Harry Whittaker

8) Nineveh’s Repentance (ch. 3)

Ch. 3 And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying,
Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.
So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh according to the word of the
Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd not flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
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.

When the call came to Jonah the second time, there was no hesitation, no argument. He went — almost certainly preceded by an astonishing story of a mighty tornado brought to stillness by a man being thrown overboard, a man who was swallowed by a great fish and was vomited up, none the worse for his unique experience. So when Jonah began his campaign, the populace was already agog to see and hear him.

There is a lovely double entendre about the description given here of Nineveh as “an exceeding great city”, for literally this is: “a city great unto God” (an example of the occasional use of Elohim to emphasize the extraordinary, e.g. 1 Sam. 14: 15; Acts 7: 20; Gen. 23: 6). All kinds of guesses have been made about the description of Nineveh as “a city of three days’ journey”. Three days to cross it? Three days to go all round it? But since Jonah “began to enter into the city a day’s journey”, this might suggest that he needed a full day in each of the three great sub-divisions of the city (see on ch.2).

“Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown”. The effect of the message was electric, especially on the rulers of the city. The phrase: “the king of Nineveh” is rather remarkable, for the city’s monarchs were always titled: “king of Assyria” and also, in later days, “king of Babylon” as well. So possibly the ruler mentioned here was the mayor of the city.

Thus, by preaching, example and edict, the entire city was made to realise both the gravity and urgency of its condition in the eyes of Jehovah, the God of Israel. The sweeping transformation from evil and violence (an Assyrian speciality!) is intimated in language of extraordinary hyperbole, for, of course, the animals also were not literally arrayed in sackcloth; and it was the people, not the beasts, who “cried mightily (with strength) unto God”. Sayce says that in later years in the reign of Esarhaddon, there was another similar occasion when a like proclamation was made.

The transformation that took place was breath-taking in its magnitude and comprehensive character. But it is not unlikely that the impact of the message of such an extraordinary man as Jonah would be reinforced by the considerable reputation of those other notable prophets of the Lord, Elijah and Elisha. It may be, too, that Jonah’s campaign went on for all the forty day period which was Nineveh’s time of grace. However it happened, the transformation in those Ninevites far surpassed the effect produced by John the Baptist in Jewry, and of all the prophets there was none greater than he (Mt. 11: 11). And after John the Baptist, Jesus was to hold up to the same people the example of this city’s repentance: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here” (Mt. 12: 41). The message of John was: “Yet forty years and Jerusalem shall be overthrown!” (A.D.30-70). Those Ninevites changed their lives so dramatically because led by the good example of their ruler. What a lesson was held out here to Judah and Israel, with their sequence, rarely interrupted, of unworthy kings, so often downright wicked. The narrative here is careful to specify “the high and the low”, appropriately reversing the phrase: “both small and great” (Jer. 31: 34), this latter form being more usual because God has greater regard for the humble than for the proud.

In Jonah’s preaching there was no assurance that repentance would bring a reversal of the threatened judgment, for the ruler’s best hope, expressed to his people, was: “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?”

Who can tell? Nearly two hundred years later Jeremiah could tell: “If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (18: 8). The words are almost a direct quotation of Jonah 3: 10.

This problem of God’s “change of mind” meets the reader of Holy Scripture not only here but in a variety of other situations. It is a matter for no little surprise that such a question as this should have been the subject of so much sloppy thinking and even of downright neglect.

Clearly there is a paradox involved here. If God is omniscient and knows the end from the beginning — a timeless God — how is it possible for Him “to repent” or “change His mind”?

There are more examples of this than is commonly realised. Here are a few, to be going on with:

  1. The classic instance: Num. 14: 30-34: Because of the faithless Israelite acceptance of the report of the ten faithless spies, the people were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years longer than they need have done. If, instead, they had followed the good counsel of Joshua and Caleb, they would have been in the Land of Promise in a matter of weeks. “Ye shall know my breach of promise (mg: the altering of my purpose)”.
  2. A proper reading of Acts 7: 25 (see RV) and Dt. 9: 24 requires the interpretation that when Moses made his first intervention on behalf of his people, “God was giving them deliverance”, but they rejected him and it (“the reproach of Christ”; Heb.11: 26 — anticipating a like situation applying to A.D.30-70).
  3. Two examples associated with the reign of Ahab: 1 Kgs. 20: 42 and 21: 19.21 RV.
  4. King Hezekiah: “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live” (Isaiah 38: 1). But because of his prayer, for fifteen years he lived and did not die.
  5. After the numbering of the people, David opted for three days of plague; yet, according to 2 Sam.24: 15,16 (Heb. text), the plague was stayed on the first day.
  6. “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen.2: 17) was stretched to cover nearly a thousand years because of faith expressed and sacrifice offered.
“Explanations’’ of the phenomena indicated here tend to specialize in woolly verbiage and vague ideas. Something better is called for.

It is agreed that the concept of a God who “repents” or “changes His purpose” is one not readily acceded to by a mere human mind. But then, “ My ways are not your ways, neither are your thoughts My thoughts, saith the Lord” (ls.55: 8). Then ought we not to stop trying to reconcile seeming contradictions in the ways of God? If Holy Scripture repeatedly talks about a God at work in this strange fashion, is it not because He wants His creatures to think of Him in this way. ‘You small beings can no more understand those things than you can understand or even guess at the processes behind Creation in Genesis 1. What you are being told in the Word of Truth is what is best for you to believe, whether you can understand or reconcile or not’.

The sheet anchor is Jeremiah 18: 6-10. It is a Scripture to be believed, not explained away.

For a fuller expansion of the theme developed here, and for more important application of it, see “Revelation”, H.A.W., Appendix.

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