"If that nation I warned repents of its evil—then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned." There is always an "if" in connection with human responsibility, for man is as "unstable as water" being influenced by many things both from within and without; nevertheless he is held strictly accountable unto God. Nations, equally with individuals, are responsible: the Lord is their Maker, their Ruler, their God. His Moral Law is as binding upon kingdoms as it is upon the Church. If the rulers of the nations acknowledge God in the discharge of their office, if their laws be equitable and beneficent, maintaining a balance between justice and mercy, if the Lord is owned in prosperity and sought unto in adversity—then the smile of Heaven will be upon that people. But if He is slighted and defied, His frown will be experienced. As effects are dependent upon the operation of causes, and the character of the one determines the nature of the other—so a course of obedience is followed by very different consequence from one of disobedience, be it the case of a nation or individual.
"Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people" (Proverbs 14:34) expresses a foundational principle and an unchanging fact. Right doing or walking according to the Divine Rule—is the basic condition of national prosperity. A righteous administration of government and the public worship of God, gives an ascendancy to a people over those where such things prevail not. Nothing so tends to uphold the throne, elevate the mind of the masses, promote industry, sobriety and equity between man and man, as does the genuine practice of piety, the preservation of the virtues and suppression of vice, as nothing more qualifies a nation for the favor of God. Righteousness is productive of health, of population, of peace and prosperity. But every kind of sin has the contrary tendency. "The prevalence of vice and impiety is a nation's reproach, conduces to disunion, weakness and disgraces, and exposes any people to the wrath and vengeance of God" (Thomas Scott). When sin has become a public "reproach" then ruin is imminent.
We repeat, then, that Jeremiah 18 portrays not Jehovah as the Determiner of eternal destiny—but rather as the Dispenser of temporal benefits, not as decreeing the hereafter of individuals—but as distributing the portions of the kingdoms. "You are the God, even You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth" (2 Kings 19:15), and as such He governs them on the basis of His moral Law and in accordance with the discharge of their responsibilities thereto. Jeremiah 18 reveals to us, the fundamental principles which regulate the dealings of the Most High, with the nations and the relations which He sustains to them.
First, He is shown as anabsolute Sovereign over Israel in particular, and over all peoples in general: "as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel" (v. 6). Jehovah has the most incontestable and immediate power over them. This shows the infinite ease with which He can deal with the most troublesome. "He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them" (Job 12:23).
Second, the Lord is here depicted as therighteous Governor of the nations, dealing with them according to their deserts. In the exercise of His high and unchallengeable authority, the Most High is pleased to act according to the principles of goodness and equity. There is no arbitrary caprice in the infliction of punishment: "an undeserved curse does not come" (Proverbs 26:2). The Lord "does not afflict willingly ("from the heart," margin) nor grieve the children of men" (Lam. 3:33)—but only because they give Him occasion to and because the honor of His name requires it. "Oh, that you had listened to my commands! Then you would have had peace flowing like a gentle river and righteousness rolling like waves" (Isaiah 48:18) is His own avowal. Yes, had they respected His authority "I would soon have subdued their enemies and turned My hand against their adversaries" (Psalm 81:14) He declares. Let it be definitely recognized that God's dealings with the nation of Israel illustrate His administration of the nations today.
Third,the justice of God is tempered with mercy in His government of the nations. "The Lord is of great mercy" (Num. 14:18) and "plenteous in mercy" (Psalm 86:5), and therefore, "His tender mercies are over all His work" (Psalm 145:9). Consequently, when the dark clouds of Divine wrath gather over a kingdom, yes even when His thunderbolts have begun to be launched, genuine repentance will check the storm. When a people humble themselves beneath God's almighty hand, evidencing the genuineness of their repentance by turning away from their wickedness and doing that which is pleasing in His sight, His judgments are turned away from them. "And the children of Israel (1) did evil in the sight of the Lord and forgot the Lord their God. They worshiped the images of Baal and the Asherah poles. Therefore (2) the Lord burned with anger against Israel, and he handed them over to King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim. And the Israelites were subject to Cushan-rishathaim for eight years. And (3) when the children cried unto the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them" (Judges 3:7-9). The same order—sin, punishment, penitence and merciful deliverance—is repeated again and again in the book of Judges.
