Jonah 3:9
Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
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3:5-10 There was a wonder of Divine grace in the repentance and reformation of Nineveh. It condemns the men of the gospel generation, Mt 12:41. A very small degree of light may convince men that humbling themselves before God, confessing their sins with prayer, and turning from sin, are means of escaping wrath and obtaining mercy. The people followed the example of the king. It became a national act, and it was necessary it should be so, when it was to prevent a national ruin. Let even the brute creatures' cries and moans for want of food remind their owners to cry to God. In prayer we must cry mightily, with fixedness of thought, firmness of faith, and devout affections. It concerns us in prayer to stir up all that is within us. It is not enough to fast for sin, but we must fast from sin; and, in order to the success of our prayers, we must no more regard iniquity in our hearts, Ps 66:18. The work of a fast-day is not done with the day. The Ninevites hoped that God would turn from his fierce anger; and that thus their ruin would be prevented. They could not be so confident of finding mercy upon their repentance, as we may be, who have the death and merits of Christ, to which we may trust for pardon upon repentance. They dared not presume, but they did not despair. Hope of mercy is the great encouragement to repentance and reformation. Let us boldly cast ourselves down at the footstool of free grace, and God will look upon us with compassion. God sees who turn from their evil ways, and who do not. Thus he spared Nineveh. We read of no sacrifices offered to God to make atonement for sin; but a broken and a contrite heart, such as the Ninevites then had, he will not despise.Who can tell if God will turn and repent? - The Ninevites use the same form of words, which God suggested by Joel to Judah. Perhaps He would thereby indicate that He had Himself put it into their mouths. "In uncertainty they repented, and obtained certain mercy" . "It is therefore left uncertain, that men, being doubtful of their salvation, may repent the more vehemently and the more draw down on themselves the mercy of God" . "Most certain are the promises of God, whereby He has promised pardon to the penitent. And yet the sinner may well be uncertain whether he have obtained that penitence which makes him the object of those promises, not a servile repentance for fear of punishment, but true contrition out of the love of God." And so by this uncertainty, while, with the fear of hell, there is mingled the fear of the loss of God, the fear of that loss, which in itself involves some love, is, by His grace, turned into a contrite love, as the terrified soul thinks "Who" He is, whom it had all but lost, whom, it knows not whether it may not lose. In the case of the Ninevites, the remission of the temporal and eternal punishment was bound up in one, since the only punishment which God had threatened was temporal, and if this was forgiven, that forgiveness was a token that His displeasure had ceased.

"They know not the issue, yet they neglect not repentance. They are unacquainted with the method of the lovingkindness of God, and they are changed amid uncertainty. They had no other Ninevites to look to, who had repented and been saved. They had not read the prophets nor heard the patriarchs, nor benefited by counsel, nor partaken of instruction, nor had they persuaded themselves that they should altogether propitiate God by repentance. For the threat did not contain this. But they doubted and hesitated about this, and yet repented with all carefulness. What account then shall we give, when these, who had no good hopes held out to them as to the issue, gave evidence of such a change, and thou, who mayest be of good cheer as to God's love for men, and hast many times received many pledges of His care, and hast heard the prophets and Apostles, and hast been instructed by the events themselves, strivest not to attain the same measure of virtue as they?

Great then was the virtue too of these people, but much greater the lovingkindness of God; and this you may see from the very greatness of the threat. For on this ground did He not add to the sentence, 'but if ye repent, I will spare,' that, casting among them the sentence unconditioned, He might increase the fear, and, increasing the fear, might impel them the more speedily to repentance." "That fear was the parent of salvation; the threat removed the peril; the sentence of overthrow stayed the overthrow. New and marvelous issue! The sentence threatening death was the parent of life. Contrary to secular judgment, the sentence lost its force, when passed. In secular courts, the passing of the sentence gives it validity. Contrariwise with God, the pronouncing of the sentence made it invalid. For had it not been pronounced, the sinners had not heard it: had they not heard it, they would not have repented, would not have averted the chastisement, would not have enjoyed that marvelous deliverance. They fled not the city, as we do now (from the earthquake), but, remaining, established it. It was a snare, and they made it a wall; a quicksand and precipice, and they made it a tower of safety."

