The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.Jonah 3:6-10
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.
Humble leadership inspires humble followers, and God honors the humble who submit to His authority. In the same way that rebelliousness begets rebellion from the top down, so does repentance beget repentance when its starts at the top and trickles its way down to those who would follow. If we expect to see revival in the land, it must begin in our leadership – specifically with the leadership in the body of Christ.
The King Repents
We’ve already covered in detail how the Assyrian kingdom was arguably one of the most violent kingdoms of its time, if not in history. The depth of the sin of the Assyrians was well known and is well known to us today. If an earthly kingdom is to experience revival and escape the coming wrath of a holy and righteous God, then the leadership of that kingdom must learn submission to the Almighty. Even if that kingdom is a pagan kingdom, the Father will show mercy at the sign of repentance. A close look at the humility of the king of Nineveh demonstrates the depth of his repentance as “he arose from his throne [stepped down from his place of authority], removed his robe [stepped away from his visual appearance of authority], covered himself with sackcloth [a visual demonstration of humilty], and sat in ashes [a symbolic representation of mourning over his sin].” (Jonah 3:6 parenthetical commentary mine). But it didn’t stop there as the king opens his mouth to speak.
He issues a proclamation – a decree – a new law, if you will. Interestingly, not only is the king declaring a nationwide fast from food AND water that extends all the way down to the livestock, but he has the full support of his cabinet of advisors (“nobles”). “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” (Jonah 3:8b) It is the indictment of who was guilty (“everyone”) and a confession of specific sin (“violence”).
If the body of Christ is ever to experience revival, it must begin in the leadership of our churches. If a local church is to experience a revival, we must take a page from the book of this pagan king and begin with pastors and teachers and deacons and elders falling on our face at the altar humbly confessing our sin, whatever it may be, in genuine remorse and mourning. Crocodile tears and false humility will not deceive the eyes of God who sees to the heart of man. Projections of humility that draw attention to the penitent and away from Jesus will draw even more judgement. Humbly lowering oneself on the altar, visibly demonstrating heartfelt humility and repentance, and confessing and mourning over our sin is the only way to begin to see the Spirit of God move within the hearts of His people.
The People Repent
Even a pagan king can recognize the need for repentance in the hopes that God would have mercy upon them. Even when the prophet does not offer any hope of a stay of judgement, the king puts forth the proposition “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (Jonah 3:9) Jonah never offered repentance as a path to salvation. He never offered any hope of Elohim would withhold His righteous hand. Yet somehow, the king of Nineveh (speaking from a pagan context) held out hope that if he and his people would submit to this foreign God, He would have mercy upon them.
The name of God “Elohim” typically has 2 functional linguistic uses in the Hebrew language. One, it is overwhelmingly translated in scripture as one of the names of God, more specifically the Godhead. The word Elohim is always used (2346 times) in the plural intensive tense with a singular meaning. It is the name that embodies the fullness of God in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – in One being. It is the name of God from Genesis when He said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) It is the name by which not only is God the Creator, but He is also Ruler, a trait that He instilled in us as His special creation as bearers of His image.
Secondly Elohim denotes God not only has Creator, but also as Ruler and Judge. As Divine Ruler of the Universe, the Creator and Him alone has the authority to make the rules and to Judge righteously by those rules. Even though we as humans are given authority over all of the creatures of the earth (except for other humans), we are still subject to His rule and authority. No where in the God’s design for man did He give us authority over other humans – either by ethnicity, race, gender, or nationality. We are all created to be subject to Him and His authority, while representing His authority over all of the remainder of creation. Yet in our pride and hubris we have found it necessary to live lives of violence against one another.