That these principles of the Divine administration apply to the Gentiles, equally with the Jews, is unmistakably clear from the case of Nineveh a heathen city, concerning which the Lord said "their wickedness has come up before Me" (Jonah 1:2). Unto the vast metropolis, the Prophet was sent, crying, "Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!" (3:4). But note well the sequel: "The people of Nineveh believed God's message, and from the greatest to the least, they decided to go without food and wear sackcloth to show their sorrow. When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in sackcloth and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city: "No one, not even the animals, may eat or drink anything at all. Everyone is required to wear sackcloth and pray earnestly to God. Everyone must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will have pity on us and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us." When God saw that they had put a stop to their evil ways, he had mercy on them and didn't carry out the destruction he had threatened." (Jonah 3:5-10).
"Repent, and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). "They must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21). Unless there are both repentance and faith—there is no forgiveness of sins for any soul, yet there are comparatively few passages in which both of them are expressly mentioned. In Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38 and 17:30 "repentance" alone is inculcated. In John 3:15; Romans 1:16 and 10:4 only "believing" is specified. Why is this? Because the Scriptures are not written as lawyers draw up documents, wherein terms are needlessly repeated and multiplied. Each passage of the Word must be interpreted in the light of, and consistently with, "the Analogy of Faith" (Romans 12:6, Greek)—the general tenor of Scripture—and none made an exception to the general rule. Thus concerning the above references: where only "repentance" is mentioned, "believing" is implied, and when "believing" is found alone, "repentance" is presupposed. The same principle applies to all other subjects: for example, prayer, "Ask, and you shall receive" (Matt. 7:7) is not to be taken without qualification: if we are to "receive, we must "ask" aright—believingly (Heb. 11:6), according to God's will (1 John 5:14), in the name of Christ (John 14:13), and so on.
Our object in beginning with the above, was to pave the way for an explanatory word on what was before us last month. Not a few have been puzzled over Jonah's positive and unqualified declaration, "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (3:4), for such an announcement of disaster appeared to hold out no hope of escape. This affords a striking example of the necessity for interpreting each passage in the light of, and in harmony with, the Analogy of Faith. Now it is one of the established maxims of Scripture, that where there is genuine repentance and reformation, God will show mercy and stay His judgments. This is plainly stated in such places as Leviticus 26:40-42; 1 Kings 8:33-36, yet it is not formally expressed in every chapter or even every book. When God's Prophets were sent forth to announce judgments, it was (except in extreme cases) with the proviso that the people threatened would be spared if they forsook their wickedness and returned to the paths of virtue. It was unnecessary to always state this because it was plainly revealed in the general rule.
Thus, when Jonah proclaimed the overthrow of Nineveh, though he did not specify the means by which judgment could be arrested, yet they were understood—a reprieve would be granted if there was true repentance. Consequently his proclamation was no heralding of God's inexorable fiat, but rather the sounding of an alarm which operated as a means of moral persuasion. Had Nineveh obstinately persisted in her sins, she would certainly have been promptly overthrown; but because she ceased from being a city where every form of wickedness ran riot, and became a place where the name of God was feared and His authority respected, her doom was averted. Jonah was not disclosing the Divine decree—but rather spoke ethically, addressing himself to human responsibility. And when it is said that, "God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them," He deigned to use a familiar form of speech. There was no change in His eternal purpose—but an alteration in His bearing toward them because their conduct had changed for the better.
That our explanation of Jonah 3:4-10 is no mere plausible attempt or subtle device of getting out of a "tight place" should be quite evident from Jeremiah 18. "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned" (vv. 7, 8). Though the threat is genuine and the danger real, yet the announcement of judgment is not an absolute one—but qualified, and when the qualification is not expressed—it is implied. The implied reserve that God will deal in mercy with those who genuinely put right that which displeases Him and will not destroy such, was perceived and appealed to by Abram when he said, "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25).
