Contend Earnestly: "Then God relented"

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Then God relented"

We recently started a Systematic Theology class with our adult Sunday School. As a normal order of the subjects involved in such a study, we started with the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. After establishing this truth, we then go to the Scriptures as we learn about all of the other topics. The first of which is called Theology Proper; the doctrine of the Person of God.

As we began to delve into His attributes, we came to His immutability; God cannot change. Malachi 3:6a puts it plainly and clearly:

"For I, the LORD, do not change"

So, when we come to Jonah 3:10 we read the following:

"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."

Does this verse suggest that God can change? Did He plan to do something that He does not do?

Assuming that we believe the Bible to be inspired by God Himself (2 Tim 3:16-17), these passages do not contradict each other. There are two aspects that need to be brought out in regards to a statement like this. First, we know that the Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God in a way that we can comprehend. Remember that He is infinite (2. 1 Kings 8:27, Job 36:26, Ps 90:2, John 8:58, Acts 17:24-28, Rev 1:8, 4:8). Inherently, we as finite beings cannot fully comprehend Him or His ways. So He must condescend to our level so that we can know something/anything about Him. Antrhopomorphic language uses human attributes to describe YHWH. We read, for example, in Genesis 6 that "Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD" (vs 8). Since God is Spirit, and does not have a body (John 4:24), we know that Moses did not intend for us to think that God has a literal set of eyes. But we understand that God had favor on Noah, according to His gracious, divine perspective and provision. These types of descriptions are found all throughout Scripture.

Is 52:10
"The LORD has bared His holy arm In the sight of all the nations, That all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God."

2 Chron 16:9
"For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His."

Our anthropomorphic understanding of a verse like this helps us to know that God does not have eyes, nor that His eyes are literally and independently traveling around the planet. We understand, without even having to consciously process the thought, the intend of the author.

So, from a human perspective, it does appear that God actually changed His actions in Jonah 3:10. He declared calamity, and relented from doing it when they repented. But we must temper this with the understanding that God knows all things, actual and possible, including future events (Ps 2:11, 37:18, 139:1-6, 1 Sam 23:10-14, Matt 11:20-24, 1 John 3:20b)

Is 46:10
“Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, 'My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”

So God knew that Jonah would finally go to Nineveh. He knew that the city would repent. He knew that the King would declare that all were to repent. He knew all of these things not simply because He can see the future, but because He decreed that it would happen. Did God change? Certainly not.

Secondly, in a rather simplistic approach to explaining this passage, consider what actually changed in the account. Did God change? Or, did the people change? Did the circumstances of Nineveh change? It is clear that the people are the ones who changed, who repented, not the YHWH. Let's continue a bit further in the Isaiah passage from above:

Is 46:10-13
Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, 'My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'; Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it. "Listen to Me, you stubborn-minded, Who are far from righteousness. "I bring near My righteousness, it is not far off; And My salvation will not delay. And I will grant salvation in Zion, And My glory for Israel."

For those why try to define, describe or limit God based on human perception or reason, remember that we are finite, fallen and "stubborn-minded". His ways are higher than ours (Is 55:9), and we must submit our thinking to the truth revealed in the Scriptures.


Seth McBee said...

Justin...question for you...

You said:

But we must temper this with the understanding that God knows all things, actual and possible, including future events

Do you believe that there are also things that could "possibly" happen that doesn't actually come to pass? Like a plan A and plan B? Just curious on your thoughts on the issue...

Justin Evans said...


Good question, and thank you for the opportunity to clarify. I am using the term "possible" in the anthropomorphic sense. We know that God has decreed the future, and will bring all His good pleasure to pass. It is His administration that will ultimately sum up in the person of Christ (Eph 1:10).

But, Scripture does give us a few accounts where God declares what would have happened if different decisions were made. See 1 Sam 23:10-14 and Matt 11:20-24.

In the 1 Sam passage, David prays and asks the Lord is he will be captured if he goes to a certain location. The Lord declares that he indeed would be captured. David does not go, but according to the answer the Lord gave, He knew what would have happened had David decided to go down.

Again, it is not possible in the sense of God's sovereign plan for human history. But it is a staggering thought to know that God knows all things that would have happened if different decisions were made! The variables are infinite! How great is the knowledge of our God!

We see the same thing with Christ's declaration about Bethsaida and Chorazin. They would have repented if they had seen miracles (what an amazing text, by the way, to underscore God's sovereignty in salvation. He denied them the chance to repent.)

So, I used the term "possible" from our standpoint. But God does not allow human decisions to drive or determine the course of human history.

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