...

And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

Jonah 3:10

 

Jonah 3:10 is one of many verses that speaks of God repenting. Others are Genesis 6:6, 7; Exodus 32:14; Deuteronomy 32:36; Judges 2:18; I Samuel 15:11, 35; II Samuel 24:16; I Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 90:13; 106:45; 135:14; Jeremiah 18:8, 10, 13; 26:3, 19; 42:10; Joel 2:13, 14; and Amos 7:3, 6. What do these verses mean? Does Jonah 3:10, with the other verses, mean that God changed His mind?

Compounding the problem are those verses that say God does not repent, notably Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” Romans 1:29 says that “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” Malachi 3:6 says, too, that God does not change, “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”

What, then, are we to make of Jonah 3:10 and how can it be reconciled with Numbers 23:19 and Malachi 3:6? Open Theism, a modern theological movement, teaches that God does change and changes in response to our actions, an easy but unacceptable solution that does not do justice to Malachi 3:6 and the biblical doctrine of God’s immutability.

Many evangelicals are content to leave the matter as a contradiction, or as they call it, an antinomy. That, however, is a denial of another of God’s attributes, His simplicity. God’s simplicity, taught in James and Peter, means that there can be no contradiction in God and it is an aspect of God’s unchangeableness. His revealed will cannot contradict His eternal good pleasure, even if we cannot understand how the two are reconciled. If His revealed will contradicts His decree then in His revealed will He lies to us.

Nor must we take the position of Matthew Henry:

God’s threatenings are conditional, “unless they repent,” as are His promises, “if they endure to the end,” Matthew 10:22. God said afterward by Jeremiah, Jeremiah 18:7-8: At what “instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down and to destroy it, if that nation, against whom I had pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.”

That God does not change must be the starting point for any discussion of a verse like Jonah 3:10. If God changes, then He is no greater than we are (Num. 23:19) and no different from the idols the Ninevites worshiped in their ignorance and unbelief. Then we have no certainty or possibility of assurance and no hope in Him. Then our certainty of God’s love is no more than a little girl pulling the petals off a daisy and saying to herself, “He loves me…he loves me not.” Then Christ’s death and resurrection can come to nothing, then grace is powerless, and the Spirit of God works often in vain. The immutability of God is foundational not only to theology but to our own hope and blessedness, as Malachi 3:6 makes clear.

The usual explanation of any verse that speaks of God’s repenting is that this is an anthropopathism or anthropomorphism, that is, an ascription of human emotions or characteristics to God. This was the view of John Calvin and of most Calvinistic and Reformed commentators:

Now as to what Jonah adds, that God was led to repent, it is a mode of speaking that ought to be sufficiently known to us. Strictly speaking, no repentance can belong to God: and it ought not to be ascribed to his secret and hidden counsel. God then is in himself ever the same, and consistent with himself; but he is said to repent, when a regard is had to the comprehension of men: for as we conceive God to be angry, whenever he summons us to his tribunal, and shows to us our sins; so also we conceive him to be placable, when he offers the hope of pardon. But it is according to our perceptions that there is any change, when God forgets his wrath, as though he had put on a new character. As then we cannot otherwise be terrified, that we may be humbled before God and repent, except he sets forth before us his wrath, the Scripture accommodates itself to the grossness of our understanding. But, on the other hand, we cannot confidently call on God, unless we feel assured that he is placable. We hence see that some kind of change appears to us, whenever God either threatens or gives hope of pardon and reconciliation: and to this must be referred this mode of speaking which Jonah adopts, when he says that God repented.1

In other words, God in Jonah 3:10 adapts Himself to our understanding, speaking as though He changes, because that is the way it appears to us. In fact, He had eternally decreed all the circumstances of Jonah’s visit to Nineveh and preaching there, including the threat of Nineveh’s destruction and the resultant repentance of Nineveh as well as His own mercy toward the city and only appeared to change His mind when He showed to Nineveh the mercy He had decreed for them. This, however, leaves the question whether there is conflict or contradiction between God’s revealed will (the imminent destruction of Nineveh) and His eternal good pleasure and decree (the salvation of Nineveh).

There are several things that need to be added to what Calvin says, therefore. First, we must remember we are speaking about God and that there are questions we ask that cannot be answered, both because He chooses not to answer them and because the answer is beyond our comprehension. That God is unchangeable is clearly taught in Scripture but so is His incomprehensibility, though His incomprehensibility does not mean and cannot mean that there is contradiction in Him. Nevertheless, in all His works and ways He is beyond our full understanding and that is true also of His repenting.

