BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 152 (October-December 1995): 387-99

          Copyright © 1995 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

                                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 sev-

eral Old Testament passages, including Numbers 23:19 (“God is

not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should re-

pent”), 1 Samuel 15:29 (“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”), and Psalm 110:4 (“The Lord has sworn and will not

change His mind”). In all these cases “repent” or “change His

mind” translates a Niphal or Hithpael form of the verbal root MHn.

However, many other Old Testament passages, using a Niphal

form of this same verb with the same semantic sense, assert that

God typically does change His mind (Jer. 18:5-10; Joel 2:13; Jon.

4:2), describe Him doing so (Exod. 32:14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon. 3:10),

or at least assume that He might (Jer. 26:3; Joel 2:14; Jon. 3:9).

How can one resolve this tension and apparent contradiction?

Some dismiss these texts as “anthropomorphic,”1 but this is an

arbitrary and drastic solution that cuts rather than unties the

theological knot. A more satisfying solution exists, if the biblical

evidence is allowed to speak for itself.

            The thesis of this article is that the question, “Does God

change His mind?” must be answered, “It all depends.” This

study begins with a lexical survey of the Niphal and Hithpael

stems of MHn. The article then defines and illustrates the four

kinds of forward-looking divine statements in the Old Testa-

ment: (a) marked or formal decrees, (b) unmarked or informal

decrees, (c) marked or explicitly conditional statements of inten-

 

Robert B. Chisholm Jr. is Professor of Old Testament Studies, Dallas Theological

Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

 

1 See, for example, Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and At-

tributes of God, 2 vols. (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 1:340-41. For a survey

of the history of interpretation on this subject, see Lester J. Kuyper, “The Suffering

and the Repentance of God,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 262-68.



388      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995

 

tion, (d) unmarked or implicitly conditional statements of inten-

tion. The article then argues that if God has issued a decree, He

will not change His mind or deviate from it. However, the ma-

jority of God’s statements of intention are not decrees. And God

can and often does deviate from such announcements. In these

cases He “changes His mind” in the sense that He decides, at

least for the time being, not to do what He had planned or an-

nounced as His intention.

 

                       A SEMANTIC ANALYSIS OF MHn 2

 

            In the Niphal and Hithpael stems MHn carries one of four se-

mantic senses.3 (1) In at least nine passages the verb means “to

experience emotional pain or weakness” (Gen. 6:6-7; Exod.

13:17; Judg. 21:6, 15; 1 Sam. 15:11, 35; Job 42:6; Jer. 31:19).4 In five

of these nine instances, yKi introduces the cause of the sorrow (cf.

Gen. 6:6-7; Judg. 21:15; 1 Sam. 15:11, 35). (2) In 13 verses the verb

carries the sense “to be comforted” or “to comfort oneself” (some-

times by taking vengeance) (Gen. 24:67; 27:42; 37:35; 38:12; 2

Sam. 13:39; Pss. 77:3; 119:52; Isa. 1:24; Jer. 31:15; Ezek. 5:13;

14:22; 31:16; 32:31).5 (3) In perhaps as many as 10 passages the

word refers to God's “relenting” from or “repudiating” a course of

action that is already underway (cf. Deut. 32:36 = Ps. 135:14;

Judg. 2:18; 2 Sam. 24:16 = 1 Chron. 21:15; Pss. 90:13; 106:45; Jer.

8:6 [man as subject]; 20:16; 42:10).6 (4) The remainder of the oc-

currences fall into a fourth semantic category meaning “to re-

tract” a statement or “to relent or change one’s mind concerning,

to deviate from” a stated course of action (Exod. 32:12, 14; Num.

23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 110:4; Isa. 57:6; Jer. 4:28; 15:6; 18:8, 10;

26:3, 13, 19; Ezek. 24:14; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon. 3:9-10; 4:2;

Zech. 8:14).7 In this semantic category God is the subject of the

 

2 The following survey is indebted to the work of H. Van Dyke Parunak, “A Se-

mantic Survey of NHM,” Biblica 56 (1975): 512-32; and idem, “The Repentance of

God in the Old Testament” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1973). Paru-

nak’s six categories proposed in Biblica have been condensed here to four.

