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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral EpistlesFairbairn's Commentaries

Verses 1-4

CHAPTER VI. THE NEW COMMISSION GIVEN TO JONAH, AND THE WONDERFUL RESULTS THAT FLOWED FROM ITS EXECUTION

THE sojourn of Jonah for a time in the deep waters, and his singular experience there, having been mainly designed to prepare him for doing aright the work of the Lord’s ambassador to Nineveh, he was no sooner restored to the dry land, than “the word of the Lord came to him the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee; “or, more exactly, “proclaim to it the proclamation that I speak to thee.” “So Jonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. 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.”

Two things strike us here. The first is, the indeterminate form of the commission as now delivered on this second occasion to Jonah. When formerly issued, the specific object was at the same time declared for which he was to repair to Nineveh. He was to cry against it, because its wickedness had come up before the Lord. But now he must go without any definite instruction as to the precise end in view, with a readiness merely to proclaim whatever word the Lord might be pleased to put into his mouth. This, no doubt, was done for the purpose of more clearly exhibiting how much he now possessed of the spirit of unconditional obedience, and how freely he yielded himself as an instrument of service to God. Not by the substance only, but also by the very form of the commission he bore, he must go forth breathing the sentiment, “I delight to do thy will, O my God! thy law is within my heart.”

The other peculiarity here is, that when the general commission given to Jonah before his setting out for Nineveh, assumes on his arrival there a more express and definite form, it presents a considerably severer aspect than it originally wore. It is no longer a cry against the sins and abominations prevailing in Nineveh, but an authoritative and explicit announcement, that the ruin of the city was at hand: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Such was the word actually put into the mouth of Jonah; and the marked difference between it and the one formerly given, as it cannot have been unintentional, neither is it to be regarded as of slight importance. (It is strange that this difference should be so entirely overlooked by commentators, and still more strange, that Matthew Henry should so expressly affirm, that the first and second message were entirely the same!) Why precisely forty days should have been fixed as the ultimate period of Nineveh’s existence as a city, and by what means the Lord purposed at the close of that period to overthrow it, we need not busy ourselves in attempting to conjecture, as these are points which it is impossible for us, in the absence of all information, to ascertain. But the fact of the message having passed, during the interval between the two communications, from a mere expostulation on account of sin, into the proclamation of an immediately impending doom, was plainly intended to mark the downward and darkening progress of things. The people with whom the prophet has to transact, are now in far more dangerous and desperate circumstances than before; they have reached within a few steps of the awful gulf, toward which their career of sin has long been precipitating them; and Jonah has but the melancholy, and it might be, in the circumstances, perilous task, of ringing in their ears a little beforehand the sound of the approaching calamity.

An important and salutary lesson was here conveyed to Jonah, and through him to every servant of heaven. For, how manifest had the sin and folly now become of delaying to execute the work of God, on account of the difficulties and troubles which at the first seemed to hang around it! These, it was found in this case, became not less but greater by the delay, and so it will ever be found. He who has a task from God to discharge for the good of others, if he would not aggravate the burden to himself, let him apply promptly to the performance of what is required at his hands; for, if the records of all experience were searched, there is nothing in respect to which they would be found to give a more clear and uniform testimony than this, that apart altogether from the recompenses of evil, which are ever ready to chastise a spirit of disobedience, incomparably the wisest and happiest course is to fulfil the behests of duty at the proper time, as well as in the appointed way.

But a lesson still more impressive and startling was doubtless also intended, by the circumstance in question, to be conveyed to the Ninevites themselves. That a prophet should have been first commissioned to go from Israel and cry against their sins, because of their enormous wickedness; and then, after the delay occasioned by the prophet’s own backwardness to fulfil the appointment, that he should on the renewal of the commission have been instructed to proclaim the sure destruction of Nineveh itself in the short space of forty days this was certainly an appalling change for them. It indicated how rapidly the measure of their iniquities had meanwhile been filling up, and how near the forbearance of heaven had come to its termination. Nor can we reasonably doubt, that the change from the first to the second commission was perfectly known to the people of Nineveh before the message of the prophet had produced its due effect upon their minds. In the brief notice that is given of his labours at Nineveh, we have manifestly nothing more than the substance of his preaching, without the circumstantials, which were still essentially connected with its extraordinary success. And as we have already shown that the people must, either from spontaneous communications on Jonah’s part, or, as is more probable, in answer to their own anxious inquiries, have become acquainted with his previous history, in order to his being such a sign to them as God’s purpose required, we can have the less difficulty in conceiving that not only the message ultimately delivered, but that also which should have been delivered at an earlier stage of the history, were alike made known to them.

