To the Biblical teaching regarding the immutability of God (discussed in "The Character of God, Part I"), it is often countered, "What about the verses in the bible that speak of God's repentance?" Those asking the question often cite verses such as Genesis 6:6-7, Exodus 32:14, Judges 2:18, 1 Samuel 15:11, Isaiah 38:1-6, or Jonah 3:10. What is to be said for or against these claims? How can these verses be reasonably reconciled with the immutability of God taught in the rest of the scriptures?
As discussed in "The Knowability of God," the language of scripture is often non-literal and anthropomorphic, as it uses human expressions to help us understand God better. The scriptures regularly use affirmative statements about God, balanced by negative (and other affirmative) statements to prevent a wrong rendering of meaning. To arrive at correct doctrine it is best to start with the plainest, clearest, and most didactic teachings on a matter, and then proceed to understand and draw conclusions from the more difficult specific or situational portions of scripture. The doctrine of God's immutability could not be clearer than in the scriptures already presented in "The Character of God, Part I." What then is a proper understanding of the above verses?
The Passages Examined
In all of the above passages, except Isa. 38:1-6, the Hebrew word, nacham, is explicitly used. The only major bible translation that translates this word "repent," is the KJV. Each of the other translations choose the alternate meaning conveyed, "was sorry" or "relented," indicating a feeling of regret on God's part rather than a total retreat of purpose or about face (the Hebrew shuwb has the latter strict translation when speaking of repentance). This is a significant point in that the context must govern the translation of a word with alternate meanings.
The chief tension then is the stark contrast of God's immediately expressed emotion with the already and clearly established doctrine of God's immutability. If God is immutable, it is argued, then why would He express sorrow at something He allowed to happen and change His actions. In some cases (Isa. 38:1-6; Jonah 3:10), individuals will even call into question the prophetic qualifications of a prophet who purportedly changes a prior prophecy.
It is critical to remember, that the immutability of God does NOT hold that God reacts the same in all situations. It teaches, instead, that God is unchanging in His being, character, purposes, and promises. There can be no doubt that God foreknew all of the situations in the above passages from before all time, purposed them, and even knew their outcome. Yet, the beauty of God is that He is also a personal Being, who interacts with His creation and reveals Himself to man. Therefore, as God relates with man, each moment in time may involve a different IMMEDIATE expression of His Being, whether it be wrath, anger, patience, love, or forgiveness. Rather than construe the above passages to mean that God's eternal purposes had changed, it should be recognized that a personal and compassionate God had entered into history and engaged His people with feeling and emotion.
God's immutability is maintained throughout the Old Testament by use of the same word, nacham, to clearly state (even in the same book and chapter as one of the above passages) that God is not like a man, who should lie, repent, or change (Nu. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 110:4; Jer. 4:28; Ezek 24:14). Rather than assume that these authors had never read one another (which is impossible in the case of Samuel, who wrote both 1 Sam 15:11 and 15:22) and mistakenly contradicted each other, it is more reasonable to build an understanding that harmonizes the passages.
Reading through the contexts of each of the verses, it is clear that the eternal purposes of God are preserved and unaltered in every instance. The prophet Jeremiah well declared the permanent intent of God with His people:
Finally, a survey of the above passages and the immediate contexts will reveal that not only does the behavior of the people change and bring about an alternate disposition of God, but there is in many of the cases petition made before God by one of His people. In the case of Exodus 32, Moses pleads against God's judgment for His people by the promises of the covenant; in Judges 2, the groaning of the people under oppression is heard by God; in Isaiah 38, the prayer of Hezekiah is heard and answered by God. How beautiful it is, that God personally hears, is moved by, and answers the petitions of His people. It is somewhat paradoxical that God can hear a prayer and remain sovereign. Yes, it is a mystery, indeed. However, it poses no contradiction to God's immutability.
What "changed" in these verses is how God related and interacted with His people in different circumstances. (The doctrine of God's immutability does NOT hold that God reacts the same in every situation, but rather that His being, character, purposes, and promises are immutable.) It is the beauty of the unchanging gospel and purposes of God, that he should offer forgiveness (that second chance) after repentance to those that are His people. It is the beauty of the personal God, that after His people petition so fervently before Him, that God hears them and offers forgiveness to them. These actions of God are wholly consistent with His immutable purposes and promises (Jer. 18:7-10) that were willed from before all time and carried out in history. Indeed, God is not a man, that He should lie or change! Yet, He is personal and engaging and will react differently in specific situations.
1 Incidentally, the prophecy of Jonah against Nineveh (Jonah 3:4) does not pretend to be a complete transcript of all that Jonah said. It is very possible, in fact likely, that Jonah cried out with more than the words "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown," since most prophets preached judgement with a call to repentance. In fact the exact words of Jonah play a very minor role in the book of Jonah, as the focus is on God's call to repentance and the forgiveness that is conditioned thereon.
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