There are more than a few texts in the Bible that destabilize our theological frameworks. One such text comes from Jonah 3.10 which reads “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” The problem of God “relenting,” or “repenting” or changing his mind is that it seems as if God’s will is dependent upon human interaction. If this is true, there as some human actions which could in a way, force God’s hand. Because this is an idea that most Christians and philosophers have always resisted, the reader needs a way to interact with verses such as Jonah 3.10. Most of the interactions with verses such as this, particularly from the Reformed world have been a disappointment. However, the excerpt from Jacques Ellul’s splendid commentary from Jonah posted below is a wonderful engaging of God’s repentance. It might seem like a slow start and you may have to read it several times to fully appreciate, but I can promise you it is well worth your time. There is precious gold to be found in the passage below.
When Nineveh repents, God repents too: “God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it” (3:10). This is a surprising term to be used of God, and yet it is a common one in Scripture. God decides something, and then events change. Thus God changes his mind. He repents. It is useless to avoid the difficulty this causes by saying it is only a manner of speaking. Philosophers say that God cannot change. True enough! But the God revealed in Scripture is not the God of the philosophers. Nor can one attribute this to primitive characteristics in the people of Israel. Historians call this a gross anthropomorphism and one must not take it too seriously. To be sure it is an anthropomorphism. But God is not the God of historians. To be noted first in relation to this repenting is that God repents of the evil he was going to do but never repents of the good. This general rule is formulated by St. Paul (Romans 2) and it is confirmed by a survey of texts. Only once to my knowledge do we read that God repented of the good that he had done, and this is explained more by literary than theological considerations. In effect this repenting takes place only when there is risk of some evil, some human suffering.
Again it is no doubt important to emphasize that the same Hebrew words are not used for repentance of Nineveh and God’s repenting. In a general way Scripture has different terms for man’s repentance and the Lord’s repenting. As concerns man, shubh implies a change, a modification in attitude and direction (a conversion) in his very being, as we have seen. As concerns God, the word macham is the usual term, and this does not imply a change of direction but inner suffering which must be consoled. It is suffering not because of self but because of the relation between self and others. This can happen in the relation between God and man, whether because man does not respond to God’s appeal or because of God’s justice necessarily demands man’s condemnation. The just and perfectly holy God condemns, and can do no other, but where man repents, when man changes, God suffers for having condemned him. One cannot say absolutely that he suppresses condemnation. For in effect God does not change. What is done is done. What God has decided he has decided, the more so as it is decided for all eternity. When it is said that God repents, it means that he suffers, not that he changes what his justice has deemed necessary.
Now God’s justice has deemed condemnation necessary because of past sin. Repentance alone does not efface the past. Once committed, a guilty act remains so even after repentance. Condemnation cannot be automatically lifted. There is no immanent mechanism. Repentance, as an act of man, does not suppress the sins man has committed. The two are not in balance. What is between them is the fact that God repents, that he suffers and finds consolation.
But we must be more precise as to the meaning of this suffering. It is not just sentiment. It is not regret for having condemned. It is not a kindly thought which causes God to lift the condemnation, which would imply a change of attitude. Most of the passages speak of God repenting say that he repents of evil he had resolved to do. He suffers the evil, and not just because of the evil, but the evil itself. We might say with truth that God suffers the evil he has resolved to do. He takes upon himself the evil which was the wages of man’s sin. He suffers the very suffering which in his justice he should have laid on man. God causes the judgment to fall on himself; this is the meaning of his repenting. We shall see that it is in Jesus Christ that this is done plainly and for us. Jesus Christ is precisely the one upon whom falls all the judgment and all the suffering decided for each of us, the judgment and the suffering of the world. In reality God’s repenting in the face of man’s repentance is Jesus Christ. Each time there is any question of this repenting in Scripture we thus have a new prophecy of Jesus Christ who puts into effect both the justice of God and also the love of God without doing despite to either the one or the other.
It is only from this perspective of human judgment that there seems to be a change in God’s attitude. When the Lord proclaims condemnation and then does not fulfill it, we tend to say, if we are believers, that he has changed his will, and if we are not believers, that there is no God. But that is a purely temporal way of looking at it because we are not able to see Jesus in agony to the end of the world. God’s purpose has not changed. From the very beginning his aim was to save the world from his own wrath.
Ellul, Jacques, The Judgment of Jonah (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 1971) pgs 98-100