"Was Nineveh destroyed? Quite the contrary. It arose and became more glorious, and all this intervening time has not effaced its glory, and we all yet celebrate it and marvel at it, that thenceforth it has become a most safe harbor to all who sin, not allowing them to sink into despair, but calling all to repentance, both by what it did and by what it gained from the Providence of God, persuading us never to despair of our salvation, but living the best we can, and setting before us a good hope, to be of good cheer that the end will anyhow be good" . "What was Nineveh? "They ate, they drank; they bought, they sold; they planted, they builded;" they gave themselves up to perjuries, lies, drunkenness, enormities, corruptions. This was Nineveh. Look at Nineveh now. They mourn, they grieve, are saddened, in sackcloth and ashes, in fastings and prayers. Where is that Nineveh? It is overthrown."

9. Who can tell—(Compare Joe 2:14). Their acting on a vague possibility of God's mercy, without any special ground of encouragement, is the more remarkable instance of faith, as they had to break through long-rooted prejudices in giving up idols to seek Jehovah at all. The only ground which their ready faith rested on, was the fact of God sending one to warn them, instead of destroying them at once; this suggested the thought of a possibility of pardon. Hence they are cited by Christ as about to condemn in the judgment those who, with much greater light and privileges, yet repent not (Mt 12:41). Here is the ground of the Ninevites’ fasting and praying, there is a possibility that they may escape; there is fairly argued a probability, for why should the ruin beforehand be threatened, but to give warning so many days ere it come: unless it be to try us, whether we will fast, pray, repent, and amend? and though Jonah had no commission to promise them a deliverance, yet it is very like he acquainted them with the merciful and gracious nature of his God. This speech of theirs see Joel 2:14 2 Samuel 12:22 includes both faith and doubt, yet faith prevailing to the use of means.

Who can tell if God will turn and repent? if we return by repentance, to which God would now call us by this minatory admonition, he may perhaps return to us in mercy, and by the event show it was not an irrevocable sentence passed against us.

And turn away from his fierce anger; forbear to execute that terrible menace of overthrowing us in his just and hot displeasure against. our sins: this explains that which he had called repenting before, which being here, as elsewhere it is, attributed to God after the manner of man’s speaking, must be interpreted as becometh his immutability and majesty.

That we perish not; suddenly, exemplarily, temporally, and eternally, all which impenitent sinners deserve, Ninevites were in danger of, and the provoked justice of God would have brought upon them if they had not repented. Who can tell,.... The Septuagint and Arabic versions prefix to this the word "saying", and take them to be, not the words of the king, but of the Ninevites; though very wrongly: or "who is he that knows"; which some connect with the next word, "he will return": that is, that knows the ways of repentance, he will return, as Kimchi and Ben Melech; or that knows that he has sinned, as Aben Ezra: or that knows the transgressions he is guilty of, will return, as Jarchi; and so the Targum,

"whosoever knows that sins are in his hands, he will return, or let him return, from them:''

but they are the words of the king, with respect to God, encouraging his subjects to the above things, from the consideration of the probability, or at least possibility, of God's being merciful to them:

if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce wrath,

that we perish not? he speaks here not as nor as absolutely doubting, but as between hope and fear: for, by the light of nature, it is not certain that God will pardon men upon repentance; it is only probable or possible he may; neither the light of nature nor the law of Moses connect repentance and remission of sins, it is the Gospel does this; and it is only by the Gospel revelation that any can be assured that God will forgive, even penitent sinners; however, this Heathen prince encourages his subjects not to despair of, but to hope for, the mercy of God, though they could not be sure of it; and it may be observed, that he does not put their hope of not perishing, or of salvation, upon their fasting, praying, and reformation, but upon the will, mercy, and goodness of God.

{g} Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

(g) For partly from the threatening of the prophet, and partly from his own conscience, he doubted whether God would show them mercy.

9. Who can tell] Comp. Joel 2:14, where the Hebrew is the same. Calvin well explains the doubtful form assumed by the king’s decree. “How can it be,” he asks, “that the king of Nineveh repented earnestly and unfeignedly, and yet spoke doubtfully of the grace of God?” I answer, that there is a kind of doubt which may be associated with faith; that, namely, which does not directly reject the promise of God, but which has other things as well in view.… No doubt the king of Nineveh conceived the hope of deliverance, but in the mean time he was still perplexed in mind, both on account of the preaching of Jonah, and on account of his consciousness of his own sins … The first obstacle (to his immediate certainty of forgiveness) was that dreadful preaching, Nineveh after forty days shall perish.… Then again, the king, no doubt when he pondered his sins might well waver a little.”

