By Alden Thompson | 28 July 2021 |
God is in the business of changing people’s minds, especially the minds of sinners. That’s not surprising. But it is worth a raised eyebrow or two to hear God ask sinners to help Him change His own mind.
You heard right. God asks sinners to help Him change His mind. Jeremiah 26 tells the story, shedding important light on the purpose of God’s prophetic messages in the Old Testament.
In the chapter, the spotlight is on Jeremiah himself, a prophet in misery, prophesying in a miserable time. The Lord has sent him a bad news/good news message to pass on to the people of Judah. The bad news is God’s threat to destroy the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The good news shines through in the word IF: IF the message is blunt enough, suggests God, maybe “they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil ways” (Jer. 26:13 NRSV). It’s an earlier version of Peter’s “patient” God who wants everyone to repent and no one to burn (2 Pet. 3:9).
In this instance, Jeremiah lays down a definite IF—an approach well-attested in Scripture. Moses’ last speech to Israel is perhaps the most notable example: Blessings IF you obey (Deut. 28:1-14), curses IF you don’t (Deut. 28:15-68).
Jeremiah 26 tells us more about God’s use of the IF clause. But before we take a closer look, we should note that God does not limit himself to this one approach. In many instances He seems to drop all conditions, speaking of both doom and salvation as if they were iron-clad and sealed, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Prophecies of doom in this mode are easy to spot in the prophets. Micah, for example, on Jerusalem: “It’s all over. Zion will be a plowed field, Jerusalem a heap of ruins” (Mic. 3:12). Or Jonah to Nineveh: “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4).
On the positive side, unconditional promises of salvation are also ready to hand. God takes the initiative. Jeremiah’s new covenant promise is a good example: “I will write my law on your heart. Your life depends on my certain promises, not your broken ones” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The same is true of Ezekiel’s promise of a new heart: “I will give you a new heart. And my Spirit will make you keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Since promises and threats appear in both modes in Scripture—that is, with the IF and without—it is interesting to note how Christians bring the two patterns together, or keep them apart.
Mostly they have kept them apart. Those who stress Divine sovereignty (e.g., the Presbyterian and Reformed [Calvinist] tradition) focus on the unconditional promises and threats, minimizing the human response. But those who stress the importance of the human will (e.g., the Methodist [Arminian] tradition) have less to say about Divine sovereignty, focusing instead on the IF clauses.
Pushed to their logical extremes, the two approaches seem contradictory, at least at the theoretical level. One world is determined by God’s decision, the other by human effort. If, however, we look at both approaches for their practical, motivational value, they complement each other, covering the full range of human needs, for as perceptive parents, teachers, and pastors know all too well, what turns one person on turns another off, and vice versa.
Some crave freedom, others security. Some love a challenge, responding best when they have a hand on the reins. Others are most productive when assured that their destiny lies secure in God’s hands.
In our modern world, it is the difference between those who thrive on the uncertain excitement of working on commission and those who need a steady salary: the hard-driving salesman in the showroom, and the faithful accountant in the back room. In a religious setting, it is the difference between the fast-paced world of the evangelist and the more settled parish environment of the pastor.
Remarkably, because of sin, either approach can result in discouragement or carelessness. Those who love a challenge too easily slip into neutral in a secure world. Those needing security become just as ineffective in the face of a challenge.
So God does what every wise parent, teacher, and pastor has to do: He mixes, matches and blends His methods, becoming all things to all people in order to save some.
But now let’s return to Jeremiah 26 and look more closely at God’s attempt to motivate His people. When Jeremiah first pled with them to change God’s mind by changing their behavior, they treated Jeremiah as a traitor. Jeremiah 7 records his attack on their secure world. You can’t just say: “The Temple! The Temple! The Temple!” as though it were some magic charm, he warned. You can’t kill, steal, and commit adultery while claiming the temple as security. Reform, says God, or I will destroy this temple as I did the one at Shiloh (Jer. 7:1-15).
