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How this question is answered has a bearing on our understanding of the doctrine of God, particularly in relation to aspects of his character such as his sovereignty and immutability. But it also affects our understanding of prayer. Can God be persuaded or prevailed upon in prayer to acquiesce to our persistent pleas? Some would say “yes” and suggest that this is the point of the Parable of the Persistent Widow, where Jesus told his disciples they “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Lk. 18:1).
The Case of Sodom
One might argue that there are instances recounted in Scripture where God was prevailed upon to change his mind. For example, the occasion when God threatened to destroy Sodom and all its inhabitants, but Abraham pleaded with God to spare the city if it had just ten righteous inhabitants. In that narrative, Abraham is bargaining with God. But in doing so he learns something of the merciful nature of the Almighty; that the Lord is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9).
The Case of Hezekiah
Isaiah 38:1-5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
38 In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says Jehovah, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’” 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to Jehovah, 3 and said, “Remember now, O Jehovah, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
4 Then the word of Jehovah came to Isaiah, saying, 5 “Go and say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says Jehovah, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your days.
Did God change his mind? God cannot change his mind without contradicting his unchanging nature. God intended all along to heal Hezekiah. Withholding that news from Hezekiah stimulated him to pray intensely. Hezekiah did not change God’s mind. But prayer helped Hezekiah discover God’s purpose so he could align his life and actions to it. Hezekiah availed of the grace that was always available to him through prayer.
A sovereign God can predetermine to change his course of action in response to our prayers. His ultimate purposes are, therefore, unchangeable. He builds options into his purposes from the start. There is flexibility in the outcome to accommodate the various responses of people. God is something like a traveler who plans a destination but allows freedom to change the route or make spontaneous side trips along the way. Thus, God’s will is dynamic.
We might compare the relationship between God, his will and his people to a chess match between a novice player and a master. The novice can make any move he chooses, and the master will respond accordingly. But the master will always be in control of the game.
God the Unchangeable
Malachi records the words of God on this matter: “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6). The book of Numbers also comments on this issue: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). In the New Testament, God’s immutability is asserted where James speaks of the Lord “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James. 1:17). These verses assert that God is not only unchanging, but he is unchangeable. As the great hymn in praise of God’s faithfulness proclaims, “There is no shadow of turning with Thee.”
How then, might verses such as Genesis 6:6 be understood and explained? There we read, “And Jehovah regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This verse declares that God regretted creating man. Obviously, he did not reverse his decision. Instead, through Noah, he allowed man to continue to exist. The fact that we are alive today is proof that God did not change his mind about creating man. In addition, the context of this passage is a description of the sinful state in which man was living, and it is man’s sinfulness that triggered God’s sorrow, not man’s existence.
The Case of Nineveh
Speaking of the Ninevites Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” Similarly, in Exodus (in relation to the incident concerning the golden calf and the idolatry and debauchery of God’s people) Moses pleaded with God to avert his anger. It is recorded that “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex. 32:14). Again, the same Hebrew word is used, which translates “to be sorry for.” Why was God sorry for the Ninevites? Because they had a change of heart and as a result changed their ways from disobedience to obedience. He was going to judge Nineveh because of its evil. However, Nineveh repented and changed its ways. As a result, God had mercy on Nineveh, which is entirely consistent with his character.
In the book of Jonah, the response of God to the Ninevites presents the reader with a great contrast between the heart of Jonah and the heart of God (3:10-4:11). Jonah’s heart is narrow, shriveled and constricted. God’s heart is expansive, vast, and full to overflowing with mercy and grace. This contrast is set before us in the most vivid way. God bestows blessing, but Jonah begrudges this to the Ninevites. Obviously, he has forgotten; if he ever understood in the first place, not only that nobody deserves God’s blessing but that everybody deserves death.
The Wrath of God
We should understand that the Ninevites avail of the mercy extended to them rather than thinking that God responded to their repentance. The phrase “God saw” (Jonah 3:10) does not merely refer to knowledge of what happened. It does not mean that God only became aware of it at that point. That is a human perspective, but the divine perspective is quite different. Neither does it refer exclusively to God’s omniscience. Certainly, God knows all things and knows them before they occur, but the phrase “God saw” means, importantly, that he took it to heart. God is not a mere observer of their repentance. He was the author of it. He worked in their hearts! He took the initiative. So here is God beholding the fruit of his own mighty works, with delight!
Consider the Parables of the Lost Coin, The Lost Sheep and The Lost Son (the prodigal). In each case the “owner” of that which was lost overflows with joy when it is found (Lk. 15). Scripture informs us that there is joy in the presence of the angels when a sinner repents.
Romans 3:23 teaches that all men sin and fall short of God’s standard and Romans 6:23 states that the consequence for this is death (spiritual and physical). So the people of Nineveh deserved punishment. It is man’s sinful condition and sinful actions that separate him from God. It would be contrary to the character of God not to punish the Ninevites had they continued in sin. However, the people of Nineveh turned to obedience, and for that, the Lord chose not to punish them. Did the change on the part of the Ninevites obligate God to do what he did? Absolutely not! God cannot be placed in a position of obligation to man. Had the Lord not preserved the Ninevites, it would have been contrary to his character.