God will turn] Lit., the God, i. e. the One supreme God. See note on Jonah 1:6, and comp. 1 Kings 18:39. This acknowledgment by the Assyrians of Jehovah, the God of the Jews, as “the God” is all the more remarkable, because, as Kalisch points out (though he unhappily sees in the description of this chapter, not an historical fact, magnifying the grace of God and the efficacy of true repentance, but the “aspiration” of a later writer for “that time when ‘the Lord shall be One and His name One’ ”), it is contrary to all else we know of them. “The prophet Nahum declares distinctly, among other menaces pronounced against Nineveh, ‘Out of the house of thy gods will I cut off the graven image and the molten image’ (Jonah 1:14; comp. Jonah 3:4); the Books of Kings state by name the Eastern idols Nibhaz and Tartak, Nergal and Ashima, Adrammelech and Anammelech (2 Kings 17:30-31); in the remarkable account of Sennacherib’s war against Hezekiah, the former, through the mouth of one of his chief officers, bitterly taunts the Hebrew king with his futile reliance on his national god, whose nature the Assyrian understands so little that, in his opinion, Hezekiah must have incurred Jahveh’s wrath, for having deprived him of all the heights and of all the altars except that solitary one in Jerusalem; and he places, in fact, Jahveh on the same level of power with the gods of Hamath and Arpad, or any Syrian idol (2 Kings 18:22; 2 Kings 18:30; 2 Kings 18:33-34). And, on the other hand, all Assyrian monuments and records, whether of a date earlier or later than Jeroboam II., disclose the same vast pantheon which was the boast of king and people alike—Asshur, ‘the great lord ruling supreme over all the gods,’ with his twelve greater and four thousand inferior deities presiding over all manifestations of nature and all complications of human life; for the Assyrians at all times saw their strength and their bulwark in the multitude of their gods, and considered that nation feeble and defenceless indeed, which enjoyed only the protection of a single divinity.”Verse 9. - Who can tell? (2 Samuel 12:22). An expression of hope that the Divine, wrath may be averted by the timely repentance. It is the same form of words as in Joel 2:14, "Perhaps God would thereby indicate that he had himself put it into their mouths" (Pusey; comp. Jeremiah 18:11). If God; i.e. the one God, whom the king and his people now acknowledge as supreme, like the idol worshippers at Carmel, when they fell on their faces, crying, "Jehovah, he is the God" (1 Kings 18:39). "And I have also withholden the rain from you, in yet three months to the harvest; and have caused it to rain upon one city, and I do not cause it to rain upon another. One field is rained upon, and the field upon which it does not rain withers. Amos 4:8. And two, three towns stagger to one town to drink water, and are not satisfied: and ye have not returned to me, is the saying of Jehovah." The second punishment mentioned is the withholding of rain, or drought, which was followed by the failure of the harvest and the scarcity of water (cf. Leviticus 26:19-20; Deuteronomy 28:23). The rain "in yet (i.e., at the time when there were yet) three months to the harvest" is the so-called latter rain, which falls in the latter half of February and the first half of March, and is of the greatest importance to the vigorous development of the ears of corn and also of the grains. In southern Palestine the harvest commences in the latter half of April (Nisan), and falls for the most part in May and June; but in the northern part of the land it is from two to four weeks later (see my Archologie, i. pp. 33, 34, ii. pp. 113, 114), so that in round numbers we may reckon three months from the latter rain to the harvest. But in order to show the people more clearly that the sending and withholding of rain belonged to Him, God caused it to rain here and there, upon one town and one field, and not upon others (the imperfects from 'amtı̄r onwards express the repetition of a thing, what generally happens, and timmâtēr, third pers. fem., is used impersonally). This occasioned such distress, that the inhabitants of the places in which it had not rained were obliged to go to a great distance for the necessary supply of water to drink, and yet could not get enough to satisfy them. נוּע, to stagger, to totter, expresses the insecure and trembling walk of a man almost fainting with thirst.
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