Jeremiah 26 records the people’s reaction. “Treason,” they cried. “You shall die!” (Jer. 26:8-9). They liked their safe, secure world, one unthreatened by wicked behavior. Amazingly, they viewed Jeremiah’s conditional threat as a treasonous certainty, even though he plainly said God was begging them to change His mind (Jer. 26:3). “If you repent,” Jeremiah promised again, “God will change His mind” (Jer. 26:13).
Suddenly, someone remembered a piece of history, just enough to rescue Jeremiah from the mob. “Wait!” came the cry. “In the days of King Hezekiah [some 100 years earlier] didn’t the prophet Micah prophesy that Jerusalem would become a heap of ruins? Yet King Hezekiah didn’t put Micah to death. Instead, he turned to the Lord and the Lord changed His mind” (Jer. 26:17-19). Jeremiah 26:18 includes the actual quote from Micah 3:12, a threat of destruction, unconditional and unequivocal. Yet Micah’s audience heard the unspoken IF and repented. And the Lord changed his mind.
The same thing happened when Jonah preached against Nineveh. Although he announced unconditional destruction, the people heard God’s IF, repented, and saved their city. The NRSV simply says: “God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10). Jonah, however, was angry. He wanted smoke, even though, as he himself admitted, he knew all along that God would relent if the people did (Jonah 4:1-2).
In the end, a remarkable two-fold conclusion emerges from the prophets: 1. When people are sensitive to the Spirit of God, they hear His IF, even when it is not stated. 2. When they resist, they don’t hear the IF even though it is shouted in their ears. Isn’t it curious, that those hearing Micah and Jonah responded positively to the unconditional threat, while Jeremiah’s listeners resisted the IF? Only when they remembered Micah’s unconditional threat did they finally hear the IF and respond.
It seems safe to conclude, then, that as far as God’s threats are concerned, all are conditional, even when no IF is included. But what about promises of salvation and restoration? That’s a more volatile question, for while all evangelical Christians agree that restoration is certain, the when and how is much debated.
A sizable number of modern Christians have adopted so-called “dispensationalism,” a perspective emphasizing God’s sovereignty to the virtual exclusion of conditionality: God’s prophecies will be fulfilled, period. Consistent with that position, every unfulfilled prophecy from the Old Testament is expected to be fulfilled in detail at the end of time or during the millennium to follow. Even human death and animal sacrifices are said to continue after the second coming of Christ.
If we take the position, however, that the purpose of prophecy is to reform, not simply to inform, then we can see every prophetic “restoration” picture as establishing the principle of restoration. The details will differ according the differing needs of each audience. The great restoration pictures of Scripture—Ezekiel 40-48, Isaiah 65-66, Zechariah 14, Revelation 21-22—all confirm the hope of restoration, yet the details differ, sometimes dramatically. Recognizing the principle of conditionality explains why some were not fulfilled in the Old Testament. Yet we don’t have to toss them out as contradictory or struggle to integrate every detail into one grand master plan. They simply are God’s way of being all things to all people that He might save some. Saving is always God’s consistent purpose. That never changes, even when threats of doom seem to overwhelm the promise of restoration.
Finally, I must admit that Jeremiah 26 has helped me see the glimmer of hope even in the most emphatic pronouncement of doom, for when Jeremiah says that “the Lord will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you” (Jer. 26:13 NRSV), he picks loose a thread of hope that apparently was bound fast when King Josiah, just a few years before, discovered the law book in the temple and learned to his horror that the nation was doomed. As told in 2 Kings 22, the prophetess Huldah informed Josiah that Judah’s sin was too great. Disaster was certain. But the Lord would postpone destruction until after Josiah’s reign because the king had humbled himself before the Lord (2 Kings 22:15-20).
Could the evil day have been postponed permanently by continued repentance? I think so, for Jeremiah promised the people: “The Lord will change His mind.” If rattling the saber will wake the people up, the Lord will do it. “Change my mind,” He says. “I want to save, not destroy.
Alden Thompson is a Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University. His classic book Inspiration is again available on Amazon.
A version of this article was published in the Signs of the Times in February of 1992.