When the Bible indicates that God decides to take a different course of action than the one He had been taking, it may be construed that He has changed His mind. This may seem to infer that God is not omniscient, because He should know exactly what He will do in regard to each situation before it occurs and, therefore, there should be no valid reason for God to change His mind. [For a discussion of God’s omniscience, click on “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?”]
To determine if God actually changes His mind, we will focus primarily on scriptures in the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible that state God relented, which a number of people may think indicates that God does change His mind. However, Webster’s Dictionary defines the term relent as “to become less severe, harsh, or strict. . . ,” which does not necessitate a change of mind, because the relenting may have been predetermined.
[Notes: Whereas the NKJV Bible and most of the other relatively recent translations of the Bible use the term “relent” and/or “relented” in the scriptures that we are citing, the Bible commentaries we quote use the term “repented,” as does the original King James translation of the Bible. And, when words in a quoted scripture are shown in bold print, the emphasis is our own.]
We will now consider what various Bible commentaries say about the scriptures that we think are most relevant to answering the primary question posed by this article.
I. Exodus 32:14 indicates that, as a result of a plea by Moses, “the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.”
The following Bible commentaries that discuss this scripture indicate, either explicitly or by inference, that the term that is translated as relented (or repented) is an anthropomorphism, which, with regard to the matter discussed in this article, Webster’s Dictionary defines as “the attributing of human . . . characteristics to a god. . . .”
Adam Clarke Commentary states in regard to Exodus 32:14,
This is spoken merely after the manner of men who, having formed a purpose, permit themselves to be diverted from it by strong and forcible reasons, and so change their minds relative to their former intentions.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible declares in reference to the same scripture,
He [God] did not do what he threatened to do, and seemed to have in his thoughts and designs, but did what Moses desired he would . . ., not that any of God’s thoughts or the determinations of his mind are alterable; . . . but he changes the outward dispensations of his providence, or his methods of acting with men, which he has been taking or threatened to take; and this being similar to what they do when they repent of anything, who alter their course, hence repentance is ascribed to God, though, properly speaking, it does not belong to him. . . .
Also. with regard to Exodus 32:14, Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible provides the following commentary:
This is an anthropomorphism. It really means ‘for all outward purposes He [God] appeared to have changed His mind for He would not now do what He had said He would do’. The stress here is on the fact that Yahweh responded to Moses. The actual physical evidence of the fact would come later. In other words Yahweh would not actually do what He had said He would do. He would not destroy what are now again described, not as ‘this people’, but as ‘His people’. It is but looking from a human point of view. Humanly speaking this was how it appeared. He appeared to have changed His mind.
The Pulpit Commentaries assesses the same scripture, as follows:
Changes of purpose are, of course, attributed to God by an “economy,” or accommodation of the truth to human modes of speech and conception. “God is not a man that he should repent.” He “knows the end from the beginning.” When he threatened to destroy Israel, he knew that he would spare; but, as he communicated to Moses, first, his anger, and then, at a later period, his intention to spare, he is said to have “repented.” The expression is an anthropomorphic one. . . .
II. Psalm 106:43-45: Many times He [God] delivered them [the Israelites]; but they rebelled in their counsel, and were brought low for their iniquity. Nevertheless He regarded their affliction, when He heard their cry; and for their sake He remembered His covenant, and relented according to the multitude of His mercies.
As was true of the Bible commentaries regarding the previous scripture, the following commentaries on Psalm 106:43-45 either state or infer that when God changed His actions, it was an anthropomorphism and, therefore, He only seemed to change His mind (or His will).
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible declares in reference to Psalm 106:43-45,
He [God] averted impending judgments. He checked and arrested the calamities which he was bringing upon them for their sins. He acted toward them as though his mind had been changed; as though he was sorry for what he was doing. The word “repent” can be applied to God in no other sense than this. It cannot be applied to him in the sense that he felt or admitted that he had done wrong; or that he had made a mistake; or that he had changed his mind or purposes; or that he intended to enter on a new course of conduct; but it may be applied to him in the sense that his treatment of people is “as if” he had changed his mind, or “as if” he were sorry for what he had done: that is, a certain course of things which had been commenced, would be arrested and changed to meet existing circumstances, because “they” had changed – though all must have been foreseen and purposed in his eternal counsels.