3 The Hithpael is used only seven times in the Old Testament. There are no clear

examples of a Hithpael use that falls into category one. Four examples fall into cat-

egory two (Gen. 27:42; 37:35; Ps. 119:52; Ezek. 5:13), two into category three (Deut.

32:36 = Ps. 135:14) and one into category four (Num. 23:19).

4 See Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NHM,” 519, for semantic indicators of this

sense in the respective passages.

5 Parunak points out semantic indicators of this sense in the respective passages

(ibid., 520). He also observes that this use reflects a polarization of category one

(ibid., 526).

6 Some of these verses might fit under category one.

7 Categories three and four derive metonymically from category one.

 


                                                Does God “Change His Mind”?        389

 

verb. Some texts (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 110:4; Jer. 4:28;

Ezek. 24:14; Zech. 8:14; cf. also Isa. 57:6) indicate that God

did/does/will not retract a statement or deviate from a stated

course of action, while others assert that He does/will/might

change His mind. This fourth category is the focus of this study.

Under what conditions does God retract a statement or devi-

ate from a course of action? Under what conditions does He refuse

to do so?

 

         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 la-

beled 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 secu-

lar (nontheological) level. In Genesis 25:32-33 conniving Jacob,

desirous of Esau’s birthright and very much aware of his ex-

hausted 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 re-

tracted 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 (“I will do as you have said,” v. 30), Jacob

forced him to swear an oath, formally ratifying and guarantee-

ing 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 condi-

tional. An announcement is a conditional statement of divine

intention which may or may not be realized, depending on the re-

sponse of the recipient or someone else whose interests it affects.

Divine decrees are usually clearly marked as such. Some-

thing 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 ref-

erences to this promise call it an “oath” and regard it as an un-



390      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995

 

conditional 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 accompa-

nying ritual (vv. 9-17), in which the use of the qatal form yTitanA (v.

18) rather than the yiqtol NTex, (12:7; cf. 13:15, 17) further indicates

that the deed to the land was actually being transferred to

Abram.8 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 an-

nounced, “If [Mxi] you will not listen to Me ... then I will make this

house like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse to all nations

of the earth.” Sometimes an announcement completes an indirect

volitive sequence, implying that it will be fulfilled if the accom-

panying command is observed.9 For example Genesis 12:1-2

should be translated as follows: “Go [imperative] from your land

... in order that I might make you [waw + cohortative] a great na-

tion, bless you [waw + cohortative], and make your name great

[waw + cohortative], and so that you in turn might be [waw + im-

perative] a blessing.” The blessing is clearly contingent on

Abram’s leaving his native land. Similarly Genesis 17:1-2

should be translated: “Walk [imperative] before Me and be [waw

+ imperative] blameless in order that I might ratify [waw + cohor-

tative] My covenant between Me and you and greatly multiply

[waw + cohortative] your numbers.” Again the blessing is contin-

gent on Abram's obedience to the divine imperatives. 10

            Most divine statements of intention are unmarked. In these

cases one cannot be sure from the form of the statement whether it

is conditional or unconditional. For this reason the recipient of

such a message sometimes does what is appropriate, declaring,

“Who knows? The Lord may be gracious/turn/relent” (cf. 2 Sam.

12:22; Joel 2:14; Jon. 3:9).

            These ambiguous statements of divine intention sometimes

prove to be decrees. For example, when Nathan declared that the

son conceived from David’s adulterous encounter with Bathsheba

 

8 For a fuller discussion of Genesis 15, see Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “Evidence

from Genesis,” in A Case for Premillennialism: A New Consensus, ed. Donald K.

Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 40-41.

9 Following an imperative the cohortative expresses purpose or result. See E.

Kautzsch and A. E. Cowley, eds., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 2d ed. (Oxford:

Clarendon, 1910), 320, para. 108d; and Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical

Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 577-78, para. 34.6.

