Sami Zaatari of Answering Christianity asks:
The Bible says God cannot change (Cf. Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 102:26-27; Malachi 3:6; Romans 11:29; Hebrews 6:17-18; James 1:17), and that he is all-knowing (Cf. Job 37:16; Psalm 147:4-5; 1 John 3:20). But the New Testament teaches that Jesus did change and that he didn’t even know the day or hour of his return (Cf. Mark 13:32; Luke 2:40,52). How can Jesus be God if he doesn’t even have these essential attributes of God?
This post will just deal with the context and meaning of the verses on change. The underlining assumptions in Zaatari’s question are mistaken. Zaatari further states about those verses:
Num 23:19: God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
1 Samuel 15:29: And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
Malachi 3:6: For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
Those three verses should do. So basically we see making it very clear that he does not change. As Shamoun correctly stated, when God says he does not change, this means he does not change his essence, his attributes, his purpose and his decrees. However, this leaves the Christians with a problem. Sure the Christians say that those verses don’t mean that God cannot become a man, however the verses are still very clear, that God is not LIKE a man to repent or change his mind, God is not LIKE a man to be weak and have no power, God is not LIKE a man to become a servant. That is the main message that God is sending, he not like a man, so we cannot try and compare him with us, and he is not like a man to change his mind, such as his laws and his teachings. However so, if Jesus is indeed God, then God has indeed taken a drastic U-turn and has changed, not because he became a man, or the son of man, but because his attributes and essence have completely CHANGED.
Zaatari would have the reader believe that the verses in question are power verses, but in context they are about repentance only (and limited to the immediate context).
Num 23:19 “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
The phrasing of this verse is crucial. God will not repent. God has said something and God will do it. This is not about if God has the power to do something or not. No, that is taken for granted. The verse assumes that God can be prevailed upon to change His mind, and in that context can an event not occur. The text is hedging against God doing that in the particular context of the verse (not establishing a general rule). When general rules are established, it is always that God WILL repent if He sees people repent (see Jeremiah 18 and Ezekiel 18).
The context of the verse is about Balaam not being able to undo the blessings of Israel. Balak had hired Balaam to curse Israel, but God “met” with Balaam and told Balaam how to reply to Balak. The reply was that Balaam blessed Israel because God was not going to undo His blessing. In that context, God does not change.
Particularly damning to Zaatari’s reading of the verse is that the context of the verse assumes that if there was a good reason to repent then God would repent. Notice how the prophet “cannot reverse it” because no sin was observed:
Num 23:20 Behold, I have received a command to bless; He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.
Num 23:21 “He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, Nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him, And the shout of a King is among them.
Numbers 23 is clear: God would repent if there is a reason to repent. Because there is no reason to repent then God will not repent. A man may arbitrarily change his mind. God is not a man to change His mind without adequate reason.
1Sa 15:29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.”
Here is the context of the entire chapter:
King Saul has just violated God’s command not to take spoils of war.
1Sa 15:9 But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.
1Sa 15:10 Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying,
1Sa 15:11 It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
This leads God directly to “repenting” of having made Saul the king of Israel. Samuel hears God’s message and the next morning confronts Saul on his spoils of war. Samuel explains to Saul that “Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” Saul immediately repents, and asks for mercy (for his kingdom to not be taken away):
1Sa 15:24 And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.
1Sa 15:25 Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.
Notice Saul’s deep repentance. Saul seeks pardon and wants to go worship God. But this is denied. Samuel says:
1Sa 15:28 And Samuel said unto him, The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.
1Sa 15:29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
The context of God not repenting is “repenting that He made Saul king.” When God says He will not repent, God is saying “I will not repent of repenting that I made Saul king (taking his kingdom away).” God is not making a general claim of immutability. God is making the claim that Saul cannot expect to convince God to give him back the kingdom. God has made up his mind.
To set up a parallel to really drive home the point: Pretend I allow my boys to play with GI Joes. Pretend I have given them instructions on how to play gently such that they do not destroy those action figures. If my boys then play with those GI Joes, destroy a couple, then I might then take away those toys. If my boys apologize and promise to be more careful in the future, I would be well within my rights to say: “I am taking the GI Joes. I will not change my mind. I am not your mom that I would change my mind.”
For someone to come along and claim that I am immutable would be a disservice to the context. My statement was limited to the events in question, and extrapolating and mystifying would be a gross injustice. My words, taken literally, are that my mind is made up on this one issue.
Mal 3:6 “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.
Does this make sense if the verse was about immutability?
