By asking the question, “Can God change His mind?” we are essentially seeking to understand better the ways in which God has chosen to respond to the actions of man. The only way we can know about God is through His revelation of Himself. Let us begin by first studying God’s interaction with man throughout the Old Testament.
In the account of the Flood and the events leading to it, we find the emotions of regret, sorrow, grief, and favor being experienced by God. Again we find emotions which can only be felt in response to another’s actions. God responded to the sinfulness of man with emotions of regret, sorrow, and grief. He also responded to the faithfulness of Noah with grace (favor); for “Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:8, 9; NKJV).
God is “grieved” by the sin of the world. The Hebrew word used in this passage is the verb atsab, which can also convey the idea of being outraged. As we have seen, man’s activities will provoke a response from God – for blessing or punishment. In this case, God was punishing the world in response to their sins. It grieved God in His heart that He had made man.
Yet, in contrast to the world, Noah found grace in God’s eyes. The Hebrew word here pertains to divine favor given to individuals. The Old Testament teaches repeatedly that God gives His grace to whom He chooses and in response to their actions (see Psalm 82:11-12; Proverbs 3:3-4; Isaiah 30:19). He can also withdraw and withhold His favor in view of mankind’s sinful responses to His will (see Jeremiah 16:13).
We can also learn from God’s interaction with Israel in the wilderness. When the covenant was to be extended to Israel, conditions were going to be placed upon Israel by God. Inherent to these conditions was a continued cause and effect interaction between God and Israel. Observe,
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:5-6).
Here we find an “if-then” clause to God’s covenant. The significance of this passage is that it helps us to see how God left the door open as to how He would choose to respond to Israel in the future based upon their response to Him. It would not be long until God was tempted to invoke this clause and utterly consume the Israelites in His wrath. The children of Israel had made for themselves a golden calf and even convinced Aaron to offer sacrifices to it. God said to Moses,
“Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:7-10).
God would have surely consumed this people and enacted a “Plan B” to fulfill the promises He made to the Patriarchs. But God “changed His mind” (NASB; NRSV) or “relented” (NKJV; ESV) concerning His destruction of these people when Moses interceded for them (v.14).
This freedom of will on the part of God to change His mind according to man’s response, is no new phenomenon, but is typical of His interaction with man from the beginning. God reserves the right to change His mind.
The Hebrew word used here is nacham. It is the same word that we find in Genesis 6:6-7, “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth….for I am sorry that I have made them.” We also find this word used in many cases when the Lord changes His mind as a gracious response to human factors and even due to feelings of compassion for a person or a people.
God’s anger occurs in response to man’s sin. God is love and He is full of mercy (Deuteronomy 4:31). Yet, He can change His mind from being merciful toward man to being angry when provoked (see Judges 2:14).
The Old Testament also teaches that God can turn from His anger and show mercy (Deuteronomy 13:17-18). That God can be provoked is but another indication that His mind or mood can change. God’s freedom of will and emotion is demonstrated at such times.
God surely would have destroyed Israel at that moment, but Moses intervened, and God changed His mind. Just as Abraham interceded for the cities of the plain, Moses interceded for the children of Israel. As a result of Moses’ intercession, God decided not to destroy the Israelites and begin anew with Moses, the covenant would be given at Sinai, and the people were allowed the promise of entering the Promised Land – for the time being.
Clearly, God responds to man according to man’s response to Him. The Lord, therefore, exercises the freedom of His will when it comes to interacting with man. Sometimes in the course of exercising His will, God determines to change His mind – whether to bless man or in order to punish him for his sins. Nevertheless, it is solely according to God’s divine prerogative to choose how He will respond to mankind.
God’s interaction with King Saul (1 Samuel 15) should also be considered in our study. As a result of Saul’s disobeying the Lord and sparing the Amalekite king, Agag, the Lord said to Samuel, “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” (1 Samuel 15:10-11). Again we find the Hebrew word nacham, which is used in Genesis 6:6-7, Exodus 32:14, and again in v.35 of this passage. The Lord regretted Saul’s reign as king over Israel.
Simply stated, God regretted His choice of Saul as king. Samuel told Saul as much, and Saul responded by asking Samuel to pardon his sin, and worship with him. Saul even attempted to prevent Samuel from leaving, tearing his garment.
It is at this point that Samuel says, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent” (vv.28-29).
