Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the LORD." But Samuel said to Saul, "I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel." As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore. So Samuel said to him, "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you. Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind."
~1 Samuel 15:24-29
One of the perplexing puzzles the ardent Bible student may come across in his or her study concerns the issue of whether or not God changes His mind pertaining to His plans and purposes. Scripture is clear that God does not change in His character or with His plans and purposes (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), yet there are some places where it almost appears that He does alter His plan in specific situations (Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:12-14; 1 Samuel 15:11,35; Jeremiah 18:8; Jonah 3; Joel 2:14; Amos 7:3,6). In fact, within the same chapter and context of 1 Samuel 15 we find God as expressing "regret"or "grief" over making Saul king (vv 11, 35) and then a statement that God never changes His mind (v 29). A teaching known as "Open Theism" uses such passages to validate their claim that God does not know the future for certain and often makes mistakes and has to resort to plan B when plan A fails. Does such passages indicate a contradiction or imply that God's plans are not perfect so that He has to change them? In the style and manner of Paul, I answer "absolutely not" and "may it never be!" A closer study into these issues reveals that God does not change His mind pertaining to His overall plan and purpose anywhere throughout Scripture but consistently brings about what He has planned without those plans ever being foiled.
Much of the debate concerning these passages revolves around the meaning and usage of the Hebrew word, nachem. In almost all of its occurrences in relation to God, the term is in the Niphal stem.1 In this stem, it can carry several meanings such as: 1) “be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion;” 2) “be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent;” 3) “comfort oneself, be comforted;” and 4) “comfort oneself, ease oneself.”2 Generally, the word indicates emotion. This means that several of the usages of the term does not necessarily have to be translated as change one's mind but would better be understood to convey grief or sorrow. As with many Hebrew and Greek words, context is the ultimate deciding factor as to which meaning to apply to the word. For instance, Genesis 6:6 should be translated as The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth instead of The LORD changed His mind that He had made man on the earth because the word is used right alongside a Hebrew verb that means hurt, pain, grief. It is not implausible for God to ordain a certain event as part of His sovereign plan that would cause Him grief when it occurs.3 While God is transcendent of time and able to view all past, present, and future events simultaneously, He is also able to make distinctions between them. This enables Him to experience certain emotions at the moment an event occurs within time though being aware of the event eternally outside time.4 This is the case with Joseph. God ordained the events of his brothers' treachery in permitting them to sell him to the Ishamaelites but used their evil sin to place Joseph in the second highest position in Egypt to save his family and prevent God's chosen people from dying out. For a God who hates sin (Habakkuk 1:13), any sin would cause Him grief, yet these sins he permitted as part of His plan to save His people (Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20).5 A look at the wider context of 1 Samuel 15 shows that Saul's failure as king was not unknown to God but apart of His overall plan to teach a lesson to the Israelites.
After Saul’s two acts of disobedience (1 Samuel 13:8-13; 15:9), God expresses His grief in
making Saul king (15:11). This in no way indicates God being ignorant of Saul’s disobedience when He first chose the man for this position. In fact, God never planned for Saul’s dynasty to endure. In his prophecy to Judah, Jacob predicted that The scepter shall not depart from him Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet (Genesis 49:10). Saul came from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1-2) when God planned that one from the tribe of Judah would have an everlasting kingdom. If God intended for Saul’s dynasty to continue, unaware of his future disobedience, then He would have contradicted His previous promise. The overarching narrative indicates that God had a specific purpose for Saul in his short-lived dynasty.
