But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him (Deut. 18:20-22).
The reader who sent in this passage for discussion remarked that there are at least two instances in Scripture which tell us of a true prophet whose prophecy did not, in fact, take place. First, in Jeremiah 18:7-10, God is said to repent of a determination to destroy a nation that was evil. The Lord follows this with a warning that he will once again "repent" from doing good to that nation, if the nation which was spared forsakes God’s ways and turns again to evil. The key issue is the meaning of God’s repentance.
The second instance which seems to contradict the statement in Deuteronomy 18 is a concrete example of Jeremiah 18. It is the instance of God’s "change of mind" after Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. Jonah had preached, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jon. 3:4). But Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and God spared the city (10). It seems from this that the prophesy of Jonah was not, in fact, fulfilled—in contradiction of God’s Word in Deuteronomy 18. This is another example of God’s "repentance."
The Scriptures frequently speak of God’s repentance: Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; Judg. 2:18; I Sam. 15:11, 35; II Sam. 24:16; and often in the prophets. (However, between I Samuel 15:11 and 35, which speak of the Lord’s repentance that He had made Saul king, verse 29 declares, "the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.")
All these examples, while not in every case connected with specific prophecies, nevertheless demonstrate that Scripture frequently speaks of God’s repentance, also in connection with His Word through His prophets. One can say, therefore, that the rule of Deuteronomy 18 holds true for all prophecies, except those which are not fulfilled because God repents of what He did or said He would do.
Stating this, however, is not a sufficient answer to the question. What about Deuteronomy 18? We must ask the question: What does it mean when Scripture tells us that God repents?—especially when in other places Scripture most emphatically tells us that God does not repent. Moreover, God is immutable or unchangeable: "I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed" (Mal. 3:6).
The repentance of God is usually said to be a figure of speech called an anthropomorphism. This huge word means that God is frequently pictured in Scripture in such a way that human body parts, human activities, and human emotions are ascribed to Him. He is said to have eyes and ears, to see and hear, to have a right hand, to walk through the earth and even to sleep. Repentance is one of these anthropomorphisms.
Anthropomorphisms are not always the kind of figure of speech we may think. For example, Scripture speaks of God’s right hand, to which position Christ is exalted. But we must not think of our right hands as being the real right hands, and God’s right hand as the figure. It is the other way around. God’s right hand is the real right hand, and our right hands are only figures. The same is true of every anthropomorphism. God’s eyes are the real eyes; our eyes are the figures. We are created in the image of God. In a certain sense, our whole creation was in the image of God.
Now, when we apply the idea of anthropomorphisms to God’s repentance, then we must remember that repentance in God is quite different than it is in us. In us, repentance involves a change of mind. We decide to go to someone who has offended us in order to speak harsh and bitter words to that individual. But, on further reflection, we decide not to do this after all. We repent of our plan. Or we give some money to someone who seems to be in need, but, when that person simply squanders what we give, then we repent of having given that person money. This too involves a change of mind. But in God this is not so. He never changes or alters His plans. He never does something which He later regrets. He never has "second thoughts" about a course of conduct upon which He has decided. Nor does He threaten someone and then change His mind.
What repentance actually is in God is difficult for us to understand, for God is so high above us that we cannot fathom His ways. We are slaves of change; God never changes. Nevertheless, there is something we can say about this. When God determines in His eternal and unchangeable counsel on a course of action, He decrees the entire sequence of events in all their details.
Let us use the illustration of Hezekiah. Through Isaiah the prophet, God revealed to Hezekiah that he would die. Hezekiah prayed earnestly that his life would be spared. God seemed to change His mind and extended Hezekiah’s life by 15 years (Isa. 38:5). God determined the first word to Hezekiah, but He also determined Hezekiah’s prayer, and He even determined the extension of Hezekiah’s life in answer to the king’s prayer.
Why was all this necessary? Hezekiah had no son— probably because he had not married. (See II Kings 21:1, where we are told that Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, took the throne at the early age of 12). God was saying to Hezekiah: You have neglected your covenantal responsibilities in not marrying and producing a son to continue the royal line of David—which would end in Christ. What would happen if you die?
- Volume: 9
- Issue: 10
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
Address725 Baldwin Dr. B-25
State or ProvinceMI