘s purposes have
changed … Certainly Jeremiah 13:7-10 is a striking reminder that
from God”‘s perspective, most prophecy (excluding messianic
predictions) is conditional upon the response of men.  In this
regard, A. J. Heschel (The Prophets, p. 194) has said, “˜No word
is God”‘s final word.  Judgement, far from being absolute, is
conditional.  A change in man”‘s conduct brings about a change in
God”‘s judgement.””‘ (p. 571-572.)

Another pertinent scripture is found in Jeremiah 18:7-11:
“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 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 that I had intended to do for it.”
Here are some observations and conclusions:
1)    The NAS translation of naham as “change of mind” and the KJV translation as “repent” might not be as accurate in context as the NIV”‘s “relent”. (The Hebrew word literally means to breathe out deeply or emotionally.)

2)   We might add that not only a change in man”‘s conduct can get God to relent, but also intercessory prayer (see Exodus 32, also 2 Chronicles 30– Hezekiah prayed for those who were unclean and yet ate the Passover.)

3)    We understand from 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not want anyone to perish.  Therefore He has set His mind for good for us.  But since we are free agents, we can do anything we want with our lives, including opposing His will. He may in this case allow disaster to fall on us (including the loss of our souls in hell) but He never wanted it that way because hell was not made for us, but for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41.)

4)    Therefore it is inaccurate to say that God changes His mind since He has from the very beginning wanted only the best for us.  He may announce an intention (Isaiah”‘s telling Hezekiah he would die, Jonah telling Ninevah it would be destroyed, etc.) and then change His announced course of action when men change their actions (or pray); but this is a sign of His mercy, not His untruthfulness nor His unreliability.

—-Prepared by Latayne C. Scott

5 Comments

  1. Scott
    Apr 28, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve often wondered about the whole business of God “changing his mind” and what bothered me more than God actually changing his mind was the implication that he didn’t know what was going to happen, and therefore would have to change his plan in accordance with new information. Obviously, we know that can’t be the case, if God is omniscient and unbound by time. So the way I always resolved it was God was dealing with humans in a way that the humans could relate to. Jesus coming in the flesh also meant burdening his divinity with certain self-imposed limitations, for the sake of relating to the people. And likewise, in the Old Testament, God’s threats of judgment communicated his holiness; his “relenting” communicated his mercy. At first glance, this might look like deception or manipulation. But rather I think it’s more comparable to a parent counting slowly to three to give a disobedient child an opportunity to cease their course of action and avoid punishment.

  2. admin
    Apr 29, 2012

    I appreciate your comment — especially the analogy of the parent counting to three.

  3. George J Mikres
    Sep 18, 2012

    In all the scriptures mentioned saying God was going to do this and then something made Him do something else tells me in plain english that He He was going to do #1 and the did #2 for intercessory reasons means He changed His mind for reasons specified. You mentioned that it was God’s way of dealing with us so we would understand. Using Ex 32 as an example, if my father was trying to teach me something using that method, I would believe that he can and will change his mind if I say the right thing. I think the main issue is whether or not God changed His mind regardless of what anyone did or said. The answer is yes He did. One can add any theological spin on that but He did not do #1 but He did do #2, for whatever reason.

  4. admin
    Sep 23, 2012

    I appreciate your input, George, and thank you.

    I believe a lot of Christians struggle with the concept of a God who foreknows all and yet responds to our prayers. No matter how difficult this concept, I take great comfort, as I see that you do!, in the fact that God does indeed hear and respond to us. I am so grateful for such an approachable God.

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