Jeremiah 18: Does God Change His Mind?

Why don’t we dive into some controversy today? That is always fun, and Jeremiah 18 gives us a very good opportunity to begin to think about the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the free will of humanity.

Jer 18:3  Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels.

Jer 18:4  And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.

Jer 18:5  Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying,

Jer 18:6  O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.

Jer 18:7  At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;

Jer 18:8  If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.

Jer 18:9  And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;

Jer 18:10  If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.

I think that this is a complicated issue on a few levels. A very basic reading of this passage almost implies that we as humans define the actions of God. If we act a certain way, then God will change His mind. One could argue that this is almost what you see in the story of Nineveh. God was going to destroy the city, but when the people repented, He decided not to. In the opposite direction, in the cases of Sodom and Gomorrah, if there was one righteous person to be found, God said that He was willing to call off His imminent destruction. Obviously the destruction came, but it does seem to imply that perhaps there was room for negotiation in that based upon the choices that humans made.

This is a difficult passage because at the same time, the clay of the world is entirely in the hands of God. God has control over what He does, so there is an interesting balance here. On one hand, He seems to take human actions into consideration, but He also holds the freedom of being the one who ultimately makes the decision.

However, there is another level to this discussion as well that needs to be taken into consideration. God is omniscient. He knows all things, and He even those things that have happened yet.

Isa 46:9  Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,

Isa 46:10  Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

Now we have a little bit of a dilemma. On one hand, God is indeed in charge of the world. He holds the world in hand, and He makes decisions that impact the world. On the other hand, He knows what is going to happen according to Isaiah, and that would include knowledge of who was going to repent and who was not going to repent. For example, God would have known that the people of Nineveh were going to repent. Even though Jonah did not know that, God would have. Therefore, God also knew that He was not going to destroy the city of Nineveh. I guess that raises the question then why He continually told Jonah that He was going to, and did God really change His mind?

It seems to me that an important way to look at this is to remember that the ways of God are not the ways of man. For us, it seems like God changes His mind. In the case of Nineveh, all indications were that God was going to destroy them, but then He did not. However, God knew all along that He would not destroy Nineveh because they would repent. In that sense, He did not change His mind whatsoever.

You might say that God was dishonest then. Why did He tell Jonah all of that about destruction if it really wasn’t necessary?

Dishonesty is not part of the equation here because God was not dishonest. If they did not repent, then they would have been destroyed. That is true. Their conduct deserved punishment as much as today we talk about people needing to come to the cross and be reconciled through the saving work of Jesus Christ. God was not dishonest about the consequences of disobedience.

Also, in the case of Jonah, God knew that He was going to use Jonah as the one to deliver the message of repentance to the people in Nineveh. Jonah was part of the metanarrative that God has written. Sure, God could have brought the people of Nineveh to repentance in a different way. He could have used a different messenger or method, but again we come back to this image of the master potter in Jeremiah. This was part of the plan.

I have already written more words then you probably want to read, and I don’t want to drag on forever, but I think the next step of the equation is to define this relationship between human free will and predestination. Today, we only scratched the surface by looking at how, whether or not humans have free will, God does not change. Even though it might seem that way from our human perspective, God is indeed sovereign. He is ultimately in charge of the universe, and even if humans do have free will (which I believe we do), we do not define His actions. He does not change His mind.


Posted on August 24, 2014, in Jeremiah and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I find it somewhat amusing that people seem to think that a theology that says God doesn’t change his mind somehow makes him more sovereign or powerful. It seems clear to me from the Jeremiah passage that part of what is being said is that God power means that he reserves the right to change his mind and actions at any time. To say that God can’t or doesn’t change his mind is to make him less powerful. How can God being truly responding to our prayers if they don’t change his actions? What I see, is that this is how God has set the world up to work and it’s not a static reality where everything is pre-planned a certain way, but God is truly with us, not just the puppet master pulling all the strings.

    Yes there are some things that he pre-determines, those things that he knows will happen because he will bring them about in one way or another, but he is not locked into a certain mode of bringing them about. If one person disobeys, he can use another.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I was very intentional about how I wrote this. I wanted to be careful to imply that God could potentially change His mind. I always said that He does not change His mind. He has the right to certainly, but why would He? It is kind of like I spoke about in the Nineveh situation. God knew that Nineveh would repent, so even though it looks like He changed His mind from an earthly perspective, I don’t think we have to say that He did though. I think that given His omniscience, we never have to say that God necessarily changed His mind.

      To answer your concern about prayer, I have to make a choice in a certain situation to pray for example. I hate to say it, but there are times I have chosen not to pray. My free will seems to experientially make sense. Also, when I sin, I don’t say that God made me sin. I say that I made the mistake, and I need to ask for forgiveness from God. Again, this is a free will concept.

      However, I also cannot deny that we are created by an omniscient God who knows everything about us and has a plan for our lives. He knows what we will do. In that sense then, isn’t my future already somewhat predestined in the sense that God already knows it?

      As a result, there is a balance here that I don’t think is 100% explained by either of the two predominant positions.

  2. I believe (but do not know) that God has created a universe with a certain about of randomness programmed in. It’s the only way I can make sense in my mind of how we can be truly responsible for our actions. Otherwise, as you rightly say, everything would in some sense be pre-destined.
    What you are describing is what I believe is commonly referred to as capabilism, where you have to hold two contradicting ideas (human responsibility and a completely controlling God) in tension. I tried it, didn’t work for me, so I guess God didn’t give me that kind of mind.
    I don’t propose to know God’s mind, but when I read the Bible with out supposing that God chooses to know everything ahead of time, it makes more sense. I know this is contrary to most traditional theology. So, I’m probably in some sense an open theist, because what scripture tells me is that some things have to happen (because God has chosen for them to happen) and others are open to change due to man’s free will.
    Yes, God has a plan for our lives, but few of us will follow it all the time. Anyway, good post!

    • You mentioned having both of these ideas in tension, and I definitely feel that. However, I kind of think of them as more of two sides of a billboard rather than necessarily conflicting. They describe the same process, but it depends on if we are viewing it from the human side or God’s side. Anyway, thanks so much for dropping by and commenting!

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