God is Consistent
The Scriptures that are interpreted as God seeming to change his mind are human attempts to explain the actions of God. God always knows what he is going to do. God does what he needs to do to cause humanity to fulfill his perfect plan: “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isa. 46:10-11). God threatened Nineveh with destruction, knowing that it would cause Nineveh to repent. At the foot of Mount Sinai God threatened Israel with destruction, knowing that Moses would intercede! God threatened Sodom with destruction knowing it was doomed. God does not change his mind but rather acts consistently with his Word.
Scripture teaches the concept of God’s immutability (i.e., the notion that his essence, character, and will are stable and perfect). Thus, while people undergo transformation, the changeless creator does not. He is the same forever. With the Lord, there can be no variation (Jas. 1:17; Heb. 13:8). God is not uncertain, indecisive, capricious or whimsical.
The concept of omniscience suggests that the Lord knows everything there is to know ~ past, present, and future. He has never learned anything, nor has he discovered a new fact. He is never surprised by what people may do. He knows our thoughts (Heb. 4:12-13), and the very intricacies of our bodies (Ps. 139; Mt. 10:30). Not even a bird falls to the earth without his knowing it.―Matthew 10:29.
Figures of Speech
It is impossible to conclude that the creator of the universe (omnipotent, omniscient, immutable…) changes his mind in any literal sense. But Scripture frequently employs figures of speech that might (at a superficial level) seem to suggest that God alters his actions in response to man’s behavior. The passage in Exodus 32 is an example of this sort of phraseology.
Following the golden calf incident and the intercession of Moses the biblical text records God’s response: “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex. 32:14).
The word “relented” is a figure of speech (anthropopathism, which literally means “man feelings”). This is an idiom by which divine activity is described symbolically in terms of human emotion. It is similar to the kindred figure, anthropomorphism (which literally means “man form”) by which God is described as having physical parts (e.g., eyes, hands, etc.) even though he is not a physical being (John 4:24; Luke 24:39). Anthropopathism, therefore, is a figure of speech by which human feelings or emotions are ascribed to God, in order to accommodate man’s ignorance of the unfathomable intentions and operations of the deity (Rom. 11:33-36). Alan Cole explains that anthropopathism is a figure of speech used in Exodus:
…by which God’s activity is explained, by analogy, in strictly human terms. The meaning is not that God changed His mind; still less that He regretted something that He had intended to do. It means, in biblical language, that He now embarked on a different course of action from that already suggested as a possibility, owing to some new factor which is usually mentioned in the context. In the Bible, it is clear that God’s promises and warnings are always conditional on man’s response: this is most clearly set out in Ezekiel 33:13-16. We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by his prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose.
The notion of contingency (hinging as it does on the word “if”) helps us to understand that though certain biblical passages speak of the Lord being changeless and others seem to represent him as changing (in response to human conduct) that there is no contradiction here.
It is important to understand some of the common figures of speech utilized by the Bible writers, under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, in order to avoid making faulty conclusions ~ sometimes very dangerous ones. Hence there is a need for hermeneutics (the principles of biblical interpretation) to avoid exegetical fallacies, flawed theology and inappropriate application of the Word.
So what does Scripture mean when it states that God relented? It does not mean that he changed his mind. The book of Jeremiah contains a helpful insight into this issue:
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.―Jeremiah 18:7-10.
Nineveh is a classic example of the teaching of Jeremiah 18. There is a living interaction between God and the Ninevites. Their sin is precipitating judgment, but God is saying if this condition changes his response will be different.
This does not in any way invalidate the fixed decrees and sovereign purposes of God. Judgment is contingent upon certain realities. The revealed activity of God is the only valid commentary on the character and purposes of God. Scripture shows his redemptive plans unfolding throughout history. The pulse of chapter 4 of Jonah throbs to the rhythm of God’s gracious heart. He takes no sadistic pleasure in judgment. God never brings judgment until the cup of iniquity is so full that to allow it to go unpunished would be a contradiction of his moral character. Even then he does it with some measure of reluctance. The sovereign, eternal, omnipotent God of the Bible is a living God, not a detached, distant and aloof God of fate.
A False Picture of God
Much of the production of goods today is automated. There are computerized systems where certain buttons are pushed, and it is impersonal; a machine produces the end product. Whatever was decreed by the computer program will be the outcome. This is how some people understand God. However, this is a false picture of God. It is not that somewhere in the distant past God fed everything into the program and has pushed certain buttons and now sits back and watches it all unfold and makes sure there are no breakdowns or short circuits in the system and if there are he will mend them. The God of the Bible is not detached from the outworking of the details of our lives. Scripture emphasizes the intimate, sensitive involvement of the living, personal God with his people.
Some people are very reluctant to let go of the notion that God can be prevailed upon (through prayer) to change his mind. I am not just referring to young, immature believers. The same could be said of some leaders in the church and even some preachers. Separating people from their cherished beliefs is as difficult as taking candy from a baby (whoever said that was easy must have had a very different experience of children to that which most people know to be true).
So why bother praying at all? Prayer does not change God’s mind, but it ought to have the effect of bringing our minds into alignment with his. It ought to change our hearts in terms of our desires and influence our motives. Prayer should bring our wayward wills into harmony with God’s will. Engaging in prayer is a vital exercise in our sanctification inasmuch as it assists in the ongoing process of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus. Christ is our constant companion, and he does not change, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ (Heb. 13:8) We can rest in that constancy with confidence.
See also by Edward D. Andrews,
 Alan Cole, Exodus, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 217.