It is true, the people might have remained ignorant of any thing either in the past history of Jonah himself, or in the comparative stringency of the two messages he had received concerning them. They might have treated his appearance and his cry in their streets with supercilious scorn, as the act of a dreaming enthusiast; or, looking to their own lofty walls and numerous defences, they might have asked with an incredulous sneer, where the enemy was to be found that in forty days could level these with the dust? But it is to the credit of the Ninevites that they gave a different reception to this message of heaven. They neither treated the message itself with mockery, nor the bearer of it with violence and insult, but brought their minds with one accord to consider the peculiar circumstances in which they were placed, and to know the whole of the matter. Let us try to picture to our minds the wonderful phenomenon that then presented itself in Nineveh. A stranger of foreign mien appears of a sudden in the streets, crying aloud, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” He passes on from one portion of the city to another, and still the same cry is heard from his lips; he has no other word. Who and what is he? Is it a madman who thus speaks, or a mocker, who delights to “scatter firebrands, arrows, and death?” His intelligent and sober aspect forbids the supposition; he bears himself as a man deeply in earnest, and alive to the awful importance of the work he has in hand; and the very oneness of the message he delivers that he has just this solitary message to proclaim seems to betoken all the more an assured conviction of the truth and certainty of it. The busy crowd is by and by arrested; a solemn awe steals over the minds of the people; they press around the preacher to know whence he is, and why he utters such an ominous cry in their streets; and learning, as they now do, that so far from lightly speaking evil concerning them, he had already at the hazard of his life shrunk from executing the charge committed to him shrunk from executing it when it simply required him to testify against the sins that prevailed in the midst of them that he had been cast out for his wilful reluctance into the mighty deep, and miraculously restored only that he might be sent forth anew, with a still more severe and urgent message, to utter the loud cry they now heard of approaching destruction: learning all this concerning Jonah and his burden, how solemn and perilous must their situation have appeared in their eyes! Though personally a stranger to them, this man’s fortunes, it seems, have yet been most intimately bound up with theirs; he has undergone wonderful and unheard-of things on their account. And the tide of divine wrath, all unconsciously to them, has been rising higher and higher around them, till it has left them as prisoners of justice on an isolated point, ready to be swept away into the devouring gulf! What grounds for serious consideration and alarm! (It is, of course, quite conceivable, and by no means unlikely, that certain events or circumstances in providence may have concurred with the appearance and preaching of Jonah to enforce and deepen this impression upon the minds of the people. There may have been accompanying signs of terror in the elements of nature, threatening an earthquake; or in the expected assault of some hostile neighbours, such as might give to the doom announced by the prophet the aspect of a near and pressing reality. But, whatever probability there may be in such conjectures, they still belong to the region of conjecture, and are not to be much accounted of. We have to do simply with the known facts of the case.)

Verses 5-7

A spirit of reckless levity and unbelief might still have led the people to treat all with indifference, and to add to their other sins by rejecting the Lord’s messenger as a false witness, and one that sought to trouble them with groundless fears. But a different spirit happily prevailed; and, regarding themselves as standing on the verge of ruin, they now presented the example of a people effectually roused from their spiritual slumber, and applying in earnest to the work of reformation. “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 nor 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?”

1. In these words, considered as a description of sincere and genuine repentance, we have to note, first, the awakened and heartfelt concern which pervaded the people. All classes shared in it, and those now took the lead in expressing their convictions of guilt and danger, whose situation invested them with the greatest responsibility. The king and nobles of Nineveh were not ashamed to own themselves believers in the word of God, and afraid of suffering the inflictions of his displeasure; but, convinced themselves of the greatness of the emergency, they endeavoured to arouse others to the same, not by any external compulsion, but by openly accrediting, on their authority, the truthfulness of the prophet’s testimony, and calling upon the people to meet the evil that threatened them in a becoming spirit. Happy for Nineveh at such a season that her rulers knew thus the time of their visitation! And happy must it be for any land, when those who occupy its highest places of power and influence are the foremost in confessing the truth of God, and acting suitably to its requirements! Unfortunately, it is rather the reverse of this which usually attracts our notice. The spirit of the gospel, instead of coming down from the higher places of the earth, recommended by all that is attractive and influential in society, has for the most part been left to work its way upward in the face of a counter spirit, nowhere so firmly seated and so vigorously put forth as in the palaces of the great. But whether among great or small, whenever the word of God really takes hold of the conscience, the first symptom always discovers itself in such a spirit of heartfelt concern as we find here, leading men to grapple in earnest with the things of God, and rendering it impossible for them any longer to trifle with interests so momentous, and dangers so pressing.

