A Journey with Jonah – 6
“The Repentance of God”
Jonah, Chapter 3:10 – 4:5
Jonah 3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Jonah 4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The scriptures at times leave us a bit confused. Listen to some of its claims.
- Genesis 6. God repented that he had made man.
- Exodus 32: God repented that he had rescued his people from Egypt.
- I Samuel 15.10, 35 God repented that he had made Saul king.
Other passages, however, are just as clear on the opposite side of the ledger.
- Numbers 23:19. Balaam says in his prophesy: “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man that he should repent. Has he said, and He will not do it? Has he spoken, and will not perform it?”
- I Samuel 15:29 Samuel says, “God, the Glory of Israel, will not lie or repent, for He is not a man that he should repent.” (Interestingly enough it is surrounded by two passages that tell us God repented of his choosing Saul.)
- Malachi 3:6 “I the Lord do not change...”
The theologians have had a field day with the question. Some have argued that since God knows everything, and everything is predetermined from the beginning, that he doesn’t really change, it only appears to us that he does. For they say, if God changes his mind, it means he must have been mistaken before. Others have argued that God does change, and that quite often. He changes his mind whenever we pray. A great dilemma.
Let me therefore try to find the centre line between the two extremes. Let me put it to us in a somewhat strange fashion.
- God never changes, so he changes constantly.
- God’s character does not change, therefore his ways and means change.
- His over-all purposes do not change, therefore his activities must change.
What do we mean? As a parent, the welfare of my children has been paramount. Over the last several decades my behaviour has changed drastically. Sometimes I have been stern, sometimes a marsh-mellow. Sometimes I have been lavish, other times I have been frugal. Sometimes I have reprimanded and other times I have rewarded.
What makes me change? Am I wishy washy, ambivalent, unpredictable? I think not. But, a change in my children necessitates a change in me. I respond to the behaviour of my daughters. When they are mean spirited, I reprimand. When they are thoughtful I commend. When they were six, I said “You can’t do that.” When they were sixteen, I said, “Sure! go ahead.”
The Repentance of God
In the book of Jonah the Repentance of God is the main characteristic about God. Now that is interesting. In this book the omnipotence of God is displayed over and over. He has the power to bring up a great storm, and quieten it at will. He commands great fish and miniscule worms to arrive on schedule. He can create a plant that grows tall over night. He can even destroy a huge city in a moment of time. God can do the miraculous. He is powerful! But this small book is less interested in a God who is omnipotent, and much more interested in a God who prefers to change his ways.
Note the frequency of the theme of God changing his mind:
- The sailors pray, hoping God will change his mind. “Perhaps God will give a thought to us, so that we need not perish.” (1:6) And God delivers them, reversing the storm he had created earlier.
- The Ninevites pray, saying “Who knows, God may yet repent, and turn from his fierce anger, so that we need not perish.” (3:9) And before that chapter is out we hear the words, “and God repented of the evil which He had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.“(3:10)
- It is because of this aspect of God’s nature that Jonah ran away in the first place. He knew, as he ran from the task, that God repents of evil. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2) It is the one thing about God that Jonah disapproved of.
But it must be noted that God changes, because He does not change. What does not change in God?
He has a great unchanging love for this ancient civilization. He does not want them to perish. But their sins, like a lightening rod, are attracting the bolts of doom. But God is intent on offering them the possibility of repentance and redemption. He sends a prophet. The prophet runs away. But God has not changed his purpose. He lassoes his prophet, and makes him go. Now God usually treats his prophets better than that. But God will change his treatment of prophets to meet his greater purpose.
He loves Jonah too. Because he does, he chases him with a hurricane and submerges him in the deep until the man is next door to death. And then in the next moment God is rescuing him. Judgment has changed to mercy.
But in chapter four we see the reverse. Mercy changes to judgment. God makes a plant with big leaves to grow up to protect Jonah from the heat of the mid-eastern sun. The next morning he sends a worm to devour that plant, and sends a hot east wind to fan the flames of this man’s pain. Why? Because the love of God for Jonah will never change.
He knocks on his heart’s door in pleasure and in pain, with promise and with threat; all intended to get Jonah to repent of his attitudes. Because God knows that if Jonah does not repent, a worse fate that drowning or sunstroke will get him. He may spend the rest of his life as a shriveled up and bitter man, whose hatred dominates his life. God wants that fate for no one, and so tries, every which way, to draw this miserable man to penitence.
It is interesting that this book is also about human repentance.
- The sailors repent
- The Nineties repent
- Jonah is called to repent
The very same word is used for God and people. What does it mean then? In we humans it is often the admission that we have been wrong. We have sinned and now we are sorry. But obviously it doesn’t mean that with God. God has not sinned, and he is not sorry about his behaviour.
But then it doesn’t mean that for humans either. It may be accompanied with emotional sorrow. It may be accompanied with the conviction that I have done something wrong, but at its heart, repentance is to change my mind about my activities. It is to change directions. It is to stop doing what I was going to do, and begin to do another thing. In the Hebrew language it is the word “to turn” or “to return”. In the Greek language, it is “a change of mind.”
Christian salvation is not essentially a change of mood, or a change of emotion, it is a change of direction. It is the will to will a different course of action. God always “repents” in response to human repentance.
What God cannot do
In this story about Jonah, God’s power is demonstrated throughout the book. God can hustle up a great storm at sea. He can harness the abilities of animals of all sorts, and make a plant grow, and the hot east winds blow. But he cannot rescue those who will not be rescued. He cannot actualize his forgiveness within those who want nothing to do with forgiveness. He cannot make Nineties turn, he only can offer them the opportunity and the ability to do it. He cannot make Jonah penitent and gracious, he can only nudge him in that direction.
The Unfinished Story
We do not know the end of this story. We do not know whether when chapter four is ended, the lesson got through to Jonah, and he went home and told the story of the graciousness of God to him and all mankind and all creatures great and small.
We do not know whether he went home, unrepentant, and angry with God. Angry because he was put through the wringer, angry because God is too soft on sinners. Bitter because he was “used” to do something he didn’t want to do. Perhaps he sat at the kitchen table when friends dropped by, and he told them of the unfairness of God.
We do not know if he went home filled with fury, but as the years went by, the memories of the suffocating water and terrifying days in the belly of the great fish, and the work of the destructive worm, did their work and he came slowly to penitence, and before he died, left behind for others instructions to tell the story of a man who had wanted to thwart the repentance of God, and who failed. One thing we can know for sure, God will not leave the man alone. For, as C. S. Lewis says in his book, The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
The author has intentionally left the story unfinished. He wants us to complete it. Am I Jonah? If so, will I repent? If not, let us not presume for a moment that we are on the side of the angels!
The reality is that God waits for us to turn towards him. Now he does not wait passively. He waits actively. He sends messengers to speak his word. He can use nature and supernature to get our attention. But one thing we can be sure of, he loves us too much to ignore us.
Jonah reminds me of Francis Thompson who describes his flight from God in the poem, “The Hound of Heaven”.
I fled him down the nights and down the days,
I fled him down the arches of the years,
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind;
And in the midst of tears, I hid from him,
And under running laughter, up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a voice beat
More instant than the feet –
“All things betray thee, who betrayest me.”
May the Hound of Heaven dog our days until we find ourselves and Him.