This post is a section of a paper titled “The Repentance of God.” This paper was written by Ming Zhang, one of my students in the course “OT 458 Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” This course was taught at Northern Baptist Seminary in the Spring quarter 2014.
Repentance as Part of God’s Essential Nature
Divine repentance is grounded in God’s love. Repentance is a gracious act on the part of a compassionate God. Because God is love, God is willing to reverse himself, have mercy on people, and back away from judgment that people deserve because of their sins.
God does not use his power absolutely. Anderson explains, “God’s ‘repentance’ is not only an expression of divine freedom but also divine compassion. The God of Scripture is not the apathetic deity of some ancient Greek philosophy, who is removed from the human world and untouched by human suffering. Rather, God is present in the world, reacting with anger and moved by compassion.”
In Exodus 34:6-7 God reveals his true nature to Moses. When God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, God declared that he is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.
When the Lord passed before Moses, God revealed to him what kind of God he was: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
This passage declares God’s essential nature of love, compassion, and faithfulness. This text is generally referred to as a creedal statement about God. The prophets Jonah and Joel in describing the nature of God, added repentance to this creedal statement about God:
The prophet Jonah prayed to God and explained why he was reluctant to go to Nineveh. He said: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil” (Jonah 4:2).
When disaster fell upon the nation, the prophet Joel called upon the people to repent and pray. He said: “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil” (Joel 2:13).
According to these two prophets, God is not only loving, compassionate, and faithful, God also repents from sending calamity to people. Jonah and Joel are drawing from the creedal statement that God forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin. However, they eliminate the idea that God punishes the iniquity of parents and added the fact that God repents from evil.
Commenting on this change, Fretheim wrote, “Divine repentance here stands alongside some of the most fundamental statements Israel ever makes about God …; it is believed to be just as characteristic of God as grace and mercy.” Rice agrees with this view of God, “It is highly significant that several passages of this ‘defining’ sort list divine repentance (or ‘relenting,’ as some translations read) among God’s essential characteristics.”
This creedal statement, which includes the repentance of God, states the attributes of God and how Israel understands God. “Formulations like these demonstrate that repentance is not an exceptional action on God’s part, let alone something that is out of character for him.”
The repentance of God must be recognized as an important key to the nature of God and God’s involvement in the world. The confession announces that God’s grace, as manifested through God’s repentance, is an important part of God’s dealing with people.
Relationship with Integrity
God is not an impersonal, distant superpower that overlooks people from a distance; rather, God is a loving, compassionate, merciful father, husband, and shepherd who loves his people and wants to have a genuine relationship with them. God does not act upon the world with his absolute will and power, but God takes people’s response seriously in relating to them. God establishes a relationship of integrity with his people.
God is not unbending and unyielding. God is affected by what happens to people and adjusts direction in light of how people respond. Fretheim explains, “God is revealed as one who is not ensconced in some exalted detachment from the life of the world but enters into genuine interaction with its creatures.”
The Old Testament shows that God will move from a decision already made and will change course in his interaction with people because God’s desire is to save people and for people to come to know him personally. God even reveals himself to people, in what is known as a theophany, in order to have a genuine relationship with people and to let them know that he cares for them.
Divine repentance allows God and people to have a two-way relationship, not a one-way relationship where God makes decisions in advance. Fretheim defines the implications of this relationship, “Divine repentance is understood within the context of a living, dynamic relationship; hence, it cannot be programmed in advance.”
Kuyper addresses the same issue from a different perspective: “The religious value inherent in God’s immutability therefore is not to be found in a predestined order of events but rather in the ever-flowing stream of charismatic favours on the people called by God to enrich the life of the world.”
The repentance of God takes place in God’s relationship with Israel, an act that makes the relationship meaningful. The repentance of God happens when people make a positive response and turn away from sin, when people make a negative response and continue to sin, and when faithful intercessors pray to God on behalf of the people.
The repentance of God shows that God is affected by people and that God’s relationship with people is dynamic and not static. God is intimately involved in human affairs and the course of events, good or evil, stirs God’s feeling. God is happy and joyful in bringing blessings to people and he is sad, angry, and disappointed when he brings judgment against evildoers. “God works toward his objectives in history in dynamic interaction with human beings.”
In his interaction with people, God’s action is not restricted to simply bringing reward or retribution. If obedience or disobedience, faithfulness or unfaithfulness were the only criteria by which God would interact with people, Israel and the world would be doomed because of the persistence of sin and evil in the world. God is moved by love, compassion, and mercy for people; he wants to save people and for this reason, he is willing to change his mind and give them another chance to repent.
Israel’s history speaks of God’s love, compassion, and mercy for his chosen people. When Israel sins against God, God brings judgment upon them. In their distress, Israel pleads and cries to God. In response to Israel’s cry for help, God repents of the judgment and God delivers Israel from their bondage.
To Be Continued
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. Bernhard W. Anderson, “When God Repents: God’s Repentance Is Not Only an Expression of Divine Freedom, But Also of Divine Compassion,” Bible Review 12 (1996): 22.
2. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 10 (1988): 58.
3. Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 31.
5. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God,” 64.
7. Lester J. Kuyper, “The Suffering and the Repentance of God,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 274.
8. Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” 31.