As you’ve noted, there are a number of places where the Old Testament Scriptures speak of God as “relenting,” “repenting” (KJV), “altering His mind,” or “being sorry” for something He has done or planned to do. As in the following:
And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart (Genesis 6:6).
So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people (Exodus 32:14).
And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel (I Samuel 15:35).
And when the angel stretched out His hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the destruction, and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “It is enough; now restrain your hand” (II Samuel 24:16).
How does all of this fit in with that ringing biblical declaration of God’s unfailing constancy? “Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end.” (Psalm 102:26, 27; see also Hebrews 13:8). We’d suggest that the solution to this puzzle lies in the scriptural assertion that God is love. How so? Bear with us while we try to explain.
God’s nature is unchanging. But this does not mean that it is static. On the contrary, it is living, active, and dynamic. Its energy and dynamism are expressed most memorably in the give-and-take and ebb-and-flow of relationship. And relationship, in turn, is the heart and soul of love.
The Bible expands on this idea by teaching that God’s unchanging nature contains within itself an ongoing conflict or dialogue. Within God there is tension between the apparently contradictory principles of justiceandmercy or righteousness and grace. We can see this in a passage like Exodus 34:6 and 7: “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.'”
This tension between “forgiveness” on the one hand and “not clearing the guilty” on the other is an important part of the “unchanging nature” of God. It’s the core and essence of His active and dynamic love. We find this concept touchingly expressed in the words of the Lord as recorded by the prophet Hosea: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns with Me; My sympathy is stirred. I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst; and I will not come with terror” (Hosea 11:8, 9).
God, then, has never changed. The ongoing struggle between judgment and mercy has always been fundamental to His character. Nor is this a merely academic or theological concept. Ultimately this tension within the divine nature becomes the driving force behind the central fact of history. We’re referring, of course, to the most decisive and determinative of all God’s acts: His entrance into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. For it is by means of that act that He has been able “to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). This, too, has been part of His plan and purpose from the beginning before the foundation of the world.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these ideas at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.
Christian Research Institute