Now return to YHWH your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil Joel 2:13
Relenting – What exactly does this mean? Does God relax His hatred for evil? Does He yield to it? That’s what “relent” would imply, that somehow God lessens His stance toward evil. But that’s simply impossible. All Scripture portrays God as absolutely holy. God’s opposition to evil never lessens. So, why does Joel include this attribute in God’s character?
The word occurs more than 100 times, but there are only nine occurrences of this Hebrew verb naham where God is the subject. They are all difficult, principally because they imply that God “repents” (the common translation of this verb). You can see the classic example in Genesis 6:5-8. It’s hard to imagine that God would “repent” of anything. After all, every action He takes is a result of His holiness, so there is nothing to repent of. Whatever this verb means when it is applied to God, it certainly cannot mean that God needs to turn back from anything He has done according to His will. We will have to look deeper to see what’s happening here. By looking deeper, we can actually learn something important about repentance.
Let’s look at the pictograph first. The consonants Nun-Chet-Mem (N-H-M)* paint the picture of a fence that separates life from chaos. Can you see that repentance establishes a fence between us and disordered existence? When we confess and return to God’s instructions, God puts a fence between us and destruction. This is the first piece of our puzzle.
The second piece comes from something about the use of this word. All of the meanings of naham (and there are many) are tied to a deep emotional distress that results in outward action. Since Hebrew is a phenomenal language, it describes things as they appear to the reader. For example, God doesn’t have arms and yet Hebrew describes God’s outstretched arm. God’s powerful actions appear to the observer the way a mighty warrior would act.
Let’s apply these two pieces to Joel’s description of God. What we learn is this: God’s heart is so filled with compassion and grace that the thought of His creation being swallowed by chaos causes Him distress, so much so that He extends Himself on behalf of the lost creation beyond all human imagining. He is appalled at the sight of evil consuming the lives of those He created. Consequently, He acts, providing a fence around all those who come to Him. He patiently waits. He longs for our return. He rushes to meet us at the slightest hint of our willingness to change. So, here naham expresses the emotional intensity that brings about God’s actions on our behalf even when we were standing outside His protective fence. That is just who God is!
What have we learned? If we apply naham to our lives, we learn that God runs to greet us when we show the least sign of return (the father in the parable of the prodigal). We also learn that we are to do the same. We must rush to welcome those who seek forgiveness. He did it for us. Are we not to follow Him?
* Notice the underscore mark below the H. That tells you that this is the letter chet, not hey. It is pronounced like the German ach, a guttural sound from the back of the throat.
Topical Index: Repentance