With regard to the same scripture passage, John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible states,
The word to repent expresses no change in God, but only in the mode of administering his corrections. It may seem as if God altered his purpose, when he mitigates punishment, or withdraws his hand from executing his judgments. The Scripture, however, accommodating itself to our weak and limited capacity, speaks only after the manner of men.
Gill provides the following explanation of Psalm 106:43-45:
[H]is [God’s] mercies temporal and spiritual are many; and there is an abundance of mercy displayed especially in spiritual ones, in redemption, in regeneration, and in the forgiveness of sin. Or “according to the abundance of his grace”, or “gracious benefits”; there is an abundance of grace in his heart, in his Son, in his covenant, in salvation by Christ, and in every part of it; and which appears at conversion, as superabundant; and by this multitude of mercy, and abundance of grace, he is moved to “repent.” This is sometimes denied of him; and indeed he never repents so as to change his mind, to alter his purposes, to revoke his promises or his gifts, these are all without repentance; but he sometimes changes his ways and his works, his conduct in Providence, and the course of it; and then he may be said to repent of the evil he threatened to do, or was doing, when he puts a stop to it; and instead of that bestows favours and blessings.
Again, in reference to Psalm 106:43-45, Mathew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible says,
As a God of mercy, who looked upon their grievances, regarded their affliction, beheld when distress was upon them . . ., who looked over their complaints, for he heard their cry with tender compassion . . . and overlooked their provocations for though he had said, and had reason to say it, that he would destroy them, yet he repented, according to the multitude of his mercies, and reversed the sentence. Though he is not a man that he should repent, so as to change his mind, yet he is a gracious God, who pities us, and changes his way.
Also, with regard to the term repented in the same scripture passage, The Pulpit Commentaries asserts,
The expression is anthropomorphic, and must be understood so as not to clash with the declaration, ‘God is not a man, that he should repent’ (1 Samuel 15:29).
III. Jeremiah 18:8 and 10: [I]f that nation against whom I [God] have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. . . . [I]f it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.
The next Bible commentaries, which explain these two verses of scripture, indicate that, although God does change His actions (i.e., He relents), this does not imply that He changes His mind (or His will).
Gill says with regard to Jeremiah 18:8 and 10,
I will repent of the evil that one thought to do unto them; as they change their course of life, God will change the dispensations of his providence towards them, and not bring upon them the evil of punishment he threatened them with; in which sense repentance can only be understood of God, he doing that which is similar to what men do when they repent of anything; they stop their proceedings, and change their outward conduct; so God proceeds not to do what he threatened to do, and changes his outward behaviour to men; he wills a change, and makes one in his methods of acting, but never changes his will.
In reference to the same two verses of scripture, Henry provides the following comments:
[If a nation were to] repent of their sins and reform their lives, turn every one from his evil way and return to God, God will graciously accept them, will not proceed in his controversy, will return in mercy to them, and, though he cannot change his mind, he will change his way, so that it may be said, He repents him of the evil he said he would do to them. . . .
Also, in reference to Jeremiah 18:8 and 10, Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible states,
I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them; There is a difference betwixt repentance in man, and repentance as it is attributed to God; repentance in man must be, not only a change in action, but a change of heart; repentance as attributed to God never signifieth a change of heart, or purpose, or counsels, but only a change in action. . . .
IV. Jeremiah 26:3, 13, and 19b: Perhaps everyone will listen and turn from his evil way, that I [God] may relent concerning the calamity which I purpose to bring on them because of the evil of their doings. . . . Now therefore, amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God; then the Lord will relent concerning the doom that He has pronounced against you. . . . And the Lord relented concerning the doom which He had pronounced against them [the nation of Judah].
Like the Bible commentaries that addressed the last scripture, the following Bible commentaries on Jeremiah 26:3, 13, and 19b agree that God does not change His mind, although He may change His actions.