2. Secondly, The repentance at Nineveh was marked by a spirit of deep humiliation and abasement. This was manifested by a variety of outward actions, in accordance partly with the lively temperament of the people of the East, and partly also with the symbolical spirit which so deeply pervaded the religions of antiquity. Both circumstances naturally led the Ninevites to embody in external acts and corporeal gestures the pungent feelings that were experienced in their bosom. The clothing with sackcloth, therefore, sitting in ashes and fasting, in which to some extent even the cattle were made to take their share, in token of the felt urgency of the case, is merely to he regarded as the sign in their circumstances the natural and appropriate sign of a deeply humbled and prostrate heart. Apart from this, such things were not then, neither are they now, of any worth in the sight of God, and hence are never enjoined in Scripture as in themselves ordinances of God, having an inherent efficacy and value. Appropriate forms they were, and nothing more, through which the heart, pierced with convictions of sin, and trembling for fear of God’s judgments, might give outward expression to what it felt within. It was still the state of heart itself on which God looked with satisfaction both then, when such external forms were commonly resorted to, and now, when they are as commonly laid aside. (Some even among Protestants (to say nothing of the ceremonialists of Rome, and their semi-Protestant imitators) are disposed to make an exception in favour of fasting, and to regard it as in the proper sense an ordinance of God, and one still in force. Such persons can of course appeal to the practice of the apostolic Church. On more than one occasion we read of the disciples giving themselves to fasting; and in 1 Corinthians 7:5, St Paul, according to the authorized version, exhorts believers at Corinth in certain circumstances “rather to give themselves to fasting and prayer.” The reading of this text is now universally regarded as corrupt, and in the later editions of the original the word for fasting is omitted. In regard to the practice of the primitive Church, it is neither set forth, nor can it properly be viewed, as a rule; for it was evidently continued as a custom from former times, just as the anointing of the sick in Mark 16:13, and James 5:14, the abstinence from blood, and observance of Jewish customs generally. But not even in the law of Moses (notwithstanding that fasting came to be much in use among the Jews), was there any command respecting fasting. The only thing approaching to it is the injunction on the people “to afflict their souls” on the day of atonement, which in later times was understood to require a corporeal fast, as in earlier ones it was very probably accompanied with the same. Hence the day itself was familiarly called the fast. (Acts 27:9) Such corporeal abstinence was never properly enjoined; it is even plainly disparaged by the prophets (Isaiah 58:3-6; Zechariah 7:5; Joel 2:12-13), on account of the strong tendency of the mind to substitute this mere bodily deprivation for internal compunction. And what our Lord says in Matthew 6:0 evidently points in the same direction; even when men did feel it proper to fast, they were still to anoint their heads, and not appear unto others to fast. Our Lord sought to call men away from the mere outward act to the humbled and contrite spirit, which alone was of any account in the sight of God. When persons find from experience that this spiritual effect may be best produced by the accompaniment of outward fasting, they are doubtless at liberty to follow the practice, though the danger will always require to be well guarded against of its degenerating into formalism, and feeding the spirit of self-righteousness. A judicious and sensible essay on this subject was lately published by Mr John Collyer Knight, London.)

3. Again, the reformation at Nineveh discovered its genuineness by proper resolutions and purposes of amendment. The sorrow and regret that were felt for the past, gave rise to better counsels for the future; each one turned from his evil way, and from the violence that was in their hands. By this the Ninevites showed how well they had come to understand the character of God. They knew him to be no capricious and arbitrary being, but holy, just, and good one who comes near to the execution of judgment only as the righteous avenger of sin, and who must, therefore, regard all repentance as a mockery which stops short of a renunciation and abhorrence of the misdeeds which have provoked his displeasure. By turning from their misdeeds on this occasion, the Ninevites justified God as righteous for having come near to them, as he did, in the way of judgment; and virtually declared that they had no reason to expect the reversal of the doom but by entering on paths conformable to his holiness. What a reflection would it involve on the character of God for any one to think otherwise! God must first cease to be the Holy One and the Just, before he can recall the sentence of condemnation against transgressors, and make them partakers of blessing while they are still following the ways of unrighteousness he must appear, if not directly the patron of sin, at least comparatively indifferent to the distinctions between right and wrong!

Verses 8-9

4. The last step in a true repentance the return in faith and confidence to God is also represented to have been taken by the Ninevites. Without this their repentance could certainly not have been complete; for as the essence of all sin consists in the spirit of independence and enmity it manifests in respect to God, so it is only when the soul has returned to seek repose and blessing in God, that the evil can be said to have ceased in its root. This return, we are led to understand, was made by the people of Nineveh, since they are said to have “cried mightily to the Lord,” and to have sought with one heart to obtain an interest in his favour and blessing; a procedure the more remarkable in their case, as, being naturally heathens, they had to break through the wall of long-established prejudices before they could make any approach to Jehovah. And remarkable still farther, when it is considered how narrow the ground was on which they had to stand for the exercise of hope and confidence toward God. For the word, which they are said to have believed, held out no promise of good; it breathed only threatening and destruction; it was with them now precisely as it had already been with Jonah when cast into the deep the heavens seemed all so enveloped in darkness, that scarcely an opening remained for hope to enter. Without any special grounds of encouragement, they were obliged to betake themselves to merely general considerations. “Who can tell,” they said, “but God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? We cannot plead this on the score of justice, neither can we ply his faithfulness with any specific assurance of mercy, given to meet the necessities of our case; we have nothing to encourage us but the general character of God himself, as manifested in his dealings with men on earth. But still we have that, and the matter is not altogether hopeless. For why should God have sent his prophet to admonish us of sin, and foretell his approaching judgment, a prophet, too, who has himself been the subject of singular mercy and forbearance? If destruction alone had been his object, would he not rather have allowed us to sleep on in our sinfulness? And why, in particular, should these forty days have been made to run between our doom and our punishment? Surely this bespeaks some thought of mercy in God; it must have been meant to leave the door still open to us for forgiveness and peace.”

