Does God Change His Mind?
This weeks lesson reveals the most dependable characteristic of God—His immutable (unchanging) ways. Rather than being wishy-washy about Nineveh’s fate, God’s unchanging justice and mercy allow the city to be spared when its inhabitants humble themselves before Him.
Overview – Jonah 3:10
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV
Everything today is changing rapidly. Futurists tell us things are going to continue to change but at a far faster rate than ever before. Scientists are discovering that man’s psyche is not built to endure the kind of rapid change that is being foisted upon us all today. Mankind is learning how to deal with change, but we will never have to learn to deal with God changing.
The doctrine of Scripture that says God is unchanging is called the immutability of God. He is subject to no change in His being. He can’t be different today from what He was yesterday. There never was a time when God was not. There never will be a time when He shall cease to be. He has not evolved. He has not grown. He has not improved. None of the reasons that we change affect God. Sometimes we change for the better, but God doesn’t because He is perfect. Sometimes we change for the worse, but God doesn’t because He doesn’t age and doesn’t sin. And sometimes we are changed by outside forces, but God doesn’t because nothing in the creation can impact the Creator.
27 They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. 27 But you remain the same, and your years will never end. – Psalm 102:27-28 NIV
“They” in that Psalm refers to “the heavens”, can you imagine heavens perishing? If God does not change, why does Jonah 3:10 say that God decided not to bring upon Nineveh the destruction He had threatened? Did God change? To understand the answer to this question, we must look at “changes” in God from man’s perspective and then from God’s perspective.
When God Changes: Man’s Perspective
There are three passages in the Old Testament that state that God changed His mind about something He did or indicated He was going to do. How is it possible for God to repent (change His thinking) when we just read that God is not a man that He should repent? From man’s perspective, it certainly appears that God is changing.
Changes in a Monarch
First, in 1 Samuel 15, we discover that God decides to remove the very man that He had set up as king over Israel. And we also find in the same passage the declaration that God is not a man that He should repent. How can both things be true?
In I Samuel 15:11 we read, “ ‘I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.’ And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the LORD all night.” But then in the same chapter we read: “But also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent”
God is speaking and he says, “I regret or I repent that I have set up Saul as king.” Do you see what is going on here? These passages say God doesn’t change, and if God doesn’t change, He couldn’t possibly repent, because to repent is to say you are going the wrong way. It certainly appears to man that God “made a mistake,” that He was sorry He had made Saul king, and that He is going to reverse His original decision. There are people who say there are contradictions in the Bible because of this passage. Well, there are at least two more.
Changes in Mankind
Concerning Noah’s generation, we read these words in Genesis:
“So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” – Genesis 6:7.
God appears to be saying that He made a mistake when He created man. The depth of corruption to which the human race had plunged in the time before the flood was utterly revolting to God’s holiness and justice, and He responded to these disgusting excesses as a righteous and pure God would. He says here, “I’m sorry that I made man.” That appears, from man’s perspective, to be a change. At least that is how man talks when he changes his mind.
Changes in a Mighty City
The third place where we read about God repenting is found in the Book of Jonah. This whole lesson is devoted to this topic because the immutability of God is a topic of great importance. How can we trust God for tomorrow if we are afraid He will change?
In Jonah 3:10, God had sent Jonah to Nineveh, a mighty city, to preach a five-word (in Hebrew) sermon: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But the Bible tells us that the whole city turned to God:
Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it. – Jonah 3:1
Did God change? Did His words not carry the meaning that they appeared to? How do we reconcile this third apparent change of God’s mind with Scripture?
From man’s perspective, it appears that God changes. But when we see what God is doing from His perspective, we find the consistency that we expect in Him—and His Word.
When God Changes: God’s Perspective
There are three ideas about these apparent contradictions that will help us get our arms around the truth of God’s immutability.
The goal is not to refute the skeptic of the Bible by proving him wrong. The goal is to embrace the wonderful truth of Scripture.
God’s Change Is an Accommodation
First of all, please note that when God uses language that sounds like man—“I am sorry I have made man”—He is doing it as an accommodation to man. Because man does change, and expresses change verbally, we think God changes if He uses language that sounds like man. This language about God’s repenting is God’s stooping down to communicate in the only language we can understand, the language of the human.
The Bible says God is a Spirit. So how can we humans understand God if He does not reveal Himself to us in language that has some commonality to us? The most basic concept of learning is taking something that you don’t know and bringing it into the context of what you do know. By comparing what you don’t know with what you do know, you are able to learn.