“For I am the Lord, I am immutable, thus you are not destroyed.”
Does immutability lead to the conclusion that God will not destroy a people? The author of Malachi was not offering some sort of immutability prooftext. That would not make any sense. This verse means “I am God, I am not revoking my promises to your forefathers to make a great nation, thus I have not wiped you off the face of the Earth for your sins as I should have done under normal circumstances.” As with the rest of the Bible, the idea is that God will only kill the wicked of Israel and attempt to build the promised nation out of the remnant. In that sense, God maintains judgement while maintaining His promise to Abraham.
The immediate context explains this verse. Needless to say, understanding the context reveals the verse is evidence that God is dynamic and changes.
Mal 3:5 And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness Against sorcerers, Against adulterers, Against perjurers, Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, And against those who turn away an alien— Because they do not fear Me,” Says the LORD of hosts.
Mal 3:6 “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.
Mal 3:7 Yet from the days of your fathers You have gone away from My ordinances And have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” Says the LORD of hosts.
The immediate context shows that God is talking about a people who have turned away from him and towards sin. God threatens them into returning to him. While people change their morality and claim that sins are not sins, God’s perspective on morality stays the same. Often not quoted by those who would have Malachi 3:6 mean that “God is immutable” is the following verse “Return to Me, and I will return to you”. The message is consistent with the rest of the Bible establishing that God responds to the actions of people. Interesting enough, Malachi then details the changes God will do based on the repentance of Israel:
Mal 3:10 …Says the LORD of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven And pour out for you such blessing That there will not be room enough to receive it.
Mal 3:11 “And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, So that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground, Nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,” Says the LORD of hosts;
Mal 3:12 And all nations will call you blessed, For you will be a delightful land,” Says the LORD of hosts.
So the text which says “God cannot change” is in the context of saying that God changes his curses to blessings based on the actions of his people. That is the message of the Bible: God is judgement, justice, and responds righteously.
Psa 102:26 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.
Psa 102:27 But You are the same, And Your years will have no end.
The context of the verse is included in the verse. Obviously this verse is talking about God being everlasting (living forever). People will die and wither away, but God is the same, not growing old or dying. Tho make the phrase “But you are the same” to be a statement on immutability is not natural to the text:
They will die, but God will live. They will grow old, and God will change them, but God is immutable and will live forever.
The verses are just not about general change, but about lifespans, growing old, and dying.
Rom 11:29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
This verse is a good companion verse to Malachi 3:6. The context is that Paul is attempting to explain to the Gentiles that God has not just abandoned the Jews. In Romans 8-11, Paul sets up an argument as to how God could turn to the Gentiles without abandoning His promises to the Jews. In Romans 11:13, Paul then switches his audience to the Gentiles and starts explaining their roles as it pertains to the Jews. The verse has absolutely nothing to do with general immutability. The fact that Paul uses Romans to set up a complicated reasoning as to how God can fulfill a promise in spite of the rejection of the promise’s recipients is great evidence as to the fact that Paul thought God could change.
Heb 6:17 Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath,
Heb 6:18 that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
This also is not a very good verse to show that God has general immutability. The context is about a specific promise. In order to prove that this particular promise was of special consideration, God performs an oath. God does not perform oaths for all promises, only this one. The text assumes that God can revoke some promises in some contexts. But this one particular promise, God performs special actions to prove His own sincerity. Of course, this promise is the promise to Abraham, the promise referenced by Romans 11:29 and Malachi 3:6. This promise is THE promise in the Bible. Much of the Bible revolves around God attempting to fulfill this promise. In Matthew 3:9, Jesus claims that to fulfill this one promise that God can kill all of Israel and then create a new Israel out of the rocks. This is not a promise that people can easily thwart or that God will easily revoke.
Jas 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
The metaphor used in James is that God is not the Sun or stars. God is the father of lights. Whereas the pagans worshiped the lights, God created the lights. James contrasts God to these lights, in which revolve around the Earth (shadow of turning). The idea is that whereas the Sun and stars come and go from the visible sky, God will never leave. James says every good and perfect gift is from God, and in this context God does not disappear. This verse is not about general immutability, but that God does not hide. God is constant and active.
Examining all the above immutability prooftexts in context paints a much different character of God than the Classical Theists would have their audience believe. Much of the context of the immutability prooftexts is about how God changes in relation to people. In Samuel 1, the context is that God has repented and will not un-repent. The other major theme is that God will not undo His promise to Abraham. The message is consistent and clear.