Throughout history we have demonstrated a propensity for war and dominance over other peoples. We have subjected entire civilizations to the ravages of slavery and subjugation. Empires have risen and fallen in the name of exerting dominance and nationalistic pride. Today on a global scale, the sin of human bondage and slavery is at an all-time high in the history of the world with over 40.3 million people trapped in bondage. Women and girls account for 99% of the victims of the commercial sex industry that comprises an estimated (likely underestimated) 4.8 million of the 24.9 million in forced labor. Wars in the name of religion and nationalism rage; today over 200 countries in the world are in active armed conflict within or with one another. Ethnic cleansing and genocide continues in various nations unabated. God’s people continue to experience martyrdom at the hands of pagan zealots daily around the globe. Yet God continues to withhold His righteous judgement for the sake of the few that call out His name in humble repentance.
“God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3:10) And in the case of Nineveh, the people followed suit with their king. The writer of Jonah records that they repented of their sin of violence and evil. This coincides with a period of relative peace and trade with the the kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, who reigned for 41 years. However, this period of peace and trade led to other internal problems of materialism and idolatry, for which Jeroboam II himself was judged as “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.” (2 Kings 14:24). However, Jeroboam did restore the borders of Israel and God had mercy upon Israel as well:
He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.2 Kings 14:25-27
When the people submit to God’s authority, He faithfully relents in His prescribed judgement. Prophecy is either forth-telling (speaking to the people on behalf of God) or foretelling (predictions of the future as God has dictated) Foretelling prophecy is always pointing to either the coming of Christ or warning of the coming kingdom or righteousness of God. Prophetic foretelling is always either conditional or unconditional. Unconditional foretelling indicates there is nothing that will sway or change what God has declared to pass. It is the sovereign authority and privilege of God who exists outside of the confines of time to declare what will and what will not come to pass now or in the future. It is by His Providence, His “pro-video” or fore-sight and fore-knowledge, that He already knows the decisions that we will make in this life and the resulting consequences (both good and bad).
However, conditional prophecy is always a matter of addressing sin within the heart of an individual or a people. Perhaps the most often quoted conditional prophecy of all of Scripture is 2 Chronicles 7:14 that states “if My people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” In fact, this prophecy is perhaps the most misapplied declaration of God in our American society as it is so often used to call the entire nation to repentance. However, the passage is very clearly address to the people of God, the ones who are called by His name. We as Christians are called to humble ourselves, and pray and seek His face and turn from our wicked ways. We must stop puffing ourselves up with pride and hubris thinking we are better than the culture around us. We must fall on our knees in prayer and confess our sin of pride. We must stop with our constant infighting and bickering and politicizing of the gospel. We must repent of the idolatrous worship of our leaders. We must repent of watering down our theology to make it compatible and palatable to a world that is hostile to the Word of God. We must repent of the sin of bowing before the golden calf of materialism. We must repent of our lack of discernment. We must repent of our lack of intentionality when it comes to discipleship. We must repent of our lack of effort to evangelize the lost and fulfill the Great Commission. We must repent of our refusal to serve our neighbor, no matter the cost. We must repent of abandoning the truth of Scripture in favor of the lie of the world.
Until we, the people of God, repent of our wicked ways, how can we ever expect the world to repent? Until we live the gospel out in our lives, how can we ever expect the gospel to have any effectual power in our world? Our Heavenly Father rejoices at our repentance. He honors our repentance. And He relents of His judgement as a result of our repentance. It is not our remorse or our sorrow over our sin that causes the Father to withhold His judgement. It is our repentance and our submission to His authority. It’s the laying aside of our own self-centered, self-driven desires that activates His mercy and grace in our lives. We will never deserve His mercy or His grace, but He stands ready to offer it to us at the first hint of repentance and submission to Him by faith.
Let me be very clear. Your repentance does not save you. Your faith does not heal you. Mercy and grace are the prerogative of the Giver of all good gifts who stands ready to provide to all who ask and receive. However unless you as an individual recognize your need for the Savior by the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit, and submit to the authority of the Father to the glory of the Son Jesus Christ, you will never experience His mercy and grace in your life. He paid too high a price to give mercy and grace haphazardly. Mercy and grace are only free to us because He paid the price to make it possible.