I must admit from the start that this blog post was inspired from a recent sermon I heard on 1 Samuel. It hinges on one verse, a dangerous thing to do, as it can lead to things being taken of context, but bear with me. It’s a verse I’ve read before, but never really seen.
“Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:35, NRSV)
The word translated above as ‘sorry’ is the Hebrew word nacham, which can be translated as ‘repent’ or ‘change one’s mind’. When this was pointed out to me, I was astonished. I had long been balancing the idea that God doesn’t change with the idea that God listens to us and answers prayers; ideas, which, when thought about for a minute or two, seem quite contradictory.
The idea that God doesn’t change is often called immutability. The American writer and pastor, J.I. Packer, in his most famous work, Knowing God, draws this out in 6 points:
- God’s life doesn’t change.
- God’s character doesn’t change.
- God’s truth doesn’t change.
- God’s ways do not change.
- God’s purposes do not change.
- God’s Son does not change.
In book 7 of his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo, says to God, “With all my heart I believed you to be incorruptible, immune from injury and unchangeable.”
A.W. Tozer argues that got cannot change thus: “For a moral being to change .. He must go from better to worse or from worse to better or…from immature to mature or from one order of being to another. It should be clear that God can move in none of these directions.”
Other than philosophy, where might the idea of an unchangeable God come from? Well, Numbers 23:19, Psalm 33:11, Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 6:17, Hebrews 13:8 and James 1:17 are all verses I’ve seen referenced to support the point, the latter two in particular being popularised in song form (e.g. here & here).
How might they be reconciled with 1 Samuel? For starters, we might look at what 1 Samuel doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that God sinned, nor does it say God made a mistake. However, the notion of God repenting, i.e. turning around, does lead me, at least, to think that the references in Malachi and James given above may be more poetic than dogmatic. It also gives me hope, particularly with regards to prayers, mentioned at the top. If God were the immovable object of conjectural philosophy, a rock that could not be eroded, impervious to everything, then what would be the point of prayer, especially intercession?
Being a disciple means grappling with these questions, yet we need not do it alone. We have those in our local churches to help us, as we help them in turn, and the opening up of the digital world has put different parts of the wider Church in touch with another, so we can all voice our doubts, fears and questions to one another as we stumble towards something like an understanding.
Just by someone highlighting this issue to me made me think. I hope I’ve made you think a little too, as well as providing some potential routes with which to explore this idea further. What else have you been prompted to think about lately? Have you prompted anyone else to think things through anew?