So undoubtedly they reasoned, and, as the event proved, reasoned justly. Like men in earnest to be saved, they were determined to seize the present moment; and, in their manner of doing so, showed somewhat of that quickness of perception in apprehending grounds of forgiveness and hope, which had previously been manifested by Jonah himself in the hour of his extremity. Little as they had to warrant their confidence in God, that little, with faith, was sufficient. And, putting the whole together, we certainly have before us, in the case of the people of Nineveh, an example of sincere and genuine repentance. Their conduct on the occasion exhibited the usual marks and exercises of grace, which are the proper characteristics of such a repentance; and it received the indubitable seal of the divine approbation. For we are told, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way;” and our Lord pointed to them as a people who had in truth repented of sin and turned to God.

Possibly, however, certain thoughts may suggest themselves not altogether consistent with the view now given; for if the Ninevites indeed broke off their sins, and turned with one heart to the living God, why, it may be asked, do we hear nothing of their frequenting, as true worshippers, the temple of God in Jerusalem? and why, in all the subsequent accounts presented to us of Nineveh, both in the history of ancient Israel and in the prophets, do they constantly appear as a race of idolaters, maintaining a rival interest with God’s covenant people, and themselves, in process of time, visited with destruction, for their intolerable pride, revelry, and lust?

There can be no question that the reformation effected at Nineveh, through the instrumentality of Jonah, was not perpetuated so as to impress a lasting change on the character of the people, and it is possible that in comparatively few of them was it of that high kind which endures unto life everlasting. Yet we have no reason to suppose that there was an immediate or even very rapid return to the former state of things. For, taking the visit of Jonah to have occurred about the middle of the reign of Jeroboam II, which is probably even later than the period of its actual occurrence, the earliest notice we have subsequently of the Assyrian empire or people is at a distance of thirty or forty years, and consists simply of the fact, that Pul, the king of Assyria, came up against Menahem, king of Israel, and laid him under tribute; but in what spirit this act of aggression was made, or what it indicated morally respecting Assyria, we are utterly ignorant. It is not till the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib, in the reign of Hezekiah, that the king and people of Nineveh appear in the attitude of defiers of Jehovah, and as the representatives of the world-power in its opposition to the kingdom and glory of God. But this could scarcely have been less than a century after the preaching of Jonah, leaving ample room for an entire change meanwhile entering into the moral condition of the people, as there seems also to have sprung up a new spirit in the government and direction of its civil affairs a spirit of military ambition and conquest, of which no traces exist in the earlier history of the kingdom. By the period of Sennacherib’s reign, not only had two entire generations passed away since the memorable preaching of Jonah; but it is more than probable that, as happened shortly after in Babylon, a new and more warlike race had obtained the mastery of affairs at Nineveh, so that no conclusion can be drawn thence respecting the posture of things at the time now under consideration. (No one who is at all read in ancient history needs to be told of the sudden changes, and even entire revolutions, to which the cities and empires of a remote antiquity were subject. The revolution referred to above in the case of Babylon may especially help us to understand, how easily the whole aspect of affairs may have changed at Nineveh in a far shorter time than that now supposed. Speaking of the Babylonians about 630 years before Christ, Heeren says, “A revolution then took place in Asia, similar to that which Cyrus afterwards effected. A nomad people, under the name of Chaldean, descending from the mountains of Taurus and Caucasus, overwhelmed Southern Asia, and made themselves masters of the Syrian and Babylonian plains. Babylonia, which they captured, became the chief seat of their empire, and their king Nebuchadnezzar, by subduing Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean, earned his title to be ranked among the most famous of Asiatic conquerors.” To this event the prophet Isaiah has been thought to point in chap. 23:13, “Behold the land of the Chaldeans; this people was not; Assyria founded it for them that dwelt in the wilderness;” i.e. as many understand it, the Chaldeans, who possessed Babylon, were not its original occupants, nor were they of ancient origin; the Assyrians in a manner founded and prepared it for them.)

If these later notices of the Assyrian empire are not fitted to involve the reformation effected by Jonah in any doubt, neither certainly is the absence of any intimation of worshippers having come from Nineveh to Jerusalem. It was in the nature of things impossible, that persons at so great a distance, on the supposition of their being sincere converts to the knowledge and worship of Jehovah, should come in any considerable numbers to wait on him at Jerusalem. And it is doubtful how far this was required at the hands of any not actually incorporated with the seed of Jacob, and residing within the bounds of the land of Canaan. The whole economy and institutions of Moses were adapted to such; and those who might come to the knowledge of God, while incapable from their situation or distance of complying with the letter of the law, were left to follow such a course as seemed most accordant with the general spirit of its enactments. Hence no fault is found with Naaman the Syrian because he purposed to erect an altar in his native land, and call there upon the name of the Lord. Nor, at a much later period, is the least doubt thrown upon the sincerity of the homage paid to the infant Jesus by the eastern Magi, or the worth of their testimony depreciated on account of their at once and for ever disappearing from the scene of gospel history. They had a special light granted them from heaven, and their wisdom consisted in faithfully following its direction as far as it carried them. In like manner, the Ninevites in the days of Jonah were placed for the time under a peculiar dispensation; it was their wisdom to have followed with ready alacrity the light of that dispensation; and our inability to lift the veil which scripture has allowed to rest upon their future condition, or to determine certain ulterior questions respecting them, should on no account be turned into an occasion for disputing the reality of their conversion, or depreciating the character of the work wrought in the midst of them. They had for a time a supernatural light; they so used and rejoiced in that light as to receive the benediction of God; and who are we, that we should eye them with suspicion and doubt?

