Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Radical Repentance

Who was the most successful prophet in the Old Testament? Which one saw the greatest turning back to the Lord through their ministry? Surprisingly, the answer is the most reluctant prophet, Jonah.

We left Jonah yesterday as he landed on the beach, wiping fish guts off himself, rejoicing in God's rescue operation which far exceeded the RNLI's work. Right then, the word of the Lord comes to him again to rise and go to Nineveh. He still has a message to proclaim there.

This time, he goes in the right direction, and arrives in the 'exceedingly' great city of Nineveh. Remember, this was the capital of the enemy, city of the Assyrians, a foreign place. Once inside the city a third of the way, Jonah cries out the eight worded message that God has given him:

Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (3:4)

In Northern Ireland we're very used to street preachers calling for repentance. Lisburn, Banbridge, Belfast, Ballymena, Portadown, I've seen them with their megaphone or loudspeaker system connected to the car battery preaching against sin and demanding repentance from all who hear. It seems that most people in Northern Ireland have developed a deaf ear syndrome - let the street preacher rant, they won't be listening. They might politely take a tract from some of the associates of the preacher, but you'll probably find them littering the ground about a hundred yards further up the street. Is street preaching effective in modern Belfast?

In Nineveh, though, it was a different story. As soon as Jonah had proclaimed his message: 'And the people of Nineveh believed God.' (3:5) The word of doom is preached, and they immediately begin a city-wide fast, with the fashion being for sackcloth to show their horror and repentance. The word of God is proclaimed, and the people believe it and instantly respond.

Already the people of Nineveh are more noble than the people of Israel, who never wholeheartedly and unanimously responded to the preaching of Isaiah, Jeremiah or the other prophets.

Even the king of Nineveh (who isn't named) comes down off his throne, exchanging his royal robes for the sackcloth, and sits in ashes. He publishes orders for the whole city - man and beast - to fast (both food and water), be dressed in sackcloth, and call out mightily to God.

Here the people of Nineveh are again more noble than the people of Israel and Judah, with a genuine fast of repentance, not an outward show of religion while inwardly plotting evil (see Isaiah 1:10-17). How do we know it was genuine here in Nineveh? The king's command continues to 'Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.' (3:8)

Do you see the almost comedic element here - where both the humans and the animals are all decked in sackcloth. Even the livestock are repenting, such is the wholehearted repentance at work in Nineveh.

The king ends his proclamation with a question: 'Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.' (3:9)

His words are as true and sweet today as they were when first uttered. Remember the character and deeds of our God - who desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, to quote the old Absolution in the Book of Common Prayer order of Morning Prayer. As the Ninevites respond in obedience and repentance to God's word, their acceptance and absolution is guaranteed:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (3:10)

Jonah's preaching was a warning shot, effective to bring the people (and animals) of Nineveh to repent. God's glory is seen in his welcome for repentant sinners, and there must have been some party in heaven the day that all of Nineveh came home.


  1. Hello Gary. You seem to be very well versed in Bible matters and I have a question, it is not a matter of faith however. There is this Spanish book, published in the 1600’s that is the sequel of The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities. The genre is picaresque yet, there are plenty of Christian symbols and I am a bit confused because when it comes to symbols, there are a massive number of meanings. Lazarus transforms into a tuna fish, after his boat sinks. Could you please tell me some of the meanings of the fish as a symbol in Christianity? Was it connected to Jesus, was it connected to Jews? I went to an Irish catholic church and they have never ever told me anything about fish so I supposed it is not a well known symbol or that it is a very ambiguous one. Thank you Gary!

  2. Hi there! Thanks for the comment and the question. For the early Christians, the fish became a symbol of the faith, because it points to Jesus - a way of identifying Christians during the times of persecution. The Greek word for fish is ICTHUS, which is an acrostic for: Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour.

    This from Wikipedia: The use of the Ichthys symbol by early Christians. Ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ, Greek for fish) can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It compiles to "Jesus Christ, God's son, savior," in ancient Greek "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ", Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr.

    Hope this helps! Where was your Irish Catholic Church?

  3. one thing i've always struggled with about Jonah was his "reluctance". it seems to me that he didn't go because he knew that God would forgive them. that makes him like too much of a hater in my eyes. i get that Assyria was Israel's enemy but the whole book seems chock full of "God i can't believe you're making me do this!" and not enough of "yeah, this is the right thing to do".
    i get reluctant about serving God too but i have trouble drawing that analogy to Jonah since i suspect that he was just prejudiced. i've been working on my thoughts for a lot of years although i'd love to do something up on Jonah for my own blog.
    this series is helping me so don't go thinking that i'm in disagreement with what you have to say here. i'm enjoying it.

  4. Thanks for the comment. It's exactly who Jonah is, and probably the side of him that is most ignored or forgotten. Yet it's probably a good picture of many in the church who like things as they are without "those people" also being saved and joining in the family, whoever those people are in the context- poorer people, immigrants, young people, old people etc...

    Jonah has a lot more about him than the fish, which is what I'm learning too- and like the rest of us whom God uses, we're not always nice characters!

  5. Thank you so much for your response Gary!! I typed "church" when what I meant was "school" but I guess it is all for we had a big church in school, where we attended mass and where I took my first Holy Communion. The school that I went to -from kindergarden until I finished high school- is Saint Brigid School (or Colegio Santa Brigida), founded in 1899 by the Irish Catholic Association (Asociacion Catolica Irlandesa, in Argentina, founded by Father Fahy). Both, the school and Assocation have a long and interesting story, the website is but I am afraid the content is only available in spanish.
    Thank you very, very much again for your answer, it helps a lot!!