10 For an attempt to harmonize the conditional and unconditional promises of

Genesis 12-22, see Chisholm, “Evidence from Genesis,” 35-54.



                                                Does God “Change His Mind”?        391

 

would die (2 Sam. 12:14), David was unsure if the statement was

unconditional. He prayed and fasted until the child died, hoping

that God might take pity on him and spare the child’s life (v. 22).

God’s refusal to respond to David’s acts of repentance shows that

Nathan’s declaration was unconditional. Elijah’s judgment

speech against Ahab’s dynasty is also ambiguous (1 Kings 21:20-

24). In response to the proclamation, Ahab repented, prompting

God to postpone the fall of the dynasty until after Ahab’s death (vv.

27-29). However, the prophecy still came to pass, for it was a di-

vine decree that could not be altered (2 Kings 9-10). The prophecy

was unconditional, but the exact timing of its fulfillment re-

mained negotiable from God’s perspective.

            Many other ambiguous statements of divine intention prove

to be conditional.11 Micah announced that Jerusalem would be-

come a heap of rubble (Mic. 3:12), but one discovers from

Jeremiah 26:17-19 that this judgment was averted by repentant

Hezekiah, thus proving the announcement’s conditionality.

Jonah’s seemingly uncompromising declaration (“Yet forty days

and Nineveh will be overthrown,” Jon. 3:4) remained unfulfilled

when the people of that pagan city repented. The divine promise

delivered in Joel 2:26-27 (“My people will never be put to shame”)

proved to be conditional. After Joel’s generation (to whom the

prophecy was clearly directed, 2:19-25) passed off the scene, God’s

people were put to shame on many occasions because of their

failure to remain true to the covenant.

            To summarize, divine statements of intention can be grouped

into two categories: decrees and announcements. Decrees can be

formal (marked as such) or informal (unmarked). Announce-

ments can be explicitly or implicitly conditional. On the one

hand those verses that declare that God does or will not change

His mind pertain to decrees. In fact the declaration formally

marks the divine statement of intention as a decree or oath. On

the other hand those passages indicating that God does/will/

might change His mind pertain to announcements.

 

             PASSAGES IN WHICH DECREES ARE IN VIEW

 

NUMBERS 23:19

 

Much to the Moabite king Balak’s chagrin, God would not al-

low Balaam to curse Israel, but instead prompted this hireling

prophet to bless His covenant people. Balaam prefaced the second

 

11 William Lane Craig speaks of such prophecies as containing an implicit “all

things remaining the same” (The Only Wise God [Grand Rapids, Baker, 1987], 41).



392      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995

 

of his oracles with these words: “God 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? Be-

hold, 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 invin-

cibility 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.12 Balaam recognized the

blessing’s unalterable character and acknowledged his inability

to thwart it through sorcery or divination. This blessing, a predic-

tion of Israel’s success, is an extension of the Lord’s uncondi-

tional promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of

Canaan (cf. Gen. 15:16; 17:8; 22:17), and thus it shares the bind-

ing quality of that promise. (God’s oath to Abraham is called a

blessing” in Gen. 28:4.) The introduction, in which Balaam af-

firmed that God would not change His mind or lie, formally

marks the blessing as a decree. Both MHn and the parallel verb bz.eKi

to lie,” here mean “to retract” (an unconditional promise). The

verb bz.eKi has this same sense in Psalm 89:35, where God decreed,

“Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David.”

While the verbs refer to how God typically acts when He has made

a decree, the principle here applies to the specific blessing to fol-

low.13

 

                                    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 re-

peated the Lord’s decision (vv. 24-26). Samuel then added these

words: “The 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

 

12 See Genesis 27:33, 37. Francis I. Andersen and David N. Freedman argue along

similar lines, pointing out that rB,Di, in Numbers 23:19 refers to an oath. See their ex-

cursus “When God Repents,” in Amos, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1989),

669-70.

