Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 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 began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a 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 call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
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. – Jonah 3:1-10 (ESV)
It is frequently said that “repentance is a change of mind.” That is true, but it is incomplete. Biblical repentance involves a reorientation of our whole selves, so that we who were seeking to go our own way are turned to God. When the king of Nineveh rises from his throne and puts on sackcloth, he is acknowledging that though he might be the king of Nineveh for a short period of time – he is not the Great King – and so he abases himself before the One who is truly in charge. Rosemary Nixon puts it like this:
There is something deliberately dramatic about the [the words of verse 6]. They are vividly pictorial. There is a beautiful symmetry in the way the actions of the king are set out. The action begins with him rising from his throne and ends with him sitting in ashes. Between these two resting places he has taken off his royal robe and covered, or ‘hidden,’ himself in sackcloth. Not even David’s repentance, after he had heard the words of Nathan the prophet, is so lucidly portrayed. In that story it is only after King David has been told that his child is dead that we are told, “Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his clothes. The story of Ahab shows he king adopting a similar response on hearing the words of the prophet Elijah: ‘he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly.’ God’s response to Ahab was to delay judgment.
The response of these kings to the words of the prophets was unusual. Perhaps more common was the response of Jehoiakim, king in Jerusalem. On hearing the words of the prophet Jeremiah read to him by the scribe, ‘the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire. … Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was afraid, nor did they rend their garments.’ Such brazen hostility towards God was all the more shocking coming from a descendant of David and a king of Jerusalem.
The pagan king of Nineveh, however, knew that fasting and the usual outward signs of repentance alone were insufficient. He added a totally new dimension to them by urging on the people the idea that the pattern of evil and violence had to be broken: ‘let every one turn from his evil way and from … violence’ (v. 8). It is not said of the men of Nineveh, “And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,” but “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.”
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 2
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.