To what can we compare God? Because we have nothing to which we can compare Him, God in His grace has revealed Himself to us in language that we can understand. Theologians call the expressions in which God accommodates Himself to us in the Bible “anthropomorphisms” (the Greek word anthropos = man and morphe = form). An anthropomorphism is a word picture which takes that which is not human and puts it in human form. Many examples of anthropomorphisms exist in Scripture.
“The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” – Deuteronomy 33:27
Does a Spirit have arms? In order for mankind to understand the support and strength of God, the Bible pictures Him as having arms—something man can understand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. -John 10:29 ESV
Does God, a Spirit, have a hand? No, this anthropomorphism lets us know that when we come to Christ, we are secure in the Father’s hand.
This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that? Could you build me such a resting place? – Isaiah 66:1 NLT
Is God a Spirit sitting up in heaven with His feet on a stool? No, but that is an anthropomorphism to help us understand this picture of God being the Sovereign in control.
For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. – 2 Chronicles 16:9 ESV
Does a Spirit have eyes? No, but because of this anthropomorphism we know He is all-seeing.
then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. – Isaiah 58:14 ESV
Does God have a mouth? No, but by this metaphor of a mouth, we understand better that God has spoken.
We can praise God that He has accommodated Himself to us. If it were not so, we could not know Him. We know about God because He has condescended to reveal Himself to us in terms we can understand. When we read in the Bible that God has repented, God is describing to us in human words what happens when man changes his ways. Does God change in His nature? No. But how can we understand God if we cannot comprehend Him in terms of human emotions that we know? We will see this more clearly as we come to the second truth.
God’s Change Is an Affirmation
The language of “change” is not only an accommodation—it is an affirmation. In other words, it is exactly because God does not repent that He must seem to repent when man changes his mind. God’s “repentance” is not a change of His will; it is His willingness to allow as to change. When we change, it appears us if God changes. But God is consistent in who He is, and in order to be consistent, He would have to not be the same for everyone regardless of what they did.
“It is a misconception to think that to treat people fairly is to treat them all the same.” – John Wooden
If God treated everybody the same, he would not be changeless. He would be unfair; He would be unjust. God doesn’t change in His character. But because of His changeless character, there is an appearance of change when men change. Watch carefully. While it is perfectly true that God in His sovereign omniscience knows everything in advance, and that nothing that ever happens comes to Him as a surprise, yet it is a mistake to infer from this that He is incapable of emotion or reaction to the willful depravity of His creatures. The Scriptures show He is a God who cares, who loves, who shows a deep concern for His creatures.
So when the people of Nineveh heard Jonah and repented of the evil that was in their hands, God, “repented” of what He was going to do to them so that we could understand what is going on in His heart. Because the changeless nature of God is always to be fair and righteous and holy and compassionate and loving, He left room for man to change so that He could forgive and restore. If that were not true, there would be no hope for any of us.
Had the people of Nineveh not repented and turned from their sin, God certainly would have destroyed the city in forty days. In fact, one hundred years after the Book of Jonah was written, the prophet Nahum wrote a book which records the destruction of Nineveh! Under Nahum they were warned again but they didn’t repent, and God was just as changeless in Nahum as He was in Jonah. When they didn’t repent, He did exactly what He said He was going to do and destroyed the city. Under Jonah, the city changed, therefore God’s planned destruction changed. What appears to be a contradiction is actually an affirmation of who God is.
God’s Change Is an Application
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? – Ezekiel 33:11 ESV
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. – James 4:6 ESV
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:23 ESV
Is God inconsistent with himself by giving one person death and the other life? No. His decision is based on how the person changes. Peter says some more…
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9
In all these passages, God’s character is being applied to the needs of mankind. If we change, for better or worse, God responds accordingly. But it is not He who changes; it is we.
Does God change His mind? Well, it depends on what we mean. If what we mean is, “Does it appear that God’s mind has been changed because men change their mind about God?” then the answer is Yes. But God didn’t change. What we are seeing is a different side of His unchanging character.
Does God change in any way, from bad to worse or from worse to better? No, God is absolutely immutable and unchanging. Just as the same hot sun hardens clay and melts wax, so the same unchanging character of God has different responses to and effects on different people. But it is the people who are different, not God. If your heart is toward Him, you are experiencing His love and grace. If your heart is against Him, you are experiencing His love and grace in the form of a warning to repent. All you have to do is change, and God will embrace you. That is the word of the Scripture.
Jeremiah, D. (1998). The runaway prophet: jonah (Study guide) (pp. 82–87). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Is 66:1). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.