The case of the Ninevites stands for all ages as a memorable example how little instruction will suffice when the heart is properly disposed to make a profitable use of it. The light that shone upon them was but a faint glimmering compared with the full blaze of truth which now irradiates the world and yet it proved sufficient to bring them into the way of peace and blessing. Would that the believing and earnest spirit, which then wrought so powerfully at Nineveh, did but pervade and rest upon the lands of the Bible now what different fruits would appear from those which are commonly seen amongst men! Instead of seeking for excuses to cloak their indifference, or standing aloof under benumbing fears and doubts, as multitudes are wont to do, sinners would be every where seen awaking to spiritual life, and laying hold of the arm of God for salvation. Nineveh, alas! must still be to most but a witness to condemn in judgment, not an example to prompt and encourage their return to God. Yet seldom has God given a more unequivocal proof, than in his dealings with Nineveh, that he wills not the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should turn to him and live.

Verse 10

CHAPTER VII. GOD’S CHANGE OF PURPOSE AT THE REPENTANCE OF NINEVEH, AND THE LIGHT THEREBY FURNISHED FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF HIS WORD AND WAYS

THE intimation given in the book of Jonah regarding the procedure of God toward Nineveh in the new circumstances in which it now stood, is delivered with great simplicity, and as if no feeling of surprise should have been occasioned by it: “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.” Important principles, however, are embodied in this statement, and it will require to be viewed in more than one aspect.

1. It may be viewed, first of all, as the record simply of a fact in providence; in which respect the most direct lesson it furnishes is one of ample encouragement to the sincere penitent. When God sent his messenger to Nineveh, the people were so ripe for judgment, that a purpose of destruction, to take effect in forty days, was the only word he could publish in their hearing. But no sooner does he see the message laid seriously to heart, and the people with one consent returning from sin to God, than the purpose of destruction is recalled, the threatened doom is suspended, and Nineveh is still spared. Nothing could more strikingly show the unwillingness of God to execute vengeance, and the certainty with which every true penitent may count upon finding an interest in his pardoning mercy. He will rather expose his proceedings to the hazard of being misunderstood by shallow and superficial men, than allow the penalty due to unforgiven sin to fall upon such as have turned in earnest from its ruinous courses. What an assurance did the world then receive that God is rich in mercy and plenteous in redemption! He came down, in a manner, to its most public theatre, and in deeds more expressive than words, proclaimed, “Look unto me, all the ends of the earth, and be ye saved.” “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

At the same time, it is not to be overlooked, that along with this direct lesson, and in close connection with it, there was furnished through the Lord’s dealing with Nineveh an indirect warning and instruction to those who persist in impenitence and sin. Viewed, for example, in relation to Israel, the prophet’s own people, the sparing of Nineveh on account of its repentance was an anticipatory vindication of God in regard to the severe course he was purposing to adopt in respect to those children of the covenant; it was like the laying down of a solemn pledge before the world, that the desolating judgment, when it should alight on them, must be ascribed, not to any harshness in his character, but solely to their own incorrigible and hardened impenitence. They had claims on his compassion which Nineveh had not; and their destruction in spite of these, viewed in connection with the sparing of that heathen city, was an unanswerable proof of their inexcusable folly and perverseness. They were thus seen to be emphatically the authors of their own ruin. And the same end substantially is still served by the preservation of the repenting Ninevites; it stands as a perpetual witness against the lost, throwing the blame of their perdition entirely upon their own heads; so that God shall be justified when he speaks concerning them, and clear when he is judged.

