Psalm 15: divine immutability reconsidered

The psalm in today’s lectionary reading is from Psalm 15, and while I was reading it I was struck by the resource it offers in understanding divine immutability. Here is the passage with emphasis added:
Psalm 15:1-5

[1] O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
[2] Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
[3] who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
[4] in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the LORD;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
[5] who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
The Psalmist states very clearly that the one who is righteous “shall never be moved.” Certainly, this is not to be taken literally. It does not mean the righteous person is static or immobile. Nor does it mean the righteous one does not change, experience true emotions, or occasionally feel passionate about something or someone. What it means is that the righteous person is constant, never wavering in her adherence to the law of God or hypocritical in her life and actions. In other words, the righteous person is faithful to the covenant established between God and humanity. I think this holds true for the statements about God as well. We see in Scripture a God who is incredibly engaged with the world, full of emotion and passion (cf. Hos. 11:8). But we also have passages which say that God cannot be changed (1 Sam. 15:29). I think Ps. 15 offers us a picture of what divine immutability is really all about: clearly not a God who in fact never changes, but rather a God who is never moved from the divine determination to be God for us, i.e., to be faithful to the covenant of grace. Divine immutability is really divine constancy—God’s unwavering faithfulness to the people of God.

As an aside, I think Exod. 32:12 and Num. 23:19 offer an interesting test case for divine immutability. Exod. 32:12 reads: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” Here we see a plea on the part of Moses for God to change God’s mind. The fact that God does act differently must have been evidence to Moses that God in fact changed God’s mind. Later Christian interpreters had no problem with saying that God did not change God’s mind because the final outcome is what God intended all along. I will bracket this passage for now and turn to the other passage.

Num. 23:19 reads: “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” This is one of the classic texts to support divine immutability. But notice what the verse actually says: God is not immutable in any abstract sense, but rather God is immutable in the concrete sense of the covenant. God does not have a change of mind simply because God is never unfaithful to the covenant. If God promises something, God will do it. When we return then to Exod. 32, we see that Moses is really asking for God to be faithful to the covenant. (Similarly, when Hosea writes the words of God—“my heart is changed within me”—we see again that God changes only to remain faithful to the covenant.) Of course, God is by nature always faithful to the covenant of grace; the later interpreters are then correct to say that God always intended to be faithful to Israel in Exod. 32 and elsewhere, but they are not right to say that this then supports an abstract understanding of immutability. As these two passages (and others) show, God is immutable in relation to the covenant of grace. God’s immutability can mean no more and no less than this: that God is faithful to Godself in that God is faithful to humanity.


Halden said…

Anonymous said…
A lovely reflection. The only immutable thing in God is his holy love (read 'covenant' if you like), and this can never be immobile. Many thanks.
a. steward said…
I appreciate your notes in the aside, David. I think another passage that is important to look at in this regard is the account of the flood in Gen. 6.5-7, where we hear both that Yahweh's heart was grieved, and that he repented of ever creating human beings!
Lee Eddy said…
D W,

I like it. Thanks.

I liked it so much I linked to it at mine:

Of course it ended up starting an Open Theism convo, but that was my fault.