Even though no particular notice be taken of other passages, and attention be entirely confined unto what is recorded in Jonah 3, will not the thoughtful reader be struck by the very terms of the Prophet's announcement: "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown"? Had the guilt of Nineveh been so great and her course in evil so long confirmed, why was any warning of her destruction at all necessary? If her doom was fixed, if God had purposed her overthrow, then why send one of His Prophets to declare the same? Further, why pronounce Nineveh's judgment almost six weeks before it should be executed? Ah, did not that very interval suggest that a door of hope stood open, if her people would humble themselves and avail themselves of it? Was not that very interval an intimation of mercy in reserve? Was it not as much as though God said, "I gave her space to repent" (Rev. 2:21)? But if we compare Scripture with Scripture (and we are ever the losers by failing to do so) then the "forty days" confirms the conclusion we have drawn, for forty is the number which expresses probation and testing: see Deuteronomy 8:2-4; Acts 7:30; Matthew 4:2, etc.
How what above has been before us exemplifies the wondrous patience and forbearance of God! How it demonstrates that His anger is not like ours—a violent passion which ebbs and flows—but rather the calm and deliberate expression of His insulted holiness, upon those who despise His authority and refuse to seek unto His mercy. God warns before He smites. He expostulates before He punishes. He gives ample time and opportunity for an escape from His judgments. Enoch and Noah preached for many years, before the flood destroyed the world. Prophet after Prophet was sent unto Israel before God banished them into captivity. Almost forty years passed after the Jews crucified their Messiah, before Jerusalem was razed to the ground. Well near six thousand years have gone since the Fall of our first parents, and yet human history has not closed! The Lord is "slow to anger," yet that slowness is neither indifference to evil, nor slackness in dealing with the same—rather is it a proof that He "bears with much longsuffering, the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction."
Still another purpose is served by the slowness of God unto anger, and the interval between a nation's degeneracy and the execution of Divine judgment upon it, and that is—it serves to test more completely human responsibility and make manifest how fully deserved is the retribution which overtakes evildoers. If God's slowness to anger evidences His forbearance, how the general response of men thereto, displays the inveteracy of their wickedness. "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Eccl. 8:11). Because God keeps silent—they imagine that He is altogether such an one as themselves (Psalm 50:21). "Let favor be shown to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness" (Isaiah 26:10). Despising the riches of God's goodness and longsuffering, after the hardness of his impenitent heart—man treasures up unto himself wrath against the day of wrath (Romans 2:4, 5). And thus is it made apparent, that he is "without excuse" and that his "damnation is just."
"Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions!" (Jer. 18:11). As the "therefore" denotes, practical application is here made of what has been before us in the context. The Prophet had been called upon to witness an object-lesson set before him in the potter's house. Then the Lord had made known to him the relations which He sustains unto nations, namely, Sovereign, Ruler and Judge over them, and the principles which regulate His dealings with them: authority and power, righteousness and mercy. A specific yet illustrative example of such is here shown us—Israel had long provoked God to His face, and though He had been slow to anger, the time had now arrived when He would take them to task and deal with them for their wickedness. The dark clouds of His wrath were suspended over them, yet even at this late hour if they genuinely departed from their evil ways and walked the paths of virtue—mercy would "rejoice over judgment."
God speaks to us not only through His Word (both personal and written) but also through His works and ways. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" (Psalm 19:1-4). Creation testifies to the excellencies of the Creator. The Divine providences, too, are vocal: "I spoke unto you in your prosperity." (Jer. 22:21) That is, My bounties declared My goodness, and should have melted your hearts. God's judgments also carry with them a definite message; that is why we are exhorted to "Pay attention to the rod and the One who ordained it" (Micah 6:9). Observe how the verse opens with "The voice of the Lord calls out to the city." His "rod" bids us consider the Hand that wields it, and calls upon us to forsake our sins.
