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. Previous posts:
God’s Repentance and Human Response
A key passage that helps to properly understand the repentance of God and how it relates to human response is Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it (Jeremiah 18:1-10).
The traditional interpretation of God as the potter and Israel as the clay (Jeremiah 18:1-5) is that God, the potter, has complete control over Israel, the clay. God can fashion and move Israel any way he wants to because the potter has absolute control over the clay in his hands. However, another interpretation of the clay and the potter is that God’s plan for Israel can change depending on circumstances. The potter can rework the design depending on how the clay responds to the molding by the potter. God can and will rework his plan depending on the people’s response.
Anderson explains, “The paradox of divine sovereignty and human freedom is beautifully illustrated in the parable of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 18:1-2), in which God is likened to a potter. Just as a potter may rework a damaged clay vessel on his wheel, so God may reconsider his decision to destroy a nation – as long as the nation has turned from evil.” “This important passage indicates that God is not unilaterally directive in his dealings with human beings. Instead, his relation to us is one of dynamic interaction. God expresses certain intentions and waits to see how people will react.”
According to the creedal statement in Exodus 34:6-7, God’s essential qualities are love, compassion, slow to anger, kindness, mercy, and faithfulness. God desires life, not death. God’s repentance is based on God’s love, compassion, and mercy. God hopes that punishment will not be fulfilled and that salvation and blessing can be extended to all people. Fretheim explains the divine desire: “God hopes to be able to reverse himself; God is open to change precisely in order that the people may experience salvation rather than judgment or final judgment.”
The story of Jonah shows God’s qualities of love, compassion, mercy, and repentance. After Jonah preaches God’s message to Nineveh, the whole city repents from their sins. God “sees the depth and breadth of their repentance and calls off the disaster He had in store for them. He relents from destroying them.” The prophet Jeremiah also affirms that God’s action depends on people’s response to God (Jeremiah 18: 7-10).
If God announces that he will destroy a nation and the nation repents of their sin, God will repent, change his mind, and deliver the nation from judgment. If God has announced blessing for a nation and the nation does evil and disobeys God, then God will reconsider the blessing for that nation. Jeremiah’s words are confirmed as God repents of the judgment and destruction of Judah through Hezekiah’s repentance after hearing Micah’s message of judgment (Jeremiah 26:16-19). In God’s dynamic relationship with people, God hopes people would turn from sin and God would gladly reconsider bringing judgment upon the people.
God’s Repentance and Human Intercession
An important part of human relationship with God is prayer. Prayer is the way for humans to communicate with God and to petition God for things that are important to them. Many times, prayer involves asking God to change his plan. And when people pray, there is a real possibility that God will change his plan in response to human prayer. Kuyper clarifies the reason God changes his mind, “The changeability of God in response to the prayer of man indicates that man is in a meaningful relationship with God.”
In the Old Testament, God’s plan and action are changed by the prayer and petition from the prophets. When God was angry and frustrated with people for worshiping the golden calf on Mount Sinai, Moses pleaded with God to have mercy and grace on his chosen people (Exodus 32:12-14). Moses appealed to God’s reputation in the world, asked God to repent of the impending destruction, and reminded God of his unconditional promise to Abraham. Moses “believes it is possible to alter the divine word, and to this end he gives three reasons why God should not follow through on his threatened course of action (32:11-13).”
In a dynamic relationship, God is not the only one who has something to say and God is willing to listen to the petition of the prophets. Sanders explains, “The real basis for the change in God’s decision comes from a forceful presentation by one who is in a special relationship with God. With Moses’ prayer, the decision-making situation is now altered for God.” God’s ultimate purpose remained the same, but God’s plan for Israel, his chosen people, did change in response to Moses intercession.
Like Moses, the prophet Amos also interceded on behalf of Israel (Amos 7:2-6). After Amos saw a vision in which God would judge and destroy Israel, Amos cried out to God and asked God for his forgiveness on behalf of Israel. God changed his mind and did not bring judgment on Israel. This vision of destruction and God’s repentance did not happen just once, but twice. In both visions, Amos pleaded with God and God changed his mind. Freedman explains what happened:
In the end Yahweh will have his way and the prophet must be his servant delivering his message, but there are moments in which there is genuine give and take, and if the prophets are to be believed it is possible to sway God’s mind and secure a change or modification of the message.
The interaction between God and Amos shows that God’s decision with respect to Israel’s future is not irrevocable and final. God can change his plan and does change his plan in response to the prophet’s petition. God’s intention is not absolute and God does not unilaterally decide what to do; rather, God is moved by human petition that touches the very nature of God, who is loving, kind, and merciful. Intercessory prayer is vital to the repentance of God.
Studies on the Repentance of God
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
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): 21.
2. Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 32.
3. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 10 (1988): 58.
4. Sandor Goodhart, “Prophecy, Sacrifice and Repentance in the Story of Jonah,” Semeia 33 (1985): 48.
5. Lester J. Kuyper, “The Suffering and the Repentance of God,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 275.
6. John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 63.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 97.