Jonah 3:10 Three Challenges to the Reliability of God

A sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, 26 September 2010


As I mop up the last of the book of Jonah, I want to deal some issues related to the last verses of chapter 3 and chapter four. I want to deal with chapter 3 verse ten today, and then conclude with chapter 4 verse 11 next week. So for this week, let us consider 3 sticky questions that arise from the last verse in chapter 3:

(1)   Was Jonah a False Prophet?

(2)   Are we saved by our works?

(3)   Does God change His mind?


I would like to suggest that each of these questions has to do with whether or not we can trust God. If the answer is Yes to any of these questions, then God and the Bible cannot be considered a reliable source of truth, and God’s plan of salvation would not be reliable either! So the answers to these three questions are very important.


Illustration: Anchor. Say I have a boat that I don’t want to drift out to sea while I’m sleeping. I throw an anchor over the side of the boat to hold it in place. If I haul up on the chain in the picture and there is no anchor on the other end below the water, then I’m in trouble; I’m going to lose my boat! So I want to figuratively pull on the chain of this scripture passage by looking into these three questions to see if there really is a God we can depend upon, or whether the Bible says we’re in deep trouble!

Q#1: Was Jonah a False Prophet?

·         Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days (NIV=overturned; LXX katastrephw=turned upside down)

·         But apparently no political uprising occurred, no foreign army invaded, and no natural disaster happened. Does this make Jonah a false prophet?

·         Goldman: the concept of an “overturn” could carry both a positive and a negative dimension: “If they would not repent, it would be destroyed. But if they did repent, they would be ‘overturned,’ i.e. their hearts would change from evil to good” (Son. 146). So, whether there was a political revolution or a change of heart, God's word predicting a “turn-over” in 40 days would be true either way!

·         In fact, a foreign army did invade Nineveh, but it was a spiritual force that invaded. Jonah, as the spokesman for the Most High God delivered the terms of surrender to the city of Nineveh… and they surrendered to God!

·         There was a political uprising, even though the same rulers continued to rule, for the people of the city as well as the king confessed their sin before God, turned from their wicked ways, and honored God – at least for a time. The city was changed by God’s transforming power.

·         So, NO, Jonah was not a false prophet.


What can we learn from this?

  1. God’s word is true. His prophecies did not fail. He remains utterly dependable. We should believe what the Bible says.
  2. Those who have made false prophecies are not from God, so we should not follow them.

§         This includes Buddah, who prophecied some 1,500 years ago that because women joined his movement, Buddhism would only last for 500 years!

§         It includes the Muslim prophet Mohammed, who prophecied that the end-time war and arising of the antichrist would occur in 1453[1].

§         It includes Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, who predicted 1891 as the end time when Christ would return.[2]

§         It includes Charles Russell, and Joseph Rutherford, founders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who prophecied the end of the world in 1914, then 1915, and then when the end of the world still hadn’t occurred, tried for 1918, then for 1925, and then for 1942. Both died before finding out that that the end of the world wouldn’t happen then either.

§         Predictions of the date of the end of the world are often a characteristic of cults. We must be careful not to get drawn into groups who follow prophets whose prophecies have been proven untrue.

  1. God’s eternal purposes to save people will never be derailed. He has saved cities like Nineveh in the past, and He has not changed; He continues to change cities today, therefore we can and should hope and work to see our cities transformed.


Q#2: Does our Obedience Save us?

a3:10 וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה


10 Well, God saw their behavior, that they had turned away from their evil way. And God was made sorry over the evil which He had promised to do to them, so He did not do it.


Jonah 3:10 tells us that the reason God relented from His anger toward Nineveh is that He “saw their behavior/works. They turned away from their evil way” and so God did not punish them.


Does this mean that God saves us because of our good works? Does He look down from heaven and say, “Johnny is a bad boy, so I’m going to send him to hell, but Suzie is trying hard to be good, she turns away from evil, so she’ll go to heaven.” ??


