“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (vv. 7–8).- Jeremiah 18:1-10
Covenant conditionality is key to understanding the Old Testament prophets, for if we forget it, we may read all the prophetic promises as completely unconditional. The dispensational tradition, for example, tends to read the promises the Old Testament prophets made to Israel as if they can be fulfilled only by Jews who are related by blood to Abraham. If the prophetic promises are unconditional, then it seems that only Israelites according to the flesh can fulfill any prophecy given to Israel, Judah, or Jacob. If Abraham’s physical progeny have no real conditions tied to regaining the land and ruling over the earth, no conditions could go unmet and prevent a woodenly literal fulfillment of the prophecy (promises to Israel must be fulfilled by ethnic Israelites). If there are conditions, however, then prophecy can be fulfilled in a way that is not woodenly literal. Those who are not blood relatives of Abraham can inherit the promises made to Israel if they fulfill the conditions first given to Israel. The New Testament takes this view, in fact, teaching that the church of Jesus Christ, made up of ethnic Jew and Gentile alike, is the fulfillment of Israel and inherits the promises made to the old covenant people (Rom. 11; Gal. 6:16; Eph. 3:1–6; 1 Peter 2:9–10; Rev. 1:5b–6; see Ex. 19:1–6).
As we consider covenant conditionality, let us recognize that the prophets sometimes make conditional promises even when they do not make the conditions explicit. This is what we learn in today’s passage, which again highlights the conditions of faith and repentance in relation to the prophetic oracles. Because God is gracious and merciful (Ex. 34:6–7), His announcements of judgment and destruction do not have to come to pass because, while we draw breath, He will not bring the full calamity He has announced if we repent (Jer. 18:7–8). Moreover, because the Lord is just (Ex. 34:6–7), His announcements of blessing do not have to come to pass because, while we draw breath, He will withdraw His favor if we lack faith and repentance (Jer. 18:9–10).
Having revealed His grace and justice, God does not need to remind us of the aforementioned conditions every time He speaks. For example, even though Jonah never said what God would do if Nineveh turned from its sin, the Lord’s announcement of judgment on Nineveh did not come to pass because the city repented (Jonah 3). This relenting was not unexpected because God has revealed His unchanging character (chap. 4).
Without question, God knew that the Ninevites were going to repent long before He sent Jonah to preach to them. In fact, because the Lord has ordained even our responses, He always knows how we are going to respond when He delivers His Word. But God moves us to make these responses by revealing His character to us and then announcing judgment or blessing. In so doing, He creates a real relationship with His people.
Passages for Further Study
1 Samuel 15:1–23