When God speaks in judgment, it is the final warning that He is not to be trifled with. When the Almighty is roused to fury, who can stand before Him? Nations are no more able to successfully resist Him, than can the soft clay hinder the fingers of the potter who shapes it. Yes they are counted as "the small dust of the balance" (Isaiah 40:15), which signifies utter insignificance. May we exclaim, "who would not fear You, O King of nations!" (Jer. 10:7). No spiritual warrant whatever has any people, to put their trust in human greatness, the force of their armies, the excellency of their equipment, the strength of their defenses. God has but to blow upon them—and they are immediately overthrown, entirely demolished! Mark how this is emphasized in Jeremiah 18, "At one moment I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will uproot, tear down, and destroy it!" (v. 7) It is done in a moment—suddenly, swiftly, invincibly!
"Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you!" It is the evil of punishment about to be inflicted on the evil of sin. It is no momentary outburst of uncontrollable anger—but dispassionate and deliberated retribution, and when the Almighty "plans" or devises that evil against a kingdom—no power can deliver it! Though Lucifer himself says, "I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:14), yet is his proud boast seen to be an empty one, for the Lord says, "But you will be brought down to Hell, into the deepest regions of the Pit" (v. 15). "Damascus has become feeble, and all her people turn to flee. Fear, anguish, and pain have gripped her as they do a woman giving birth" (Jer. 49:24). That is, suddenly, sorely, irresistibly, from which there is no escape. How this should make the wicked to tremble and depart from their evil ways! "God turns the fruitful land into salty wastelands, because of the wickedness of those who live there" (Psalm 107:34).
"This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you!" Before the Assyrians fell upon apostate Israel, Jehovah declared, "Assyria will enslave My people, who are a godless nation. It will plunder them, trampling them like dirt beneath its feet!" (Isaiah 10:6) The Lord moved Assyria, though she was in no way conscious of any Divine impulse or commission. And when God had finished making use of the Assyrians, and raised up the Medes and Persians to humiliate them into the dust, He declared of King Cyrus, "You are My battle-ax and sword!' says the Lord. 'With you I will shatter nations and destroy many kingdoms!" (Jeremiah 51:20). Cyrus was as truly God's "servant" as Moses or any of the Prophets. (see Isaiah 45:1; Ezra 1:1) Curses as much as blessings, calamities as much as bounties, judgments as truly as favors proceed from the Almighty—and it is but a species of atheism, to deny the fact!
"Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you!" How this word needs to be pressed upon this evil and adulterous generation, which is occupied with anyone and anything, rather than the living God. In a land where Bibles are so plentiful, we are without excuse when we look no higher than the agencies now threatening us. Yes, it is a grievous sin for us to throw the blame of our present trials and troubles, upon human instruments, instead of upon our national iniquities, and refuse to see God employing those instruments against us. Hitler is but a scourge in the hand of the Almighty!
Nor are they helping any to fix their gaze on the supreme Framer of Evil who constantly direct attention to the machinations of the pope and his longing to see the British empire destroyed. Doubtless the papacy was behind the entrance of Italy into active conflict and the treachery of France, and of many other hostile factors and forces; but who is permitting the "Mother of Harlots" to employ her powerful influence thus? None other than the Lord Almighty! He is righteously using the Roman Catholic Church, as a rod on the back of an apostate Protestantism!
We cannot expect the unbelieving nations to look beyond Hitler and his fellows—but it is the privilege of Christians to "look unto the Lord" (Micah 7:7). It is the very nature of faith to be occupied with its Author. It is the duty of faith to "set the Lord always before" it (Psalm 16:8). When the Ammonites and Moabites came up against Judah, Jehoshaphat turned unto God and said, "O our God, won't you stop them? We are powerless against this mighty army that is about to attack us. We do not know what to do, but we are looking to You for help" (2 Chron. 20:12). This is the first message to His own people which the voice of the Lord has in His judgments: look above the human scourges and behold My hand in righteous retribution. And it is the business of God's servants at such a time to urge upon the saints to "Remember this and keep it firmly in mind: The Lord is God both in heaven and on earth, and there is no other god!" (Deut. 4:39). O that it may be the experience of both writer and reader, "I lift my eyes to you, O God, enthroned in heaven" (Psalm 123:1). And then shall we prove for ourselves "Those who look to Him for help, will be radiant with joy!" (Psalm 34:5)