13 For discussion of this point see John T. Willis, “The ‘Repentance’ of God in the

Books of Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 16 (1994):

168,


  

                                              Does God “Change His Mind”?        393

 

Samuel finally arrived on the scene, he accused Saul of foolish

disobedience and told him he had forfeited a golden opportunity.

Samuel declared, “You 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 Is-

rael 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 al-

ready suggested, the tone of a statement can sometimes be mis-

leading. 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 for-

mally 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 MOy.ha, “today” (1 Sam. 15:28). The con-

cluding words, emphasizing that the Lord will not lie or change

His mind (v. 29),14 formally mark Samuel’s declaration as un-

conditional. Both MHn and the parallel verb rq.ewi, “to lie,” here mean

to retract.”15 The Lord had decreed Saul’s demise and nothing

could alter His decision.16

 

14 Perhaps the verse should be translated as follows: “He who is the Glory of Is-

rael will not (in this particular situation) lie or change His mind; for He is not a

man, that He should change His mind.” In this case the two yiqtol verb forms have a

specific future, not habitual, nuance.

15 rq.ewi is used in a similar way in Psalm 89:33, where God declared to David that

He will not “betray” His faithfulness by violating His decree.

16 See Robert P. Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zonder-

van, 1986), 146. Terence E. Fretheim sees the concluding words in verse 29 as refer-

ring specifically to God’s election of David, not to His rejection of Saul (“Divine

Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship,” Catholic

Biblical Quarterly 47 [1985]: 597-98). The election of David is certainly in view

here, as Abner’s words in 2 Samuel 3:9-10 make clear: “May God do so to Abner, and

more also, if as the Lord has sworn to David, I do not accomplish this for him, to

transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to establish the throne of David



394      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995

 

What is the relationship between the pronouncement recorded

in 1 Samuel 13:13-14 and the decree in 15:29? Two options seem

possible. First, perhaps the prophecy in chapter 13 concerns only

Saul’s dynasty (the twofold reference to Saul’s “kingdom” might

mean his dynasty; cf. the use of the term in 2 Sam. 7:16), while

chapter 15 refers specifically to Saul’s personal reign over Israel

(“He has rejected you as king” in vv. 23 and 26).17 In this case the

earlier prophecy does not necessarily become unconditional here.

The “neighbor” mentioned in verse 28 could be one of Saul’s sons

(cf. the use of the term fare, in 2 Sam. 12:11, where it refers to

David's son Absalom), but developments in 1 Samuel 16 quickly

eliminate this prospect.

            Second, it is possible that both 1 Samuel 13:13-14 and 15:29

pertain to Saul personally. In this case the first speech could be an

informal decree with the second speech simply clarifying the ear-

lier ambiguity. However, if both speeches refer to Saul, it is more

likely that the first declaration was an implicitly conditional

announcement and that Saul’s doom was not sealed until the sec-

ond speech.18 Several factors support this. (1) As noted earlier,

David, Saul's replacement, was not actually revealed and

anointed until after the second speech (cf. 1 Sam. 16). (2) Also the

Lord’s declaration in 1 Samuel 15:11 (“I regret that I have made

Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not

carried out My commands”) and Samuel’s response to it suggest

that the earlier warning to Saul had not been final.19 If Saul’s

 

over Israel and over Judah.” However, Fretheim’s distinction is overly fine, for

Saul’s rejection and David’s election are two sides of the same coin.

17 See Bruce C. Birch, The Rise of the Israelite Monarchy: The Growth and De-

velopment of I Samuel 7-15 (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1976), 82-83, 102-3.

18 See Diana V. Edelman, King Saul in the Historiography of Judah (Sheffield:

JSOT, 1991),103-4.

