We had the absolute pleasure of having Pastor Kyle Searcy from Fresh Anointing House of Worship Montgomery with us this past Friday night for our Encounter service. During the course of his sermon he posited some deep thoughts on the eternal nature of God. The past few days the staff has been talking about it till our brains almost melt. Eternality is a LOT to wrap your mind around.
It reminded me of a short paper I wrote in a master’s course on Old Testament theology in which we had to answer the question ‘Does God Change His Mind?’ I’ve shared this paper in a few venues, but not on this site. I hope you enjoy! I’ve highlighted some juicy parts for those of you that might not have time to read the whole article. The answer in the conclusion might not be what you expect!
Questions scholars ask sometimes are the very inquiries that children have. Inasmuch as a child’s limited vocabulary can communicate they can ask ‘what are the inner workings of free will,’ ‘what exactly is the Gospel,’ and ‘does God ever change His mind.’ Of course, a child asks differently, but the questions are present nonetheless. The study of theology is a curious endeavor in that it is the only field in which we are told by the object of our study that our knowledge will forever be incomplete. God said of himself that he is ‘past finding out.’ God is the only subject material, if I may be so bold as to refer to him as such, that can be the question and the answer simultaneously, not limited by what we think a viable answer might be. Therefore, using Hezekiah’s plight in 2 Kings 20 as a launching point, in the matter of whether God is immutable in his undertakings or whether he is able to shift his course of action, the answer to both questions is, in short, yes.
No. God Does Not Change His Mind
For simplicity’s sake the arguments will be divided into two sections. One will argue that God does change his mind, and this section will argue that he cannot. Unlike the ‘yes’ portion, the argument against is not one rooted entirely in scripture and viewed in the scope of time. Rather it is anchored in philosophy and viewed with an eternal lens.
The only time this answer can be answered in the negative is when it is done so with a metaphysical slant. God is not only omniscient in a present and past tense, but has complete foreknowledge of the future. People have argued otherwise, pointing to the fall of man and the rebellion of satan as assurance that God does not know the future fully, otherwise He would not have created the way he did, or surely would have intervened before the fall. This however only bases itself off of man’s logical course of action without reverencing the mysteries of God. Again, His ways are past finding out. Sour patches in our history don’t point to God not foreknowing they would happen, but rather to his confident sovereignty in allowing them to be so.
God is outside of time and is therefore, ultimately unaffected by events occurring in time. Lacking better words to grasp the concept, God is in the place where what is going to transpire tomorrow and what is going to happen ten trillion years from now has already happened, simultaneously. [my mind exploded about right here] What has not taken place yet is just as near to Him as what happened in eternity past, and both are as easily accessible as the other.
It is on the basis that God already foreknows every decision he will ever make that we can say that God cannot change his mind. Scripture is filled with entries that claim that will not change His mind and also show that he undoubtedly does so. How can this be reconciled but to say that because of the nature of God he already knew he would change his mind, and therefore didn’t really change it. By way of illustration, consider that I may have told my child that he will be disciplined for a grievance, having made up in my mind already that if he repents I will not punish him. Knowing my son is probably going to say ‘I’m sorry dad’ I have already made up my mind to not punish him, because I guessed the end from the beginning. In temporal terms this is what God does, only he does not have any guesswork to add into the equation.
In the scope of eternity, God already played out the situation with Hezekiah [2 Kings 20:1-6]. He knew what He was going to tell Isaiah to say to Hezekiah. God knew that once Isaiah left that Hezekiah would turn his face towards the wall and pray to God, appealing to His mercy. God already knew ahead of time that he would reverse his decision. If he already knew the end decision, then it stands to reason that he never really changed his mind. Consider the immutability of God as a device of his omniscience. If God already knows, and is outside of time, did he REALLY change his mind if he already knew what the outcome was going to be? The answer must be no, He did not really change His mind because He already had complete knowledge of the decision he would make. We can only come this conclusion when we view God according to his nature and abilities, outside of the dialogue of scripture where he seemingly does change his mind. Even when God seems to change His mind in time, it’s an impossibility in eternity due to His all knowing nature.
