In Part 2 of Prayer and God’s Sovereignty, we examined some Bible passages that provided strong support for the belief that prayer can change the mind of God. We now turn to some passages that suggest that God does not change his mind -what he intends to do he will indeed do.
Passages in Which God Does Not Change His Mind
The first example is found in the story of Balaam at the time of Israel’s entrance into Canaan. Balaam is hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. Balak hopes the curse will help him defeat Israel. After an extraordinary series of events, Balaam blesses Israel instead of cursing Israel. He concludes, “God is not a man, that he should lie, not a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it” (Num 23:19-20). Balaam’s contention is that God has promised to bless Israel and will not go back on that promise. It does not matter what humans do, God will not change his mind.
Samuel provides a similar example. After declaring to Saul that God has rejected him as king over Israel, Samuel prophesies that the kingdom will be given to another. He then declares, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind” (1 Sam 15:29). In this case, God has declared something and will not change. This Scripture comes closest to teaching that God never changes his mind.
Finally, the Psalmist declares that God will not change his mind. “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘you are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps 110:4). Here, God has declared something that will not change. God will not be convinced to change his mind.
These passages all speak of that fact that God does not change his mind. Because of that, some suggest the previous passages that speak of God changing his mind must be interpreted differently. They must mean something else.
How Do We Explain Passages in Which God Changes His Mind?
One possible interpretation along these lines is that passages that speak of God changing his mind should be understood as anthropomorphic. That is, talk of him changing his mind is simply a way humans can relate to what God is doing (Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future, 71). To be sure, talk of God in anthropomorphic terms is common in Scripture. However, the idea of anthropomorphisms is to convey actual meaning through analogy. The analogies may not be perfect, but they intend to convey actual truth. For example, God saving by his “right hand” (Ps 17:7) does not mean God has hands like humans. Nevertheless, the concept of strength that is implied by this anthropomorphic language conveys real truth. In the case of God changing his mind, the analogy is that what was intended is no longer going to happen. Regardless of how the “change of mind” occurs in the Godhead, the analogy suggests that God does indeed change his intended purposes in some things.
Another explanation for the passages that speak of God changing his mind is to translate the passages differently. For example, John Currid suggests Exod 32:14 should be translated “[God] had compassion regarding the harm which he had said he would do to his people” (A Study Commentary on Exodus, 276). Currid suggests this because of the difficulty of reconciling this passage with 1 Sam 15:29 which says God does not change his mind. The problem with Currid’s explanation is that although the words might be changed, what actually happened is the same. That is, God said he would do something and then decided to do something else because Moses’ interceded. However one translates the passage, the meaning is clear.
Perhaps There is Another Explanation
Rather than interpreting away the passages that speak of God changing his mind, perhaps a better explanation can be found by reevaluating the passages that speak of him not changing his mind. Two of the passages above that declare God does not change his mind deal with promises of God. God promised to bless Israel and God promised to make the Messiah a priest after the order of Melchizedek. The truth conveyed in these passages is that God does not go back on his promises. He is not like a man who may promise one thing and do another. God keeps his word. What these passages declare is that when God promises something, he does not change his mind.
More difficult is the passage dealing with Saul. Saul failed to follow God and so God rejected him. One would expect the possibility of repentance and restoration. Instead, Samuel declares that God will not change his mind. Specifically, Samuel declares that God does not change his mind after he announces that the kingdom has been torn from Saul and has been given to another. This suggests that, in the case of Saul, God made a decision that he would not change. Despite Samuel’s intercession (1 Sam 15:11), God made a decision that he would not alter.
This concept of God making a decision he will not alter is borne out elsewhere in Scripture. For example, because of Israel’s continual unfaithfulness, God declared that he would destroy the nation. There was a time in which repentance and salvation was possible, but after a certain point the chance for repentance was past. God tells Jeremiah, “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you” (Jer 7:16). In this case, God made a decision that he would not change.
Interestingly, even this incident supports the view that God may change his mind. The fact that Jeremiah is told not to pray for the people suggests that at some point Jeremiah was praying for the people or may have intended to pray for them. Apparently, apart from God’s specific command, Jeremiah expected that prayer could affect God’s actions.
What Might We Say, Then
From the proceeding study, the following observations may be made. First, there are some intentions of God that will not be changed by the prayers or actions of people. Paramount are the promises of God. God will not change his mind regarding the promises he has made. Second, some pronouncements of God will not be changed. These may be eternal purposes of God or purposes related to specific historical incidents. There are times in which God plans to do something and his plans will not be altered by prayer. Third, apart from the promises of God and certain plans of his, prayer may alter God’s intentions. He may change his mind based on the prayers of his people.
This final observation may suggest something about the will of God in general. God’s will may be such that his actions are contingent upon the actions (including prayer) of his people. If people pray, God may act a certain way. If people do not pray, God may act a different way.
This idea is suggested elsewhere in the contingent statements made by God. For example, God declares, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chr 7:14). If God’s people pray, God will act. Presumably, God will not forgive and heal if the people do not pray.