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). Jonah 3:9The Ninevites believed in God, since they hearkened to the preaching of the prophet sent to them by God, and humbled themselves before God with repentance. They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth (penitential garments: see at Joel 1:13-14; 1 Kings 21:27, etc.), "from their great one even to their small one," i.e., both old and young, all without exception. Even the king, when the matter (had-dâbhâr) came to his knowledge, i.e., when he was informed of Jonah's coming, and of his threatening prediction, descended from his throne, laid aside his royal robe ('addereth, see at Joshua 7:21), wrapt himself in a sackcloth, and sat down in ashes, as a sign of the deepest mourning (compare Job 2:8), and by a royal edict appointed a general fast for man and beast. ויּזעק, he caused to be proclaimed. ויּאמר, and said, viz., through his heralds. מפּעם הם, ex decreto, by command of the king and his great men, i.e., his ministers (פעם equals פעם, Daniel 3:10, Daniel 3:29, a technical term for the edicts of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings). "Man and beast (viz., oxen and sheep) are to taste nothing; they are not to pasture (the cattle are not to be driven to the pasture), and are to drink no water." אל, for which we should expect לא, may be explained from the fact that the command is communicated directly. Moreover, man and beast are to be covered with mourning clothes, and cry to God bechozqâh, i.e., strongly, mightily, and to turn every one from his evil ways: so "will God perhaps (מי יודע) turn and repent (yâshūbh venicham, as in Joel 2:14), and desist from the fierceness of His anger (cf. Exodus 32:12), that we perish not." This verse (Jonah 3:9) also belongs to the king's edict. The powerful impression made upon the Ninevites by Jonah's preaching, so that the whole city repented in sackcloth and ashes, is quite intelligible, if we simply bear in mind the great susceptibility of Oriental races to emotion, the awe of one Supreme Being which is peculiar to all the heathen religions of Asia, and the great esteem in which soothsaying and oracles were held in Assyria from the very earliest times (vid., Cicero, de divinat. i. 1); and if we also take into calculation the circumstance that the appearance of a foreigner, who, without any conceivable personal interest, and with the most fearless boldness, disclosed to the great royal city its godless ways, and announced its destruction within a very short period with the confidence so characteristic of the God-sent prophets, could not fail to make a powerful impression upon the minds of the people, which would be all the stronger if the report of the miraculous working of the prophets of Israel had penetrated to Nineveh. There is just as little to surprise us in the circumstance that the signs of mourning among the Ninevites resemble in most respects the forms of penitential mourning current among the Israelites, since these outward signs of mourning are for the most part the common human expressions of deep sorrow of heart, and are found in the same or similar forms among all the nations of antiquity (see the numerous proofs of this which are collected in Winer's Real-wrterbuch, art. Trauer; and in Herzog's Cyclopaedia). Ezekiel (Ezekiel 26:16) depicts the mourning of the Tyrian princes over the ruin of their capital in just the same manner in which that of the king of Nineveh is described here in Jonah 3:6, except that, instead of sackcloth, he mentions trembling as that with which they wrap themselves round. The garment of haircloth (saq) worn as mourning costume reaches as far back as the patriarchal age (cf. Genesis 37:34; Job 16:15). Even the one feature which is peculiar to the mourning of Nineveh - namely, that the cattle also have to take part in the mourning - is attested by Herodotus (9:24) as an Asiatic custom.

(Note: Herodotus relates that the Persians, when mourning for their general, Masistios, who had fallen in the battle at Platea, shaved off the hair from their horses, and adds, "Thus did the barbarians, in their way, mourn for the deceased Masistios." Plutarch relates the same thing (Aristid. 14 fin. Compare Brissonius, de regno Pers. princip. ii. p. 206; and Periz. ad Aeliani Var. hist. vii. 8). The objection made to this by Hitzig - namely, that the mourning of the cattle in our book is not analogous to the case recorded by Herodotus, because the former was an expression of repentance - has no force whatever, for the simple reason that in all nations the outward signs of penitential mourning are the same as those of mourning for the dead.)

This custom originated in the idea that there is a biotic rapport between man and the larger domestic animals, such as oxen, sheep, and goats, which are his living property. It is only to these animals that there is any reference here, and not to "horses, asses, and camels, which were decorated at other times with costly coverings," as Marck, Rosenmller, and others erroneously assume. Moreover, this was not done "with the intention of impelling the men to shed hotter tears through the lowing and groaning of the cattle" (Theodoret); or "to set before them as in a mirror, through the sufferings of the innocent brutes, their own great guilt" (Chald.); but it was a manifestation of the thought, that just as the animals which live with man are drawn into fellowship with his sin, so their sufferings might also help to appease the wrath of God. And although this thought might not be free from superstition, there lay at the foundation of it this deep truth, that the irrational creature is made subject to vanity on account of man's sins, and sighs along with man for liberation from the bondage of corruption (Romans 8:19.). We cannot therefore take the words "cry mightily unto God" as referring only to the men, as many commentators have done, in opposition to the context; but must regard "man and beast" as the subject of this clause also, since the thought that even the beasts cry to or call upon God in distress has its scriptural warrant in Joel 1:20.

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