Tuesday, September 20, 2016

God is immutable

OUR UNCHANGING GOD 
(Num 23:19; I Sam 15:29)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2016

Some people are always after the latest gadget. Others are quite satisfied with what they have and would rather keep things as they are. They find innovation, especially new technology, too confusing.
A young officer was working late at the Pentagon one evening. As he came out of his office, he saw a General standing by the classified document shredder in the hallway, a piece of paper in his hand. "Do you know how to work this thing?" the General asked. "My secretary has gone home and I don't know how to run it." "Yes, sir," said the young officer, who turned on the machine, took the paper from the General, and fed it in. "Now," said the General... "I just need one copy."
Change can be confusing. While God is not at all troubled by change, it is good for us that He Himself does not change, that no matter how circumstances (even technology) may shift around us (or completely pass us by), the Lord remains the same. He is Our Unchanging God.

God has many qualities we admire, such as His righteousness, goodness, and love. One quality we depend on especially is His immutability, His consistency, that He does not change in His essence, attributes, or will.1 It is the truth about Israel's God that Samuel reveals to Saul and that Balaam affirms to Balak. These two incidents illustrate God's immutability.2

The first incident we will consider that illustrates God's unchanging nature is Israel's encounter with the Amalekites along with the interaction between Samuel and Saul. When God's people left Egypt, the people group Israel initially contacted was the descendants of Esau. Whereas the Israelites would have preferred to proceed uninterrupted to Canaan, the Amalekites' unprovoked attack against God's people led Him to declare: "I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Exod 17:14b). God helped the Israelites to fend off the attack and continue on their way. But later, when Israel was about to cross the Jordan River into Canaan, God repeated His intention to destroy Amalek:
When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut 25:19)
Years after Israel was settled in the Promised Land, God told King Saul to "attack the Amalekites and totally destroy...them.... Put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys" (1 Sam 15:3). King Saul did defeat the Amalekites3 but thought their total destruction was wasteful, so he made two revisions to God's plan.
  • Saul spared the Amalekite king, perhaps as a bargaining chip for some future negotiations, and....
  • Saul spared the best of the livestock as spoils of war, for sacrifice to the Lord and for payment to his troops.
The rest of God's instructions Saul followed, killing all the men, women, and children.

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Such carnage may seem exceedingly cruel, uncharacteristic of a loving God, until we realize that the highest value in God's economy is not love (or life) but holiness, which is God's preeminent attribute, the one that best describes Him and the one His people must appreciate if they would know Him:
  • In Isaiah's vision of the heavenly court, the angels in attendance are not extolling God's love (although that is certainly important). They are calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty" (Isa 6:3).
  • In John's vision of the heavenly court, the angels in attendance are not extolling God's love (or His righteous and goodness): "Day and night they never stop saying: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty" (Rev 4:8).
The highest value in God's economy is His preeminent attribute, the one He uses most often to describe Himself and the one that accounts for everything He does. It is also an attribute He expects His people to emulate: "Be holy, because I am holy" (Lev 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Pet 1:16; cf. 20:26; 21:6; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:15; Rev 22:11). In order for that attribute to characterize His people, they must separate themselves from what is unholy, a process that requires drastic measures as well as different thinking.4
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The prophet Samuel confronted Saul on his return from battle with the Amalekites and wanted to know why he disobeyed God's order to destroy them all, including their livestock. Saul either thought God had not really meant what He said or thought that He would be amenable to a less wasteful course of action. Israelite soldiers captured the Amalekite king (a valuable prisoner) and spared the animals (as spoils of war). After all, why disregard a useful bargaining chip and destroy a good food source? Surely God would see the wisdom of this change in His original orders.

The problem was that God had given specific instructions that did not allow for such variance. What King Saul did not realize (or chose to ignore) was that God is immutable. When He says something He sticks with it. Had He been of the opinion that killing all the Amalekites and their livestock was wasteful, He would have given different orders, but He was not, so He did not.

I. God is consistent in His pronouncements, in what He says (1 Sam 15:29).

This highlights an important difference between God and man. Unlike God, man is inconsistent.5
He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind;
for he is not a man, that he should change his mind. (1 Sam 15:29)
This passage provides affirmation to both assertions about the Lord: Unlike man, He does not lie. Unlike man, He does not change His mind.
This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."6 (1 Sam 15:2-3)
Unfortunately, Saul did not understand God's character.7 The king probably thought Israel's God was like other deities, like Baal of the Canaanites or Molech of the Ammonites. But the God of Israel was not like other deities. Pagans made their gods in their own image, more powerful yet with similar form and similar flaws. Israel's God was not like them, and His immutable character is evident in that...
A. He is not impetuous, advocating a particular course of action with little regard for the consequences.
God always has His people's best interests in mind whenever He makes a decision. As He says through Jeremiah, "I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jr 29:11). One of the advantages of being all powerful is that God is able to make all aspects of His plan work together, which is an amazing feat of coordination; better still, He is able to make all aspects of His plan work together "for the good" of His people (Rom 8:28), which is an eminently gracious display of His benevolence and evinces that He is not impetuous, given to rash decisions.

