Debra Isenbletter, PastorChristian AssemblySpringfield, Missouri
Jonah 3:9 “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
In this verse we see a testimony of faith and hope, these two cannot be separated. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb.11:1) They were willing to believe the impossible, There were three different things that they hoped for that moved them and motivated them to take the actions they did, both individually and nationally.
First Hope: They believed God’s Compassion. “Who can tell if God will turn and repent.” They had a glimmer of hope. They did not “know” for certain how Jonah’s God would react or act because they had done something no one expected. They had expressed both sorrow and repentance. Jonah certainly did not expect it. It was completely unexpected, and it was unprecedented.
“if God will turn” shows that they thought that God might “turn” back from doing what Jonah had declared. That was amazing faith. It showed that they believed that judgment was certain. It showed that they wanted to believe that mercy was possible. “and repent” shows that they understood that Jonah’s God could feel compassion and pity, and that He could change His mind. They had repented, they had changed their mind because of fear of judgment. They hoped Jonah’s God would change His mind concerning judgment because of their faith in that judgment. They hoped that their faith would cause Him to feel compassion and pity for them. I do not know how the gods of Assyria were portrayed but it does not seem likely that they were known for compassion or pity. This idea that a deity might even feel compassion may have been a radical concept to them. That is an amazing amount of faith and hope from a pagan nation and a pagan heart.
Others have asked this question, “Who can tell” which reveals faith and hope. Three examples are David, Joel and Jeremiah. David fasted and wept and prayed when his child was dying and said, “Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me that the child might live.” (2Sa.12:22). Joel pleaded with God’s people to fast and weep and repent and turn back to God and his encouragement was “Who knoweth if he will return and repent and leave a blessing behind him” (Joel 2:12-14). Jeremiah boldly states that if a nation that has been judged by the Lord will repent and turn from evil that the Lord will do the same. He will withdraw that judgment, “I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.” (Jer.18:8). In these examples there is a mutual turning away, man first and God next. In Jonah it is the Gentiles that do this not the Jews and they will later shame God’s people with their faith.
Second Hope: They believed in God’s Mercy. This is the next step of faith that hope lays hold of. It is that judgment might be averted. The phrase “and turn away” is also translated “turn back from (evil)” with an emphasis on the evil. Their hope is God will “turn away” or “turn back from evil. Of course the evil from their perspective is the devastating judgment of the city.
God could choose to step back from the point of no return. He will do this, but it will only be a temporary reprieve. The reason it will be temporary is that their repentance is only temporary, it did not last. But the fact that He does step back is a wonderful picture of His Grace and a lesson for Israel.
Nahum prophesies to Judah about the destruction of Nineveh. His prophesy is written more than one hundred years after Jonah’s ministry. The ten tribes had been conquered by Assyria, only the two tribes are left. Nineveh is just as evil, as when Jonah walked through the gates of the city and prophesied to them. They had a reprieve that lasted a long time. When Nahum prophesies concerning Assyria’s destruction, it is not to them, it is to Judah, God’s people. Nineveh had their chance with Jonah. Either those that had repented did not pass their knowledge on to their children or it only lasted for a short time.
God’s “fierce anger” shows the violence of His emotion and His judgment. It is a righteous anger against, their “wickedness” (1:1); their “evil way” (3:8) and their “violence” (3:8). His judgment equals that anger and it is hot. Sometimes God’s “fierce anger” reaches people when nothing else will. They knew why God was angry and they were afraid. It is a mystery that they understood that God’s anger could be turned away because Jonah did not seem to preach this. Israel understood that iniquity could be forgiven and their sins covered (Psa.85:2-3) but Nineveh did not understand or know this. Their sins had not been covered by a sacrifice. After they were spared we do not read that they asked Jonah to tell them about greater truths about his God. We do not read that Jonah even considered doing this. Yet God takes the knowledge they had and accepts it and spares them. That is Amazing Grace. They picture those that have a degree of faith, that repent briefly but not permanently. They have a conviction but did not seem to have a conversion. There needs to be both. Yet God spares them, gives them an opportunity and if they truly had a desire to know more, I believe God would have told Jonah to speak to them deeper truths.
Third Hope: They believed in God’s Deliverance. “that we perish not.” This was their greatest fear, that they would be destroyed. They are like the sailors in the storm that did not want to perish. They believed this would happen but they also believed that this might be stopped. Because of their fear they had a measure of faith that God accepted and that Jesus would use later to show Israel’s lack of faith (Mat.12:41). Grace accepts their faith though it did not last. Just because their faith was temporary did not diminish the value or importance of it. It is still a testimony of the power of the Word of God. This is an example of the power of faith and grace and it does not matter who shows it. Their faith and hope points forward to what the Gentiles would later do. Paul writes we are “saved by hope” (Rom.8:24) and that is hope in God’s mercy, and God’s sacrifice. This is the substance of Paul’s wonderful gospel of grace: That Gentiles who believe by faith receive mercy (Rom.9:25). That the Remnant who will believe by faith receive mercy (Rom.9:26-27). The offer is to all who believe, no matter how terrible their background, how wicked the sin. Grace offers mercy and in the last verse of this chapter we see a visible manifestation of God’s grace in action.