2. But the sparing of Nineveh on its repentance may be viewed, secondly, in connection with the word spoken to it by Jonah in the name of the Lord the word announcing its coming doom, in which respect it serves to throw light on the threatenings of God generally. The sharp contrast between what God had spoken and what he actually did his declaring without reserve a purpose of evil, and still abstaining from the execution of the purpose, was wont to be explained by drawing a distinction between God’s secret and his revealed will between his real intention or decree, which remains, like himself, fixed and immutable, and his declared intention, which may vary with the changeful conditions of those to whom it refers. But such a mode of representation, however it may accord with the essential truth of things, wears an unhappy aspect; and even when most carefully guarded and denned, can scarcely be separated from an appearance of insincerity on the part of God, as if he could speak otherwise than he really thinks in his heart. It is far more conformable to our natural feelings, and consistent with just notions of the divine character and glory, to consider such parts of God’s procedure as belonging to that human mode of representing his mind and will which is adopted throughout Scripture, and adopted from the absolute impossibility of conveying to us otherwise clear and adequate ideas of God. He who is simply spirit, and a spirit in all the essential attributes of being, free from the bounds and limits of a creature infinite, eternal, unchangeable can only be made known to us through his image man, and must be represented as thinking and acting in a human manner. In no other way is it possible for us to obtain a realizing sense of his existence, and so to apprehend his manifestations in providence, as to have our affections interested and our wills determined. “Without these anthropomorphisms,” or corporeal and human representations of God, to use the words of Hengstenberg, “we never can speak positively of God. He who would disentangle himself from them, as the Deists attempt to do, entirely loses sight of God; while seeking to purify and sublimate the representation of him in the highest possible degree, he is carried, through the illusion of excessive respect, out of all respect. In his anxiety to get rid of human forms, he sinks into nonentities. His relation to God becomes of all others the most untrue, the most unworthy; the nearest is practically to him the farthest, the absolute and essential Being changes for him into a shadow.” (Authentie, ii. p. 448.) And in regard to the expressions in Genesis 6:6, in which God is declared to have repented that he had made man upon the earth the strongest, perhaps, in all scripture of the class to which, the passage before us belongs the same author further remarks: “Respect is not had here to the circumstance that God is still glorified upon men, though not in them, but merely to the destination of man to glorify God with a free and willing mind. Were this man’s only, as it certainly is his original destination, God must have repented that he had made the degenerate race of mankind. What God would have done had this one point only come into consideration, he is here represented as having actually done, in order to impress upon the hearts of men how great their corruption was, and how deep was God’s abhorrence of their sin.” (Do., p. 453.)

In like manner, that God should have issued a proclamation dooming Nineveh to destruction, and, in consideration of the people’s repentance, should have recalled the sentence, and repented of the evil he had said he would do to it, this was evidently with the design of begetting right impressions concerning God’s views of sin upon the one hand, and of sincere repentance on the other. Such is his holy indignation against sin, that nothing less than overwhelming and immediate destruction is to be regarded as due to transgressors. And yet, severe as this is, such also is his compassion for the perishing, such his yearning desire to save them from destruction, if he only can do it in consistence with his holiness, that whenever he sees them turning in earnest from their sinful ways, and seeking to him for pardon and acceptance, he cancels the doom, and receives them again to blessing. But this, so far from bespeaking God capricious in his ways, and changeable in the principles of his government, rather manifests him to be, in what alone is of essential moment, unalterably the same. Conducting his administration in righteousness, he must change his procedure toward men when their relation toward him becomes changed; as Abraham already perceived when he said, “That be far from thee to slay the righteous with the wicked, and that the righteous should be as the wicked; shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Hence also the word of Ezekiel on this precise point to the captious complainers of his day, who thought that the procedure of God should be the same, whatever might be the conduct of the people: “Hear now, O Israel! Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal? When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquities and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” And so, when Nineveh had passed from being a theatre of wickedness into a place where God’s name was feared and his authority obeyed, the measures of his government fitly partook of a corresponding change; and to have dealt with repenting, as he purposed to have done with corrupt and profligate Nineveh, would have betokened an indifference to the essential distinctions between right and wrong would have betrayed a disposition to deal with the righteous as with the wicked.

It is simply in regard to these eternal principles of righteousness, that the declarations in scripture are made, which affirm the impossibility of change in God: Such, for example, as the word of Balaam, “God is not a man that he should lie, neither the son of man, that he should repent; hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” Or the corresponding word of Samuel, which, indeed, is but a re-assertion and new application of the same: “The strength of Israel will not repent; for he is not a man that he should repent.” Testimonies of this description have respect to those declarations of God which are so inseparably connected with his inherent and immutable righteousness, as to admit of no room for change in regard even to his external administration. Such was the determination of God to bless Israel in the time of Balaam, and in the manner represented by him; for Israel not only possessed the covenant of God, but stood then within the bonds of the covenant; and the faithfulness of God secured them from harm against the power of any adversary or the enchantment of any diviner although, when they fell away from the obligations of the covenant, as thousands of them did presently after, and in later times the great mass of the people, the course of the divine procedure was changed the curse, and not the blessing, became their portion. Such, again, was the purpose of God to rend the kingdom from Saul in the time of Samuel; for that proud monarch had departed from the condition on which alone God could permit a king to reign in his stead over the chosen people; he wanted the heart which God indispensably required, and so the determination to remove him, which was but the expression of God’s righteous will, was irrevocably fixed. But such representations of God’s character argue nothing against the possibility, or even the moral necessity, of a change of administration in a case like that of Nineveh, where, the spiritual relations of the people having become entirely altered, the procedure originally indicated by God of necessity fell to the ground; it could no longer have been enforced in accordance with the essential principles of the government of One who ever delights to manifest himself as at once “a just God and a Saviour.”

