BY WAYNE JACKSON
“How does one reconcile those passages which state that God does not change (e.g., Mal. 3:6), with others that seem to suggest that he does alter his course of action? One example is found in Exodus 32:14, which says: ‘And the Lord repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people.’”
To begin with, it is important to refresh our minds with those principles that identify an actual discrepancy. The “law of contradiction,” briefly stated, is this: A thing cannot both be, and not be:
(1) for the same object;
(2) at the same time;
(3) in the same sense.
To summarize: If different objects, time frames, or language usage should characterize statements that appear to contradict, there may be a perfectly reasonable resolution to the seeming problem.
With these premises in view, let us consider some biblical facts.
(1) Scripture teaches the concept of God’s immutability, i.e., the notion that his essence, character, and will are stable and perfect. Thus, while ordinary things undergo transformation, the changeless Creator does not. He is the same forever (see Psa. 102:26-27). With the Lord there can be “no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning” (Jas. 1:17 ASV; cf. Heb. 13:8).
To suggest that God is whimsical, constantly changing his mind, as such fluctuations are characteristic of humanity, is to reflect upon the very nature of divine being.
(2) The fact that God is omniscient also enters into this subject. The concept of omniscience suggests that the Lord knows everything there is to know — past, present, and future. He has never “learned” anything, nor has he “discovered” a new fact. He is never “surprised” by what men may do. He knows our thoughts (cf. Heb 4:12-13), and the very intricacies of our bodies (Psa. 139:1ff; Mt. 10:30). Not even a bird falls to the earth without his awareness of the event (Mt. 10:29).
As noted above, divine omniscience extends also into the future. One of the dramatic differences between the true God, and those that are false, i.e., mere inventions of illusory minds, is Jehovah’s ability to see the future. The prophets of the Old Testament challenged their heathen rivals: “Declare the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods?” (Isa. 41:23). The hundreds of prophecies that adorn the pages of the Bible are astounding evidence of the Lord’s foreknowledge.
In view of this amazing attribute, it is impossible to conclude that the Creator of the Universe vacillates back and forth, doing one thing now, then later changing his mind — in any literal sense of that expression.
(3) It is a fact, however, that the Scriptures frequently employ figures of speech that seem to suggest that God alters his actions in response to man’s behavior. The passage in Exodus 32 is an excellent example of this sort of phraseology.
While Moses was upon the heights of Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, the children of Israel, in the region below, made an idol, a molten calf, and proclaimed it as their deliverer from Egypt. The corrupt act was wholly antagonistic to the will of God, and the Lord proclaimed his intention to “consume” them. Moses, as a mediator, interceded and pled with Jehovah to not destroy them. Accordingly, the biblical text represents God’s response in this fashion: “Jehovah repented of the evil [destruction] which he said he would do unto his people” (Ex. 32:14).
The term “repented” reflects a figure of speech, common to many languages, known as “anthropopathism” (literally, man feelings). This is an idiom by which divine activity is described symbolically in terms of human emotion. It is rather similar to the kindred figure, “anthropomorphism” (man form) by which God is described as having physical parts (e.g., eyes, hands, etc.) even though he is not a physical being (Jn. 4:24; Lk. 24:39).
Anthropopathism, therefore, is a figure of speech by which human feelings or emotions are ascribed to God, in order to accommodate man’s ignorance of the unfathomable intentions and operations of deity (cf. Rom. 11:33-36). Professor Alan Cole has an excellent discussion of this figure as employed in the Exodus text under consideration.
“[Anthropopathism is a figure here used] by which God’s activity is explained, by analogy, in strictly human terms. The meaning is not that God changed His mind; still less that He regretted something that He had intended to do. It means, in biblical language, that He now embarked on a different course of action from that already suggested as a possibility, owing to some new factor which is usually mentioned in the context. In the Bible, it is clear that God’s promises and warnings are always conditional on man’s response: this is most clearly set out in Ezekiel 33:13-16. We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by his prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose” (Exodus — Tyndale O.T. Commentaries, Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973, p. 217; emphasis added).
It must be understood, therefore, that though certain biblical passages speak of the Lord being “changeless,” while others represent him as “changing” (in response to human conduct), that different senses are in view. In light of this fact, the “discrepancy” problem dissolves. But when one does not understand some of the common figures of speech utilized by the Bible writers, under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, he most certainly will draw many faulty conclusions — sometimes very dangerous ones.
Human languages are punctuated with dramatic figures of speech. This phenomenon is no less true in the case of the Scriptures than it is with other literary productions. A failure to recognize this principle leads to numerous flawed ideas.