What does “You shall surely die” mean?

when I say to the wicked ‘You shall surely die’ if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right 15 if the wicked restores the pledge gives back what he has stolen and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity he shall surely live; he shall not die.  Eze 33:14

“You shall surely die” to me sounds like death is eminent and there is nothing you can do about it, but not so with God.  God tells us what He means when He says ‘You shall surely die.”  He means this:  “You shall surely die if you continue in the path you are going.”

The greatest example of this is found in the book of Jonah.  Remember when Jonah went to the great city of Nineveh? God told him to preach unto them the message that God would give him (Jonah 3:2). When he got to the city he proclaimed this message from God at the top of his lungs:

“Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah 3:4

Remember, this was the message that God had for Nineveh. God told Jonah to preach this message.  It kind of sounds like, “you shall surely die,” doesn’t it?

But what happened? When the king of Nineveh heard the message, he humbled himself before God.  He took off his royal robe and put on sackcloth. He got off of his throne and sat in ashes.  He put away his royal delicacies and began to fast.  After he set the example, he proclaimed through the land for all the people to do the same, and he said unto them:

Who can tell if God will turn and relent and turn away from His fierce anger so that we may not perish? Jonah 3:9

Oh, if we only had more leaders like this today!  God saw what they did and relented from the disaster that He was going to bring upon the city!

Whenever I read the old testament I read a lot of ‘You shall surely die!’  We hear, “Woe to you,” and a lot of  other such proclamations of judgement.  We know from the bible and from history that all these nations that God proclaimed judgement to were exceedingly wicked. They were filled with violence and sexual immorality and idolatry.   And even though God’s judgement upon them was just, His chief desire was that they would turn from their ways and live.

As I live’ says the Lord GOD ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn turn from your evil ways! For why should you die O house of Israel?’ Eze 33:11

God also sums it all up in the book of Jeremiah:

The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom to pluck up to pull down and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it. Jer 18:10

So throughout the told testament, God’s proclamations of judgement were not just a message of impending doom that couldn’t be avoided. No, it was God giving these nations the chance to repent.  If He wasn’t, why go through the trouble of all these words? Why go through the trouble of proclaiming those words over and over?  The fact that He proclaimed judgement over and over just showed His great mercy and longsuffering, giving the people space to repent and turn to life. Glory to God! What a merciful and gracious God we serve!!!!