When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
The king hears the news via Nineveh’s version of the grapevine. Tyrants usually react badly when they’ve been by-passed over minor matters, let alone threats of destruction; but here the king responds with abject humility. He issues a decree that retrospectively confirms the action of the populace but makes the fast total; and extends it to the animals. Have you ever tried preventing sheep and goats from eating the pasture on which they stand?! It suggests a farcical scenario.
He instructs everyone – and the animals – to cry out to God; and we should note that the Ninevites do not call on God by name. How could they? Jonah hasn’t uttered God’s name yet, or told them anything about God’s nature and purposes. The king also commands repentance from evil and violence. If only it was possible to order people to be good! Transforming human hearts is a much more complex and costly process, which is why Jesus came into the world.
However the king displays one profound insight (akin to that of the ship’s captain in 1:6), as he acknowledges that human repentance doesn’t automatically result in divine mercy. God has the freedom and power to enact the divine will irrespective of our prayers.
The way Jonah and Nineveh have been contrasted in yesterday’s and today’s texts prompts me to wonder whether I am actually rather more like Jonah than I would care to admit. Do I really acknowledge God’s supreme authority over all things? Have I really turned towards God in total commitment and done so publicly, like Nineveh’s king?
I hope I’m more ready than Jonah to say sorry to God when I get things wrong but I pray that I will never presume on God’s forgiveness being granted to me as though it is mine by right.
Holy God, we rejoice that you reveal yourself in ways beyond our comprehension. We rejoice that you can touch the hearts of people even when the good news has not yet been proclaimed to them. We pray for those who still live in ignorance of your loving purposes across the world today and we recommit ourselves to ‘walking the way’ of Jesus in joyful obedience to your call. In the name of Christ, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.