Either way we answer the question, we have a problem:

§         If the answer is Yes, then our salvation depends upon us rather than upon God. If it is our actions that determine whether or not we go to heaven, then Jesus is not really the savior and His offer of salvation is questionable.

§         If the answer is No, then Jesus is the Savior, but people will do wrong things with impunity because the will figure their works don’t matter.


What information has God revealed to answer this question? Thankfully we have more than just Jonah 3:10 to inform us as to salvation; we have the whole Bible. And if we look at the whole Bible rather than just this account to build our understanding of salvation, we will see a few things emerge:

  1. One sin is enough to condemn us.

§         James 2:10 says that “he who keeps the whole law of God and yet stumbles at only one point is guilty of all.” Simply stopping a sinful habit is not enough to save us from God’s wrath.

§         In the case of Nineveh, God still had to deal with all the times the people of Nineveh did wrong before they stopped doing wrong. If God is just, He can’t just let them get away with their previous sins scott-free. The penalty of those sins must be paid.

§         “All have sinned,” says the Bible, and “the wages of sin is death.” Every person on earth has done some sort of sin, and that sin damns them. There is no way around it. You can’t start doing good things and win God’s favor. Somebody HAS to die, or else your sin is still stuck to you, and you will be condemned by God, no matter how good you try to be.

§         That is what’s so great about Jesus – the death of God-be­come-Man by Roman crucifixion in the first century A.D. was the ultimate death by which the sin could be justly punished and done away with. What saves us from God’s fair punishment for our sin is not our good works, but the death of Jesus, who took on himself our sins as well as the punishment of death for our sins.

  1. Turning from sin is not the beginning of our relationship of salvation with God. It starts long before that.

·         It’s not like God looks down from heaven and says, “Wow, Jimmy is being really good today, I think I’ll save him.” The scriptures tell us that God has been thinking about Jimmy for a long time and preparing Jimmy for that moment.

o       Eph 1:4 God “chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him...

o        Eph 3:11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,

·         So God’s relationship with those who are saved starts with His plan to save them in eternity past before the world was created. This continued into human history – God  was thinking about Jimmy when He put Jesus on the cross, placed Jimmy’s sins on Jesus and punished Jesus for them instead.

·         God wrote Jimmy’s name in the Lamb’s book of life (Psa. 69:28; Php. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15; 21:27) and then sent His Holy Spirit to give birth to spiritual life in Jimmy (John 3:3,7; 1Pe. 1:3,23), convict Jimmy of his sin (John 16:8), and draw Jimmy to himself.

·         Titus 3:5  says: He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.

·         So you see, one sin is enough to condemn us and that salvation is a process that begins with God’s mercy and results in good deeds; it does not begin with our good deeds and result in God’s mercy.

  1. God’s salvation is covenantal, so the maintenance of a holy relationship is essential.

·         Throughout the Bible, the two components of “repentance” and “faith” are what God calls us to do to be saved. When we believe that Jesus died to pay for our offenses against God and when we turn away from a life of rebellion against God, then we will be saved.

·         God works with those who are in a covenantal relationship with Him. He notices whether or not they are obedient to Him – and blesses or curses as a result of what He sees.

A.    After making a covenant with Abraham, God gave Abraham a son and then told him to sacrifice his son. God blessed Abraham for his obedience to the point of sacrificing his son (Gen.22/James 2:21ff).

B.     God made it clear in the Mosaic law-covenant that He would reward obedience & curse disobedience (Lev. 26).

C.     And The Psalmists consistently call God to follow through on His promise to bless the righteous and punish the wicked based upon their actions (Psalm 18:20-27).