But this being the case, why, some may be disposed to ask, should the announcement through Jonah have been made to take so absolute a form? Why declare so expressly, that in forty days Nineveh should be destroyed, and not rather, that if the people repented not, such a calamity would certainly overtake them? But what if God knew, as doubtless he did know, that the shape actually given to the message was the best fitted, perhaps the only one fitted to awaken the feelings suited to the occasion, and effect the desired result? No doubt, if the thing done had involved any breach of righteous principle, if the throwing of the message into such a form had been a mere stroke of policy, in itself not conformable to the truth of things, then, however adapted to the end in view, it could not have been employed with the approval and sanction of God. But this was by no means the case. As actually delivered, the message was a real utterance of God’s mind and purpose toward Nineveh considered simply as the place where sin had been rearing its head so offensively against heaven; it was, therefore, in its direct and proper aspect a burden from the Lord on account of sin; and as soon as sin was repented of and abandoned, another state of things, not contemplated in the message, came into being the cause of the impending evil was gone and there was room for the word to take effect which says, “the curse causeless shall not come.” In all such cases the principle announced by the prophet Jeremiah, whether expressly mentioned or not, is to be understood as lying at the foundation of the divine procedure and directing it, “At what instant I shall speak concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy; 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.” (Jeremiah 18:7)

In this passage the principle is distinctly and formally brought out which was exemplified in the Lord’s dealing with Nineveh; and applied to that portion generally of the prophetic word, which contains denunciations of coming judgment, it plainly instructs us to regard these denunciations as primarily intimations of God’s displeasure on account of sin, and only indirectly and remotely as predictions of events actually to happen in providence. They did not necessarily become events at all; their doing so was a contingency depending on the spiritual condition of the parties respecting whom they were uttered; and to take the burdens of prophecy, as is usually done, in the sense of absolute and determinate judgments that must be executed, may lead us in several instances to miss their proper design, and even to place them in opposition to the facts of history. The tide of evil which they poured forth on guilty persons or communities, may have been again checked by a timely reformation from the evil, and what the messenger of God suspended over them simply as a curse, perhaps in process of time passed into a blessing. (Look, for example, to the words of Jacob on Simeon an Levi, which were the utterance of a comparative curse (only indeed comparative, for as children of the covenant they still had a share in the blessing, and hence are said to have been blessed, as well as the rest, by their father): “Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” This sentence on the two brethren, dooming them to future separation and dispersion, was evidently pronounced upon them as a judgment for their past misconduct, and was to take effect on the supposition of the spiritual state of the parents continuing, and even perpetuating itself in their descendants. In the case of Simeon, such appears to have been actually the case; of all the tribes, it suffered most from God’s judgments on the way to Canaan, and entered the land in so enfeebled a condition, that certain cities within the inheritance of the tribe of Judah were appointed for its lot (Joshua 19:1), whence it appears to have become ultimately merged in Judah, and its people are doubtless “the children of Israel that dwelt in the cities of Judah,” referred to in 1 Kings 12:17, as adhering to Rehoboam. (The two tribes forming the kingdom of Judah were thus necessarily Simeon and Judah, with a portion, but only apparently a very small portion, those in and around Jerusalem, of the tribe of Benjamin. See Hengstenberg on Psalms 80:0 Introd). Levi, however, from some cause, probably from nothing more than a consideration of the solemn words of the dying patriarch, became pre-eminent among the tribes for piety and zeal; and though the dispersion threatened might in one sense be said to be carried into effect, yet not properly as threatened; it changed its character when it became the method appointed by God for enabling them to do more efficiently the work of spiritual judges and teachers to their brethren. So far from being necessarily weakened by such a dispersion, it empowered them, so long as they were faithful to their charge, to hold the highest place of influence; it was only when they proved unfaithful, that their scattering became the source of weakness.)

Or, look again, as another example, to the prophecies of Ezekiel respecting Egypt (Ezekiel 29-30) which declare against it destruction of power, a scattering among the nations, baseness and contempt, and even utter desolation. (compare also Joel 3:19) It is clear, that what the prophet speaks is a denunciation of judgment on account of sin, the sin especially of pride of heart and professing to do for God’s people what God alone could perform and therefore, though the evils threatened did so far alight upon them, yet we have no reason to think that they would be continued beyond the time that the Egyptians were chargeable with the sins in question. There are other prophecies which speak of Egypt as peculiarly the object of divine mercy, (in particular, Isaiah 19:18-25) which began to be fulfilled whenever Egypt received the knowledge of God, as it did to a very considerable extent in the first ages of Christianity. And it would be no violation of Ezekiel’s word rightly understood, if Egypt even now were rising to an influential position as a nation.

3. It is clear, however, from the very nature of the principle now under consideration, that it cannot be confined to one side only of the divine administration, but must be equally valid in regard to the other. If a change in man’s spiritual relation to him from bad to good necessitates a corresponding change in the manifestations he gives of himself to them, an alteration in the reverse order, from good to bad, must draw along with it a partial, and, if persevered in, a total suspension of God’s purpose to do them good. And if the threatenings of the prophetic word, then of necessity also its promises, are not to be regarded as primarily and infallibly predictions of coming events, but rather as exhibitions of the Lord’s goodness, free outgoings of his desire, and solemn pledges of his readiness to bless, yet capable of being hindered or restrained by the exercise of a perverse or rebellious spirit on the part of men.

