Does God Change His Mind?
Scripture: Jonah 3:1–10
The Book of Jonah is a book full of surprises and unexpected twists. It’s a story about a prophet who runs away; a divinely ordained storm; pagan sailors who pray while God’s prophet sleeps; a near drowning, desperate prayer and a divine rescue mission carried out by a giant fish. Chapter 2 concludes with the prophet lying in a pool of fish vomit on the shore of the Mediterranean in what can only be described as a miraculous deliverance.
Chapter 3 starts out with almost the same words as Chapter 1. The only addition to the opening phrase is the word for “a second time”. The commands are identical: “Get up! Go to Nineveh! Preach!”
The next verse starts out the same too. “Jonah got up.” But there’s a difference. In chapter 1, he got up to flee. But this time, instead of running away, he obeyed. He got up and went to Nineveh. He has learned his lesson. He is keeping his promises to the Lord. He is fulfilling his commission. But the surprises in the story are not over. In fact, Jonah 3 contains one of the biggest surprises of all.
We are told that Nineveh was a large city. Jonah apparently entered the outskirts of the city and began making his way toward the center of the city, preaching as he went. His message was very short, direct and to the point. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” He does not specify the means of destruction. An invading army? An earthquake? A terrible storm? Fire and brimstone from heaven? No details are given. At least none are recorded. Simply, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
But this is where the surprise comes in. After just one day of preaching, the people responded to his message. They believed what he was saying! They began mourning and fasting and putting on sackcloth as a sign of repentance. And it wasn’t just the few. The whole city was caught up in it, from the greatest to the least; from the nobles to the peasants, laborers and slaves. Jonah’s message moved faster than he did. In fact the message reached the king himself. He got up from his throne, took off his royal robes, put on sack cloth and sat down in the dust. He even issued a royal decree that the whole city should join in calling out to God.
Now remember the context. Nineveh was not only a large city. It was a wicked city. It was the most powerful empire of its time, and the Assyrians were known for their extreme cruelty and violence against the people they conquered. Remember, it was Nineveh’s wickedness that caused God to send Jonah to them with a message of judgment.
There has been some speculation on why Jonah’s simple message created such a huge impact on this pagan city. One theory is that the story of Jonah’s miraculous deliverance through the fish had preceded him. He was a celebrity. Some suggest that his physical appearance may even have been altered by his 3 days and nights in the digestive juices of the fish, bleaching out his skin. One other theory put forward points to the fact that during this time period, according to the astronomical charts, there was a total eclipse of the sun in Nineveh. Such an event might possibly have thrown the superstitious Ninevites into a panic and made them receptive to a message about divine judgment.
Such speculations must remain simply that. But now comes the second major surprise in the story. God sees their repentance and he withholds his judgment! Nineveh is spared. No judgment falls. Jonah’s words of prophecy are not fulfilled.
That is where Jonah 3 ends. It leaves us with a very large theological conundrum or paradox. It is the question I have posed in my sermon title: Does God change his mind? Does God change his mind? When we turn to the Bible for the answer to this question, we find that the answer is “No!”…and… “Yes!”
Let’s consider these Biblical answers. Turn to Numbers 23:19: God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
The prophet Samuel says the same thing in I Samuel 15:29: He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.
The prophet Ezekiel has this to say in Ezekiel 24:14: ‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’ ” The word that is translated “relent” in this verse is the same word translated “change his mind” in the earlier two passages.
So, here we have three passages of Scripture, all spoken by prophets delivering the word of the Lord, all saying, “No, God does not change his mind.”
Yet, here we are in Jonah 3. In verse 9, the king expresses this hope: Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
In smoothing out the English translation, the specific wording of the original text is lost. A more literal rendering might read: “God may yet turn and change his mind and turn from his fierce anger.”
This is what the king hoped might happen. And what actually did happen? Look at verse 10: When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. Once again the translation blurs the lines of the original vocabulary. A consistent rendering would read: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
In contrast, then, we have these passages of Scripture which tell us that, “Yes, God does change his mind.” Lest we think it is a matter of shifting vocabulary, the same Hebrew word is used in all of these verses. How then shall we answer this question? Does God change his mind or not?
There is a passage of Scripture which may provide some help in resolving our dilemma. Turn with me to Jeremiah 18:1-10:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent (that’s the same word again) and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider (there is our word again) the good I had intended to do for it.
God, through Jeremiah, uses the analogy of a potter and the clay. And in this analogy, he makes this point. The potter is sovereign. He is in control of the process. He does what “seems best to him.” But at the same time there is an interaction between the potter and the clay. While the potter is sovereign, his decisions and actions are at least in part based on the reaction of the clay that is taking shape upon his wheel. The potter reserves the right to make changes in the pot he is making, based on the reaction of the clay in his hands. According to the passage in Jeremiah, this is not a sacrifice of the potter’s sovereignty, but an exercise of it! And he makes this key application. If God announces judgment on a nation, and the nation repents or turns from its evil, then God also will “relent” or change his mind about the judgment he has pronounced. Jeremiah uses the same vocabulary we have been looking at in the earlier passages. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament has this to say on the topic: “From God’s perspective most prophecy (excluding messianic predictions) is conditional upon the response of men.”
The theologian and commentator A.J. Heschel adds this: “No word is God’s final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment.”