D.    We also see this in Jesus’ teachings: “In Matt. 25, Jesus talks about Judgment Day… ‘If you don’t love the poor, if you don’t love the hungry, the naked, the poor wanderer, the homeless – if you don’t love them, then no matter what you say, you don’t love me.’ A deep social conscience, and a life poured out in service to others, especially the poor, is the inevitable sign of real faith – and justice is the grand symptom of a real relationship with God. If you know Him, it will be there. It may come slowly, but it will come. If it doesn’t, you don’t have the relationship you think you have.” (Tim Keller, “Justice”)

E.     The Apostle Paul also addresses the issue in Romans 6, where he wrote, “Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

So the answer is No, Nineveh was not saved by turning  away from evil; rather they repented because God caused them to, and as a city that had entered into a kind of covenantal relationship with God by accepting His terms of surrender for the city, God responded to their righteousness with blessing, just as He would respond later to their unrighteousness in the book of Nahum with destruction.


What can we learn from this?

1.      We can praise God for taking the initiative to save us. Our lives should constantly be filled with thanks to Him.

2.      We also should walk with confidence before God (1Jn. 2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14), unafraid of condemnation, knowing that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:35-39).

3.      Despite the fact that it is only Jesus who saves us and not our works, there are still real consequences from God which are based upon our works. We should seek to obey God and do what is right and enjoy walking in His blessing!


Well, if Jonah was not a false prophet, and if Nineveh, was not saved by their works, what about:

Q#3: Does God Change His Mind?

b3:10 וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה.

3:10b and God relented over the evil which He had promised to do to them, so He did not do it.


The question is, “Does the eternal, all-knowing God change His mind?” Does God really get irrationally angry and need some sense talked into Him?


Once again, if the answer is Yes, then we’re in trouble, because it would mean that God is fickle.

  • You could reach the pearly gates and say, “Please let me into heaven because I trust in Jesus for salvation,” and God might say, “What? Oh, I don’t do it that way anymore. I’ve decided to let followers of Buddah in instead, Sorry.”
  • If God changed His mind, then morality and truth would be changing too!


Once again, we have to go to the whole council of scripture. There are many scriptures that state emphatically that God does NOT change or change His mind:

·         1 Samuel 15:29 “The Strength of Israel will not lie or repent; for He is not a man, that He should repent.” (cf. Ex. 24:14, Num 23:19)

·         Psalm 102:26-28 “Even they will perish, but You endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing you will change them, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will not come to an end.” (also quoted in Heb. 1:11,12)

  • Jeremiah 4:27 “For thus saith Jehovah, ‘The whole land shall be a desolation; yet will I not make a full end. For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black; because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and I have not repented, neither will I turn back from it.” (cf. Isa 14:27)
  • Malachi 3:6 “I, Jehovah, change not; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
  • Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”
  • James 1:17 “…the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (cf. Rom 1:23)


But doesn’t it say in Jonah 3:10 that God “repented” or “relented” ? (I don’t think that the NIV’s translation “had compassion” is the best – this is an exception to the way even the NIV usually translates this Hebrew word (over 90% of the time they used a different word). If the Bible says that God relented or repented, doesn’t that mean He changed His mind?


Many people have offered answers to this question:

§         for instance, John Calvin and R.C. Sproul have sought to explain this apparent contradiction as anthropomorphism – a statement describing God as though He were human because we humans have no other way to comprehend God’s nature, and therefore the statement should be understood that it is speaking figuratively, not literally.

§         there are others, and I don’t have time to review them all.

§         But as I have thought about it this week, I was intrigued to find an answer to this question in the use of the Hebrew word translated “relent” here.