The Israelites' best interest was not only their survival, but to understand God's unchanging nature, that He means what He says and will not alter it whenever they think He should.... Another way His immutable character benefits His people is that...
B. He is not capricious, acting in an unpredictable manner with no regard for the consequences.
God does not explain to Saul why He orders the complete destruction of the Amalekites, although it was probably not just because of their idolatry. After all, most peoples in the Ancient Near East were idolaters, and some of them even engaged in what God especially condemned, the sacrificing of their own children.8 More likely, God's extreme displeasure with the Amalekites was that group's decision to oppose God's people during the exodus from Egypt, which put them at odds with God Himself, "for whoever touches [Israel] touches the apple of his eye" (Zech 2:8). Whatever God's reason, He is not capricious. He commands the Amalekites' destruction, holds to that decision for several generations, and then charges Saul to carry it out. Whatever God's rationale, the proper response for Saul is simply to comply.

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Although this is a negative illustration of God's unchanging nature, it gives His people confidence in His immutability, an attribute that shows up in other ways, positive ways. For example, it means that His commitment to Israel is secure, that He will not cast them aside even when they rebel against Him. As God says through Malachi: "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Mal 3:6). In other words, despite the sin of God's people, they can be sure that His promises to them remain true, especially His pledge to be with them in times of difficulty.
  • God promised His presence during confrontations with an adversary:9
When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you. (Deut 20:1)
  • God promised His presence during experiences with adversity:10
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. (Isa 43:2a)
They can rely on God's powerful presence with them when they need it most.11

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How different God is from us! He is different in what He says, and He is different in what he does. God revealed to Israel about who He is and about what He would do to the Amalekites, revelation that did not change. Similarly, He has revealed to you about who He is and about what He will do, both in this life and the next, which is also revelation that does not change.

Because God does not change, His promises to you are unwavering and His precepts for you are unvarying. Consequently, your relationship with Him is not a one-way street. What He will do for you is certainly uppermost on your mind, yet equally important to the final outcome is what you will do for Him? Jesus said, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age...and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30).12 You show your expectation from Him later by your devotion to Him now.

As this passage from 1 Samuel illustrates, the Lord is immutable. He does not change His pronouncements, so when God commits Himself to a course of action, He does not give up. He threatened to destroy the Amalekites, and He did. God's immutability also means that having established long ago how a person can come to know Him (i.e., through faith) remains constant, as it does still for you.

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As much as possible, it is helpful to plan ahead, especially when engaging in a new activity.
Two men went fishing. One was an experienced fisherman, the other wasn't. Every time the experienced fisherman caught a big fish, he put it in his ice chest to keep it fresh. Whenever the inexperienced fisherman caught a big fish, he threw it back. The experienced fisherman watched this go on all day and finally got tired of seeing the man waste good fish. "Why do you keep throwing back all the big fish you catch?" he asked. The inexperienced fisherman replied... "I only have a small frying pan."
As much as possible, it is helpful to plan ahead. God, of course, does not need to plan ahead. Because He is omniscient, knowing everything, He is prepared for anything. Being prepared, He does not have to adjust to changing circumstances. He is Our Unchanging God.

God has many qualities we admire. One quality we depend on especially is His immutability, His consistency, that He does not change in His essence, attributes, or will. It is the truth about Israel's God that Samuel reveals to Saul and that Balaam affirms to Balak. These two incidents illustrate God's immutability.

The second incident we will consider that illustrates God's unchanging nature is Israel's encounter with the Moabites, along with the interaction between Balaam and Balak. The Moabites were the Israelites' distant cousins through Abraham's nephew Lot.13 Over time the Israelites and Moabites drifted apart.14 The Moabites settled east of the Jordan River, outside Canaan proper, whereas the Israelites migrated south to Egypt. Now, "430 years" later (Exod 12:40; Gal 3:17), the Israelites were returning to Canaan. Moses, leader of the Israelites, assured Balak, leader of the Moabites, that Israel had no designs on Moabite territory but merely wanted to pass through on the way to Canaan. Balak was reluctant, though, suspicious the Israelites might attack the Moabites. He was also concerned that the passage of so many people15 with their accompanying livestock would deplete the land of its resources:
Now Balak...saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,16 and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites.... "This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field." (Num 22:2-4a)
Realizing that armed conflict would take a terrible toll, and hearing about others' failed attempts to hinder Israel's progress,17 Balak18 enlists the services of Balaam, a local prophet, to curse Israel.19 It is interesting that when Barak needs help, he does not call one of the prophets of Chemosh, his god.20 Instead, he calls Balaam,21 a prophet whose storied resume included serving the LORD. Perhaps Balak thought a malediction in the name of Israel's own God would be more effective than a malediction in the name of a foreign god. In any case, Balaam accepts the assignment with one caveat: "Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God" (Num 22:18)22 This proved to be an insurmountable impediment for Barak's wishes,23 frustrating Balaam's every attempt to fulfill his assignment,24 as the Lord forbade him repeatedly from cursing Israel.25

