9 Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” 10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. – Jonah 3: 9 – 10 (NASB)
In Jonah 3: 9 – 10, the people of Nineveh decide to repent of their evil ways in hopes that “God may turn and relent and withdraw” (NASB) his anger and his judgment upon them. God sees and responds to the people’s repentance and He “relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them.” (NASB) Does God change his mind? Can people’s reactions affect God’s “sovereign” plans? Are God’s plans, or better yet God himself, mutable or immutable? How does this line up to other passages of Scripture that imply that God doesn’t change (i.e. Malachi 3: 6; James 1: 17 to name a couple)?
After being rescued from certain death by a large fish or whale that God providentially provided for Jonah after being tossed from his ship, Jonah arrives on dry land and is given a second chance. God commissions him to deliver his message to Nineveh again. Jonah is obedient to the Lord’s command and delivers God’s warning to Nineveh’s people that in forty days Nineveh would be overthrown. (Jonah 3: 4) It’s interesting to note that Jonah doesn’t use “familiar” prophetic utterances such as “Thus saith the Lord” type of announcements. Is Jonah taking for granted that there is no hope for Nineveh and that God has already declared judgment over them? Jonah uses the word “overthrown” (or “overturned” in some other translations), the very word used in Genesis to describe God’s overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19: 21, 25, 29). Certainly a message of judgment fits a view of God’s world as one where evil is punished. (Gunn, p. 700) However, the forty days provided for the people implied that repentance could prevent punishment. Oftentimes, the word “forty” in the OT implied an indefinitely large amount. They would’ve known that if no chance for repentance were present, no time period, definite or indefinite, would’ve been specified. (Stuart, p. 820) Then in a very short period of time, the king of Nineveh and his people repent and fast before the Lord.
Jonah 3: 9 implies that the people of Nineveh were unsure how God would respond to their repentance, so even though they have gone thru great lengths and great public displays of repentance, there still seems to be a air of uncertainty about their fate. Their question also implies the belief or conviction that God’s decision isn’t so set in stone and that God may in fact change his mind because of his compassionate nature. So in some way, they do believe that their prayers or actions do in fact influence how God will decide or act. The outcomes seems to be that God is impressed with their repentance and “God repented of the evil which he had planned to do to them; and he did not do it” (3: 10) So God had indeed intended judgment against the city. The narrator is quoting from the story of the golden calf in Exodus: “And God repented of the evil which he planned to do to his people” (Exodus 32: 14). In that story the unrepentant Israelites are spared when Moses intercedes for them. (Gunn, p. 700) Furthermore, God is bringing into action his decree in Jer. 18:7-10 –
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
It is interesting to note that in Jonah 4: 5, it seems clear from the text that Jonah, being greatly disturbed by God’s change of mind, went out of the city and observed it from afar. He probably hoped that God would change his mind again and resume with his original plan of destroying the city. (Stuart, p. 821) Did God change his mind again? Does Nineveh maintain her loyalty to God’s mercy and compassion? Historically, we know that within a few decades Nineveh would destroy Jonah’s (northern) Israel and within a few generations be destroyed itself by the Babylonians in 612 B.C. (Gunn, p. 702) It seems that God changed his mind about Nineveh afterwards.
I remember discussing this topic several years ago at a Bible study at my church. I pointed out how in my translation of the Bible at that time, it clearly stated that God changed his mind in destroying the Israelites in Exodus 32. My observation was quickly shot down by another member stating that I “must have” had an incorrect translation of the Bible. The pastor didn’t have much of an opinion on the subject and took a neutral stance. That question or observation has haunted me for some time now. Since that time, for various reasons, I adopted a viewpoint that God does not change because he is all-knowing and all powerful. He is perfect in every shape and form. Any hint that he changes would seriously undermine the nature and character of God; it would more or less surmount to saying that there was a flaw in God’s perfect nature and if he did change his mind, that would show that God wasn’t perfect after all. If a being is defined as being perfect, but was shown to change his mind, wasn’t that implying that he was never perfect in the first place by definition? One reason I believe I adopted this view (besides all the philosophical and theological reasons) is because I had a firm conviction in the sovereignty of God- that God was and is in ultimate control of things- not only in my life but in all that goes on the universe. This conviction gave me great (psychological) comfort in knowing that even though my world may seem chaotic and my circumstances seem uncontrollable to me, my fears were alleviated in knowing that God doesn’t change and has everything under control.
But now, oddly enough, I’m brought back to this question again. And I feel as if my viewpoints are starting to change as I examine the biblical text itself, there seems to be surmounting evidence that God does indeed change his mind and responds to people’s actions.
In Wayne Grudem’s book Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, he mentions that instances in the Bible where it states that God changes his mind or repents should be understood as true expressions of God’s present attitude or intention with respect to the situation as it exists at that moment. If the situation changes, then of course God’s attitude or expression of intention will also change. This is just saying that God responds differently to different situations. (Grudem, p. 74) Furthermore, he argues that the very purpose of Jonah’s warning to the Ninevites was to bring about repentance. Once the people repented, the situation was different, and God responded differently to that changed situation. (ibid)
Furthermore, Grudem critiques claims to God’s supposed attribute of immpassibility– that God doesn’t have passions or emotions or that He’s not subject to passions. This attribute conflicts with much of Scripture’s portrayal of God. We must remember that God is the origin of our emotions and Scripture clearly indicates that God feels emotions as well: God rejoices (Isa. 62: 5); He grieves (Ps. 78: 40; Eph 4: 30); He pities his children (Ps 103: 13). (ibid) However, the question that emerges in my mind is how else are human beings to understand God if he’s not described in terms that we are familiar with or can relate to? Are they just anthropomorphisms to God? How else can limited, finite beings be able to describe the ways and characteristics of an unlimited and infinite God? What are the limits of human forms of expression and language? What are the limits to human epistemology? Or is God, as he reveals himself to us in the Bible, communicating to us in such “humanly” terms b/c he desires to show himself as both an infinite yet more importantly personal Creator? One of the great themes of the entire Bible is that God desires an intimate personal relationship with his creation.
Grudem then closes his thoughts in this section by asking if we could ever trust such a God who could change. Moreover, if God could change with regard to his purposes, then how can we trust God’s promises? How could we ever commit our lives to him? (Grudem, p. 75) For example, could God cancel out his plan of salvation and redemption and just decide to judge everyone to eternal damnation? Grudem writes that this is why the doctrine of God’s unchangeableness is so important; if God isn’t unchanging, then the whole basis of our faith begins to fall apart as well as our understanding of the universe itself. The reason being that our faith, hope, and knowledge all ultimately depend on a person who is infinitely worthy of trust- because he is absolutely and eternally unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises. (Grudem, pp. 75 – 76)
I take this to mean that even though God may change his mind in certain, specific points in time in reaction to people’s free will and actions, this in no way undermines his sovereignty and providence and that his eternal plans and purposes will come to fulfillment at its final level. If God is sovereign, isn’t He sovereignly free to change his mind? Then again, isn’t God free to share and express his love to anyone he chooses? Perhaps the process of changing his mind is one of the supreme ways he expresses and exhibits his love toward us. This topic is by no means resolved and it can and does get (for the better or the worse) much more exhaustively technical and verbose and these thoughts are just the tip of a gigantic iceberg.
- Douglas Stuart, Commentary on Jonah, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition
- David Gunn, Commentary on Jonah, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible
- Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith