“Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce wrath, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.” - Jonah iii. 9, 10.
OUR correspondent, R. L. Edwards, desires of us an explanation of the above text; and such light (if any) as we have we will cheerfully give. It appears from the record of this prophet that Nineveh was a heathen city of great magnitude and in a most deplorable state of ignorance and depravity, and that the Lord, instead of calling for the organization of a Foreign Missionary Board to collect funds, manufacture, commission and send missionaries to warn Nineveh of impending wrath, commanded Jonah, one of his own prophets, to go to that great city and deliver a certain message; and notwithstanding Jonah’s indisposition he was compelled to go and preach the preaching which God had bidden him. Every thing necessary for the accomplishment of the sovereign will of God in relation to Nineveh was provided without human aid, even to the great fish to ferry the runaway prophet to the field of his labor, and the gourd under which he should rest after having obeyed the word of the Lord. And can it be doubted that God, who has declared the end from the beginning, and said, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure,” was deficient in his knowledge of the result of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh? Certainly not. Every circumstance in this divine record, when duly understood, goes to confirm the doctrine of the sovereignty, immutability and omniscience of God, but yet in such a manner of demonstration as to confirm the wisdom .of this world.
Jonah was commanded to say to the people of Nineveh, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” it was therefore his duty to go and to leave the execution of the prediction to the Lord. And it is as certain that God was as able to have prevented the disobedience of Jonah, as it was for him to overrule his disobedience to his own glory and the direct accomplishment of his designs. In the disobedience of the prophet occasion was afforded not only for Jonah to become a sign or type of a crucified and risen Savior, but also for the use which God designed for a certain fish which he had before prepared for a certain agency in regard to Jonah’s mission to Nineveh.
The restraining power of God was also as potent to prevent the wickedness of Nineveh if it had been his pleasure to have employed it for that purpose, as it was in preventing Jonah from making his contemplated visit to Tarshish; but God designed to make use of that wicked city in testimony against Corazen, Bethsada, Capurniam and Jerusalem, and therefore every circumstance was wisely ordered and overruled to answer the counsel of his own will, in accordance with which he worketh all things.
But we presume the difficulty in the mind of our correspondent is that God had authorized Jonah to say that Nineveh should be destroyed in forty days, and then that he repented of the evil that he had said he would do, and did it not. By reference to Jeremiah xviii. 7-10, our correspon4ent will find the following law or principle of administration in regard to national judgment, &c., recorded viz: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build up and plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.” The judgment of Nineveh was then in precise harmony with the rule by which he administers his judgments in a national point of view, and consequently there was nothing in the case of Nineveh indicating on the part of God the least variableness or shadow of turning, the words repent and turn being used in such cases not to indicate mutability ‘or change of purpose in the mind of God, but a different administration from that anticipated by the language of the law under which nations and cities, as such, stand amenable to God. Thus, in relation to the sentence of the law of God against transgressors, individually or collectively, the law denounces judgments without mercy. The sentence is in the most plain and emphatic language possible - “The soul that sins shall die.” Thus, the law contemplates wrath and damnation, and that, too, by what God has said, speaking in the law; nevertheless, in the richness of his grace he has provided deliverance from that wrath for his redeemed people, and their deliverance, so far from reflecting upon his prescience and immutability, goes fully to establish both, inasmuch as their salvation and calling are “according to his own purpose and grace, which was given them in Christ Jesus before the world began.” Repentance in scripture parlance usually if not universally signifies a change or turning from. Such a change is sometimes in reference to purpose, and sometimes in regard to action.
An offending brother may turn again, repenting. Judas repented of his perfidy, and Esau also, that he had sold his birthright; and there is also a repentance which is unto life, to give which unto Israel and the remission of sins Christ is exalted a Prince and a Savior. But in none of these senses of the word can the term be applicable unto God, for he is of one mind, and none can turn him. Because he is the Lord and changes not the sons of Jacob are not consumed. To interpret these terms in their application to God as we may in their application to men, would involve a contradiction in the scriptures. But allowing the words repent and turn in our text to mean the same as Jeremiah xviii. 7-10, and we find them relating to the outward or providential dealings with nations, in their national characters. As when he saith in his law that the nations that will not serve him shall be destroyed, still reserving the power and right to turn these very nations from their wickedness, and preserve them in the enjoyment of their national prosperity. It must be conceded that God knew beforehand what the effect of Jonah’s preaching should be upon Nineveh, and although Jonah preached to them the legitimate consequence of their course, God humbled that city, and caused it to repent at the preaching of Jonah. And when he had effected this design by Jonah’s preaching he made known to them his further design to save them from the impending ruin which was threatened. Now compare all this with the first experience of the children of God, and we discover a striking analogy when. one is quickened by the Holy Ghost. Moses, or the law, like Jonah, comes preaching wrath; and this preaching, like that of Jonah, presents no alternative. “Thou hast sinned,” thou art the man! thou shalt surely die! At this startling ministry of the law the soul, like the Ninevites, is humbled; the relish for sin is killed, and like the men and beasts of Nineveh, the soul is shrouded in sackcloth, a real sense of guilt and deserved wrath is brought home with terrific force; but when God, by the ministry of his law has sufficiently humbled the soul, he reveals to it his great salvation. This does not lead the soul to conclude that God has changed his purpose or his nature - that he has sacrificed his veracity or his justice, but he is made to rejoice in the revelation of that system of grace which is ancient as eternity, and in full harmony with all the perfections of God.
Arminians and other cavilers have frequently used this passage and others of a like kind in opposing the doctrine of the sovereignty and immutability of the counsel of God in the salvation of his people, and have generally confounded this national repentance and deliverance of Nineveh with the work of grace wrought by the Holy Ghost in the work of regeneration; and although men and beasts were alike the subjects of this repentance and deliverance, they can see no difference between it and that godly sorrow for sin that worketh repentance unto life, which needeth not to be repented of. But those who have learned the difference between the sorrow of the world, that worketh death, and that repentance which God has given to his people, will not be likely to confound them.
New Vernon, N. Y.,
March 15, 1845.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials – Volume 2
Pages 528 - 532