Nacham is again used here, but this time it is translated relent (NKJV); repent (KJV); regret (ESV); and change His mind (NASB). When we understand the versatility of this word, it is easy to see how it can be translated regret in vv.11, 35 and relent, repent, or change of mind in this verse.
The interpretation of the passage is not that difficult. Samuel was merely stating that the Lord’s decision was final and unchangeable, and there was no use arguing. Also keep in mind that a contrast is being made between God and man in this verse. Samuel says that God is not like man in that He does not lie and He does not change His mind. While we have already seen a number of instances when God did change His mind, we have not seen a passage where God was forced to change His mind. Herein lies the distinction, we believe. God is not like man in that He is not forced to change His mind as man is often forced to do.
Remember, Saul had grasped the garment of Samuel strongly enough to tear it, which seems to suggest that an attempt to restrain the prophet was made, possibly as a threat to succumb to the will of the king. It is at this moment that Samuel tells Saul that God is not man that He should relent. In other words, it made no difference to God that the king of Israel was unhappy. God did not lie in what He said, and He did not have to change His mind, nor was He going to change His mind. While that kind of behavior might work with men, it would not work with God. God is not like man that He should relent. Nevertheless, “the Lord regretted that He made Saul king over Israel” (15:35).
While we are discussing God’s changing His mind, in the context of Hebrew kings, let us observe an event that involved King Hezekiah. In 2 Kings 20 we find,
“In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.’ Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying, “Remember now, O LORD, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD. And I will add to your days fifteen years. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for the sake of My servant David” (vv.1-6).
The most casual reading of this text will lead one to believe that prayer can change God’s mind. King Hezekiah was going to die, but God heard his prayer and added to his life fifteen years. The Lord heard his prayer, saw his tears, and decided to heal the penitent king (cf.2 Chronicles 32:26).
As the story unfolds, we can pinpoint the exact moment when God changed His mind. As Isaiah was walking across the courtyard, God stopped him and had him return to the king and tell Hezekiah that his life had been prolonged. Hezekiah’s prayer changed God’s mind at that very moment. Only when we understand the nature of God’s interaction with man, and the manner in which He exercised freedom of will to respond to man’s activities, can this event be understood as it is revealed in the text. Philosophical assertions about God’s omniscience and foreknowledge simply do not fit the text.
One last event which should be considered is God’s interaction with Nineveh in the book of Jonah. Here we find that God was prepared to overthrow that great city. But as a result of the preaching of Jonah, the entire city repented. “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 3:10).
Again we have a case of God changing His mind, which even the most casual of readings will provide. Man responded to God’s word with obedience. God responded to man’s obedience by changing His mind or relenting from the punishment He was going to inflict.
Throughout the Old Testament we find a cause and effect interaction between God and man. It is no different in the case of Nineveh. The Ninevites had become increasingly sinful and God could stand their sin no longer. Yet, before utterly destroying them, He sent a preacher with a message of repentance. Nineveh did repent. As a result, the Lord heard their prayers and spared their lives.
Jonah also accepted the possibility of God changing His mind and forgiving Nineveh. Of course the prophet was not all too happy about the Lord’s decision (Jonah 4:2 ff.). Nevertheless, Jonah accepted the reality of God’s wrath being turned to mercy. The Lord also expressed this idea to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:19 ff.).
Our conclusion is that God did respond to man in the Old Testament according to cause and effect interactions. From the time of the Garden of Eden until the close of Malachi we find God choosing to interact with man by responding to his needs and deeds. God exercised His freedom to interact with man according to man’s activities. As man came to understand the righteousness of God, and that he should respond obediently to Him, the foundation for a theology based upon interaction and responsiveness between Creator and creature was clearly solidified.
However, as we see in the case of Job, sometimes God allows suffering to befall the righteous in order to test or prove their faith. Yet, even in such cases man acts in response to his understanding about God, and God counteracts in response to man with blessings or punishment.
God has also taught us how to respond to Him. If we respond unfaithfully, it is not because God did not provide us with proper instructions and clear expectations. When Israel defied God and disobeyed Him, it was not because God had not clearly communicated His will to His people. It was because they chose not to respond faithfully to His will as they knew it.
The Old Testament pictures an all-powerful God who can speak the universe into existence, while remaining open to respond to His creation on a day-to-day, situational basis. As man, the creature, came to understand this aspect of his relationship with God, it affected his prayers, activities, and his overall response to God.