Saturday, December 26, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (14)

As finite beings of time and space, we cannot really know what God’s emotional life is like, or understand the way in which the Divine Mind makes choices. To imagine we can is simply projection.

In describing these incomprehensible things for us, the writers of the Bible have painted their picture with the very limited palette of human language. Moreover, the Spirit of God chose ways of expressing God’s feelings and actions that would communicate effectively to men and women of widely different cultures across a period of thousands of years.

I think the result is marvelous. Still, there are passages with which we struggle. The final verse of Jonah 3 may be one of them.

Jonah 3:10 — Changing God’s Mind
“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.”
A God Who is Not Double-Minded

Anyone who has done word studies in Hebrew understands the problem this verse may pose for those of us who haven’t, and it’s this familiar statement made by God about himself through the prophet Balaam in the book of Numbers:
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
The Hebrew word translated “relented” in the first instance is the same word translated “change his mind” in the second. The KJV uses “repented” and “repent”, making the difficulty even more evident.

So does God change his mind or doesn’t he? Are the writers of scripture confused?

Calling Balaam’s theology into question does not help us much. A much godlier prophet than Balaam once said exactly the same thing to Saul:
“The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
Then there are strong statements such as this one, made through Ezekiel about Jerusalem:
“I am the Lord. I have spoken; it shall come to pass; I will do it. I will not go back; I will not spare; I will not relent; according to your ways and your deeds you will be judged, declares the Lord God.”
So then, the principle that God is not double-minded is well established in scripture. Double-mindedness is an indication of great instability. God is not unstable. We are in big trouble if he is!

The Testimony of the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms

The Hebrew word we are considering is nacham, and the difficulty it poses for theologians is this: If, as Balaam prophesied, God does not nacham, then how is it that he is said to do this very thing all over the Old Testament?

Here are the twelve OT instances in which God is said to nacham:
Genesis 6:6 “The Lord regretted [nacham] that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (The story of Noah’s flood follows.)
Exodus 32:14 “The Lord relented [nacham] from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (After Moses interceded for Israel concerning the golden calf incident.)
Judges 2:18 “The Lord was moved to pity [nacham] by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.” (A recurring feature in the period of the judges.)
1 Samuel 15:11 “I regret [nacham] that I have made Saul king.”
2 Samuel 24:16 “The Lord relented [nacham] from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, ‘It is enough; now stay your hand’.” (At the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.)
Psalm 106:45 “For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented [nacham] according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” (Concerning Israel’s repeated cycle of idolatry, punishment and repentance.)
Psalm 135:14 “For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion [nacham] on his servants.”
Jeremiah 18:8-10 “If that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent [nacham] 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 [nacham] of the good that I had intended to do to it.” (A general principle concerning God’s dealings with the nations.)
Jeremiah 26:3,13,19 (The same principle specifically applied to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah.)
Jeremiah 42:10 “I relent [nacham] of the disaster that I did to you.” (Addressed to the remnant of Judah who were considering going down to Egypt.)
Joel 2:13-14 “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents [nacham] over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent [nacham]?” (Concerning the coming day of the Lord.)
Amos 7:3,6 “The Lord relented [nacham] concerning this.” (Two specific intended judgments of Israel, after Amos interceded for the nation.)
That’s a fairly impressive list, spanning the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. These witnesses tell us that God is compassionate and merciful, and as a result, he often changes his tactics once they have produced the results he is seeking. They also tell us that God does things which will inevitably cause him deep sorrow — such as put the kingdom of Israel into the hands of a man like Saul — but which are necessary in order to prove a point to men that could be demonstrated in no other way.

Two Observations

Two observations may be made:
  1. The word nacham has what may be called a huge semantic range. It is translated “relented”, “regretted” (which in English are two not-very-subtly-different things), “moved to pity” and “had compassion”. (I am also omitting the many occasions on which nacham is rendered “comforted” or “consoled”.) It is used to describe emotions, legal judgments, making things easier, acting, not acting, and more.
  2. There is one passage here (1 Samuel 15) in which God says he is nacham with respect to having made Saul king (v11) and only a few verses later, Samuel says that the Glory of Israel never “has regret” [nacham] (v29). It is utterly impossible that the writer of 1 Samuel was unaware of the apparent contradiction. The only conclusion we can draw from it is that in the Hebrew of the day, nothing contradictory is being said. It is only in translation that we encounter theological problems.
In short, not all uses of nacham mean precisely the same thing.

