A recent conversation reminded me of some of our challenges in interpreting Scripture. The discussion centered on the fact that Jonah’s recorded words to the Assyrians did not include the word “repent.” This is true and my dialogue friend was correct in why the prophet would be unwilling to preach repentance to this cruel crowd – the Jews hated the Ninevites as their feared nemesis and Jonah was afraid they would repent and God would have mercy on them (see Jonah 4:1-3). But this interpreter’s contention was that Jonah 3:4 shares the prophet’s only words because that’s all that’s recorded in the Hebrew text, and Jonah wouldn’t have said “repent” because he didn’t want them to.
But can we conclude from this the prophet never preached repentance or that his message was not one of repentance? I think not, and here are some of my observations, ones that give some insight into the complexities and nuances of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics):
First, just because the Scripture doesn’t include some events or words doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. OK, Jonah 3:4 condenses Jonah’s message to, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But there is a very good possibility he did and said more than this during his time preaching there. We see this principle in the New Testament with John’s clear admission that, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). This alone doesn’t allow us to assume additional words or actions without evidence, but it does encourage us to look at the context with a more critical eye.
Second, even if Jonah never used the word “repent,” certain things we say imply something else. For example, I believe most of the audience would understand that I also meant, “Get out!” if I were to run into a packed theater, God forbid, and yell, “Fire!” Even if what is recorded of the prophet’s sermon in Jonah 3 is literally all he said, clearly it had the implication of repentance. Otherwise, why would they? There are too many examples in God’s Word (and life) of this kind of implied communication to mention them here (but see John 8:11 for an example).
Third, even if Jonah never said the word “repent,” isn’t it safe to assume his message compelled repentance, whether he wanted it to be a message of repentance or not? Certainly God used the prophet’s words, whatever they were, to convey the need of repentance. After all, the Ninevites did repent (Jonah 3:5-10). How would these pagans know to “give up their evil ways” and turn to a foreign God they did not worship unless this idea was inferred in Jonah’s words? And God was using these words to change their hearts (even if it was only for a generation or so)?
Fourth, if Jonah’s sermon did not include a specific mention of repentance, or imply it, then this was a false prophecy. If, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” was literally all there was to his message then it never came to pass. But they did repent and, “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” (Jonah 3:10). The NIV (1984) says, “[God] did not bring upon them the destruction He threatened” (emphasis mine). The word “threatened” would indicate the possibility that the Assyrians would turn to him and He would “relent” of His judgment on them.
To many this is somewhat silly. Maybe it is…and maybe it isn’t. But it’s not the end of my story.
Although in our friendly discussion we didn’t reach an agreement on the interpretation of this passage, we both love the Bible (he knows a lot more about it than I do) and see the bigger message here – God had compassion on some of the most wicked people who have ever lived. Yes, Jonah was so displeased by God’s actions that he asked to die – twice. But he also left us with a truth much greater than the issue of the exact words or intention of his revival sermon. Jonah gives us a glimpse of God’s intention:
“…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).
And to convince the prophet and us, God used the absurdly evil Assyrians (and some heathen sailors along the way) as an object lesson of just how far He will go to save sinners – if they repent and turn to Him. And it reminds me just how far God went to save me…even so far as the very sacrifice of His only Son. This Jesus who referenced Jonah in His prediction of His own death, burial and resurrection for us (Matthew 12:40).