Q&A: God is Wrong?

God is Wrong?

Question

Jeremiah 3:7 suggests that God was wrong in deducing how Israel would react in a certain situation. And I see that Jeremiah 26:3 expresses the same idea of doubt and uncertainty on the Lord's part. I'm a new Calvinist and I'm wary of simply distorting these verses so that they'll "fit" neatly into my Calvinistic box. Perhaps you could provide a more natural interpretation?

Answer

There are at least two ways to approach Jeremiah 3:7. The first is to say that is a metaphoric representation that ascribes human qualities to God in order for the reader to understand God's point. God's point might be seen as his crushed hopes at his people's rejection of him. And what better way to let his people know his feelings in this matter than to describe a human situation which would engender similar feelings in men? I'll deal with a second way to approach the text in a moment...

There are also at least two ways to approach Jeremiah 26:3. The first is to note that God is not confiding in Jeremiah. Rather, he is instructing Jeremiah to repeat these words to Judah, and Jeremiah is doing just that. Thus, the "perhaps" concept is not God's admission that he doesn't know the future, but a rhetorical prod to Judah that their fate depends on their actions. If they repent at Jeremiah's warning, God may not punish them. If, however, they do not repent, then God may indeed punish them. The "perhaps" indicates that either outcome is possible, not from the perspective of God's eternal decrees, but from the perspective of man's involvement with God in the world.

Now, the second way to deal with each of these passages is to appeal to the doctrine of providence. This is not really a high-profile doctrine in Reformed circles these days, but it is nevertheless valuable. As opposed to the doctrine of the immutability of God's eternal decrees, providence describes God's mutable interactions with the world. "Mutable?" Yes, mutable. The doctrine of immutability does not state that God is incapable of any change, but only that he is immutable in the areas of his character, his covenant promises, and his eternal decrees.

Frequently, theologians are so eager to emphasize God's eternal decrees that they rush to an eternal perspective even when the Bible does not. For example, consider the common question: Why does the Bible say that God changed his mind? The typical answer runs something like this: God didn't change his mind. God always knew what he would ultimately think and do (eternal decrees, omniscience, etc.). The language of changing his mind is an anthropomorphism (e.g. the first way I explained Jer. 3:7). Well, the typical answer is okay as far as it goes, but it doesn't do justice to the whole picture. It makes God look like an immovable object, not a responsive being that interacts in relationships.

Notice how frequently the Bible explains God's actions from the perspective of God's eternal decrees (not very often), and compare that to how many times it says he changed his mind, or repented, or thought better of what he was going to do (all the time). If the important thing is to note God's eternal decrees, why does the Bible so often approach things from the other side? Moreover, even if changing his mind is an anthropomorphic metaphor, what is the point of correspondence between the human quality of changing one's mind and God's behavior? Why portray something immutable as mutable? How does that help us understand the truth about God's actions and attitudes in these situations?

The doctrine of providence helps greatly in these situations because it describes things from the perspective of God's governance of his creation in time rather than from the perspective of his eternal decrees related his temporal governance. In time, God does change his mind (e.g. Exod. 32:14; 1 Sam. 12:22; Jer. 18:1-10; Amos 7:3,6; Jon 3:9-10) -- just as he eternally decreed that he would change his mind.

Thus, the second way to interpret Jeremiah 26:3 is according to providence -- it really was "perhaps" from God's perspective. Either outcome was possible, and God was ready for either. This does not mean that in his omniscience God did not know what they would do, but only that they could have done either, and that in his providence God was allowing them a choice.

Dealing with Jeremiah 3:7 from the perspective of the doctrine of providence and not as a metaphor is a bit unreasonable, given the highly metaphoric nature of the passage. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the doctrine of providence that help us here as well. Rather than say that there is no correlation between God saying that he "thought" inaccurately and his actual accurate omniscience, we may see that this metaphoric representation corresponds to a very real historic situation in which God offered Israel a choice similar to that in Jeremiah 26:3. Either outcome could have occurred (obedience or disobedience), and God presented the choice to Israel from the perspective that either choice could have been made. The inaccurate "thought" of God may have been God's way of describing the fact that Israel had the opportunity to repent, and that God really hoped Israel would repent (even though he knew from eternal perspective that they would not). Interestingly, the word translated "thought" in most Bibles is the Hebrew word 'amar, the most basic meaning of which is "said" not "thought." The ambiguity of 'amar may lend itself to seeing it as a reference to hope or desire.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.