The Limitations of Language

Because God knows the end from the beginning, he cannot truly be said to ever change his mind in the same sense that human beings do. The expression is an anthropomorphism, an approximation necessitated by the limitations of human language and understanding.

Taken literally, God changing his mind is an impossibility. God hates sin with a white hot intensity, and that never, ever changes. So when he commutes or delays punishing sinners, it is not because he has suddenly come to an unexpected accommodation with the thing he hates, but because he is dealing with finite beings who are incapable of bearing the punishment our sins demand. Even an eternity of punishment is inadequate to that.

So then, bearing in mind that in most cases nacham is a figure of speech when used with reference to God, it seems highly unlikely that Balaam, Samuel and Ezekiel, moved by the Spirit of God, were trying to tell us nothing more profound than that God does not do something his very nature make impossible. But if not, what exactly were they saying?

What Were the Prophets Saying Then?

First, if we look at the context of Balaam’s oracle, it appears Balaam is saying that God can be counted on to keep his covenants (“Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”). Men break covenants all the time when they see the opportunity to get a better deal: business deals, marriage vows ... you name it. But no external influence, such as the financial incentives Balak was offering Balaam, may be brought to bear on God to persuade him to break a promise. A conditional covenant may be broken or set aside by a party to that covenant, but God will never allow outsiders to affect the way he treats those with which he has made agreements.

Second, if we look at the context of Samuel’s restatement of the principle to Saul, the prophet appears to be saying that when God has solemnly purposed to do a thing, it is pointless to try to persuade him not to. Saul is hoping an apology will result in the restoration of his kingdom, but God judges not just actions but the hearts that produce them. God knows full well that what Saul has done in disobeying him is not a mere slip, but a through-and-through demonstration of character. Saul is unfit for the job. So Samuel’s response to Saul is that he has mistaken a final judgment for a mere threat. About God’s final judgments there may be no negotiation.

Finally, the statement in Ezekiel that God “will not relent” is once again limited by context, and it is of the same kind as Samuel’s declaration to Saul. Final judgment against Jerusalem has been rendered, and there is no discussion possible.

With God a covenant is a covenant, and no external influence can affect it. Likewise, with God a sovereign legal judgment is absolutely final. The scriptures are unequivocal about that.

Relenting and Repenting

Further, if the Old Testament statements that appear to suggest God changes his mind do not teach that God is as double-minded, conflicted and easily swayed as we are, we must also ask ourselves what they are telling us about him. As we have already established, the word nacham can mean many things. Understanding its other uses in relation to God also requires that we observe each statement about God in its immediate context:
  • Genesis 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:11 are speaking of God’s emotions. It grieved God that he had made man. He was sorrowful that he had made Saul king.
  • In Exodus 32:14, God is testing Moses, so he presents a scenario of doom for Israel which he does not intend to carry out, as discussed at some length here. A similar thing is going on in God’s discussion with Amos (7:3,6) concerning the judgment of Israel.
  • In Judges 2:18, 2 Samuel 24:16 and most of the other references above, the punishment God had imposed was sufficient or had produced the desired result, so he ceased inflicting it.
So then, there is no real theological conflict here. Despite similarities in the original language, the various scriptures are speaking of different things.

Putting God to the Test

One final question, and it’s a fairly important one: How may we distinguish between the conditional warnings of judgment described in Jeremiah 18:8-10 and illustrated in Jonah’s message to Nineveh, which may be averted by repentance, and the unconditional announcements of certain judgment issued against Saul’s kingdom, and later against David’s and Solomon’s? How can we tell when we are just pushing the boundaries of God’s grace, and how do we know when we have already gone too far?

The answer is that we can’t. Not really. Sometimes they sound awfully similar. As the king of Nineveh put it, “God may turn and relent.”

Or he may not. We cannot count on it. And this is perhaps why we are wise not to put God to the test.


  1. Have you never tried to curiously figure out or imagine what it takes to simultaneously respond to 500000 intercessory prayers? Seems to be even beyond quantum computing I would say.

  2. When you can simultaneously perform all the operations required to get a cat's eye to work the first time out (which has been calculated at something like one in eight hundred million trillion trillion if it were to happen randomly), then 500,000 simultaneous prayers is a piece of cake.