In addition to His incomprehensibility there is also the truth that Chrysostom pointed out long ago, that the threat of Nineveh’s destruction was the means God used to bring about their repentance:

Men threaten punishment and inflict it. Not so God; but contrariwise, He both predicts and delays, and terrifies with words, and leaves nothing undone, that He may not bring what He threatens. So He did with the Ninevites. He bends His bow, and brandishes His sword, and prepares His spear, and inflicts not the blow. Were not the prophet’s words bow and spear and sharp sword, when he said, “yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed?” But He discharged not the shaft, for it was prepared, not to be shot, but to be laid up.

Yet the question remains, how could God send Jonah to say in His name, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” without lying or later changing His mind?

The question must be answered in light of what Scripture says about Jonah as a sign to the Ninevites. That he was a sign meant there was more to Jonah’s preaching than the bare words threatening Nineveh’s destruction. Jonah was a living example to the Ninevites of repentance and of the mercy of God shown to those who are repentant. Thus Jonah’s sermon preached in word and by his person was not just, “you are going to perish in forty days,” but “repent or perish” with implied gospel promise of mercy to those who do repent. That message the Ninevites not only understood but put it into practice when they did repent. God, then, did not lie or change His mind but did exactly as He had said through Jonah’s words and example.

God’s Word to Nineveh, therefore, was both of judgment and of mercy, judgment for those who did not repent (and surely there were some) and of mercy to those who did. That is the gospel message always, a message to which God is true when He executes His wrath and displeasure on those who continue in unbelief and when He shows mercy to those who, by His almighty and wonderful grace, turn from their wicked ways.

Putting that all together, God’s repentance toward Nineveh was not God changing but God adapting Himself in His Word to our understanding, doing so in such a way that His Word, both of judgment and mercy, brought Nineveh to repentance and thus accomplished His eternal good pleasure in Nineveh. That does not mean, though, that the references to God’s repentance can be brushed aside as something meaningless. God repenting is, in fact, what we experience when we have sinned against Him and in the way of repentance experience once again His favor. When we have sinned, we lose the sense of His favor and experience His holy anger against sin. When, by God’s grace, we repent of our sin, we find once again the blessedness that David speaks of in Psalm 32.

The Canons of Dordt in Head V put it well, speaking of God’s purpose in showing us His anger against our sin and in “repenting” of His anger. They also remind us that God accomplishes this purpose through the exhortations and threatenings of the gospel:

Article 13. Neither does renewed confidence or persevering produce licentiousness, or a disregard to piety in those who are recovering from backsliding; but it renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, which He hath ordained, that they who walk therein may maintain an assurance of persevering, lest by abusing His fatherly kindness, God should turn away His gracious countenance from them, to behold which is to the godly dearer than life: the withdrawing thereof is more bitter than death, and they in consequence hereof should fall into more grievous torments of conscience.

Article 14. And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments.

We experience this “repentance” of God, therefore, when we repent of our sins. Then we find, too, when we have sorrowed for our sins and turned from them that it is really not God who changed but we ourselves, and that by His grace. So we are blessed again, and what a blessed thing it is to experience once again the favor of a reconciled God (Canons V. 7)!

Jonah 3:10 tells us that God’s repentance came about when God saw their works. Their works are the good works of repentance and conversion, works that God views with favor and Himself judges to be “good.” He does this, however, not because our repentance is worth anything in itself, but because it was purchased at the cross and given by His Spirit. The work of truly sorrowing for sin and turning from it, then, is acceptable to God and blessed by Him because “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

That does not compromise the “must” of repentance. I must repent of my sins and humble myself before God when I have sinned, and only then will I enjoy again God’s favor and blessing. When I have repented, then I will acknowledge that it was God Himself who brought me to my knees and will also acknowledge that He brought me down by the command to repent and the threat, “repent or perish.” Walking in sin, I knew something of what it is to go in the broad way that leads to destruction, though by the grace of God I have been delivered from that way.

Was that not David’s experience as he records it in Psalm 32:3-4?

When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.

Repentant and having put away his sin, he says (vv. 5-6):

I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah. For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.

God, then, repented in this sense, that seeing His own grace and powerful Word working in the Ninevites, He showed mercy to them, as He had also to Jonah, and as He does also to every repentant sinner. He is not dependent on us or a God who can only respond to what we do, but He is the Almighty who works both the will to repent and the doing of it and who then, as almighty and merciful, shows His abundant mercy to those who have trembled at those awful words, “repent or perish,” and who have turned from sin and turned to Him.

Recognizing all this our confession is,

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).