Observe

 Can God change His mind? 

A simple question. But, like all parts of Scripture, there is so much depth to the answer that an entire book could easily be written on this one subject alone. Following a lively discussion in Sunday School, it seemed that English translations of the Bible were unclear on the answer to this question. It made sense to explore the issue further.

Did God in fact change His mind when He turned from His claim that He would destroy the Israelites for their disobedience after Moses argued with Him? Did He change His mind when He told Jonah that He would destroy Ninevah but then spared the city? These are issues that deserve deeper analysis. Let's take a look at the facts in detail.

Foundational Truths

Before we begin this study, it's important to establish several foundational truths from the Bible.

The first truth is that God cannot lie. According to Hebrews 6:18, it is "impossible" for God to lie. Lying is so opposite His perfect, holy nature that He cannot lie under any circumstances.

God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
--Hebrews 6:18

God knows everything. He cannot be surprised by anything. There is no situation in which God can suddenly learn some new truth that He was unaware of in the past. Some passages may seem at first glance to suggest that a human argument shed light on something God hadn't thought of, like the discussion with Moses in Exodus 32 (more on this later). Yet a closer examination reveals that this is not as it might seem. It's absurd to believe that Moses actually made God stop and think, "Hmm, that's a good point. I hadn't thought of it that way." Obviously, the appearance of such a revelation is only an illusion, meant to make a point about the author's own perspective or providing a valuable lesson for us. To better understand the story we must examine the actual Hebrew text rather than depending entirely on common English translations.

God is not bound by time and space. God lives in the past, present, and future all at the same time. Time is not a constant, marked like a ruler, that marches along at a steady pace as we typically think of it. Time was invented for our benefit. It is a physical property that changes under certain situations, such as gravity and speed or acceleration. God can move forward and backward through time instantly. Thus, He is not restricted by the flow of events as we see them.

Scripture is "God-breathed" which means that it is perfectly written. But we must be careful to recognize that this refers to the original Bible as written in Hebrew, Greek, and other languages. English translations can be flawed and imperfect. Some will argue that God would not allow this to happen, but in fact there have been many false translations, including one infamous version that accidentally altered the sixth commandment to its opposite meaning. Jehovah's Witnesses have published widely distributed versions that change or leave out passages that don't agree with their doctrine. That such errors exist is evidence that God does not necessarily interfere in human endeavors to translate the holy Scriptures, which makes it possible for translations to contain weak or misleading wording.

God responds to prayer. When we pray with hearts that are pure before God (without unconfessed sin hampering our relationship), then God has promised that He will hear and will respond. It may not be the response we expect, and it happens in His time frame rather than ours, but it does happen.

The suggestion that God doesn't change His mind does not mean He can't or won't respond to prayer. It refers only to His promises and any statements He makes, not to events outside of Scripture that unfold in individual lives. If someone gets sick and you pray and that person is healed, it does not mean God "changed His mind" about the sickness, but that He responded to your faithful prayer just as He has promised He will.

The Hebrew word "Nacham"

The Hebrew word "nacham" (pronounced nawkam) is almost always translated into English as "change one's mind." However, careful study reveals that this is the proper meaning in only a few Scriptural circumstances. It does not automatically mean to change one's mind or repent.

Nacham can have several meanings, but it generally means to turn or change direction, though it can mean to change one's mind. It contains no association with wrongdoing, though it can suggest pity or making a change with a heavy sigh. Translations which automatically interpret this as saying that God "changed His mind" are not necessarily wrong, but incomplete. The King James Version translated 'nacham' as "repented," but the meaning of that word has changed so much over the past 500 years. Today, repentance is always associated with erroneous behavior that is being corrected. In the 16th Century, the word "repent" had far less ominous undertones. Then, it simply meant to make a dramatic change in direction.

