“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented (some translations read ‘repent’) of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”– Jonah 3:10
A Perspective from Biblical Theology
Too often the prophets are thought of mainly as predictors of the future. But the truth is that they were mainly forthtellers, for they spoke forth the word of God over against the rising tide of idolatry, apostasy, and sin of the nation.
Now, some care must be taken to distinguish between the prophetic words that were unconditional and unilateral versus those prophecies that were conditioned on the responses of the person(s) addressed.
The unconditional promises of God were the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants- wherein God alone obliged himself to fulfill what he had said.
But all other words of declared judgment had an expressed or unexpressed contingency clause in their words of certain doom.
So, while Jonah gave a confident message that in forty days judgment would come to Nineveh, he had an awful feeling that if they repented, God would relent, and the judgment would be held off for a period of time.
Ultimately we find out that a century later, the same nation, in another generation, felt that the prophet Jonah had cried wolf, and judgment finally came.
The principle for asserting this kind of interpretation can be found in Jeremiah 18:7-10.
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.”
The implications follow;
Kiser notes: “Whenever the Lord announces that a nation is to be destroyed, and that nation repents, then God will not bring the disaster he had threatened them with, despite the fact that there were no contingency clauses- no “if’s” or “unlesses” directly listed with the threat. However, just as true was the reverse situation: God may declare his blessing on a nation only to find that nation cares very little, if at all, for him. God will then rescind his word of promise to bless that people by bringing disaster on that nation he would have blessed had they responded differently.”
Perspective from Linguistic Data
The words used to translate the Hebrew verbs sub and niham have caused considerable debate about the immutability of God.
Here is the key: the verb sub (to turn) is used to describe the people of Nineveh’s repentance. It has the idea of “changing direction” and “repenting of evil ways.”
While the verb niham is used of God repenting (relenting) has the idea of being moved to pity- having compassion. He, in his longsuffering, takes it upon himself the evil which is the wages of man’s sin. According to Bladwin verses 8-10 give us a deep theological picture of God;
8. “Let each man turn”
9. “God may be moved to pity”
10. “God saw that they had turned, so God relented.”
Allen translates it as follows,
“When God saw their reaction, how they turned (sub) from their wicked ways, he relented (niham) and did not carry out the punishment with which he had threatened them.”
While the English term ‘repent’ conveys the idea of a change in behavior from worse to better, the Hebrew word niham refers rather to a decision to act otherwise. The English word ‘relent’ conveys the actual message clearer.
God relenting here reveals God’s earnest desire to be true to his own immutable character- as revealed in Jeremiah 18:7-10. God’s action in relenting does not challenge the doctrine of immutability, for immutability simply states that;
a. God is unchanging in His being and character.
b. God is unchanging in His purposes and will.
We need to distinguish between God’s eternally unchanging character and how we understand His actions towards us humans- who exist in time.
What we do see however is that God is free to decide how he will relate to humans. In being consistent with his attributes and purposes- God relents from His anger when a sinner repents. (2 Peter 3:9)
This is accomplished without ramifications to his Holy character because of Christ’s work on the cross. (Romans 3:25)
Note: I think John Piper sums it up well here;
“God’s repentance is not like man’s. I take that to mean that God is not taken off guard by unexpected turns of events like we are. He knows all the future. (“Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them,” Isaiah 42:9). Nor does God ever sin. So his repentance is not owing to lack of foresight nor to folly.
Rather, the repentance of God is his expression of a different attitude and action about something past or future—not because events have taken him off guard, but because events make the expression of a different attitude more fitting now than it would have been earlier. God’s mind “changes,” not because it responds to unforeseen circumstances, but because he has ordained that his mind accord with the way he himself orders the changing events of the world.”