“Jonah” series (post #4)
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, N.K.J.V.)
Following Jonah’s experience in what one preacher has called “whale seminary,” God wasted no time getting him back into service. As Jonah 3:1-2 says:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” (N.K.J.V.)
The truth is that Jonah was very blessed to get a second chance to do God’s will. Sadly, many people aren’t so blessed in that they shun God’s will and the opportunity is missed forever. The real-life examples are numerous. Here are a few just to get you thinking:
- God wanted a man to marry a certain woman, but the man wouldn’t do it and she ended up marrying someone else.
- God wanted a woman to raise a child, but she aborted the child instead.
- God wanted a young person to go to college, but the young person refused to go, got tangled up in the affairs of life, and never got the chance at college again.
- God wanted an employee to hold a certain job, but the employee quit instead and the job fell to someone else.
In Jonah’s case, however, the door was still open for him to get it right, and so God spoke to him a second time about going to Nineveh and preaching. If there was any difference in God’s will the second time around, it might have been in the specific message Jonah was to preach. All we’re told about the original message was that Jonah was to “cry out” against Nineveh (1:2), but when God spoke to Jonah the second time He told him, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you” (3:2, N.K.J.V.). That’s not exactly the same as saying, “Preach to it the message that I told you.”
Anyway, Jonah went to Nineveh. We don’t know if he traveled there straight from Joppa — which presumably was the dry land upon which the great fish vomited him (2:10) — or if he went back home to Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:25) first and headed out from there. Either way he got to Nineveh and found it to be every bit as impressive as he had heard. The city had been founded centuries earlier by Nimrod, the legendary great-grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:6-12), and was perhaps the largest city in the ancient world. It was home to 120,000 small children (4:11), which would have made for a total population of approximately 600,000. The city was so large that it required a three-day walk just to see it all (3:3). While some archaeologists object to this description by saying that the city did not require three days to cover, the description most likely includes the city’s many outskirts and suburbs as are still typical of large cities.
As for Jonah, no sooner had he hit town than he started crying out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4, N.K.J.V.). Evidently, this was the message that God had promised to give him. While the message was quite predictable in light of the city’s wickedness, the Ninevites’ reaction to it was quite unpredictable. We would assume that the citizens of such a metropolis would have paid as much attention to a lone Jewish prophet preaching a message of doom as New Yorkers do to a religious fanatic holding a sign that says “The End Is Near.” Curiously, however, Jonah’s arrival absolutely terrified the Ninevites. As Jonah 3:5-6 says:
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. (N.K.J.V.)
Not only did Nineveh’s king personally express his mourning by laying aside his robe, covering himself in sackcloth, and sitting in ashes, he issued a proclamation and had it published throughout the entire city. That proclamation commanded that every person and every animal in Nineveh enter into a time of total fasting (no food and no water), put on sackcloth (the ancient attire of mourning), cry out to God, and turn from their evil and violence (3:7-8). The proclamation concluded with a rhetorical question, as the king asked in desperation, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (3:9, N.K.J.V.).
Naturally, it is fair for us to wonder why those citizens of Nineveh reacted the way they did to Jonah and his message. At best, all we can do is float out a few possible answers by way of speculation. I’ll mention three of them.
First, historical records indicate that Nineveh, in a relatively short period of years, endured two great plagues (one in 765 B.C. and the other one in 759 B.C.) and a solar eclipse (763 B.C.). To ancient peoples, such events could easily have been interpreted as the hand of “the gods” or “god” striking them. This could have made the Ninevites ripe for a message such as Jonah’s if he arrived in the city sometime not long after those events.
Second, it has been suggested that one of Nineveh’s many gods was Dagon, the so-called “fish god” that was made famous as being the chief deity of the Philistines. Dagon was represented as a half-man, half-fish creature and was considered the god of the sea. If the Ninevites did worship Dagon, you can understand why they would have considered Jonah worthy of their attention. Assuming that Jonah’s story was somehow known to them, they would have figured that any man who could survive the belly of a great fish must have had Dagon’s favor resting upon him.
Third, there are some who believe that Jonah’s post-fish appearance lent further credibility to his message. The idea here is that Jonah’s body could have been bleached white from the gastric acids used for digestion inside the belly of the great fish. If this was the case, it would have given Jonah a ghostly, otherworldly appearance. And when a guy who looks like that comes into your city and tells you that God is going to overthrow it in forty days, you listen. I should point out, though, that the Bible makes no mention of Jonah’s appearance being altered by his experience inside the fish.
Regardless of what caused the Ninevites to heed Jonah’s message, repent of their sins, and enter into a city-wide time of fasting and mourning, the story does say they “believed God” (3:5). That’s much better than saying they “believed Jonah.” It’s also better than saying they believed “the gods.” Therefore, the whole spiritual event seems completely legitimate and the story often gets called “the greatest revival in history.” Even Jesus, in looking back upon the story of Jonah and the Ninevites, praised the Ninevites for their repentance by saying:
“The men of Nineveh will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41, N.K.J.V.)
But this brings us to God and the fact that He changed His mind. The Hebrew word translated as “relented” (N.K.J.V.) in Jonah 3:10 is nacham, and it is the classic Hebrew word for “repent.” Literally, nacham means “a change of mind,” which by implication leads to a change of conduct. Since God is sinless, He never needs to change His mind/conduct regarding sinful behavior, but He does sometimes change His mind in regards to His actions. As a matter of fact, this is actually a prominent theme in the Old Testament. In addition to this story, other Old Testament examples of God changing His mind (or at least potentially changing it) can be found in: Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, Judges 2:18, 1 Samuel 15:35, 2 Samuel 24:16, 2 Kings 20:1-6, Jeremiah 18:8-10, Jeremiah 26:13-19, Joel 2:13, and Amos 7:3-6.
Of course, the problem with these passages is that they seem to directly contradict other passages. For example, in Malachi 3:6 God Himself says, “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” Likewise, James 1:17 says “there is no variation or shadow of turning” with God. And then there is Numbers 23:19, where the prophet Balaam says:
“God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (N.K.J.V.)
So what do we make of this? If God doesn’t change, why are there so many stories of Him changing His mind? The answer is found in the word anthropomophism, which is defined as “the attributing of human characteristics to god, animal, or objects.” Just as God, whom scripture says is “spirit” (John 4:24), is described as having eyes, ears, hands, fingers, and arms, He is also described as having human emotions such as love, anger, jealousy, grief, compassion, and even hatred. All this anthropomorphizing is meant to help us humans relate better to God and understand Him more deeply. As John Phillips says in his commentary thoughts on Jonah 3:10:
The only way finite human beings can begin to comprehend the infinite is for God to use anthropomorphisms and clothe His person, thoughts, and ways in language suited to our ignorance.
In the case of the Ninevites, God allowed one of His attributes — His mercy — to overrule another of His attributes — His wrath. In this way, Him changing His mind about judging those people in no way violated His unchanging character. Remember that this was why Jonah had resisted going to Nineveh in the first place. He had suspected the whole time that God might change His mind about destroying Nineveh and even told Him so (Jonah 4:2).
And so how can we apply this part of the story of Jonah to our own lives? We can do it by understanding two things. First, we should understand that God honors confession of sin and repentance of sin. Second, we should understand that if He doesn’t see that confession and repentance, His judgment will eventually fall. Think of it this way, confession and sin can never come too early, but they can certainly come too late. Those people of Nineveh took the situation down about as far as they could take it — to less than 40 days. By way of application then, I guess the question that each of us needs to ask when our conduct calls for it is, “How far down will I take it?”