What is the thought of God “repenting” as in Jonah 3:10? Does God change His mind?
Expressions that indicate “God repenting” cause questions in many minds and have been the subject of many different opinions. We can be satisfied that God, by His character, is immutable; He is unchanging. He is also perfect and omniscient, knowing all things. However, these expressions indicate moments when He changes, or seems to change, an action in response to changes in those conditions that moved Him. When a man repents or changes, it is because he acknowledges that he has wrong thoughts and is prone to mistakes. This is not true of God! When He repents, it is not a change of thinking, but rather of action. The first example of God repenting is in Genesis 6:6-7 regarding the wickedness of man; God repented in having made man upon the earth. It was because man no longer corresponded to God’s purpose in His creation that his condition caused God sorrow of heart. This repentance was not due to a mistake on God’s part, but due to failure in man’s actions. This form of expression representing an “apparent” change of God’s mind allows us to understand something of His ways. In most cases, we find this expression when the conditions that had called for a particular relationship with an object or for a judgmental action on God’s part changed, the result then was that God, in righteousness, no longer had reason to act as He had said He would
A similar thought is in Jeremiah 18:8 and Joel 2:13, where God says that if a people turn and repent of their evil, then God would also repent of the judgment that He intended to bring on them for that evil. That is, their turning in repentance would remove the cause for God’s judgmental action and thus result in a change of action on God’s part, though His attitude of condemnation of their sin was yet unchanged. God judged men righteously on the grounds of their works so that when repentance was real, as indicated by their works, He no longer had the same righteous grounds to judge them. His desire is not the death or condemnation of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his evil ways (Eze 18:20-32 and 33:11-20).
In Jonah 3, the Ninevites received Jonah’s brief message predicting God’s judgment in such a way that, without receiving any indication of God’s possible mercy, they responded in repentance with the hope that God would show mercy to them (3:9). Thus, through their repenting, the grounds for God’s wrath no longer existed. So that by repenting they were no longer the object of God’s judgment (though it did fall upon them in later years when they reverted to their evil ways, as prophesied in Nahum 2:8, 3:7, Zephaniah 2:13). This was an evident change of God’s action, but it is because the ones who had deserved judgment were no longer in that condition that called for Him to judge them.