Saturday, December 12, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (12)

There is belief and then there is belief.

The oppressed people of Israel “believed” God had sent Moses and Aaron to deliver them from Egyptian slavery until Pharaoh suddenly doubled their workload and they began having doubts.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on them: it’s easy to believe something when it’s purely theoretical and doesn’t cost you anything. When belief persists despite resulting in humiliation, physical injury, hunger or economic loss, that’s when it starts to look a little more credible.

The book of Jonah tells us that the people of Nineveh “believed God”. There was nothing abstract or theoretical about it.

Jonah 3:5 — Believing God and “Saving” Nineveh
“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 words “believed God” are 'aman 'elohiym, the latter being the “generic” Old Testament name of God. By way of contrast, when we read that Abraham believed God, the wording is 'aman YHWH. Abraham put his trust in Jehovah. The difference is not trivial. Belief is belief, but in Abraham’s case the object of that belief was a known quantity, a divine person with whom the patriarch had an ongoing relationship. In the case of the Ninevites, the conviction of impending judgment brought by Jonah’s testimony may have been as vivid and real to them as Abraham’s trust in God, but the object of their faith remained to them a great unknown.

What It Means to Believe God

Believing what God tells you is good, certainly much better than not believing him, but it is also not the whole story. We have to ask, “Believing God about what?” In and of itself, fear of impending disaster does not save. The demons begged the Lord Jesus not to command them to depart into the abyss, but their perfectly reasonable fear of immediate judgment (and even the fact that begging seemed to work) did not translate into anything that would benefit their long-term spiritual prospects; far less did it suggest the demons were ready to “switch teams”, even if such a thing were possible.

So then, despite the fact that the people of Nineveh humbled themselves in public, there is no suggestion in the passage that their fear and repentance extended to immediately and enthusiastically becoming proselytes of YHWH, far less that each of these individuals trusted a Christ they did not know and about whom they had no inkling for a salvation like we experience today. As recorded, there simply isn’t enough in Jonah’s proclamation to feed and nurture that sort of faith. Moreover, even if the people of Nineveh had wanted to know more about Jonah’s God, the prophet was disinclined to teach them. We find Jonah in chapter 4 at a distance, hoping against hope for the judgment of Nineveh to occur in spite of his reluctant witness.

Transforming a Culture

What may have happened, I think, was that there was generalized acceptance of Jonah’s message of judgment such that even those who may have doubted were swept along in the movement, as often happens. Familiar with disaster, the Ninevites feared the consequences of God’s wrath, and responded corporately by abasing themselves in hope that God would take note of their humility and their change of heart. It is not impossible that they may have responded in a similar way if they had believed one of their own gods was angry with them. That sort of repentance can hold sway so long as you believe you are under threat, but when the threat has passed, may not last much longer.

We should not, of course, dismiss the possibility that some of these repentant Ninevites subsequently sought out more information about the God of Israel and found what they needed to enter into a relationship with God according the terms on which salvation was available to mankind under the Old Covenant. But I very much doubt that was generally the case. It is difficult to imagine how a city in which repentance was complete and its fruit mature, and in which greater knowledge of YHWH was pursued by a substantial number of its citizens, could again find itself under the judgment of God to the point of absolute destruction only a century later. Surely the personal and cultural transformation of an entire generation of Ninevite grandparents could not be without some lingering and positive social consequences for large numbers of their grandchildren.

Rising Up at the Judgment

So then, when we read in Matthew and Luke that the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with the generation to which the Lord Jesus was sent, and “condemn it”, I don’t think we need assume that these will be saved men weighing in at the Great White Throne with respect to the guilt of others, but more likely subjects of the judgment whose better conduct shows up the special evil of another group of subjects of that same judgment. The Lord was telling the corrupt generation of Israelites to which he came that rejecting the direct testimony of the Spirit of God to the Father by way of the Son was a crime so heinous that the testimony of the men of Nineveh, who repented of their own crimes on the basis of much less evidence, could not help but be adduced to stand in utter condemnation of the first century Jews who, in the end, crucified the Lord Jesus. The Ninevites who so testify may also be subject to judgment, but the eternal lot of unrepentant first century Jews stands to be much worse than theirs.

If we doubt that there are degrees of eternal punishment just as there are degrees of eternal reward, we have only to remind ourselves of the Lord’s words about the city of Capernaum, that “It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Faith and Works

At least we have no doubt that the belief of the people of Nineveh was real. We know because it produced results. Fasting and putting on sackcloth are Ancient Eastern ways to signify mourning. There was no more immediate way to publicly display humility and regret. Had the citizens of Nineveh even a scintilla of pride, self-reliance or an affronted spirit, sackcloth would have been the last thing commonly in evidence in their streets. Instead, it became a sort of Ninevite uniform. Fasting would be less easy to observe at the individual level, but plain for all to see if the merchants of Nineveh were consulted: when 120,000+ people suddenly stop eating all at the same time, the economic effects are obvious. There was a cost to Ninevite belief.

So the people of Nineveh definitely believed God when he spoke to them through Jonah. That doesn’t mean their faith would outlive the fear that inspired it, and it definitely doesn’t mean they knew exactly who they were dealing with.

If they had, there wouldn’t be a book of Nahum for us to study.

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