Here’s a great question from T in Minnesota:
I was reading I Samuel 15:29 where it says God does not change his mind. I find this confusing. Did he not change his mind about Saul being king? How about the destruction on the city of Nineveh? God seems to change his plans alot based on man’s behavior. Could you shed some light here? What am I missing? Thanks
I had to deal with this question in my dissertation on repentance. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I think that Dr. Bob Chisholm has done a good job of writing on this subject. See here.
God is immutable. That is, He does not change. He is also omniscient. That means He knows everything that ever has happened, is happening, or ever will happen. He even knows all possible pasts, presents, and futures.
When 1 Sam 15:29 says God does not change His mind, that is true. When other texts say that God changes His mind, they are true too. How? The first text is speaking of God’s immutability and omniscient. The second text is speaking anthropomorphically. That is a figure of speech in which God is spoken of as though He were a man with normal human limitations. From our perspective it appears He changed His mind about destroying Nineveh and about Saul being king. But, God knew all along what would happen. He knew Saul would forfeit his kingship. He knew that the Ninevites would repent and that He would spare them.
Whenever two seemingly contradictory things are taught in Scripture, it is important to ask, “What am I missing?” There is an answer, even if it doesn’t come to you quickly. Or even if it doesn’t come to you in this lifetime.
In this case the answer is fairly simple. While God doesn’t really change His mind, it does appear to us at times that He does. The reason is because God is gracious and if men repent He often extends grace and withdraws the announced judgment (as with Nineveh).
Chisholm prefers not to call this an anthropomorphism at all. He stresses that sometimes God’s announced judgments may be withdrawn if an unstated condition is met. On other occasions the announced judgment is unconditional. Often we do not know which is conditional and which is unconditional until after we read further in Scripture.
I agree with Chisholm. Whether it’s correct to call this an anthropomorphism is debatable. See Chisholm’s article. But clearly God reserves the right to withdraw announced judgment. And that is a very good thing.