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Enjoying God Blog


Many people are confused by what happened with the Ninevites because of the way Jonah 3:9-10 has been translated by some versions of the Bible:

“Who knows,” asks the king of Ninevites? “God may change his mind and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God changed his mind concerning the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:9-10).

But if that is the case, what are we to make of passages such as Numbers 23:19 which say:

“God is not a man, that he should like, 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?”

Or what about Isaiah 14:24 where we read:

“The Lord of hosts has sworn: As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.”

I certainly believe these statements about God and the immutability of his eternal purpose. But often in the OT God makes a prediction or declares his intent to accomplish something great and ominous and it is self-evident and unmistakably clear that it is conditional. That is to say, God says he will act in a certain way or perform some deed on the assumption that certain conditions prevail. Often times those conditions are explicitly stated and at other times they are implicit. But it is always clear that what God has said he will do is dependent on what the people will do.

In the case of the Ninevites, God said that in 40 days he will bring judgment and destruction on the city. Obviously this is a conditional declaration. It is not an unqualified and unconditional declaration of purpose. We know this from three facts.

First, if it weren’t conditional, there is no reason why God would have ever sent Jonah to preach to them in the first place. If there were never any hope of the Ninevites being saved and delivered from judgment, one wonders why God would have bothered to send Jonah to preach to them.

Second, if it weren’t conditional, he would have judged them immediately rather than giving them 40 days. Is it not obvious that the 40 days was an expression of God’s patience and kindness and longsuffering, as he gives the Ninevites time to reflect and hopefully repent?

Third, Jonah himself obviously understood that this declaration or promise of judgment was conditional, or suspended on whether or not the Ninevites repented, or he would have gladly gone to Nineveh at the beginning. Nothing would have pleased Jonah more than to be the mouthpiece of God’s inevitable and unavoidable judgment against these Gentiles. The reason Jonah didn’t go to Nineveh but instead ran away to Tarshish, is that he knew that God was the kind of God who, if the Ninevites repented, would rescind or withdraw his declaration of judgment. In fact, that is precisely what Jonah tells us in 4:1-2.

This fundamental truth is stated most clearly in Jeremiah 18:7-11.

“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. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds’” (Jeremiah 18:7-11).

God always acts in perfect harmony with his nature. He never has, never will, and indeed quite simply cannot act contrary to his nature or character. This is what it means when we speak of God’s immutability. It refers to his constancy, his faithfulness always to act in complete conformity with his character as God. His nature and his stated purpose is to punish the wicked and to forgive the repentant. God declares repeatedly in Scripture: I will punish the wicked, unless they repent. When the wicked repent, his treatment of them must change. God himself hasn’t changed. He is still the same God.

Thus when the Ninevites changed and repented upon hearing the preaching of Jonah, God’s immutability required that he change in his treatment of them. God’s character didn’t change. God’s plan didn’t change. But God’s treatment of the Ninevites and his relationship to them changed because they changed.


Deut. 18:22 says " If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed."
I wish Jeremiah had acknowledged this verse and explained how it is consistent with Jer. 18:7-11.
Thanks Sam. This is an important lesson.

Another helpful example of your distinction is found in Gen 41 where Joseph told Pharaoh that his dream was repeated because the forthcoming famine was “established.” No amount of prayer, fasting, or repentance could alter it. God was bringing the famine. They were to simply plan on it and prepare.

This tells us something about how God works. Some things are fixed / established. Some things are not. We tend to get so wrapped up in our simplistic understanding of how God's foreknowledge must work, we lose sight of the myriad of ways God can accomplish his ultimate will in our lives. God is not stymied by giving us true options / contingencies.

God’s sovereignty is not negated by His promises. The only one who can limit God’s sovereignty is God Himself. Another example would be the promise of the rainbow. He cannot destroy the earth by water ever again. Gods hands are tied by His own integrity. (Of course He has other options available if He plans to trash the planet!)

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