Yes. God Changes His Mind.
To summarize the base passage of 2 Kings 20:1-6, Isaiah brings a word to Hezekiah telling him that he will soon die and that he needs to get his house in order. Hezekiah responds by turning his face towards the wall, asking for mercy, and weeping bitterly. The result, seemingly, is that God changes his mind and sends Isaiah once more to declare that God has heard Hezekiah and is extending his life by 15 years.
In light of verses declaring “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind,1” how can we suggest that God changes his mind, much less harmonize the instances in scripture where He clearly does? The answer lies not in God’s original intentions, but in man’s response to them. In verse 5 Isaiah declares “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you.2” (emphasis mine) By engaging the mercies of God with pure motives it becomes evident that God hears us and we can sway the purposes of God. God speaks. Men engage God, and in doing so the mind of God can be changed. Scriptures such as this abound. Man finds himself in dire straits with God, and by coming to God, repenting, and seeking grace, God, in his providence, changes his mind and reverses such decrees. Shortly I will propose through a passage in Jeremiah that it is not happenstance that such instances occur, but it is by God’s design that it be so.
Hezekiah appeals to the mercy of God by sparing a just man, but Moses appeals to the God by reason and reminding God of the Abrahamic covenant. In Exodus 32:7-14 God recounts Israel’s sins and purposes to destroy them, starting afresh with Moses. By way of synopsis, Moses responds first with reason by asking God would he have people say that He brought the Israelites out of Egypt only to destroy them, and immediately appeals to the covenant God struck with Abraham. After hearing this case we are told in verse 14 that God relented from the harm he said he would do. God changed his mind. His intentions had been quite clear. He even asked Moses to leave so that his anger might burn against His people. Moses, not to be swayed, does not only appeal to God’s nature, but also ‘reminds’ Him of a promise made to Abraham.
A third way in which man can engage God to change is through repentance. Scripture teaches that when it comes to sin, if we change our minds towards it, God will change His mind towards us.
“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, 8 if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. 9 And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, 10 if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it. (Jer 18:7-10) 3
It becomes clear from the passage above then even once God has set something in motion, that it can be changed either by our repentance, or lack thereof. God’s nature desires mercy, but it also demands justice when mercy has not been sought. God has a built in ‘escape hatch’ that we can appeal to. It is not a license to sin, but a people that views grace as a license does not know genuine repentance either. Rather God has made provision that he will literally change his mind based on the actions of men.
In each of these references God has ‘made up his mind’ so to speak concerning both the future of an individual as well as nations. God heard Hezekiah’s plea for mercy and saw his bitter tears, gaining Hezekiah fifteen more years. God reasoned with Moses and held up his covenant with Israel’s forefathers despite their current disobedience. Lastly, God tells us himself that he will change His mind based on our repentance.
How then do we address such bold declaration in scripture as Numbers 23:19 and 1 Sam 15:29? To do so we must view the circumstances of each individually with the weight of other scripture.
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.4 (Numbers 23:19)
This passage from which this verse was taken records the situation between Balaam the prophet and Balak, king of Moab. Balaam is prophesying the blessing of the Lord upon Israel, and claims that he will not change His mind concerning the blessing.
To use this passage as a claim to God not changing his mind is to overlook the death of 24,000 Israelites caused by a plague in the next chapter. Apparently God changed his mind concerning the blessing of Israel despite saying that He is not a man that he should lie. The answer to the question why lies in the above quoted passage from Jeremiah. God had spoken blessing over Israel, saying He will not change His mind, but once Israel began committing adultery, giving themselves to harlots and idols, God withdrew the good he had spoken, changing his mind.
Events such as these are the case with many of the circumstances in which we are told in a verse that God does not change his mind. Not only does changing his mind appear to be by scriptural design, but it appears to be God’s desire. God’s holiness demands that sin be accounted for, but God is a loving being who is long suffering with his people. God’s desire to relent from wrath becomes clearer in studying Ezekiel 22.
