The unstable and lawless days of the judges saw the nation caught in a recurrent cycle of sin and judgment, supplication and deliverance. Under the heavy hand of their enemies the people themselves came to their senses and cried out to the Lord. In answer to their pleas, God delivered them time and again in miraculous ways. "It repented the Lord because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them" (Judg 2.18). The urgent pleas from repentant hearts did not go unheeded.
When David sinned in numbering the people, he was confronted by Gad the prophet and given three choices. He chose three days of pestilence rather than punishments that would have lasted for longer. In the midst of the judgment, after 70,000 had died, the Lord, for no apparent reason at all, ordered that the plague should end. "The Lord repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand" (2 Sam 24.16). Clarification comes as we read on. After David had confessed his sin he interceded for the people and protested their innocence. He also built an altar unto the Lord and offered sacrifices. "So the Lord was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel" (2 Sam 24.25). Once again, prayer was the key.
Gods forgiveness judgment withheld
The great city of Nineveh was exceedingly wicked and ripe for judgment, but the Lord sent Jonah to preach to the people there and warn them of impending doom. The prophet, we recall, had at first been a reluctant and disobedient servant. In the mercy of God, and through the strange ways of divine discipline in his life (in the ship, in the sea, and in the belly of the great fish), he himself came to turn round and repent of his own sins.
His message was clear and direct, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jonah 3.4). Although it was the prophet who proclaimed the message, the Scriptures tell us that the people believed God, not Jonah. This was evident by their fasting and mourning. The king himself entertained a doubt or two as to whether or not the fierce anger of God could be averted, but he need not have worried. The city was spared. "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not" (Jonah 3.10).
The prophet Jeremiah had an even more difficult task. His ministry and appeals to the nation did not bear fruit and yet he remained faithful to the commission that God had given him. He held out the hope of Gods forgiveness and pardon as he declared the word of the Lord to the people: "If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them". "Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you" (Jer 18.8; 26.13). Unfortunately, these appeals went unheeded and God did not hold back the judgment.
When God does not repent
There are various well-known references stating that God will not repent. Do these not contradict what we have learnt already concerning God repenting? The answer is that such statements are not absolute: they always refer to specific matters concerning Gods purposes. We will seek to consider the following selected verses carefully in their context and in each case ask ourselves the question, "What is the particular matter or decision which God will not change?".
"God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" (Num 23.19). The speaker was Balaam, a prophet who intended to pronounce a curse upon Israel. King Balak had hired him to do so, but under the mighty hand of God Balaam was prevented from proceeding in this fashion. Instead, he was forced to issue a blessing in line with Gods unconditional and unchanging covenants concerning the ultimate destiny of His earthly people, Israel. Balaam was also contrasting the truth and certainty of Gods promises with the often deceitful and changeable pronouncements of men.
God has made a number of unconditional covenants with mankind in general and Israel, His earthly people, in particular. Their fulfilment does not depend upon mans obedience. Even though the children of Israel were unfaithful and provoked His discipline, they will yet come into the good of the promises which God made to them so long ago concerning the land, the seed, the city, and the King. These are sometimes called the Abrahamic, the Palestinian, the Davidic, and the New Covenants. These are the particular matters that God will not change.
At present the nation has been set aside, but one day in the future they will again inhabit the land, Christ will be their King upon His throne in Jerusalem, and blessing will flow from there to every corner of the earth. The nation of Israel was not chosen so that they alone would be blessed and others cursed. On the contrary, they were chosen so that they might be a channel of blessing to all other nations. The Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, came. He was rejected by His own but through His finished work on Calvary blessing has flowed and continues to flow to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. In this present age He is calling out of the nations a people for His name. The Church today shares in some of the guaranteed blessings of the New Covenant (Jer 31.31-34; 1 Cor 11.25; Heb 10.17), but the ultimate fulfilment awaits the millennial reign of Christ upon earth.
There is another promise that is very precious to believers today. Concerning Christ, the Psalmist wrote, "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (Ps 110.4; Heb 5.6). God will not change this high honour conferred upon Christ.
We can trust God implicitly and lean upon Him in every crisis. He will keep His word. His unconditional promises to Abraham and his descendants will hold good. His promises to us too are sure and steadfast, and His blessings will not be recalled or revoked. "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Rom 11.29). Christ is always there for us as our Great High Priest, ready to listen and ready to help at any time. Thank God, all of these things will never change.