Calvin states with regard to Jeremiah 26:3, 13, and 19b,
As to God’s repentance, . . . No change belongs to God; but when God is said to turn away his wrath, it is to be understood in a sense suitable to the comprehension of men. . . .
With regard to the same three verses of scripture, Gill provides the following comments:
that I [God] may repent me of the evil which I purpose to do unto them; or “am thinking”, or “devising to do unto them”; which repentance must be understood not of a change of mind, but of the course of his providence towards them, which, by his threatenings, and some steps taken, portended ruin and destruction; yet, in case of repentance and reformation, he would change his method of action agreeably to his will:
and the Lord will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you; will do as men do when they repent, change their method of acting, and manner of behaviour; so the Lord is said to repent or turn, when he changes the method and conduct of his providence towards men, though he never changes his mind or counsel.
V. Jeremiah 42:10: If you will still remain in this land, then I [God] will build you [the nation of Judah] and not pull you down, and I will plant you and not pluck you up. For I relent concerning the disaster that I have brought upon you.
The following Bible commentaries express the belief that when God is said in Jeremiah 42:10 to relent (or repent), He changes His actions, particularly when people become obedient to Him, but He does not change His mind.
With regard to Jeremiah 42:10, Clarke says
For I repent me of the evil – The meaning is, As I [God] have punished you only because you continued to be rebellious, I will arrest this punishment as soon as you become obedient to my word.
Also, in regard to Jeremiah 42:10, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible states, “God is said to ‘repent,’ when He alters His outward ways of dealing.”
Gill states in reference to the same verse of scripture,
for I repent me of the evil that I have done unto you; not that he [God] had done any unjust thing to them; or that he changed his mind concerning them; but that he had compassion on them, and would change his way and course of providence towards them, according to his unchangeable will.
The Pulpit Commentaries explains Jeremiah 42:10, as follows:
I [God] repent me. And yet in 1 Samuel 15:29 we read that “Israel’s Trust … is not a man that he should repent.” The key to the discrepancy may be found in Psalms 18:25, Psalms 18:26, “With the pious thou showest thyself pious … and with the froward thou showest thyself froward.” There is no change in the nature or purpose of God, but only in his conduct towards man. The term “repent” is, therefore, only used analogically.
VI. Amos 7:1-3 and 6: Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, He formed locust swarms at the beginning of the late crop; indeed it was the late crop after the king’s mowings. And so it was, when they had finished eating the grass of the land, that I said: “O Lord God, forgive, I pray! Oh, that Jacob may stand, For he is small!” So the Lord relented concerning this.“ It shall not be,” said the Lord. . . . So the Lord relented concerning this. “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.
According to the following Bible commentaries that address these scripture verses, God may change His course of action, but He does not change His mind, which is consistent with the Bible commentary assessments of the previous scriptures that we have discussed,
Calvin’s declares in regard to Amos 7:1-3 and 6,
Now as to the word repent, as applied to God, let us know . . . that God changes not his purpose so as to retract what he has once determined. He indeed knew what he would do before he showed the vision to his Prophet Amos: but he accommodates himself to the measure of men’s understanding, when he mentions such changes.
With reference to the same verses of scripture, Gill states,
The Lord repented for this,…. He heard the prayer of the prophet, and at his intercession averted, the threatened judgment . . .; this is spoken after the manner of men; as men, when they repent of a thing, desist from it, so the Lord desisted from going on with this judgment; he did not change his mind, but changed the dispensations of his providence according to his mind and will. . . .
Henry says with regard to Amos 7:1-3 and 6,
The Lord repented for this. He did not change his mind, for he is [of] one mind and who can turn him? But he changed his way, took another course, and determined to deal in mercy and not in wrath.
Pett provides the following explanation of the same scripture verses:
The consequence was that YHWH [God] repented of what He had intended to do to His people and promised that it would not happen. . . .
As always this is seen from man’s viewpoint. Something initially prophesied would in fact now not happen. This apparently demonstrated a ‘change of mind’. God, however, Who knew the end from the beginning, had intended just such a situation from the beginning.