29 The people of the land have used oppressions, committed robbery, and mistreated the poor and needy; and they wrongfully oppress the stranger. 30 So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one. 31 Therefore I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; and I have recompensed their deeds on their own heads,” says the Lord God.(Ez 22:19-31) 5
Israel had all but abandoned true worship. Idolatry was prevalent, and even prophets that claimed to speak from the Lord did so without his authorization. Even though Israel had heaped up sins against herself we are still told in verse 29 that God ‘sought for a man who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land.’ What this suggest is that even when God has declared judgment and begun to pour out wrath, that he waits until the last possible second to do so, desiring that a man find the cosmic loophole, put into the contract by God’s own design, thereby averting God’s wrath by appealing to His mercies. How does this apply to Hezekiah’s situation? Precisely because the same design, though different circumstances, is applicable. God had made a decree concerning the passing of Hezekiah, but God’s design allows man to appeal to His mercy. In doing so, Hezekiah accessed another aspect of God’s multi-faceted nature and thereby recieved what he asked for.
Another objection lies in the fact that God sometimes uses language that denotes an irrevocable decree. In studying 1 Samuel 15:28-29 reads, ‘So Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.6” The word ‘relent’ in verse 29 the same word used in the previous passage in Numbers. According to NET Bible notes “this observation (that God will not change His mind) marks the preceding statement (v. 28) as an unconditional, unalterable decree. When God makes such a decree he will not alter it or change his mind.7” Our aim is not to make the case that God is incapable of making an absolute decree, but to show that he is capable of altering that which he previously decreed.
Using man’s terms, I can make a decree that I will absolutely never recant. That I am a Christ-follower is something that I will never revoke, never change, never take back. On the other hand, that I am planning to have eggs tomorrow morning for breakfast is something that I can change. Or, as in a previous illustration, I can choose to change my mind about a previous decision, and not discipline a child once they have repented. I have the ability to make both kinds of decrees; irrevocable and absolute decrees as well as relative and altering decrees. It is not outside the scope of God that he should be able to do the same. Even if the decree in 1 Sam 15:29 is irrevocable, our case study is based on Hezekiah’s story, a narrative in which God clearly does change his mind. To not note that he can do both, and not one or the other, is to ignore the weight of Scripture.
Does God change His mind? Yes. Does He NOT change His mind. ? Yes. In scripture it is clear that at times God has the ability to change His mind, as well as make irrevocable decrees. In metaphysics God is above the physical nature of time and therefore knew the end decision, which leads one to conclude that God does not change His mind. In time a narrative is played out before readers and we read where God repents, relents, and reverses decisions based on the activity of man’s response to either his wrath or invitation. In eternity God knows the end from the beginning and those same narratives were on his heart before the foundations of the world, thus He didn’t change his mind, He just let time play its role. Both of these are equally viable to this writer. If I were to offer an intelligible answer concerning one or the other my natural mind would lean towards ‘God can change His mind.’ Yes God already knows the decisions he is going to make. Yes he lives outside of time and the act of changing the mind occurs in time. What this theory overlooks is that not only did God foreknow the actions of Hezekiah and that He would add 15 years onto Hezekiah’s life, but he was also the author of them, and authors can change their mind how they want. God may not have ‘changed his mind’ in time, but God, living in eternity and looking into time, knows the choices we will make and knows exactly ahead of time how he will respond, knows how in time’s narrative He will change His mind. He was the author of everything before the beginning of time, and eternity will only tell what all God, in the deep recesses of eternity past, changed His mind about when he authored our lives. Yes, God can change His mind.
1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 23:19.
2 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Ki 20:5.
3 The New King James Version. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Je 18:7–10.
4 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Nu 23:19.
5 The New King James Version. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Eze 22:29–31.
6 The New King James Version. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 1 Sa 15:28–29.
7 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006; 2006), 1 Sa 15:28–29.