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should 'nacham' (change His mind, repent, turn away from what He says He will do). Does he speak and then not 'asah' (act, accomplish, finish)? Does he promise and not 'quwm' (fulfill, make good, succeed in completing)?
--Numbers 23:19

Notice the strong association here between lying (the Hebrew word "kazab") and changing of the mind. It suggests that if God were to say one thing and then change His mind and do something else, it would make the first statement a lie. This passage specifically refers to God's own statements or promises. It assures us that anything God tells us He will do can be relied upon with full assurance.

Another verse is even more dramatic in associating a change of mind with lying. The association of the two things is so strong that the relationship cannot be ignored. It claims that for God to change His mind would be a form of lying.

What about our repentance? Does that involve lying?

When we repent, our change of mind is not a form of lying. Quite the opposite. It is the falling away from our commitment to God--the act of sin itself--that is a form of lying, which this verse appears to hint at:

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or 'nacham' (change his mind, repent, turn away from His promises); for he is not a man, that he should 'nacham' (change his mind, say one thing and later decide to do another).
--1 Samuel 15:29

In the following passage, the Hebrew word "shaba" refers to God swearing an oath by repeating it seven times. Throughout the Scriptures, the number seven is used to represent completeness. God could not swear by someone greater than Himself, so He repeated the oath seven times to swear it by Himself.

The LORD has 'shaba' (sworn) and will not 'nacham' (change his mind, turn from His oath): You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
--Psalm 110:4

Note that "will not" is implied. In the Hebrew it simply says Jehovah has sworn and doesn't change His direction. There is no auxiliary verb in the statement. It does not mean it will not happen just once, but implies a permanent condition, as a result of His promise. His oath makes it impossible for Him to do so.

Consequences and Redemption

For this the earth shall mourn, And the heavens above be dark, Because I have spoken, I have purposed, And I will not 'nacham' (change My mind, reverse my direction), nor will I 'shuwb' (turn from it wholly or even partially).
--Jeremiah 4:28

In the above verse, God emphatically states His inability to reverse His position on a promise. The first time He uses the word "nacham" and the second time He uses "shuwb" which means to make a partial change rather than a complete change. God is asserting that He will neither turn His thinking around completely, nor make a partial change in the purpose He has established.

This passage appears to refer specifically to a prophecy about the coming captivity in the hands of Babylon. The prophecy indicates a military conquest that will leave the cities completely desolate. God is saying that because He declared this purpose, it cannot be changed. It is part of his overall plan. It doesn't mean that the captivity cannot be avoided, but that the promise of captivity for continued disobedience cannot be avoided. God is asserting that His promise stands firm, including the consequences of sin.

Now therefore amend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will 'nacham' (change direction for Israel) about the misfortune which He has pronounced against you.
--Jeremiah 26:13

Note how this later verse clarifies the point, though at first glance it might seem to be a contradiction. In Jeremiah 4:28, God says that He will bring about the destruction of Israel as He has promised, but in Jeremiah 26:13 He states that He will change this direction or path for Israel if the nation reverses its course of disobedience. Does that mean He changed His mind? Not at all!

Earlier He told Jeremiah that He would destroy Israel. Now He says that if Israel repents God will turn the path of the nation's course away from Babylonian captivity. God knows that Israel will not turn, yet He reminds the people that if they would only repent and confess as a nation that His perfect plan and purpose for Israel would no longer be destruction and disbursement. Both conditions were part of His everlasting covenant with Israel. Both are true at the same time.

Understanding this is vital to our understanding of God's changes in direction. He does not "change His mind" in the human sense, but fulfills His original promise. If hearts are obedient to God, filled with love and gratitude for His grace and mercy then He will protect and redeem His people (which includes salvation through Jesus Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that all people would be blessed through Abraham's offspring). But if they turn away from Him they will face the necessary consequences.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
--1 John 1:9

God's character is truth. He cannot lie. He is absolutely 100 percent true to His word at all times. We can depend on Him completely, without ever worrying that situations will cause Him to reverse His direction on a promise He has made. The conditions are clearly established: follow Jesus Christ and prove it through your actions, or face the consequences. We might change our words, actions, or minds but God does not.

Part 2: So what about Exodus 32?