All four of the uses of the Hebrew word for repent in the book of Jonah occur in Jonah 3:8–10. Two of those refer to Nineveh, and two refer to God. It’s translated as “turn.” Here, in verse 10, God sees that Nineveh “turned from their evil way.” As a result, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them.”
Jonah, in some sense, repented in the fish. Then Nineveh repented. What does it mean, though, to say that God “turned”? He didn’t have sin to repent of. Does it mean he changed his mind? Is that even possible?
God is Merciful
As the story of Jonah unfolds, the question has been what would happen when the message finally arrived. As we see Nineveh’s response, and then God responds to Nineveh, that question is answered.
And we see the heart of God.
God doesn’t change his mind when Nineveh repents. From our human perspective, we can speak in this way. But the God who pulled the strings of the wind and sea to bring Jonah back to him doesn’t get caught by surprise. God controls everything. He knows everything. And he works through his chosen means to bring to pass what pleases him.
By reading the Ninevites’ repentance in light of Jonah’s sea voyage, we recognize that God has arranged everything according to his will. Nineveh’s repentance has been his desire and plan from the beginning. Jonah’s message offered no explicit knowledge of God’s mercy or call to repentance, but the 40 days’ delay implied that repentance and mercy were possible. God’s word did its work, and God relents as he’d always planned to.
God’s “repentance” mirrors Nineveh’s because they’re connected: “God is responsive to human repentance because of his mercy.” But it’s a response he has planned from the beginning.
But is God Just?
Jonah, though, likely has a different theological concern. It’s not God’s immutability—his unchanging perfection—that he cares about. It’s God’s justice. How can God “turn” from his wrath and still be just? As one commentator writes, “If divine mercy can so easily cancel out divine justice, then life is arbitrary and capricious.”
It’s a profound concern. And if it is, in fact, what has driven Jonah’s actions—even, possibly, his preaching of judgment in Nineveh—it’s one we may be sympathetic to. It may be hard to believe that someone who has been through the ordeal he endured and then received mercy might still feel this way. But if we look in our hearts, we’ll likely find similar contradictions. We demand justice. We need to know we live in a universe with a moral order. But we know we need mercy just as desperately.
And the problem—which may be Jonah’s problem—is that we come to elevate our own sense of justice above God’s. If enough seems awry to us, we make ourselves the judge of God—even as we depend on his mercy every moment.
The King in Ashes
Why does God relent from the judgment against you? Because like the King of Nineveh, our king, Jesus, arose from his throne, took off the splendor of his royal robe, took upon himself something much lower than sackcloth—human flesh. He came down to the dust of death. He sat in ashes.
But Jesus didn’t accept this humiliation because he had sinned. No sword hung over his head. No judgment threatened him. He emptied himself of his infinite royal splendor because the judgment threatened you and me. When you’re in Christ, when you turn your eyes to Jesus, the judgment that threatened you is removed. God relents—eternally.
It’s only through the cross that we have peace with God. And it’s only through the cross that our inner contradictions find resolution. God is utterly just and infinitely merciful. He executes justice on the cross so that the guilty who look to Christ can find grace.
By turning from our sin to Jesus, our longing for both justice and mercy is satisfied.
And when God looks down on his church and sees those who have been baptized, who have put on Christ, who have been crucified with him, he relents.
This is an excerpt from Jonah, a Core Bible study that aims to lead you into a deeper understanding of how the Old Testament points to the work of Christ. Check it out here.