The people had asked for a king so that they could be like all the nations (8:5). This displeased the LORD but He granted their request and gave them the king they asked for; one just like all the other nations had. In fact, Saul's name in Hebrew comes from the Hebrew root that means to ask, inquire. The author describes Saul as resembling what one would expect from a king (as all the other nations had) outwardly (9:2) and then shows how such a king fails miserably. After the people’s king’s first act of disobedience, God states that He has already chosen His king; the one after His own heart (13:14). The verbs for seek and appoint in Hebrew both convey the perfect tense, which indicate that these are both completed actions. At this point where God has rejected Saul as king, He has already found the replacement and does not have to go looking for one. This one does not look like a king the other nations have (16:7-11) and is from the linage of Judah as God had prophesied. In fact, David appeared so unkinglike that his own father did not even call him out of the field to be considered by Samuel. Though Saul’s kingdom would have been everlasting had he been faithful (13:13), God used the means of His disobedience to fulfill His ultimate plan of having a descendant of Judah to reign over His people. Thus, this was not an act of God responding emotionally to something that He had not been aware would occur or signifying that He made a mistake. His grief resulted from Saul’s failure as king which He intended to use to chastise His people. The statement Samuel makes in response to Saul's pleading for another chance after he had already been told that God has taken the kingdom away from him further indicates that God does not change his mind pertaining to His plans and purposes.
After rejecting Saul's request to pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the LORD (v 25), Saul grabs the edge of Samuel's robe and the prophet uses the tearing of it to inform the king that God has likewise tore the kingdom aware from him and given it to someone else. He then states that when God makes a decision, it is final. God does not lie or change His mind. The parallel of nachem being with the verb to lie indicates it should be taken as change of mind in this context. Though given in reference to Saul's rejection as king, the prophet attributed a timeless principle of God's character. Not only does this verse state the impossibility of God changing His mind, but also of Him lying. Just as the statement that God cannot lie is not limited to this case, the same must be true of Him changing His mind since the two are parallel. If one argues that God sometimes changes His mind and other times does not, then that would also mean that God sometimes lies, a claim with no support found anywhere in Scripture.6 Even in the places where nachem conveys the idea of change of mind, it simply means a change of direction but never a change in His overall plan He will carry out. God may change His direction but never is the new direction outside of His ultimate underlying plan. Several of these references must be read in the context of the old covenant with blessings given for obedience and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). God thus brings judgment on the disobedient but blessing upon the obedient or repentant. In his call to the nation of Israel to repent, Jeremiah describes God to them as a potter who crafts Israel as His clay the way that He desires (Jeremiah 18:5-6). He states that in one instance God might speak words of destruction to a nation but would take back the destruction described pending on the condition of their repentance (vv 7-8). Likewise, He would bring judgment upon a nation that sought to do evil when He had said that He would build them up previously (vv 9-10). Therefore, in several cases where God is described as changing His mind or relenting concerning coming judgment in response to man’s repentance, He technically is not changing His mind but enacting this principle that He established. He is dealing with man as He has predetermined. Such is the reason why Jonah did not desire to warn the Ninevites of their coming judgment (Jonah 4:2). He knew what would happen if they repented and he wanted them to experience judgment instead of mercy.
This truth that God does not change in His character and in His perfect purpose and plan is comforting. While people on this earth may and will let you down, we have a Heavenly Father who is true to His every word and with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17). We can confidently go to Him for guidance of our next step because He is in full control and has planned out the very steps He has for us to take (Psalm 139:16). He is a God who never makes mistakes and Whom we can trust to always do what's right (Genesis 18:25), even when we may not understand all that He does (Isaiah 55:8-9). We can celebrate our salvation as God's perfect plan of sending His Son to die on the cross in our place was accomplished just as He intended without any variation of His plan. To God be the glory that He does not change but does as He sees fit for our good and His glory!
Soli Deo Gloria!!!
1-Genesis 6:6,7; Exodus 32:14; 1 Samuel 15:11,29; Jeremiah 18:8,10; Joel 2:13,14; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:9,10. The one exception can be found in Numbers 23:19 where the Hithpael form of the verb is used.
2-F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007) 637.
3-John Piper, “Why the Glory of God is at Stake in the ‘Foreknowledge’ Debate” Modern Reformation 5 (September/October 1999) 43.
4-Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998) 301.
5-By far the greatest example of this can be seen with God permitting the sin of the murder of His perfect Son as part of His perfect plan of redeeming sinners (Acts 2:23). Basically, God used sin to conquer sin.
6-Bruce A. Ware, God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000) 88.