In my previous post on this subject, I examined a number of Biblical references commonly used to promote the idea that God is unchanging. We saw in those scriptures, that the issue being addressed centered largely on the premise that God can be depended upon to keep his word…in other words, unlike humans or other gods of legend, he’s not capricious or fickle.
On the other hand, however, there are numerous accounts throughout the Old Testament, in which God is clearly stated to have changed his mind. One of these is the verse that first gave my good Calvinist friends heartburn and ignited this series: 1 Sam. 15:11, in which God states “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” My friend stated that God could not possibly really regret having done something, because it all took place according to his will, and because regret would mean God was changing his mind. And yet this is what the passage says…God made Saul king, Saul did not live up to God’s expectations, and now God is sorry that he chose Saul for a king.
This is not the only place we find this sort of language, either. In Genesis 6:5-6 we learn that God saw such evil in human behavior that he was “sorry” he’d ever made man. The clear sense of both texts is that God experiences genuine regret for the outcome of actions that he himself had originally done (these texts have impact on the Open View of God as well as his immutability, but that is another, though related, discussion). In both texts, God clearly changes his assessment of a man, or a group of people, about whom he previously had a different, more positive, opinion. And lest we think this is a translation error, the word in Hebrew that is translated “repented” or “was sorry” is the word nacham, which also appears in Job 42:6 when Job states “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes,” and in 1:Sam. 15:29 where it says “God is not a man that he should repent” (we addressed this verse in Part 1).
We find some interesting insights into how God does change his mind, in the story of the exodus and the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. A good example of this is found in Exodus 32, where God is prepared to destroy the Israelites for their idolatry with the golden calf, but Moses intercedes and convinces God to spare them. Exo. 32:14 says that God “relented” (both KJV and ASV say “repented”–it’s nacham again) of the disaster he had said he’d bring on the people. But what’s fascinating here is that God’s change of heart or intention comes as a direct result of the intercession of Moses.
We begin to find some clarity in the confusion, however, when we look at Jeremiah 18. This is the prophecy that Jeremiah tells when God has prompted him to go observe the work of a potter:
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’
The meaning becomes perfectly clear in this passage. God’s promise of both good and ill is conditional. When God says he’s going to do something in punishment, if the cause of the punishment is remedied, God will relent (nacham again) of the punishment. Same with blessing. And why should this surprise us? God said as much in the blessings and curses that make up Deuteronomy 28-30. Simply, he said, “if you obey, you will be blessed. If you disobey, you will be cursed. If you return to me, you will again be blessed.”
So, finally, we come to the summary answer to our question “Does God change?” Our answer has to be “of course, yes” and “of course, no.” Yes, God changes his opinion of and behavior toward humans as their own behavior toward him changes…and God may further change his intent or behavior in response to his people’s intercession. But God does not change his basic character, and God can certainly and always be counted upon to keep his promises…but don’t forget, even those promises often come with conditions, they are seldom unilateral.