In my previous post I meditated a bit on the prophets’ repeated description of God as “one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4.2). And as I noted at the time, that assertion introduces what appears to be a significant theological problem.
The Scripture says repeatedly that God does not repent:
- The hired prophet Balaam, forced by the Spirit of God to speak the truth, refuses to curse Israel and blesses them instead—and he gives the reason: God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should repent; has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good? (Num 23.19). If God has said he would bless Israel, then he will, and nothing Balaam can say will change that.
- When Samuel tells Saul that God has removed him from the throne of Israel, he locks the door with these words: The Glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man that he should change his mind (1S 15.29).
- Through Ezekiel’s vision of a boiling pot, God promises to make Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem successful—and he adds, I the Lord have spoken; it is coming, and I will act. I will not relent, and I will not pity, and I will not be sorry (Ezk 24.14).
- In his last words to Israel before the Great Silence between the Testaments, God promises, I will draw near to you for judgment; … for I the Lord do not change (Mal 3.5-6).
Note that these passages come from both the Law and the Prophets (Former and Latter) in the Hebrew canon. The idea is pervasive. And it continues into the New Testament as well:
- Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow (Jam 1.17).
It’s pretty clear that this is part of God’s character; it’s who he is. Oh, perhaps an interpreter could argue that in the Ezekiel passage God is describing just the current situation and not a general tendency, but the other passages make it clear that this is a character trait. God doesn’t change his mind; he doesn’t repent.
In several passages in Jeremiah, he says that he does repent.
- If that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it (Jer 18.8).
- Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds (Jer 26.3).
- Now therefore amend your ways and your deeds and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will change His mind about the misfortune which He has pronounced against you (Jer 26.13).
- If you will indeed stay in this land, then I will build you up and not tear you down, and I will plant you and not uproot you; for I will relent concerning the calamity that I have inflicted on you (Jer 42.10).
Two more prophetic passages, Joel 2.13 and Jonah 4.2, repeat the idea as part of the series of descriptions of God’s character that we’ve just finished examining here.
And on several occasions God is specifically said to have repented:
- When he sent the flood to destroy the life he had created on earth (Gn 6.6)
- When Moses talked him out of destroying Israel in the wilderness (Ex 32.14)
- Multiple times during the period of the judges (Jdg 2.18)
- When King Saul refused to obey him (1S 15.11, 35)
- When the Angel of YHWH was massacring the people of Jerusalem after David’s census (2S 24.16; 1Chr 21.15)
- When King Hezekiah pled for more years of life (Is 38.5; Jer 26.19)
- When Nineveh repented (Jonah 3.10)
- In two of Amos’s visions (Am 7.3, 6)
Critics cite these passages as examples of a contradiction in the Bible.
So are they? Does the Scripture contradict itself here?
We’ll do some careful reading and analysis next time. Don’t make any life-changing decisions before then.