“Repentance” Word Study

Summary of OT usage of “Repent”

1. “Repent” and its cognates are found 46 times in the Old Testament in 45 verses. Two Hebrew words are translated “repent” in the KJV.  Neither Hebrew word that is translated “repent” in the OT is consistently translated as such; “נחם” (naw-kham') about 38% of the time and “שׁוּב (shoob) less than 3/10 of 1% of the time. In other words, both Hebrew words translated as “repent” are more often translated otherwise. The two words each have different definitions[1] and the definition of neither of the two words coincides with the etymological meaning of the common NT word translated as “repent.” (See footnote 19). This all might indicate that “repent” possibly is not even the best translation in many cases.

2. The majority of the time (about 75%) it is God who repents or does not repent, indicating for certain that “repent” in the OT does not categorically mean to “turn from sin” or to “be sorry for sin.”

3. Nowhere in the OT is repentance associated with receiving eternal life. We therefore cannot establish from the OT that we must “repent of sins” or even “repent” in any way to be eternally saved.[2]

4. The theme of the need for God’s people to turn from sin is common in the OT but by using a different word from the word commonly translated “repent,” In the OT the theme of turning from sin is rarely mentioned in the context of “repentance”[3] and never as a requirement to receive eternal life. Unless we see Scripture which supersedes this, we are in grave danger of God’s judgment (Gal. 1:6-10; Rev. 22:18) if we add to His simple plan of salvation found in both the OT and NT; that we only need to believe in Jesus the Messiah (Yeshua HaMeshiach) for eternal life (John 3:16. et al)

[1] Naw-kham' is translated as “comfort” or “comforter” 66 times. It also could have the sense of “regret,” whereas “shoob” means something similar to “turn” or “return,”

[2] Some might object to this assertion by suggesting that after Jonah finally got right with God, that the residents of Nineveh repented and were eternally saved. The phrase,  “…Salvation is of the LORD” in Jonah 2:9, should not be construed as speaking of eternal life. The context refers to the saving of Jonah’s physical life and possibly also to an indirect reference to the potential physical salvation of the Ninevites if they repented.  Of the 300-plus occurrences of “save” or “salvation” in the OT, almost all refer to some kind of temporal salvation such as saving the life, saving from pestilence, from enemies, etc. It is likely that there are instances that the word “Salvation” (ישׁוּעה - yesh-oo'-aw) also alludes to the proper noun of Yeshua, the Savior.

We propose that the message that God told Jonah to preach was not what we usually think of as the “gospel” message of believing in Jesus in order to receive eternal life. Let's see if the text actually shows that he was to preach a city-wide turning from sin which would result in a temporal salvation; that the people of their city would not be physically destroyed. In 1:2, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh “...for their wickedness is come up before me.” After Jonah's rebellion and encounter with the great fish, he arrived in Nineveh (3:3) and proclaimed the message that they had forty days until the city would be overthrown (3:4). The people believed the message and the king proclaimed a fast saying, “let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.” (3:8, “Turning from his evil way” is not the good news of salvation by grace through faith). The king then wonders, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (3:9). It is interesting that some who would teach that we have to “repent,” i.e. turn from sin, in order to be eternally saved, use this verse as a “proof” text. The verse is not speaking of a person turning from their sin for eternal life, but of God repenting of the tragic outcome that Nineveh would have experienced had they not believed the preacher.

In verse 10 we read, “And 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.” (Underline added) We do not receive eternal life by our works or by turning from our evil way (Eph. 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5). This was obviously speaking of a physical destruction of the city as 4:11 speaks of God sparing Nineveh, both the human and bovine members. Cows are not candidates for eternal life.

Though we might speculate that there was also some message about faith in Yahweh or his coming Messiah for eternal life (cf. 1:14, 16), this is not the purpose of the text and it is not stated.

[3] This is found primarily in the two verses which translate (shoob) for repent. Please see Appendix A (Page 17).