First of all, we have to take into account that Lord IEUE speaks with humans according the forma mentis of them. Hardly we were able to understand high spiritual truths if God used the language spoken in the heavenly realm (1 Cor 13:1). Technically, this God’s way to proceed with men is expressed in the Bible with a lot of anthropomorfisms (either in single words, or in various expressions). In other words, very often in the Bible (and only for our sake) IEUE God are getting Himself inside in man’s part, to make understandable His way of doing things.
So, we sometimes read about God ‘is regretting’ (from the MT root נחם) to have made (or, to have thought) this or that thing. A well-known occasion of anthropomorphic way to speak is reported in Gen 6:7, where we read: “And Jehovah saith, ‘I wipe away man whom I have prepared from off the face of the ground, from man unto beast, unto creeping thing, and unto fowl of the heavens, for I have repented [נחם] that I have made them.’” (Young)
Some have troubles to understand this God’s way to speak, sometimes mixing up it for a non-anthropomorphic way to speak, that is, take it for the face value. But, doing so, these ones put the Bible in contradiction, because (we’ll see this fact onwards) the Word of God says that He ‘regrets’, but, in the same manner, also that He ‘does not regret’.
So, What is the better way to distinguish this two different factors (in-a-manner-of-speaking vs face value [literal rendering]), in this specific case, as regards the ‘regretting’ of God?
At least a couple of TaNaKh passages, in which God himself expresses something of His way of doing things, could make light on this matter.
“God is not a man, that he should lie; neither a son of man, that he should repent [נחם]. Shall he say and not do? and shall he speak and not make it good?” (Darby)
1 Samuel 15:29
“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret [נחם], for he is not a man, that he should have regret [נחם]” (English Standard Version)
In these passages, clearly outside the anthropomorphic way to speak, that is, speaking ‘literally’, God says he does not regret, at all.
Our (men’s) regrets are based on limitations of ours, regarding knowledge of facts, reduced life experience, wisdom, insight, and so on. Obviously, the Creator had none limitations of that kind, then, he cannot have ‘regret’.
However, when God choose to speak about Him in a anthropomorphic way, ‘I regret’, what He intends to convey us? Simply, that He has changed His mind.
But, one moment!, ‘to regret’ and ‘to change own mind’ are not synonyms? Not necessarily. The pivotal point is the reason that triggers the change of mind. We have said the reason of the God’s change of mind cannot be linked with some limitations of Him, regarding knowledge of facts, reduced life experience, wisdom, insight, and so on (like is typical of men, instead). The reasons that triggers the God’s change of mind are basically:
1) the particular situation can be managed in a number of ways, all equivalents one another, where God express simply an opinion (= one of possible solutions);
2) the particular situation was created by God to specifically test an individual (for an example, Exo 32:10, 14);
3) the ‘opposite party’ (compared to God), has changed his behaviour-commitment towards IEUE.
As regards the third point cited above, John W. Haley wrote (bold is mine): “In every such case, the change is in man, rather than in God. For example, God has promised blessing to the righteous and threatened the wicked with punishment. Suppose a righteous man should turn and become wicked. He is no longer the man whom God promised to bless. He occupies a different relation toward God. The promise was made to an entirely different character. […] Yet all this while, there is no change in God. His attitude towards sin and sinners, on the one hand, and toward goodness and the good on the other, is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. It is precisely because God is immutable, that his relation to men, and his treatment of them vary with the changes in their character and conduct. In a word, he changes because he is unchangeable.” (a)
To return to the point on Jonah 3:10, we have to remember that God said (to the prophet Jeremiah) “I repent of the evil that I thought to do unto it” (JPS), that is, upon a nation, or “I repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit it” (ibid.) all depending upon the reaction of the nation to his prior dealings with it (Jer 18:5-10).
Somebody can ask why the Bible (in the Jonah’s declaration of conviction to Nineveh) makes no mention to a conditional conviction, that is, ‘This is what will happen to you if you don’t repent…’. To somebody it seems, instead, a clean prophetic conviction, without way to escape it.
Somebody is right… it seems…
- why God warned the Ninevites 40 days before the ‘overthrown’ of the city, if it was irreversible?
- if He judged all the Ninevites as irretrievable sinners, why he gave them 40 days? To do what?
Alexander McLaren makes it in this way (bold is mine): “The great truth involved is one that is too often lost sight of in dealing with prophecy; namely, that all God’s promises and threatenings are conditional. Jeremiah learned that lesson in the house of the potter, and we need to keep it well in mind. God threatens, precisely in order that He may not have to perform His threatenings. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to cry, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,’ in order that it might not be overthrown. What would have been the use of proclaiming the decree, if it had been irreversible? There is an implied ‘if’ in all God’s words. ‘Except ye repent’ underlies the most absolute threatenings of evil. ‘If we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end,’ is presupposed in the brightest and broadest promises of good.” (b)
John Gill: “[…] within forty days, or at the end of forty days, as the Targum; not exceeding such a space, which was granted for their repentance, which is implied, though not expressed; and must be understood with this proviso, except it repented, for otherwise why is any time fixed? and why have they warning given them, or the prophet sent to them?” (c)
Joseph Benson: “The threat is express; but there was a reserve with God on condition of repentance. And it must be observed, that in most of the threatenings of God there is a condition expressed or understood. This is the general rule for interpreting all such denunciations, as has been observed in the note on Jer 18:8, unless where God makes an express declaration that the iniquity of the people against whom he denounces his judgments is full, and that he will not spare them […].” (d)
I hope it is clear that Lord IEUE, doesn’t repent, like men do. But He is happy to change His mind, when see men to change his way of life, making a full conversion to Him.
“Say unto them: As I live, saith the Lord GOD [יהוה = IEUE],
I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live;
turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (JPS)
References: (a) An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, 1874 (orig. edit.), 1977, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A., page 65; (b) Exposition of Holy Scriptures, on Jonah 3:4; c) Exposition of The Bible, on Jonah 3:4. (d) Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, on Jonah 3:4.