Contend Earnestly: Sackcloth and Ashes

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sackcloth and Ashes

Jonah proclaims. The city of Nineveh repents. Not possible, right? A whole city? Ok, we've struggled a bit with the large fish, but c'mon. How can an entire city repent when just one man preaches on one day, potentially only saying 6 words total, especially when the city is a "three days walk"? Good questions to ask, but the answer will be revealing of your belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.

The word of God is inerrant! It contains no errors or mistakes. But it is also infallible. That is, it is incapable of being false! That is because it is the word of the living God (2 Tim 3:16-17, Heb 4:12), and it cannot be broken (John 10:35). The God who created the world by divine fiats would have no problem preserving his prophet for three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. And as an even more amazing display of His power, we see His arm of salvation move each time a single person repents and is made alive from being dead in sin (Is 59:16, Eph 2:1). And so we see in this account that YHWH moves on the hearts of an entire city and the largest recorded response to salvation comes to pass. A city repents. "(F)rom the greatest to the least of them" (vs 5). And as we saw earlier, Jesus Himself confirms the validity of this historical account:

Matt 12:41
"The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here."

This account is not hard to accept if we also remember that repentance is a work of the Lord:

Acts 5:30-1
"The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. "

2 Tim 2:24-26
The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will." (emphasis added)

Oh, how our flesh hates to hear that God must initiate in our repentance. How can that be? How can we be held responsible for rejecting Christ if we cannot initiate our own belief? The Scripture teaches both, equally and strongly, that we are responsible to respond, are culpable for rejection, but yet are incapable without His initiating grace. For "there is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God" (Rom 3:10-11). His ways are higher than ours (Is 55:9)!

And as we continue, we see the response of the people in the city of Nineveh, from a human perspective, we see the message spread from the people to the King:

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes.

As Jonah preaches on the first day, the people then take up the message and spread it through the city to the King. And amazingly, when the King hears what the people have started, he responds in faith as well. For Kings do not follow the leading of the common people. Further proof that this was a divine message. And as to the quickness of their response, we have already considered that true repentance is a work of God. But even from a human standpoint, the proclamation is that the city will be overthrown in 40 days. Not that the destruction would begin in 40 days. It could begin at any moment. It is a reasonable assumption that the King may have realized that since God sent one to announce the coming judgment, there is still a chance to turn. Why, after all, would there be a proclamation of judgment that could not be escaped? Sodom and Gomorrah shows us an example of destruction without warning to the guilty.

The King "arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes" (vs 6). He declares that the everyone is to do the same. Again, it is not the Kings proclamation that forces the people to show signs of repentance that are not genuine. The people are the ones who brought the message to the king. They are certainly willing to repent as well. But it is also noteworthy that the King felt compelled to do this despite the lack of assurance that the city would be saved:

"Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish."

Who knows....God may turn. He may not. But the hearts had been compelled to bow low before YHWH. After all, they understood clearly that it was a "burning anger". How our preaching today must compel people that God is angry with sinners.

And so we come to that verse that seems to show that God somehow changes. Does He? Can He? What does it mean that "God relented" (vs 10). We will take a look at this next time.


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