Does God ever change His mind?

Those of us who believe that God is immutable (unchangeable) and sovereign are sometimes called upon to answer that very question. It comes up in 1 Samuel 15:10, after Saul has once again gone off the rails and blatantly disobeyed a direct command from the Lord. “The word of the Lord came to Samuel,

‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’” Then, for good measure, verse 35 repeats, “And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.”

That might remind you of another time when God, viewing the wickedness of mankind, “regretted that he had made man upon the earth” just before The Flood (Genesis 6:6). The obvious question is, how is it possible that God both knew what would happen and still regretted what He had done? If I know the outcome before I choose, how can I regret the choice, unless it was a bad choice? Does God, can our God, make bad choices? Perish the thought! But how do we begin to unravel this conundrum?

First, the Hebrew word for “regret” here has a wide range of meanings, including both sadness and comfort, reflecting the reality that emotions are complex, not one-dimensional. It need not imply the absolute remorse of, say, a repentant sinner.

Second, we know from experience that it is possible to feel emotions akin to regret for something we must do, such as disciplining a child or firing an incompetent employee. We hurt for the person, and feel bad, but not guilty, for we have done nothing wrong. In this case God’s sovereign choice of Saul has caused pain in Israel, not to mention Samuel. How can God not identify with that?

Third, God’s interactions with His creatures are real and take place “in real time.” We can theorize about God’s character, but, as Jonah discovered when Nineveh repented, God “changed His mind” about destroying the city (Jonah 3:10). This is in keeping with what other prophets have said: Jeremiah 18:5-11 shows that God does announce His intentions contingent upon human response. He is not an uncaring, robotic deity. See Joel 2:14 and the many instances of God’s “repentance” in His dealing with the various kings of Israel, and even His “negotiating” with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18).

Finally, the context itself helps us know that God never changes His mind in any absolute sense. Samuel, in confronting Saul and telling him that his kingdom would not endure, says “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret (same word as in vv. 10 and 35), for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Samuel 15:29).

Remember, too, that God already had promised that the ultimate King would come from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10-12), and Saul was from the outcast tribe of Benjamin. No doubt this was to teach Israel other lessons about asking for a king, but we’ll save those reflections for another time.

“For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
and relenting from disaster.”
Jonah 4:2

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