When God saw their actions--that they had turned from their evil ways--He relented from the disaster He had threatened to bring upon them.
I. THE CAUSE OF THE CHANGE. "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way." He not only heard their professions, but saw from their acts that these were real; they believed God - believed that on account of their sins his "fierce anger" rested on them, and they showed their faith by their works; and the particular kind of works was their turning from their evil way - not resorting to matters of will worship, such as self-mutilation or making children pass through the fire, not stretching forth hands or making many prayers, but abandoning the sin that had offended God; not giving money to build or ornament temples or buy God's favour, but tearing the idol from their hearts - turning from their evil way. The real test of repentance is giving up sin - favourite sin, pleasant sin - sins of sensuality and indulgence and display; giving them up as acts, and trying to give them up as objects of desire; seeking to have the heart cleansed as well as the hands; to have the natural love of them subdued by the thought that they excite against us the fierce wrath of God; and in our case, under the light of the gospel, by all the considerations derived from the cross of Christ, and God's display of love and grace in him. Was the repentance of Nineveh complete, inward, spiritual? This is not said, nor is it necessary to believe it was. Probably it did not last long. It was repentance, however, according to their light and circumstances - the expression of deep national concern for sins that had come up before God, and against which God had sent his prophet to testify. It was an acknowledgment of the God of Jonah as the God of the whole earth - a submission of themselves to him - such submission as would have saved Egypt and Pharaoh, had it been made, in Moses' time, with accompanying tokens of sorrow and sincerity. Higher quality of repentance is demanded from an individual than from a nation; fellowship of reconciled God with the individual is much more intimate and spiritual than with the nation; such fellowship is impossible, save in case of regenerate hearts; in "repentance unto life" there must be genuine hating of what God hates, and loving what he loves.
II. THE CHANGE ON THE PART OF GOD. "God repented of the evil, that he had said he would do unto them; and he did it not." It is frequently objected that this implies fickleness on the part of God, as if he were mutable - as if he were a son of man that he should repent. But fickleness or mutability implies change of action while circumstances remain the same; immutability demands change of action when circumstances change. Immutability is tested by principles on which one acts rather than on the outward actions one performs; hence there is no fickleness on part of God in opposite actions, as when he placed man in Paradise and afterwards drove him forth. When God said by Jonah, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed," he meant that Nineveh - Nineveh if it continued the same, black with guilt, impenitent, unreformed. He did not mean that another Nineveh would be destroyed - Nineveh fasting, penitent, transformed. At the end of forty days old Nineveh did not exist; the corruption that would have drawn down the Divine judgment was removed - in a sense that old Nineveh was destroyed - it had passed away. Consequently, the denunciation ceased to be applicable; the doom threatened was not inflicted. This was the whole amount of the change on the part of God. The phrase, "God repented," is an anthropomorphism; God acted as man would have done if he had repented - regarded it no longer as a case for infliction of judgment. God's denunciations of judgment are directed rather against states of mind and conduct than particular places or communities - implying, usually, a chance of repentance, In some cases the time for repentance had passed, and denunciation of doom became absolute - as in the case of our Lord weeping over Jerusalem. In rejecting him they had filled up the measure of their iniquities. Their house was left desolate. "We are ever to guard against assigning human imperfection to God. But we are equally to guard against assigning to him such a character or nature as would render living, intelligible, friendly intercourse between him and his people impossible. But impossible utterly all such intercourse may be, if I may not speak to God in the same forms and phrases and feelings in which I would offer a request, or state my case to a fellow man, though of course retaining unreserved submission and unlimited adoration of the Mighty One of Israel. My adoration unbounded; my surrender of myself to God unreservedly; - these are tributes to the searchless glory of his Godhead which I may not withhold, and yet profess to worship him. Nevertheless, with these I must be allowed, in condescension to my weakness, to ask God to be 'attentive to the voice of my supplications;' to 'behold and visit me;' to 'stretch out his hand' for my help; to 'shine upon me with the light of his countenance;' to 'awake; ' to 'arise;' to 'draw near; 'to' come and dwell with me.' All these expressions and requests are after the manner of men. I must be allowed to spread out my sorrow and my trial before him, precisely as if my design and expectation were to work on his feelings, and move and induce him in his pity to deliver me" (Martin).
III. NINEVAH IS SPARED. Picture the city as the fortieth day approached; when it dawned; afterwards, when it passed away and Nineveh remained. Picture universal relief and joy - old and young - congratulations - life appearing before them with a new brightness - the day breaks, and the shadows flee away. Symbol of what may be realized when the anger of God due to sin is averted: "In that day thou shalt say, O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, throe anger is turned away, and thou comfortest me" (Isaiah 12:1). "What, then, must we expect will be the sweet surprise and transport of the departed soul on his first entrance into glory; when translated of a sudden from this material world to the world of spirits; from among men into the immediate presence of God? What must be his sensations, delight, and astonishment, when first conducted into the presence of the Saviour reigning on the throne of heaven? What will be his feelings when he sees around the throne a company which no man can number, all arrayed in white robes, and wearing brilliant crowns that never fade; all in transport of joy, singing of redeeming love, and celebrating the praises of the Lamb that was slain, and their voices like the sound of many waters? When the soul first joins this company, and reviews the dangers it has escaped in the world below, its love will kindle into a burning flame, and its song will be eternal." - W.G.B.
