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Scripture is clear that God is the one who works all things together (Romans 8:28). Scripture is clear that events are declared by God from the beginning and are worked out by God so that all of His will is accomplished (Isaiah 46:10). It is explicit that God does not change (Malachi 3:6). When we consider the character of God and His immutability, we have to conclude that, no, God does not change His mind; nor do things happen in a way that has not been foreknown and worked together by Him.
Yet, as we read in Scripture, there are several occasions described on which God repents (before the great flood) or offers conditional promises (as with the Ninevites) or responds to human prayer (as with Hezekiah). The question we are left with is this: If God has proclaimed Himself to be immutable or unchanging, why does it seem as though God is moved by the actions or prayers of people as we read the story in Scripture? Is there a contradiction in the text? Is God, in fact, the most moved mover?
Consider Hezekiah. God, through Isaiah, spoke to Hezekiah and revealed that Hezekiah would die (2 Kings 20:1, Isaiah 38:1). Hezekiah prayed to the Lord and the Lord healed him and added fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life (2 Kings 20:6, Isaiah 38:5-6). I want us to notice something very specific, here. We have the tendency to read into the text details that are simply not present. This happens often. Our brains are very good at filling in details that are not provided. God has given us the ability to infer information and this ability is amazing when it leads us to a correct conclusion. Often, we add to the words of Scripture without meaning to. Reread the story of Hezekiah in 2 Kings and Isaiah. God predicted that Hezekiah would die. He did not tell Hezekiah that it would be immediate. Hezekiah still died and everything that he built for himself would be carried away into Babylon. God added fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life from that day. God did not change His mind on when Hezekiah’s life would be demanded of him. Some section headings in some Bibles may be misleading. God did not extend Hezekiah’s life passed when God determined Hezekiah’s life would end. The Scriptures don’t say that unless we use our ability to make inferences to subconsciously add to the word of God. God’s mind was not changed nor His actions swayed. A careful reading of the text confirms this truth.
Why did God make the announcement so early? We find our answer in 2 Chronicles 32:24-25. God’s early announcement caused Hezekiah to realize his own mortality and brought humility to him and the Jewish nation benefited greatly before their exile in Babylon. It was God who both punished Hezekiah according to His own word and had mercy on him along with the Jewish nation.
With the Ninevites, God commanded Jonah to go and tell the city, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). When the Ninevites repented and turned from their evil ways, God “relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it) (Jonah 3:10). This is unlike Hezekiah’s life. With Jonah, God actually decreed that He would do something. Then He decided not to do it. Jonah didn’t understand this either. He expected God to carry out His wrath. God was teaching Jonah many lessons. He had compassion on Jonah like He had on Nineveh. He appointed a plant to grow and shade Jonah as Jonah watched expectantly for the destruction of the city. Then, God appointed a worm to eat the plant. Jonah complained, even asked to die because he didn’t get his way. God explained, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11). In this same book, where it seems as though God changes his mind, God is depicted as the one who appoints all things. He does so with all compassion even for the worst of sinners. Now, let’s read carefully again. In Jonah 3:4, God instructs Jonah to declare that the city will be overthrown in “yet forty days.” Jonah had walked one day into the city and the people on the outskirts of the town began to turn to God. Within one or a few days, the whole city was fasting and mourning and turning to the God of the Jews. Even the king was repenting. God did not say how the city would be overthrown. We, like the Ninevites and Jonah, inferred what we thought was meant by the word “overthrown.” God’s promise was fulfilled in the repentance of the people.
Yet, God relented. He did not relent concerning what He declared would take place. The city truly was overthrown. It was overthrown by compassion, not wrath. God relented concerning His wrath, the consequence of sin. This is the calamity He did not bring. God has declared from the beginning that the consequence of sin is death, yet in His compassion, He also grants repentance and life. He did not carry out the consequence for sin at this moment. He had appointed this moment of repentance. Again we see, through a careful reading and self-denial, that God has not changed. We also see that God works all things together with great compassion for even the worst of sinners. Jonah knew this, as he admits when he is complaining in Jonah 4:2, “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.”
Are we beginning to see the importance of reading Scripture honestly and carefully? Do we realize our tendency, in our own depravity and wretchedness, to unintentionally add or take away from the words of Scripture? Context is important. The specific way in which Scripture explains events is also important.
What about God repenting in Genesis 6:6? Some English translations will describe this as sorrow rather than repentance. Verse 6 clarifies in the second half of the verse that God was “grieved” in His heart. God was sad that He made people. He did not change. God would have simply killed everyone and not continued to create people if He was going to change. God works all things together according to His perfect will and He will accomplish all His will. This does not mean that God does not experience a great breadth and depth of emotion. Our sin makes God sorrowful. It hurts Him. This is not enough to cause God to change His mind.
The other day, my son was pulling up on a piece of furniture. He is 11 months old and he sometimes slips and lands on his bottom. So, I sat behind him knowing that if I do not let him continue to pull up on things he may not learn to stand for himself. Well, he slipped and fell. I caught him on the way down so that he would not crash as hard on the wood floor. Still, he cried. I was sorrowful and my heart grieved as his eyes produced tears and his face turned red and his volume elevated. I picked him up in my arms, comforted him, and let him know that I was working this together for his good. I would not go back and keep him from pulling up on the furniture. He needs to do that. Still, I experience heartbreak. God does not change. He appoints all things. He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
Let us strive not to assume anything about God that He hasn’t explicitly revealed about Himself. Let us guard ourselves against unintentionally adding or subtracting from God’s word and causing ourselves to misunderstand who God is and how God works. Almost every (by ‘almost every,’ I mean ‘every’) perceived contradiction in Scripture can be resolved simply by reading well.