July 9

by Pastor Jim
Jonah devotional, 3 of 4
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
Jonah 3:1-2
So we’re back where we started.  Jonah 3 starts off with the same words as Jonah 1 — with the obvious addition of “the second time”!  The first time, the LORD had told Jonah to go to Nineveh and “cry against it” because of its wickedness, but instead of heading east to Nineveh Jonah had headed west toward Tarshish.  We know how well that turned out.  Now, brought back and freshly puked up on the shore by the great fish, Jonah decides that discretion is the better part of valor and heads east.
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.
Jonah 3:3
No mention is made of Jonah’s attitude at this point.  My sense is that the birds did not sing as Jonah trudged toward Nineveh.  Yet in spite of God having said of Nineveh, in chapter 1, that “their wickedness has come up before me,” he describes the city in 3:1 as “that great city,” and we are told it took three days to walk across it.  We’ll hear more about this tomorrow.
In the meantime, God has now told Jonah to “proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  Just what was that message?  We aren’t told, but what Jonah does preach is pretty spartan.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah 3:4
A mere eight words! — and that’s the English translation; only five words in Hebrew.  Is that really all that God told Jonah to say?  Nineveh is toast?  Well, we have seen God work with a weak-to-poor witness in Jonah before — in chapter 1, where, in spite of his rather uncooperative attitude, a group of Gentile mariners ended up praying to the LORD even when Jonah didn’t.  So what came of this message proclaimed with what one might call an attitudinal deficit?
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.  Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?”
Jonah 3:5-9
Wow!  That’s a rather amazing response to a sermon of five words.  Jonah should have been overjoyed! — and the fact that he was not will be the subject of our reflection tomorrow.  More immediately at hand is what “the king and his nobles” meant by, “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?”  God repent??  What on earth can they have been thinking?
Well, the larger question is “What was God thinking at that point?” One might envision a divine rolling of the eyes … except we go on to read:
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.
Jonah 3:10
Really?  I mean … really??  Can God repent of evil?  Admittedly, only the Revised Standard Version (RSV, the translation I generally prefer) has had the courage of its convictions to translate nacham as “repent” and ra’ah as “evil”  Even the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) has stepped back and just said God “changed his mind” about bringing “calamity” upon them — though the same Hebrew word, ra’ah, is used for both what the people of Nineveh had been doing as well as what God would have done.  The NIV translation, which many use, tiptoes around the issue in the same way: God “relented” and did not bring “destruction” upon them.
So let’s talk about this for a moment.  If this were the only place in the Bible that God “repents of evil” we would just count it as an oddity, an anomaly   But it’s not.  The first time anyone repents of evil in the Bible comes after the golden calf incident when, in Exodus 32:11-14, God “repents of the evil” he intends to do — because Moses challenges him to do so!  And it happens again and again …  in 2 Sam 24:16; 1 Chron 21:15; five times in Jeremiah (18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; and 42:10) and in Joel 2:13.  Plus here in Jonah, of course.  Again, you’ll have to read it in the RSV to get nacham and ra’ah translated so literally in each case.
Now, even if you go with a more bland “God changed his mind,” you have a challenging question to answer: What could possibly get God to change his mind?  New information that we bring to him that he didn’t know before?  A twisting of the divine arm to coerce him?
I won’t string you along any longer.  Here is what I have observed.  In each case where we read of God “repenting” or “changing his mind,” it comes after he has told someone, “I’m about to toast some folks for their evil” and the person he tells (Moses, for instance — see Exodus 32:9-10) cries out, “Don’t do that!” and pleads for the people.  In each case, God appears to say, “I’m about to bring destruction (literally “evil”) on someone.  Now … tell me not to and see what happens.”
Yes.  Grace, again.  God’s desire not to punish or destroy the sinner.  More than that, God’s desire to draw us — you, me — into the conversation, into the relationship, into the process of salvation.  Basically into prayer.
Think of that.  God desires so much to draw you into relationship with him, into his process of saving, and thus into prayer, that he is willing to condescend to a level we can understand and start speaking of his plans to do evil to people — and thus challenge you and me to challenge him not to do it.  And sometimes — if we have rather a stiff neck as did Jonah — it just may get a bit more complicated and require some creativity on God’s part.  A great fish, for instance.
  • Once again, we see that God can work with the merest and weakest of witnesses — even witnesses with questionable attitudes.  So … is there any reason why God can’t use you to share your faith?  Clearly, you don’t need to be an expert on the Bible simply to tell someone else what you have seen God do.
  • So God can “repent of evil.”  Turns out that’s good news!  Allowing that image of him to be presented in the Bible shows just how much God wants to have relationship with you and to draw you into prayer.  And did I mention witness?
Tomorrow, we find that Jonah’s bad attitude still persists, in spite of all of this.  So how will God handle that?  No fair peeking.  (Oh what the heck … go ahead and peek.)

Leave a Reply