(For the first post in this series, click here.)
In this series of posts I am contemplating the question of whether God changes his mind. In the previous post I listed several passages that claim that he does, and several that just as firmly claim that he doesn’t. Some of these even occur in the very same chapter of the Bible, such as:
Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).
And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:35, KJV).
While our English translations usually use two different words in these passages (“change His mind” and “repented”), in Hebrew the word is the same in each case – נָחַם (nāḥam). So, one passage says God changes his mind/repents, and in the same chapter, another passage says the opposite. What are we to make of this?
Whenever you encounter a puzzle like this, the best thing to do is to begin with what is clearly and unequivocally taught in Scripture and then work from there. So that’s how we will begin to tackle this question. What truths can we set down as clear guideposts on our journey toward an answer?
Creator of Space and Time
The place to begin is the beginning. The most fundamental fact in Scripture is stated in its very first verse – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is the creator of the universe, and as such he exists prior to and outside of the world of time and space. And what this means is that God is not confined by time and space like we are. In this sense, God’s relationship to creation is sort of like Shakespeare’s relationship to one of his plays. Shakespeare is not merely one character in the play, confined to a scene or the flow of the plot. As the creator of the play, Shakespeare transcends the limits of the play. And as the creator of the universe, God transcends the limits of time and space.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)
We’ve all experienced the frustration of needing to be two places at once, or having limited time on our hands. We are space-bound and time-bound creatures. But since God exists far above time and space, he is present to all points of time and space-
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28a)
This means that God’s “here” and God’s “now” are radically different from ours. My “here” is sitting in my office in our home in Plant City. My “now” is 12:00pm Eastern Daylight Savings time, March 14, 2018. God’s “here” and “now” are not like this. Let me illustrate. Here is a Google Map that shows my approximate location –
My location in space can be pinpointed. What about God’s “location,” though? Imagine making that red marker bigger and bigger, encompassing the entire state, the entire country, the entire planet, the entire solar system, the entire galaxy…you get the point. Since he is unbound by space, God is present everywhere. Imagine that one of the characters in Macbeth could talk to Shakespeare. The conversation might go something like this:
Shakespeare: Well, hello, Macduff! I’m Bill Shakespeare!
Macduff: (Looking around) Who’s talking? Shakespeare? Where are you?
Shakespeare: I’m right here!
Macduff: Where? I don’t see you!
Shakespeare: I’m right here!
Macduff: I’m scared! I’m going to hide from you in Macbeth’s castle! (begins running)
Shakespeare: Umm, that’s not going to make any difference.
Macduff: What do you mean? (running faster)
Shakespeare: I’m there as well.
Macduff: What?!? (frozen in place) I don’t understand!
Shakespeare: Well, you probably can’t fully get what I am saying, but I ‘m not just another character in the play like you are. I am the playwright, and so I am present to all scenes in the tragedy.
Macduff: Wait – tragedy? What do you mean by that?
Shakespeare: Well, it’s not going to be a tragedy for you.
Shakespeare is “present” to all the scenes in his plays because he exists outside of his plays. Similarly, God is present to all points of the world because he exists outside of the world. God is omnipresent. Or, to put it another way, God’s “here” is everywhere.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7-12)
The same is true with God’s relationship to time. My existence is time-bound. (It is now 12:09 pm). In other words, my “now” is defined by a specific slice of time just like my “here” is defined by a specific slice of space. I exist on an ever- changing mark called “the present,” with the past behind me and the future ahead of me. So, my “now” looks like this –
But what about God’s “now”? Just like we expanded the red dot on the map to encompass all points in space for God’s “here,” we would have to do the same for God’s “now” – it would include all points of time, past/present/future. God is present to all points of space, and he is also present to all points of time.
God is omniscient. He knows everything – including the future – because what is future to us is part of God’s “now.” God’s eternal “now” includes our past and our future, which is why God can reveal what is going to happen before it occurs.
Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:8-10)
Because God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, he unrestricted by time and knows what will take place in our world of time and space before it happens.
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.” (Isaiah 44:6-7)
Now let’s take these observations and direct them toward the question of God’s changing his mind.
God Is Not a Man That He Should Repent
Why do we change our minds? Right now I am working on my NCAA tourney predictions. I’ve looked at my bracket several times, and I still can’t make up my mind about a few games (like Kentucky vs Arizona in the second round!). The reason I keep changing my mind is because I am limited by time and space and have no idea what will happen in the second round out in Boise (or if UK will even make it to the second round). If I could see the future before it happened, I would be the greatest NCAA prognosticator ever. I certainly wouldn’t change my mind about my picks. I could make predictions flawlessly, since my “now” would include the future as well as the present. If I was omnipresent and omniscient, there would simply be no reason for me to change my mind.
By the same token, since God is omnipresent and omniscient, he doesn’t literally “change his mind.” I don’t know what will happen in Boise, Idaho on Saturday afternoon because I am limited by space and time. But what is true of my “here” and “now” is not true of God’s “here” and “now.” Boise, Idaho is just as present to God as Plant City, Florida is. And Saturday afternoon is just as present to God as Wednesday afternoon is. And since God’s “here” and “now” are radically different from humanity’s, he doesn’t change his mind.
Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind. (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).
But if that is the case, what are we to make of the passages that say that he does? And if God doesn’t change his mind, why do we even bother to pray to him? Does anything that we do make a difference to God?
Those are great questions, and Lord willing we will take those up in the next post.
(Many thanks to my friend Dr. Eleonore Stump for the “red dot” illustration! Check out her explanation here).