At one level, the paradox remains. As the sovereign God of the universe and of history; the God who knows the end from the beginning, God’s purposes stand. He does not change his mind. But from man’s perspective and observation point within time, the Bible describes God’s actions “anthropopathically”, as though God were acting and feeling as a man within time. From this observation point, God does appear to change his mind; he does relent and alter his actions in response to man’s actions. Our minds cannot totally reconcile these two points of view. But both realities exist according to the Scriptures. Does God change his mind? The clear answer of Scripture must remain: “No! …and…Yes!”
What I want to do is to move beyond this question and pose another one. That is: What makes God change his mind? Particularly, what actions and responses on the part of man will cause God to relent and withhold threatened judgment? Jonah 3 and the city of Nineveh offer an excellent case study to help us answer this question. Let us consider their response.
First of all, they believed God. This is what we are told in verse 5: The Ninevites believed God. I am not sure how far to press this verse and this verb, but it is the same verb used in Genesis 15:6 in which we are told that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Whether this was a saving faith as we understand it or not, I cannot say. But at the very least, they believed God’s words as proclaimed to them by Jonah. They believed that the threatened judgment was real. The Hebrew verb for believe has at its root the idea of certainty or reliability. They understood and believed that God’s words were true. This belief lies at the heart of the human response to God which will make God change his mind. As the Book of Hebrews tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Without faith, we have no hope that God will change his mind.
Secondly, they responded with genuine sorrow for sin. They responded with a series of culturally significant actions. They fasted. They put on sackcloth. They sat in the dust, probably even throwing dust in the air. In the case of the Ninevites, they even included the animals and livestock. You can imagine the cacophony of sounds throughout the city; bawling cattle, whimpering, howling dogs, crying babies and young children, wailing men and women.
Thirdly, they called urgently on God. This was the call of the king in the middle of verse 8: Let everyone call urgently on God. This is the same kind of urgent, desperate prayer we saw last week on the part of Jonah in the belly of the fish. It is a prayer born out of despair and distress and fear. It is intense and urgent. It is directed to God as the only source of help and deliverance.
And then there is a fourth and final one. One that is all too often missing. One that is the key ingredient in changing the mind of God. They changed their behavior and turned from their evil ways. This was also part of the call in the decree of the king in verse 8: Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. This was not only the call of the king. It was also what God saw as recorded in verse 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways…
I have said that this one is the key ingredient, not because it is more important than the other three, but because it is the evidence that the other three are genuine. Without this final ingredient, the others become so much play-acting – and God is not impressed.
Repeatedly in Scripture, God dismissed the act of fasting simply for fasting’s sake. Listen to the prophet Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 58:5-9:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
So, there we have the four responses that will cause God to change his mind about judgment: faith in God and his message, sorrow for sin, an urgent appeal to God and turning from our sinful ways. God’s response is recorded in verse 10: When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he (changed his mind) and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
What is the relevance of Jonah 3 to us today? Actually, it is a very important chapter. Did you know that the only Minor Prophet to which Jesus refers is Jonah? And apart from the 3 days and nights in the fish, Jesus’ primary reference is to the events of Jonah 3. Let’s look at what he says, in Matthew 12:39-41.
He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.
This is important! The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. Because they repented, God changed his mind and withheld his judgment. But how will we respond to the one who is “greater than Jonah”?
To put this question in a fuller context, let’s turn to John 3, which is a great parallel to Jonah 3. In John 3:16-21:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
Jesus is God’s Son. He is the one who is greater than Jonah. Just as God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of coming judgment, now God has sent his Son into the world, not only to warn us but to offer us deliverance and salvation. How will we respond to his message? Will we, like the Ninevites, respond in a way that will cause God to “change his mind” about condemning us? Will we believe his message? Will we respond with sorrow for our sin and rebellion? Will we cry out to God for deliverance? Will we change our behavior and turn from our wicked ways? Or will we remain in the dark, loving our evil deeds. One “greater than Jonah” has come. Look at how he is described a little further down in John 3:31-35:
31 “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.
The one who is “greater than Jonah” has come down from heaven itself. He not only came from heaven, but he came back from the dead! He arose mirculously, not from three days and three nights in the belly of a fish, but from three days in the grave. He has come, not to announce judgment, but to announce salvation. But here is the solemn reality: if we reject him, the judgment remains. How will we respond?
The consequences of our choice is spelled out in stark contrast in the concluding verse of John 3:
36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.
What will you do with him?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Compare the following passages of Scripture (Numbers 23:19, I Samuel 15:29, Ezekiel 24:14, Genesis 6:5-7, Jonah 3:9-10); how can we reconcile the perspective of these verses in reference to the question: Does God change his mind? Keep in mind that the same Hebrew word is used in each of these verses.
- Read Jeremiah 18:1-10. Does this passage help resolve the difficulties posed in question #1? Why or why not?
- Four responses on the part of the Ninevites caused God to “change his mind” about the impending judgment. What were they?
- According to Matthew 12:41, the Ninevites “repented”. Is “repentance” necessary to salvation? How would you define repentance and/or relate it to the four responses in Jonah 3? Is repentance a part of most Gospel preaching and/or evangelistic methods used today? Should the answer to this question be a concern to us? Why or why not?