Does God Change His Mind?
How do we account for the fact that God is said in Scripture to “repent” or “relent” of a given course of action?
Most Christians have puzzled over this question at some point or other. We are taught in Scripture that God has a single purpose, that he is omniscient, and that he never needs to “update” his plans based on any new consideration outside himself (e.g., Is. 40:13-14). The expression God “relented,” used several times in the OT, is an adaptation to the human viewpoint. God clearly knew all along what he would and would not do in every given instance, but he may speak of “relenting” or “changing his mind” or “repenting” in his interaction with changing human factors.
My favorite example of this is in 1 Samuel 15 where this expression is used in reference to King Saul, his sin, and his rejection by God. Twice we are told that God relented (15:11, 35) — “repented” of making Saul King. Right between these (v.29) we read “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.” That is to say, “Don’t misunderstand this and think that God actually has a change of mind — God could never!”
Still further, Jeremiah 18:8 provides another relevant perspective on this. Here God says in broad terms that a threatened judgment may be averted upon repentance. God is not surprised by the repentance in such a case; nor would he need then to change his mind. But adapting to our viewpoint he may be said to forego his previous decision to bring judgment.
John 6:6 may provide a perspective on this also — “When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.”
The bottom line is that this language of God “relenting” is adapted to our human perspective and cannot be understood in absolute terms, for God is eternally omniscient and knows the end from the beginning of all things.
And it is a good thing for us that he does, for how else could we trust him?