The meaning of Nacham

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Hebrew word translated “relent/repent/had compassion/made sorry over” is “nacham,” and the root meaning of this word is “to sigh.” But as I surveyed how the word was used throughout the Old Testament, I noticed an interesting pattern:

  1. The first time that this Hebrew word appears in the Bible is Gen 5:29 when Lamech, son of Methusalah names his son Noah, saying, "This one will give* us rest* from our work and from the toil of our hands with the ground which the LORD has cursed." The first use of the word is about the hope of a seed of the woman undoing the curse of sin.
  2. The second time Nacham appears is Gen. 6:6-7, before the flood, when there was so much wickedness on the earth that the LORD said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land… for I am* sorry* that I have made them." In Jonah 3:10, the nacham of God leads him not to destroy people, but in Gen 6, it leads Him to destroy mankind by the flood. But in both cases, God is expressing a desire for restoration that would bring relief from evil.
  3. The third occurrence of nacham is Gen. 24:67, when Isaac was “comforted” after his Mother Sarah’s death by marrying Rebecca. In this case, there is restoration of a family broken by death. Later on in the book of Job, Job’s brothers and sisters “comforted” him after his losses by bringing food and money to him. Restoration from loss.
  4. I’ll mention only one more, and that is Gen 27:42, the 4th occurance of nacham, where Esau is “comforting” himself in the light of losing his blessings as firstborn by planning to kill Jacob, who stole the blessing from him. Esau’s plan was wicked and wouldn’t really have restored blessings to him, but once again, this is a context of trying to restore blessings after a loss.


Do you see the pattern here?

  • Nacham is not so much about a change of mind as it is about restoring someone to a state of blessing.
  • The Theological Wordbook of the O.T. notes that this word is generally not used to indicate human repentance, rather it is used of God when He throws the switch from justice to mercy – or from mercy to justice.
  • Anyone who believed that God actually changed His mind in the Old Testament would have a problem because the New Testament says nothing of the kind.
  • So when Jonah 3:10 says that God nacham’ed from His threat against Nineveh, the idea is not so much that God changed His mind as it is that God purposed to restore Nineveh as they mourned their losses caused by their own wickedness.
  • This is something that God does many times throughout the Bible, and it could take another hour to review all those times, so I won’t do that now, but rather just remind you of one example, one we read about last week in Exodus 32, when God told Moses to stand aside so He could destroy the nation of Israel as they wandered in the desert. Moses interceded for the people and God “relented” –brought restoration to a sin-sick people.


God’s Immutability (the fact that He does not mutate/change) follows from His other attributes:

§         The Perfect Holy One has no regrets - no sin to repent of,

§         There is nothing for the omniscient to learn, b/c He knows everything already!

§         no change of location for the omnipresent, b/c He is everywhere already!

§         He is always hating sin, always bringing justice, always turning evil to good and always showing redemptive mercy in a billion places on the earth simultaneously at any given point in time. If He is always doing these things, He is not changing when He does them. It is part of God’s eternal, unchanging nature to want to be asked to withhold judgment.

·         Martin Luther loved to preach from the book of Jonah, in part because it speaks of God’s mercy upon an entire nation of sinners. He said, “The left hand of God’s wrath is replaced by His right hand of blessing and freedom” (Verkuyl). He’s always had both hands and He’s always used first one then the other; this does not represent a change in God.

·         God lets people realize that He is angry and that they deserve punishment so as to bring them to their senses and cause them to do what is right.

·         I think that this is what God is doing to Nineveh. He already knows that they will repent, but, to bring this repentance about, He’s letting them know that their evil deeds have angered Him and that they deserve to be the object of His wrath.

·         The Ninevites were concerned with whether or not God would repent, but God was concerned with whether or not they (and Jonah) would repent!


What can we learn from this?

1.      Praise God that he does not change. In the midst of a crazily-changing world, He will stay the same.

2.      We can reflect in our own imperfect way the unchanging nature of God by obeying Him:

a.        Gal 6:9 “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

b.      1Co 15:58 “Therefore… be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…”

3.      Trust in Him because He is not limited and fickle and corrupt like we humans are. If we pull on the anchor chain of faith in Jesus, there is an anchor there; our ship is safe secured to Him. He will consistently bring about restoration from the ravages of sin when we repent of it and trust Him to save!

Heb 6:17-20  In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath,  18  so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.  19  This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast…