How can the actions of men change God’s sovereign will?



First, thank you for your work in answering questions. Your diligence in doing so is admirable because it provides a great service to those either seeking God or those encountering difficulties in their walk with God.

I've recently been reading and studying about God's will, specifically God's sovereign will.

God's sovereign will is immutable and will be brought to realization, no matter the actions, plans or desires of any person or nation on earth.  We know this through multiple passages in the Bible including Daniel 4:28-37 and the humbling of King Nebuchadnezzar, Ephesians 1:11, Psalm 33:6-11, Isaiah 46:9-10 and all 176 verses of Psalm 119.

My question relates to Jonah chapter 3 in which Jonah receives the word of God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh. In Jonah 3:4 he delivers God's message, categorically stating "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown."  The Assyrians heed the warning and repent of their wrongdoing. Jonah 3:10 then concludes by stating that "When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened."

Jonah prophesied God's will categorically that their city would be overthrown. In this statement, in delivering God's message there is no doubt or subjectivity concerning God's will as it pertains to Nineveh's future. However, Jonah 3:10 records that God relents from his previous message and does not follow through with the destruction he had threatened.

My question is: if God's sovereign will, word, and prophecy was to overthrow the city of Ninevah, how are the actions of men (the Assyrians) able to alter that will in light of the above passages referenced in Daniel, Ephesians, Isaiah, and Psalms? If God's sovereign will is immutable how were the actions of the Assyrians directly linked to God relenting / repenting / changing his mind in respect of what God said He would do?  This concept obviously holds severe ramifications for God's promises to His people, so your help in shedding light upon these passages and how they interrelate to aid in my understanding would be much appreciated.

Thanks in advance for your time and effort in responding.

Keep up the good work!


"All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'" (Daniel 4:35).

Daniel 4:35 was written by King Nebuchadnezzar after his seven years of insanity at the hand of God. His statement is that God does as He sees fit and no one can stop Him. But notice that this does not mean God can't change His mind about a matter if circumstances change.

"Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11).

In Ephesians 1:11, Paul talks about God's plan to save mankind from their sins. Even before the world was created, God planned to send Jesus so that through his shed blood, people would have a way to obtain redemption (Ephesians 1:7).  God executed that plan and successfully accomplished it. Yet, according to God's design, whether someone is redeemed or not depends on what that individual does. At some point in our lives, we are all destined for destruction (Ephesians 2:3), but some of us listen to the message of the Holy Spirit and believed it (Ephesians 1:13-14). We were made alive through Christ and raised up with him through God's grace (Ephesians 2:5-6), which is an allusion to baptism. "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4).

On a global basis, Satan, the Roman government, and the Jewish leaders were unable to stop God from putting His plan for saving people into action. Individually, God requires that those who will be saved must do the works He has laid out. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Thus, individually, God's decision to destroy sinners is changed by His grace allowing those who chose to obey Him to be granted forgiveness.

"Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation" (Psalms 33:8-11).

Once again, we see that God's decisions cannot be stopped by nations, nor does He change His plans as time advances. However, this does not mean that God is unable to show mercy to individuals or nations as He sees fit. God is able to adjust His overall plans to accommodate the righteous or punish the wicked without impacting His grand design. This is why Hezekiah was allowed 15 more years of life after being told he would die soon (Isaiah 38:5).  But when Hezekiah later made the mistake of showing off his treasures, God told him, "'Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day will be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,' says the LORD.  'Some of your sons who shall issue from you, whom you will beget, will be taken away; and they will become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon'" (II Kings 20:17-18). This would not have happened so soon if Hezekiah had made a different choice. In other words, God's plans have some wiggle room that God uses as He sees fit.

"Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it" (Isaiah 46:9-11).

This passage in Isaiah reveals why no man or nation change alter God's purpose: It is God who executes His plans and no one can stand in the way of the Almighty. But again, this doesn't mean that God has planned out every detail of everyone's life. God is able to allow people to have free-choice and adapt the execution of His plan around individual choices. "The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD" (Proverbs 16:1). This is implied in Isaiah 46:11 when God said He will bring His purpose to pass. It means that the future is not already settled, but God will take an active role in seeing His will accomplished.

When Jonah tried to go to Tarshish, he wanted to avoid preaching in Nineveh so that God would destroy the city. "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity" (Jonah 4:1). Notice that Jonah had discussed this with God prior to fleeing; thus, we can conclude that Jonah knew that the purpose of his going to warn Nineveh was to open the possibility of the Assyrians changing. Jonah didn't want the Assyrians forgiven, he wanted them destroyed, so he tried not to give them a chance.

I suspect that Jonah's message likely didn't call for repentance. He only stated that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4). That was the part that he wanted to happen. I could see Jonah avoiding mentioning that there was a chance to repent. We also see that the king wasn't certain that God would relent. "Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish" (Jonah 3:9). I suspect the king didn't conclude this from Jonah's message. Thus, despite one, possibly two, attempts to change God's plan, God was able to show Nineveh mercy.

As God told Israel, He doesn't destroy because He enjoys it. ""Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct," declares the Lord GOD. "Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord GOD. "Therefore, repent and live"" (Ezekiel 18:30-32). The people of Nineveh did not cause God to change His plan, they met the condition that allowed God to offer mercy, which is what God preferred to do.

Therefore, you are correct that the fact that God relented in Jonah has important implications for us. God has granted people who met His conditions forgiveness of sin and promises that if they remain faithful that He will give them a home in heaven. But this also means failing to remain obedient will cause us to miss out on heaven. "Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience" (Hebrews 4:11). People don't change God's plan. His purpose remains the same (II Peter 3:9). The question regarding whether you, personally, will reach heaven is up to you. God is not going to alter His will for someone who desires to do things their own way.

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