Does God change His mind? Many would answer, “Are you kidding? God doesn’t change!” Some theologians would agree, “The omnipotent, sovereign God decrees all things and does not change His mind. He is omniscient and immutable.”
The Bible seems to support their answer. In Numbers 23:19 we read, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.” First Samuel 15:29 affirms, “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.” Psalm 110:4 says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind.”
Perhaps the issue is not as cut-and-dried as it may appear. Other passages 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). Though the NIV uses “relent” in each of these verses, the underlying Hebrew verb is the same one translated “change his mind” in Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, and Psalm 110:4. The Hebrew verb carries the same meaning in both sets of texts.
How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Some theologians argue that the biblical references to God changing His mind are “anthropomorphic”—they picture God as if He were a man. Even though God does not really change His mind, these texts describe Him doing so, because from the human perspective that is what appears to be happening. This proposed solution arbitrarily elevates one set of texts over another and fails to take seriously Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2, which identify God’s willingness to change His mind as one of His fundamental attributes, closely associating it with His grace, compassion, patience, and love.
To arrive at a solution, it is important to look first at how divine promises and warnings work. When God announces His intention to reward or punish, the announcement may be unconditional or conditional. On the one hand, God sometimes issues a decree or commits Himself by oath to a particular course of action (Gen. 22:16–18; Ps. 89:3–4, 33–37). Such statements are unconditional. God announces what He will do and He will not deviate from His announced intention. The oath gives the statement a binding quality.
On the other hand, God’s promises and warnings are often conditional. He may not follow through on a warning or promise, depending on how the recipient of the message responds. For example, in Jeremiah 26:4–6 God declares, “If you do not listen to me and follow my law…and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets…then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth.”
Sometimes God’s promises and warnings are not clearly marked as unconditional or conditional. This explains why the recipient of a divine warning sometimes does what is appropriate and then says, “Who knows? He may turn and have pity” (lit., “change his mind,” Joel 2:14; see also Jon. 3:9) One must wait and see how God responds in order to know if the divine announcement is conditional or unconditional.
Sometimes the divine warning turns out to be conditional. For example, when the people of Nineveh repented (Jon. 3:7–9), God changed His mind about the judgment He had threatened (v. 10), though the warning contained no stated condition and sounded very certain (v. 4). On other occasions the divine warning turns out to be unconditional, as David discovered when he prayed that his infant son might be spared (2 Sam. 12:14, 22–23). When Nathan announced that the child would die (v. 14), David repented, for he thought to himself, “Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live” (v. 22). When the boy died, David realized that Nathan’s announcement had been an unconditional decree (v. 23).
Understanding the distinction between God’s unconditional and conditional announcements is the key to answering the question, “Does God change His mind?” If God issues a decree or makes an oath, then He will not change His mind or deviate from what He has announced. But if He merely announces His intention conditionally (whether explicitly or implicitly), then the response of the recipient may very well move Him to deviate from a stated course of action.
In those passages that affirm God will not change His mind, an unconditional divine decree is in view. In Numbers 23:19, the prophet Ba-
laam informed King Balak that God’s blessing of Israel, made in accordance with his unconditional promise to Abraham, was unalterable (Num. 23:20–24). In 1 Samuel 15:29 the declaration that God will not change His mind marks the announcement of Saul’s demise as unconditional. In Psalm 110:4 the Lord refers specifically to the unconditional solemn oath He made to David. These statements should not be applied too generally; they refer specifically to decrees and not to every statement of intention God might make.
In those texts where God does change His mind, conditional divine announcements are in view. While God warned that He intended to judge those who had violated His standards, He had not decreed their demise. When Moses and Amos interceded for sinful Israel, God changed His mind and decided not to judge His people (Exod. 32:12–14; Amos 7:1–6). When the Ninevites repented, God changed His mind and did not judge them as He had threatened (Jon. 3:4–10). This willingness to change His mind is an aspect of divine mercy, which He typically extends toward sinners (Jer. 18:5–10; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2).
When we say that God changes His mind, are we denying His immutability, which affirms that God’s essential being and nature do not change? No. God is sovereign, but our sovereign God is also personal and often enters into give-and-take relationships with people. While the human mind cannot fully understand the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, the Bible teaches that God sometimes announces His intentions and then subordinates His actions to the human response. When God announces His intentions conditionally, He allows people to help determine the outcome by how they respond to His word.
About the Contributors
While Dr. Chisholm enjoys teaching the full breadth of Old Testament Studies, he takes special delight in the books of Judges, Samuel, Isaiah, and Amos. Dr. Chisholm has published seven books, with commentaries on Judges-Ruth and 1–2 Samuel forthcoming. He was translation consultant for the International Children’s Bible and for The Everyday Bible and is senior Old Testament editor for the NET Bible. Any discussion with Dr. Chisholm on the Old Testament, however, can be quickly sidetracked when mentioning Syracuse University basketball or the New York Yankees, teams which probably do not have a greater fan outside the state of New York, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.