We can become so familiar with the truth that God is merciful to sinners that we become numb to its significance. Then perhaps we are taken by surprise when something lifts the lid on the shocking wickedness in our own hearts – or the awfulness of what lies in store in eternity as a punishment for sin. This happened in one sinful city, where God announced that they were going to be destroyed in a matter of weeks. The warning struck a chord – the people recognised the validity of the punishment looming ahead of them. But what could they do? Despair? Could God possibly do anything different from what He had said? In this updated extract from his commentary on the Prophecy of Jonah, George Hutcheson takes us through the different aspects of the response from Nineveh to the prophet’s warning message.
The people of Nineveh were confronted with a very blunt message from God. ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ The Lord sometimes sees it fit in His great wisdom to conceal any thoughts of love toward us, and hold out only threatenings and severity – to induce them more seriously to repent. The statement is put in absolute terms – simply that they will be overthrown – without any mention of anything conditional, for example, that on their repentance they would be spared. Only the fact that He granted them 40 days implies that there is an invitation to repentance, hidden inside the very starkly threatening message.
The response from Nineveh included fasting and prayer and cessation of their evil doings. As a way of reinforcing their determination to amend their ways they said, ‘Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?’
In their words there is some hope, although very beleaguered, that if they did instantly seek to the Lord, He would be reconciled with them, and in His mercy avert His judgment.
Can you catch a sight of the mercy hidden in the warning?
Even when God is issuing such an abrupt and imperative warning, some glimpse of His mercy may be caught by those who are conscious of their sin, and acknowledge the justice of His correction. Notwithstanding Jonah’s declaration of destruction, the people see a possibility that God may turn and repent – even these very people who apprehend his fierce anger. The mere fact that He has gone to the lengths of giving them 40 days notice gives a basis for the hope that there was some purpose of love kept up, till he saw their repentance.
Can you look at God as your source of hope?
Awakened sinners under fears of judgments, think that the fountain of their happiness would be that God was reconciled with them. Only from reconciliation can they expect any comfortable outcome from their calamities. This is why their eye is chiefly on God turning, repenting, and turning away from his fierce anger. Only this will allow them to gather hope that they shall not perish.
Can you recognise His grace behind anything good you get?
Those who are most earnest with God, under the sense of sin and judgments, will be ready to see most of his grace and free love in showing favour toward them. Therefore all their hope, when they cry mightily, is built on God turning and repenting, and God quitting the controversy. They realise that God’s grace and compassion must be eminently active, if peace be made between them at all.
Faint hope is still real hope
This way of speaking, ‘Who can tell if God will turn …?’ is also used by His believing people in similar extremities (e.g., Joel 2:14). It shows various things.
Those who are conscious of their sin may be sadly tossed to and fro between the expectation of God’s mercy, and the sense of what they really deserve. They can neither speak the pure language of faith, nor yet wholly the language of unbelief, but what they say is mixed and made up of both. Therefore although it is beyond all controversy that God will be reconciled with a penitent (and no doubt Jonah had at least preached this fact about God), yet they can attain no further than, ‘Who can tell if …?’
Faint hope has very basic priorities
It is no small difficulty to get free from trouble when your provocations have been great, and when God has begun to take steps against you, and issued severe warnings. Even when there is repentance, God does not always keep off temporal afflictions, when iniquity has come to a height. Therefore, the penitent can only expect these troubles to be lifted with very great submission, considering his guilt. Our happiness is not to be placed in liberation from trouble, if God is otherwise reconciled. The suspended hope of the people of Nineveh is focused chiefly (not so much on remission, as) temporal preservation, ‘if God may turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not.’
Faint hope still makes earnest appeals to God
When our minds are kept in suspense between hope and discouragement, the Lord intends for us to be stirred up to more diligence. Even this very doubtful hope is given as a reason why they should ‘cry mightily to God,’ and reform their ways.
Faint hope acts more in hope than in despair
Those who are convinced of sin should not be deterred from duty, though it seems never so hopeless. Rather they should resolve to follow their duty, whatever they get from it. This is why they will cry to God, even though they are not certain that He will deliver them.
God’s grace is behind His threatenings
What happened when God saw the response from Nineveh? ‘God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not.’ (verse 10)
God was graciously pleased to accept their repentance, and recalled the sentence of destruction (expressed in terms familiar from human interactions, ‘repenting of what he said he would do’).
So, however peremptory and absolute the Lord’s threatenings are, we must always understand them as meaning that anyone who repents may look for God to accept them. He had threatened flatly that they would be destroyed, yet notwithstanding, he saw their works, and repented.
God notices the reality of our hearts
God chiefly takes notice of and rewards how people behave, and their real endeavours towards reformation, and not their external performances of religious exercises. He ‘saw their works, that they turned from their evil way,’ rather than their fasting and sackcloth.
God rewards weak attempts
Although the Lord will not be a debtor to anyone, and although no one can merit anything from Him, yet free grace will reward weak endeavours in such a way that as everyone may be encouraged to seek Him. Supposing this was only a temporary repentance, yet He will even reward that with temporal favours, as a picture of true repentance, to show how He loves. Of grace He will reward true repentance. ‘He saw their works,’ both the works of those who were truly converted, and of those who did not come to that length, ‘and repented of the evil he said he would do.’
God remains the same
When God is said in Scripture to ‘repent,’ we are not to conceptualise any change in God, or any change of His eternal purposes, but only the fact that He did not carry out the threatening He had announced. The threatening includes the condition or exception of repentance, which God decrees to give those whom He spares. When it says ‘God repented of the evil,’ it explains itself as, ‘He did not do it.’ It is not a changing of His purpose, but a not executing of what He had said (i.e., conditionally).
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