VII. Matthew 26:36-39: Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” [Note: Luke 22:39–42 provides a similar account, especially with regard to what Jesus said in His prayer.]
This passage of scripture does not mention that God repented or relented. Instead, the focus is on what Jesus Christ said in His prayer to His Heavenly Father. What Jesus prayed may seem to indicate that He believed that God could change His mind about the need for Him (i.e., Jesus) to die on a cross, but do Bible commentaries support this assumption?
In reference to Matthew 26:36-39, the following Bible commentaries indicate that, in Jesus Christ’s incarnate form, He had some of the same limitations and weaknesses as other human beings and, therefore, He was not sure if it was absolutely necessary for Him to suffer an agonizing death on a cross, and as a result, He thought that God might relent.
Calvin’s explanation of Matthew 26:36-39 includes the following comments:
[I]t may be asked, How did he [Jesus Christ] pray that the eternal decree of the Father, of which he was not ignorant, should be revoked? or though he states a condition, if it be possible, yet it wears an aspect of absurdity to make the purpose of God changeable. We must hold it to be utterly impossible for God to revoke his decree. . . . All things, says he, are possible to thee. But it would be improper to extend the power of God so far as to lessen his truth, by making him liable to variety and change. I answer: There would be no absurdity in supposing that Christ, agreeably to the custom of the godly, leaving out of view the divine purpose, committed to the bosom of the Father his desire which troubled him. For believers, in pouring out their prayers, do not always ascend to the contemplation of the secrets of God, or deliberately inquire what is possible to be done, but are sometimes carried away hastily by the earnestness of their wishes.
With regard to the same scripture passage, Gill states,
[W]hen he [Jesus Christ] prays that this cup might pass from him, his meaning is, that he might be freed from the present horrors of his mind, be excused the sufferings of death, and be delivered from the curse of the law, and wrath of God; which request was made without sin, though it betrayed the weakness of the human nature under its insupportable load, and its reluctance to sufferings and death, which is natural. . . . Moreover, the human nature of Christ was now, as it were, swallowed up in sorrow, and intent upon nothing but sufferings and death; had nothing in view but the wrath of God, and the curse of the law; so that everything else was, for the present, out of sight; as the purposes of God, his counsel and covenant, his own engagements and office, and the salvation of his people; hence it is no wonder to hear such a request made; and yet it is with this condition, “if it be possible”.
Pett declares with regard to Matthew 26:36-39,
‘If it be possible.’ In His [Jesus Christ’s] mind the question is still open. He is aware from the Old Testament prophecies of the depth of suffering ahead. The only question is, is it necessary? ‘Let this cup pass from Me.’ The cup is a regular Old Testament symbol for suffering and reception of wrath. . . . But in the past such a cup had been taken out of the hand of His people once God had felt that they had drunk enough . . . and Jesus possibly hoped that this might now be possible for Him. ‘Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’ But only if it was within the will of His Father. He had no hesitation about doing His Father’s will. All He wanted to be sure of was, that what He was about to endure really was His Father’s will.
And, in reference to the same scripture passage, Poole says,
A thing in itself may be possible which considered in its circumstances is not so: thus, . . . all things are to God possible; but yet it is not possible for God to alter any thing which he hath decreed, or said shall come to pass. . . . But it will be objected, Did not Christ know that it was not possible?
It is one thing what he knew as he was God, and of counsel with the Father; and another thing what he prayed for as man. Besides, our Saviour’s saying, if it be possible, doth not suppose that he knew it was possible. . . .
With regard to the scriptures that we have cited in this article, the Bible commentaries whose explanations we have presented indicate that God does not change His mind (or His will), although changes in His actions may cause a number of people to have a contrary perception.
Furthermore, the NKJV Bible and other relatively recent Bible translations of the aforementioned scriptures indicate that God relents rather than repents. And, when the Bible states that God relented, it does not mean that He changed His mind. Instead, because God is omniscient, it is reasonable to conclude that He eased or eliminated His disciplinary actions on the basis of what he had decided before he began administering His discipline.