19 The statement in verse 11 (also v. 35), does not contradict verse 29, for the verb

MHn is used in different semantic senses with different referents in this chapter. In

verses 11, 35 it means “to experience emotional pain” and refers to God’s response

to Saul’s disobedience which in turn moved Him to decree Saul’s fate. In verse 29

the word is negated and used in the sense of “to retract.” Here it refers to God’s de-

cree that Saul will be replaced by another. In the one case it pertains to a past ac-

tion (God’s making Saul king); in the other it concerns a future course of action

(the rejection of Saul as king). For a similar line of argument see V. Philips Long,

The Reign and Rejection of King Saul (Atlanta: Scholars, 1989), 163. Recognizing

this semantic variation makes redactional critical suggestions like that of Kyle

McCarter unnecessary (1 Samuel, Anchor Bible [Garden City, NY: Doubleday,

19801, 268). Yairah Amit’s creative literary proposal, which argues that verse 29

reflects Samuel’s erroneous perspective (in contrast to the narrator’s/God’s view-

point expressed in vv. 11 and 35), also fails to take adequate account of the polyse-

mantic character of the word in this chapter (“‘The Glory of Israel Does Not

Deceive or Change His Mind’: On the Reliability of Narrator and Speakers in Bib-

lical Narrative, Prooftexts 12 [19921: 201-12).



                                                Does God “Change His Mind”?        395

 

doom had already been decreed, why would the prophet experience

such grief and spend the whole night crying out to God? (3) The

presence of MOyoha, “today,” in Samuel’s second speech indicates that

God’s decision was finalized at that point, not earlier. (4) The

switch from TAr;mawA xlo (“you have not kept,” 13:13) to TAs;xamA (“you

have rejected,” 15:23, 26) suggests that Saul’s latest act of rebellion

was the basis for the judgment pronounced in chapter 15, or at

least the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

 

PSALM 110:4

 

            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 state-

ment about God’s refusal to change, thus marking the prophecy as

an unalterable decree. In Jeremiah 4:28 the words hn.Am,.mi bUwxA-xlov;,

nor will I turn from it,” accompany yTim;Hani xlov;, “and 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: “The

Lord has sworn to David, a truth from which He will not turn

back.”20 In Ezekiel 24:14 the Lord declared that He was no longer

open for negotiation; the announced judgment would then come to

pass (ytiyWifav; hxABA). Zechariah 8:14, which recalls that God judged

the preexilic generation just as He had planned without retract-

ing His decision (yTim;HAni xlov; alludes back to the divine decision

recorded in Jeremiah 4:28 and Ezekiel 24:14.

 

SUMMARY

            In each case God's refusal to retract a statement refers di-

rectly 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

 

20 Also see Judges 11:35, where Jephthah lamented that he was not able to turn

back (bUwlA lkaUx xlo ) from the vow he had made.



396      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995

 

change His mind, made in tandem with a synonymous expres-

sion, 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. “Now then let Me

alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may de-

stroy 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.21 In fact this is exactly what happened (vv. 11-

14). Moses appealed to God's reputation (“What will the Egyptians

think?”), asked Him to relent (MHen.Ahi) from His stated course of

action (v. 12), and reminded Him of His unconditional decree to

the patriarchs (v. 13). Verse 14 states that God did indeed change

His mind. Moses was able to succeed because God had only

threatened judgment, not decreed it.22

            Amos 7 records a similar case of prophetic intercession. The

Lord showed Amos two visions of judgment He was planning for

Israel (vv. 1-6). After seeing the visions, Amos begged the Lord to

be merciful. In both cases the Lord relented from the planned

course of action and announced that judgment would not fall. He

had simply shown Amos two visions, but had not yet decreed a

course of action. However, God’s patience can run out. He showed

Amos yet a third vision, which, instead of picturing the nation’s

destruction and rousing Amos’s emotions, invited the prophet to

reflect on Israel’s moral condition from God’s perspective. Hav-

ing convinced His prophet of the necessity of judgment, God de-

clared that He would “no longer” spare Israel (v. 8). Understand-

ing God’s words as a decree, Amos offered no objection this 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.

 

21 See the helpful discussion in Andersen and Freedman, Amos, 648-49.

22 For a similar treatment of Exodus 32:9-14, see Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffer-

ing of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 50-51.