II. God is consistent in His plans, in what He designs (Num 23:19).

This second incident highlights an important difference between God and man. Unlike God, man is impotent; he is unable to follow through on everything he wants.26

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man,27 that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Num 23:19)

This passage provides answers to these rhetorical questions about the Lord. "No," He does more than one thing: He both speaks and acts. He both promises and fulfills.
The Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho [and] Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites.... Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor.... Balak said: "A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country...." (Num 22:1-6)
Balak recognized that God had given Israel great success on the battlefield and that the only hope for Moab was to turn God against Israel, but this deity is not like other deities. He made a commitment to protect Israel,28 and...
A. He will practice what He preaches.29
He also expects those who represent Him to convey that commitment.30

Balaam attempts to delay implementing his assignment from Balak in the hope of finally getting permission from God to curse Israel and get paid for his services. Alas, God does not change His mind, and He does not allow Balaam to change his message. Despite King Balak's taking the prophet to different vantage points to see the vast size of this invading force, in the hope that Balaam would grasp Moab's predicament,31 the prophet remains steadfast: He will not curse Israel. In fact, he does the opposite, much to the king's dismay.
Then Balak's anger burned against Balaam.... "I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times.32 Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded." Balaam answered Balak, "Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, 'Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD—and I must say only what the LORD says'? (Num 24:10-13)
Balaam explains to Balak the reason Moab would not defeat these travelers in battle, which was a long-standing commitment God had made to "bless" the Israelites (Gen 12:2-3) and the fact that this deity is not like other deities.33 He will practice what He preaches. Moreover...
B. He will perform what He promises.
Again, unlike the false gods of the Ancient Near East, Israel's God is able to make and fulfill a promise to His people. Hundreds of years earlier, "the LORD said to Abraham.... "I will make you into a great nation" (Gen 12:1-2). Other gods made no such commitments because, unlike Israel's God, they lacked the ability to keep them, but the Lord is different. Now, several hundred years later, Abraham's descendants have become a formidable and feared group.

When news of Israel's run-in with the Amalekites and, later, with the Amorites, both of which ended in defeat for those groups, reached Barak the king of Moab, he realized that his own situation was dire. What the king does not realize is that the assignment he gives Balaam, to curse Israel, places his own people in even greater danger, for God also said about Abraham's descendants "whoever curses you I will curse" (Gen 12:3), and the Lord's efforts are not without their intended result.

Balaam never actually utters a curse against Israel,34 despite that being Barak's hope. Nevertheless, after Israel reaches the Promised Land, Moab suffers for its opposition to God's people, serving several Judean kings until Moab's final demise during the Babylonian invasion.35 When God states His intention to oppose any who oppose His people, it is not a empty threat. He will perform what He promises.

Israel's special status is not a blank check, a guarantee of God's favor no matter how His people behave, and He says as much:
If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. (Exod 19:5a)
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. (Deut 28:1)
The Lord expects the Israelites to maintain their favored status by obeying Him.36

How different God is from us! He is different in what He says, and He is different in what he does. He is also different in what He promises, for He will not commit Himself to anything He will not keep. He chooses His obligations carefully, selecting only those that accord with His purpose. In this way you must be like Him: Do not promise what you may not keep. That is, do not make frivolous commitments. Too easily people say the words "I promise," perhaps sincerely intending to keep their word but unable to guarantee it, because only God can give such assurance. While it is possible to make promises you cannot keep, you must not make promises you may not keep when the situation changes. As Jesus told his disciples: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No" (Matt 5:37).

However much people may want to keep their word, it is often beyond their ability, or something happens to alter the state of their affairs, invalidating a previous commitment. For example, we hope that our politicians will keep the promises they make leading up to an election, but we know they may not, so we are not (or should not be) surprised when they do not, when the idealism of campaigning conflicts with the realism of governing. That is not, however, what God expects from His people, from you. God expects you to keep your word and not to make commitments you cannot keep.37 In this way, He expects you to be like Him. As He is "the God of truth" (Ps 31:5), you must be a person "who speaks the truth" (Ps 15:2).

As this passage from Numbers illustrates, the Lord is immutable. He does not change His plans, so when God commits Himself to a course of action, He does not give up. He promised to protect the Israelites, and He did. God's immutability also means that having established long ago how a person should please Him (i.e., through obedience) remains constant, as it does still for you.

In both establishing and maintaining a relationship with God, His people need only "trust and obey, for there's no other way," and Our Unchanging God ensures that it will remain so.


For a pdf including Bibliography and Endnotes see here.