Taking it In
After Jonah starts teaching the Ninevites something crazy happens. Apparently, Jonah didn’t start at the top, because the king eventually hears either about Jonah’s message or something going on in the city, and is moved. While the rest of the public has already fasted and put on sackcloth, the king catches on, joins the fun, and adds the other marker of repentance, sitting in ash instead of on a throne. God told Jonah to “arise” and go teach, and he did, but with a heart unchecked. Now, it’s a Gentile king who “arises” from his throne and humbles himself. When he hears the word of God, he literally stands up as if to be taking the posture of a student. We don’t find out who this king is and this was probably intentional. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how this king is modeling how a king should react and doing so by offering a contrast with many Israelite kings during Jonah’s lifetime and beyond. He has a message proclaimed through the city encouraging all to join in on the repentance, too. And by all, he meant all. Human beings and animals (albeit to some degree of hyperbole here). This inclusion shows up elsewhere in the Bible, too, and communicates a complete, holistic, all-encompassing act of repentance involving not just the community of humans but all creation in Nineveh, period. Interestingly, the word the king uses to decree these things is the same word that was used of the sailors in 1:5 when they cry out to God. So, there could be an implication here that the king was also commissioning people to cry out to God. He also takes the fasting one step further and doesn’t just encourage a fast, but a complete one by banning eating or drinking anything at all. This act of “turning back” is a turning from violence perhaps by the nation but also within the community of Nineveh toward the poor and powerless. This is a massive display of repentance! And such a display is certainly an absolute delight to God.
Working it Out
Spiritual growth does not come about with arrogance, pride, self-help, and what not. It comes about with humility. Salvation isn’t just a pit-stop, it’s an all-out road trip. Sometimes we lose our way and don’t even realize it and we keep driving confidently in the wrong direction thinking we have it all figured out. Then perhaps our car breaks down or we finally come to grips that we’re going in the wrong direction, and it can shatter us. Never does Scripture teach us to walk with pride and disposition, yet even with a brief look around churches it doesn’t take much to see this is often exactly what Christians put off. What is admirable here, too, with the way the king responds is that he truly doesn’t know what will come of it. For all he knows, God may still destroy them. Humility adds to the genuine nature of the Ninevites’ repentance. Paul reminds us to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3). James reminds us that “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6). And here, the king of Nineveh or Assyria invites us to take off our own royal robes of haughty religious egotism, come down from our thrones of self-serving spirituality, and follow him to complete repentance. No fire and brimstone. No “turn or burn.” Just humility. It doesn’t take much for God to do a lot.