The word of Jeremiah, which most explicitly announces the principle, and applies it particularly to nations, is equally express on this side as on the other: “And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them. Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.” (Jeremiah 18:9-11) Nor is the prophet Ezekiel less express in his announcement of the principle, and its application to individuals: “But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned; in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.” (Ezekiel 18:24) In like manner also the apostle Paul, extending the principle to all the promised manifestations of the Lord’s goodness: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness , if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. ” (Romans 11:22) That is, the word of promise which certifies us of God’s goodness is to be understood as valid only so long as the spiritual relation contemplated in it continues; when that ceases, a new and different state of things is introduced, for which the promise was not intended, and to which it cannot justly be applied.

Very striking examples of this also have been given in the course of God’s providence, as connected with the history of his ancient people. How express, for instance, was the word brought by Moses to the children of Israel in Egypt, that the Lord had heard their groanings, that he was now come to deliver them, and would bring them into the land promised to their fathers! Yet that word, as we might indeed have inferred from the character of God himself, and as subsequent events showed, went entirely on the supposition that they would hearken and be obedient to the voice of God. This, however, the greater portion of them failed so often and to such an extent to do, that the fulfilment of the word in their experience became morally impossible. The prophecies, in like manner, which were given before respecting their future condition in Canaan, that it would be to them a land flowing with milk and honey, that the people should be there replenished with blessings of the heavens above, and blessings of the earth beneath, that they should dwell alone among the nations, satisfied with the favour of God, and should possess it as an everlasting inheritance such prophecies as these, which were, in other words, promises of mercy and loving-kindness, could not be more than partially verified, because the people obstinately refused to maintain the relation of filial reverence and love to God, which was pre-supposed as the common ground of all blessing. And of course, as all promises are prospective, and partake to some extent of the character of prophecies, what has been now said of the kind of prophecies referred to, may certainly he extended to the promises of Messing generally scattered throughout Scripture, and addressed to men at large. The good offered and secured in the promise must always he understood in connexion with the principles of holiness; and the grace which reigns in the experience of Christ’s people, as well as in the work of Christ himself, can only reign through righteousness unto eternal life.

But to speak only of what is more strictly understood by the prophetic word, it is clear from what has been advanced, that if we would give a sound and consistent interpretation to its utterances, we must distinguish between one portion and another, and not throw the whole into one mass, as if, from having all proceeded from a prophet’s lips, it were all to be brought under one and the same rule. There are portions of it which may justly be regarded as in the strictest sense absolute, because depending for their fulfilment on nothing but the faithfulness and power of God. Such, for example, are the visions of Daniel respecting the successive monarchies of the world; such also the announcements made respecting the appearance of Christ in the flesh, the line from which he was to spring, the place where he was to be born, the work he was to accomplish, and the nature and progress of his kingdom; such, again, the prediction of an apostasy within the Christian Church, and the purely prophetic delineation of things to come in Daniel’s “scripture of truth,” and the apocalypse of St John. In regard to these predictions and others of a similar description, we have simply to do with the omniscience of God in foreseeing, his veracity in declaring, and his overruling providence in directing what should come to pass. But when, on the other hand, the word of prophecy takes the shape, as it so often does, of threatenings of judgment, or promises of good things to come, the prophetic element is not the first and the determinate thing, which must at all events develop itself, but rather that which is secondary and dependent. It always takes for granted a certain frame of mind and course of behaviour on the part of those interested in its declarations; and before we inquire whether the things occurring in experience precisely correspond with those previously announced in the prophecy, there is a primary question to be settled, How does the spiritual condition of the persons interested agree with what is implied or expressed in the prophetic word?

That this word, in so far as it utters what directly bears on the wellbeing of men, should thus be bound up, for the measure of fulfilment it is to receive, with their spiritual condition, is no expedient devised to meet a difficulty in interpretation. On the contrary, it rests on a principle which is essentially connected with the nature of God, and is inwoven, we may say, as a ground-element in all the manifestations he has given of himself in Scripture. There, from first to last, all is predominantly of a spiritual or moral, not simply of a natural character; and, in nothing more does the religion of the Bible in its entire course differ from the religions of the world, than in the place it assigns to the principles of righteousness, ever putting these first, and subordinating to them all divine arrangements and purposes. The evil and the good here are no mere nature-processes, but results growing out of the eternal distinctions, which are rooted in the character of God, between sin and holiness. It was the grand error of the Jews in ancient times to forget this. Surrounded on every hand by the foul atmosphere of heathenism, which was just the deification of nature, they were too prone to feel as if they held their portion of good on merely natural grounds; they thought their lineal descent from Abraham alone secured them in what was promised, and thus came practically to disregard God’s threatenings on account of sin, and to convert his promises into absolute and unconditional titles to blessing. For them a most pernicious and fatal mistake in experience, as it must also be for us in interpretation, if we should fall in any degree into their error! We want the key to a right interpretation at once of God’s threatenings and of his promises, unless we see them in the mirror of his own pure righteousness; and we shall unquestionably misunderstand both him and them, if we suppose that even when he most severely threatens, he can smite the truly repentant sinner or people, or that he can continue to bless the children of promise when they harden their heart against reproof, however expressly and copiously he may have promised to bless. (See a fuller development of the principle of interpretation brought out in this chapter in the Supplementary Remarks.)

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Jonah 3". "Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral Epistles". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbn/jonah-3.html.
 
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