The God Who Relents


How do we feel about a God who “relents”?

Do we respond like Jonah, cursing God for His excessive mercy toward the undeserving? Or do we balk at the very suggestion that God might possibly “change His mind” and renege on His promises?

The first response betrays our own hypocrisy, and is at the heart of God’s response to Jonah in chapter 4. The second response, however, requires some clarification. Even though God is certainly a God who does relent and turn from His anger in response to repentance (Jon. 3:10), He is not a God who changes. He is a God who remains consistently true to His revealed character – and it is that character that moves God to extend mercy.

When the King of Nineveh urges his people to respond to Jonah’s preaching by turning from their evil and embrace repentance (3:7-8), he is right in his motives, but wrong in his theology.
If the king had known the character of the God of Israel, he would have known that this was a God who longed to relent of judgment; a God who sent his prophets to preach these messages in order to bring about repentance and restoration, not judgment.

He was a God who, history would show, would go so far as to sacrifice His own Son rather than see sinners perish.

Jonah may not have explicitly included any opportunity for repentance in his preaching – he certainly did not follow the lead of Abraham, who pled for God’s mercy toward wicked Sodom in the event that some measure of goodness could be found in the city (Gen. 18:22-33) – but the very nature of God’s goodness implies that a message of impending judgment must include the opportunity to turn. This promise can be drawn from a number of places in Scripture, but Jeremiah 18 is perhaps the most famous. Speaking to the people of Israel about His own authority to overthrow or to lift up a people based on their response to His Word, God asserts the role of prophets as more than just “announcers of the inevitable”:

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. (Jer. 18:7-10)

The king of Nineveh is right in holding out hope that his actions might have a real effect on God’s decision. God may, indeed, respond to just such an action. The only thing wrong about the king’s response is his uncertainty (“Who knows…?” [Jon. 3:9]).

Both the response of the Ninevites to this pronouncement of impending judgment, as well as God’s response to their repentance, bear strong echoes of the events of Exodus 32.

After the famous incident with the golden calf, God’s anger at Israel’s sin is revealed to Moses: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” (Exod. 32:10). Because of Israel’s status as a “holy nation” set aside as God’s own inheritance (Deut. 32:9), their failures are magnified by God’s high standards. God does not immediately reveal His mercy, just as He does not immediately reveal His mercy toward the Ninevites in His message of judgment. In both stories the response of the people under judgment is the same (“When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments…” [Exod. 32:4]). The posture of both the Israelites at Sinai and the Ninevites here is one of abject humility in the face of threatened judgment. There is no indication in either story that the recognition of sin is false or contrived, or that the humility is anything less than genuine. And in both stories, the response of Yahweh is, mercifully, the same.

In Nineveh’s case, “God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster he had threatened. And he did not do it” (3:10). God had not announced His offer of mercy toward Nineveh, but the offer was present all the same, just as it had been in the golden calf incident. God is a God who longs to see repentance. He longs to relent.

There should be no difficult questions here regarding either the sovereignty or consistency of God, though it is easy to foist difficulties upon the text based on our own preconceptions. God does, indeed “relent” in this and in countless other situations, and that is precisely what reveals His character most clearly. God’s mercy is expressed in His willingness to turn away from His justified wrath; to extend kindness or hardness upon whomever He wills (Rom. 9:18), not based on an arbitrary distinction, but based (as Jeremiah 18 – a verse quoted at length by Paul in Romans 9 – makes clear) upon their faithful response to His call.

God’s promises, in other words, are always genuine. He moves and responds and works with and through His human agents, so that the response of men to the warnings and promises are always real, and always reap the response promised by God, whether through specific prophetic oracles or through the promises baked directly into the Covenant. There is no reason that we need to question how God “never changes” (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29), and yet “changes” His mind (the events of Exodus 32-34 are a prime example, but by no means the only one). We don’t need to dwell on this “difficult” question because it is a question based on false assumptions. God declares: I will do this because of the sin of this city; but when the city repents, He stays His hand. He relents. Once the guilty have addressed (even if temporarily) the issue, God is not beholden to His declaration of judgment because by His very nature He will emphasize mercy over judgment.

There is nothing unjust or even difficult about God’s response to the Ninevites (though this is not how Jonah sees it). God’s response should be seen as extraordinarily Good News to anyone with the self-awareness to recognize the reality of their own sin; or, in Jonah’s case, to recognize the sins of his own people. Jonah had no problem with God sparing Israel over and over again; he appreciated God’s mercy as long as it was directed toward the “right” people. Though Israel was deserving dozens of times in their history of being wiped out, God proved His devotion to mercy by continually relenting, not because they did anything to earn His forgiveness, but because He is gracious and compassionate; He is marked by hesed, which means that He will remain unfailingly loyal to His promises.

What Jonah missed – and what we all inevitably miss from time to time – is that God’s mercy is always poured out on the “wrong” people.

It can only be given to the undeserving – those lost and rebellious sheep whom God will send to the ends of the earth to bring back. Thank God for that.