The English word repent is only found ten times in the OT, and one of those ten (Num 23:19) is a statement that God does not repent. In the remaining nine places, the underlying Hebrew word is shuv (or the noun teshuvah), which is most often translated as turn. The noun repentance is not found at all in most English translations of the OT.
While the precise word repent is not found much in the OT, the word turn (shuv) occurs over 1,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in contexts dealing with turning from sinful ways (sins, wickedness, wicked ways, etc.). However, there are only a handful of OT verses which commentators suggest might teach that repentance is a condition for everlasting life.
Ezekiel 18:23, 32
Ezekiel has several verses which link turning from wickedness with living. In addition to the two we are looking at in Ezekiel 18, see also Ezek 3:19 and Ezek 33:11. These are sometimes cited as showing that the OT taught that repentance is a condition for everlasting life. What do the contexts show?
You can easily see how the following verses could be used to teach that repentance is a condition for regeneration:
“‘Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord GOD, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’” (Ezek 18:23).
“‘For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord GOD. ‘Therefore turn and live!’” (Ezek 18:32).
The most natural understanding of these verses is that physical death is in view if the nation rebels against God. Is that not what we see in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, the blessings and curses chapters? The wages of sin is death.
In the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Charlie Dyer comments:
God was not saying that a saved Israelite would lose his [eternal] salvation if he fell into sin. Both the blessing and the judgment in view here are temporal, not eternal. The judgment was physical death (cf. vv 4, 20, 26), not eternal damnation (OT Edition, p. 1261).
Similarly, in introducing his discussion of Ezekiel 18, Charles Feinberg notes, “The subject of justification by faith should not be pressed into this chapter; it is not under discussion” (Ezekiel, p. 99). Later, commenting on v 9 (which refers to life being conditioned upon obedience to the Law of Moses) he writes, “This statement, we must caution again, does not have eternal life in view, but life on earth. Eternal life is not obtained on the grounds mentioned in this portion of Scripture” (p. 101).
Ezekiel 18 is not cited in the NT by the Lord or by any of the NT authors. Surely if these were key verses which show that repentance is a condition of everlasting life, then we’d see them used in evangelistic contexts by the Lord and His Apostles.
Nineveh was the largest city in terms of population in the world at the time of Jonah. If Jonah 4:11 is speaking of the entire population of the city, then it was over 120,000. If it is speaking solely about small children, then the population was around 600,000.
The entire city repented. Men, women, and children. Even animals were covered with sackcloth and ashes. “The people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5) about what Jonah had just said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).
The king said in a proclamation, “let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away His fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:8b-9).
Jonah says, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).
While some might think that the king was trying to avoid the eternal condemnation of the Ninevites when he said, “so that we may not perish,” that is contrary to the context. The issue is the overthrow of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4). That overthrow would have meant the death of at least all the men, including the king. He was hoping that their repentance would result in God’s sparing their lives. And he was right.
Jonah 3:5-10 is alluded to by the Lord Jesus in Matt 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.” The Lord was saying that the people of Israel in His day should have turned from their wicked ways as a result of His preaching.
Was He implying that anyone who turned from his sins would have everlasting life? No. There is no hint of that. Compare John 3:14-18; 5:24; 6:28-29, 47; 11:25-27. In light of the context of Jonah 3, His point is related to the overthrow versus the sparing of Nineveh. Had the Ninevites not repented, they would have been overthrown. The nation of Israel did not repent, and so it was overthrown in AD 70. Over one million Jews died. Essentially the Lord was saying, “Forty years and the nation shall be overthrown.”
The Lord said through Isaiah, “‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isa 55:7).
Because Isa 55:7 mentions God pardoning and having mercy on those who forsake their wicked ways, some see in this verse a suggestion that repentance is required for salvation from eternal condemnation.
However, two factors call that conclusion into question. First, the idea of receiving pardon is associated with temporal blessings and curses, whether individual (Num 30:5-13; Deut 29:19-20; 2 Kings 24:4; Ps 25:11; 103:3) or corporate (Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Chron 7:14; Amos 7:2), in the OT. Individual Jews who were away from God needed pardon and mercy whether they were eternally secure or not. King David was born again when he committed adultery and murder, yet he needed God’s pardon and mercy (2 Sam 12:1-15; Psalm 51). Second, this text is primarily corporate, not individual. It fits within the OT motif that God curses disobedience and blesses obedience in His people, Israel. This is a call for everyone in the nation of Israel to repent and to be blessed. This chapter anticipates the coming kingdom when God will grant Israel national salvation from her enemies and from temporal judgment. Isaiah 55 ends with a glimpse of the coming millennial kingdom (vv 12-13). There is no indication that Isaiah is writing about what an individual had to do to have everlasting life.
Isaiah 55:7 is not quoted or alluded to in the NT.
Repentance in the OT Is a Condition for Escaping Temporal Judgment
The OT makes it clear that repentance is a condition for escaping temporal judgment and premature death.
There is no reliable indication in the OT that repentance is a condition for escaping eternal condemnation.
If we want to know whether repentance is a condition of everlasting life, we must turn to the NT and the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles. There we find that the sole condition for everlasting life is faith in Christ (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:35, 47; 11:25-27; 20:30-31; Acts 16:31; Rom 4:4-5; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; Rev 22:17).