                                                Does God “Change His Mind”?        397

 

Early in Jehoiakim’s reign God told Jeremiah to proclaim

His word in the temple courtyard in hopes that the people would re-

pent. He declared, “Perhaps 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 re-

minded the people that God had retracted such an announcement

in the days of Hezekiah, who had heard Micah’s words (cf. Mic.

3:12) and repented (Jer. 26:17-19).

            The principle underlying Jeremiah’s message and the el-

ders’ 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 judg-

ment if it repents when confronted with its sin. In such cases He

will “relent” 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 “reconsider” (yT;m;Hani, v. 10) and withhold His bless-

ing.

            Since Judah did not respond to Jeremiah’s call for repentance

(cf. 18:12),23 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 re-

lenting (MHen.Ahi ytiyxel;ni, v. 6) and would no longer postpone judgment.

The decree of judgment in 4:28, formalized by the statement “I

will not relent,” must have postdated this decision.

 

JOEL 2:13-14

 

            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 through-

out their history (v. 13). Though one could never be certain if the

Lord had not been explicit, Joel urged the people to respond appro-

priately and encouraged them with these words: “Who knows? He

 

23 On the relationship of Jeremiah 18:12 to the preceding verses, see Terence E.

Fretheim, “The Repentance of God: A Study of Jeremiah 18:7-10,” Hebrew Annual

Review 11(1987): 87.



398      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1995

 

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.24

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 mer-

ciful treatment of Israel after the golden calf incident, the Lord

described Himself as follows: “The Lord, the Lord God, compas-

sionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lov-

ingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thou-

sands, 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 state-

ment recorded in Exodus 34.

 

JONAH 3:9-10; 4:2

 

            Though Jonah’s announcement of judgment on Nineveh

sounded unconditional, it was accompanied by no formal indica-

tion 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, “Who 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 “a gracious

and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lov-

ingkindness; and one who relents concerning calamity” (4:2).25

 

24 On the implications of the creedal form of this text (and Jon. 4:2) see Kuyper,

“The Suffering and the Repentance of God,” 277; Terence E. Fretheim, “The Repen-

tance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Horizons in Biblical

Theology 10 (1988): 58-59; and Richard Rice’s remarks in Clark Pinnock et al., The

Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 31.

25 As Rice argues, this passage makes it clear that many warnings of judgment,

rather than being unalterable decrees, are actually designed to motivate repentance

and in turn, enable God to retract the announced punishment (Richard Rice, God’s

Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985], 79-80).


                                                Does God “Change His Mind”?        399

 

SUMMARY

 

            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 en-

visioned or reported, God had not yet decreed a course of action or

an outcome. Instead He chose to wait patiently, hoping His warn-

ings might bring people to their senses and make judgment un-

necessary.

 

                                         CONCLUSION

 

            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 stat-

ing or illustrating this truth must not be overextended, however.

Statements about God not changing His mind serve to mark spe-

cific 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 de-

creed a course of action, then He may very well retract an an-

nouncement of blessing or judgment. In these cases the human

response to His announcement determines what He will do. Pas-

sages declaring that God typically changes His mind as an ex-

pression of His love and mercy demonstrate that statements de-

scribing God as relenting should not be dismissed as anthropo-

morphic. At the same time such passages should not be overex-

tended. God can and often does decree a course of action.26

 

 

26 Some scholars have recently suggested a solution to this problem much like the

one proposed in this paper. In following their lead, this writer has tried to bring to

the debate greater exegetical clarity and place this proposed solution on a firmer

exegetical foundation. See, for example, Rice’s discussion in The Openness of God,

32-33, especially the statement: “In general, then, God’s repentance is a genuine

possibility, but one that is foreclosed when God pledges himself unconditionally to

a particular course of action.” Andersen and Freedman recognize the importance of

an oath in some passages (such as Ps. 110:4 and Num. 23:19) but fail to extend the

implications of this observation to all the passages in question (Amos, 638-79).

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

            www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu

 Initial proofing done by Raluca Chase.  Thanks!