And God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them,i.e., changed His mind, which is the meaning of repentance. When He sent the prophet He meant destruction. When the city was humbled, He changed His mind, and waved the destroying angel home. There was a condition involved in the threat, and understood. God knew that the city would repent. Yes, but He also knew that the city would repent under commination. Why should it be incredible that God "repents" or changes? Would it not be more incredible if it were asserted that He never does? Are we to suppose that what constitutes a special perfection in the moral character of a man is an imperfection in God? God morally regards us at any one moment just as we are.
(A. Raleigh, D. D.)
( John Calvin.)
I. THE REPENTANCE OF THE NINEVITES.
1. It was a sincere repentance. "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way." This settles the matter. It was impossible for them to deceive God. There is in our fallen nature a tendency to the hateful sin of hypocrisy, and there are two kinds of hypocrisy — the hypocrisy which affects holiness; and the hypocrisy which affects penitence. The latter is the more artful, as it is the more heinous.
2. It was occasioned by their faith ill God. "The people of Nineveh believed in God." Faith in God is certain to produce repentance. A man cannot repent without repenting of his unbelief in God, and in God's Son.
3. It was universal. They seem to have turned every one from his evil way. It is probable that the case of Nineveh is unique in this respect. It was an earnest of the universal repentance of mankind.
4. It was exceedingly prompt. There was a necessity for promptitude, seeing that a time-limit had been fixed. Delay in such a case meant destruction.
5. It originated at the summit of society, and spread downwards to its base. But the repentance of the Ninevites, sincere and effectual as it was, did not prevent their descendants from doing all manner of evil, and incurring the destruction of their city.
II. REPENTANCE AS ASCRIBED TO GOD. There is a doctrinal difficulty here. Some passages of Scripture attribute repentance to the Most High, and some other passages deny that He ever does repent. Truth may sometimes be formulated most conveniently by a paradox. God may be said to be, "unchangeably changeable." Illustrate from the thermometer or from the tides. As often as a change bakes place in a human being from loyalty to disloyalty, or vice versa, a corresponding change in God occurs in relation to that person. This change takes place in the Most High, not because He is changeable, but because He is unchangeable. See Jeremiah 18:7-10. That gives the changeless principle of God's government, and it explains all the changes in His attitude towards nations and persons. God has Often changed in the manner thus described, and that for the simple and sufficient reason that He is unchangeable. If there is one who knows only too well that he is regarded by the Supreme Being with deserved displeasure, let such an one know that a change on his part towards God will result in a corresponding change on God's part towards himself.
(Samuel Clift Burn.)
I. GOD'S REPENTANCE. Repentance in man is change of mind and purpose, issuing in change of conduct; but repentance in God is only change of operation or administration, according as man's conduct agrees with, or violates, the requirements of the Divine law. With the Ninevites God was justly angry. Their aggravated sins cried aloud for vengeance, and He determined to destroy them; but when they turned away from their sins He graciously withheld His avenging hand. This change in God's dealings, or threatened dealings, with the Ninevites, was not a change of principle or a change of mind, but simply a change of dispensation, arising out of their altered circumstances. Repentance in man always produces a corresponding change in God's administrations towards him. (Jeremiah 18:7-10.) This gives to the denunciations of God a conditional character. Some times the condition is expressed in the terms of the threatening, and sometimes it is understood. It is as much a principle of God's gracious government to suspend the execution of a threatened punishment on man's sincere repentance as it is to execute it in the case of obstinate and continued sin. Erroneous notions have been adopted with respect to the immutability of God. God is unchangeable in His being, perfections, and principles of moral government. But in His actual dispensations with man He deals with him according to the state of his heart and life.
II. THE EFFECTS OF GOD'S REPENTANCE ON JONAH. Such an act of grace and forbearance On the part of God ought to have excited the devout thankfulness of the prophet. But Jonah heard of the reprieve and pardon not only without joy, but with angry displeasure. The reason of his inhuman displeasure was a fear for his own fame. Jonah's unreasonable anger will account for his unseemly and censurable prayer.
III. GOD'S REPROOF OF JONAH, AND VINDICATION OF HIMSELF. God's dealings with Jonah place His own character in the most gracious and amiable light, and in the most affecting contrast with that of the prophet. Jonah appears to have been a man of strong passions, and easily excited. Means had been found, in connection with the booth, the gourd, and the worm, to arouse conviction in Jonah's mind, and now God proceeds to make more direct application. He approaches Jonah with mild and dispassionate language — "Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?" How great the patience that bore with Jonah's petulance! "Thou hast had pity on the gourd; and should not I spare Nineveh?" Whether this appeal of God had any salutary effect on Jonah's mind, and led to any improvement in his conduct or not, is wholly unknown. We lose sight of Jonah under circumstances extremely disadvantageous to him. He drops out of history in a bad temper; and we have little to recall him to our remembrance but his sin, his punishment, and his petulance.
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